By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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Seven years after it began, the West End Thunder drag-racing series has been approved for the next five years, with races set to roll the weekends of July 6-7, Aug. 17-18 and Sept. 14-15.
FAA policy prohibits grant-obligation airports such as Forks Municipal Airport from closing for non-aviation uses but had granted exceptions and provided a temporary permit last year while it reviewed the city's application.
The FAA informed the city of its decision, which was to approve airport shutdowns for no more than five weekends each calendar year, in a Feb. 13 letter to Mayor Bryon Monohon.
“I'm very excited,” Monohon said Thursday.
On racing weekends, “people are in the restaurants, people are in the hotels, people are shopping in the stores,” he said.
“But the most important thing is the sense of vibrancy and life.”
Race organizer Cary Bourm, president of the West End Thunder drag-racing club, said it took two years to complete the application to the FAA, which has gone back and forth on approving the events.
The FAA first granted an exception to its rule in 2006.
“We thought 50 people would show up, and we had 800 the first time without even advertising,” Bourm recalled.
The FAA extended the exception through 2009, then denied the request for 2010, and then told the city, which owns the airport, and the club that the 2011 races would be the last season.
But the federal agency ended up granting a temporary permit for 2012 while it reviewed the application.
“Recently, [the] FAA developed an assessment tool to determine if the temporary closure of an airport for non-aeronautical events is in the best interest of civil aviation,” Stanley Allison, assistant manager for the Seattle Airports District Office, said in the Feb. 13 letter.
Airport tenants and the city submitted documents to the agency, and the city responded to the FAA's follow-up questions.
“Based on the information provided, we approve the temporary closure of [Forks Municipal Airport] for automobile racing for the remainder of 2013 through 2017,” Allison said in the letter.
Bourm credited Forks City Attorney-Planner Rod Fleck, the Port of Port Angeles and the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Bothell, for assisting with the application and on negotiations with the FAA.
“It makes us very happy,” Bourm said Thursday.
“Now, we can plan ahead and maybe make it a little bit better.”
Bourm said each race draws from 500 to 1,200 spectators, along with up to 105 race cars and 40 show cars.
But attendance gradually has dropped, and organizers have been running out of helpers to assist in setting up the events on the Thursday and Friday nights before the races.
“It started out bigger, but I think it's slowly dying down,” Bourm said.
The lack of help “is our main problem,” he added.
“We're getting burned out.
“You work 12 or 14 hours a day and go home and then work on that, it's pretty hard.”
Set-up volunteers can phone 360-374-6409 or 360-640-1366 for more information.
The FAA is allowing the races under 10 conditions.
They include the agency being supplied with a copy of the $2 million liability insurance policy that covers the events and which West End Thunder has purchased.
The club also must buy a liquid that improves race-car traction — and that costs $800 a barrel.
All that effort has created a loyal following to the kind of event where people see folks they haven't seen for a while and where visitors from all over the world show up, Bourm said.
“We get people from Europe who stop by and look,” Bourm said.
“It's a social event.”
With any community, “you've got to have this feeling that something is going on and that it's a place you want to be,” Monohon said.
“It gives folks a constructive, family-oriented event that is here in town that they don't have to drive off to do somewhere else.”
In addition, for the men and women who take an active part — Bourm's wife, Melene, races — the event is “a labor of love,” Monohon said.
The races also have become a prime fundraising locale for West End nonprofit organizations that set up food booths and other concessions, Monohon said.
“Anytime you are pulling people together, it's a beneficial thing, and this is certainly one of those.”
General admission to a race is $10, and children younger than 12 are admitted free.
For more information on the drag-racing series, visit www.westendthunder.com.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.