Southern Gentleman

Life rolls on at Memphis International Raceway

By Karen Ott-Mayer | Photography courtesy of Memphis Internantional Raceway and Karen Ott-Mayer

A new generation is discovering family friendly experiences at the Memphis International Raceway.

Three men stand in the bright sun and heat at the Memphis International Raceway. Although strangers having met just moments before, the trio bridges age and familiarity gaps by sharing a simple conversation about a combined passion: cars.
I stand patiently taking notes and listening waiting for my first-ever ride in a $150,000 Porsche that can top 190 mph. While my knowledge about cars, engines and racing is somewhere way down the knowledge scale, I have followed my father around for years in the garage or under cars, picking up the basics about an engine or mechanics. But on this day, I am introduced to an entirely new world.
Located just north of Memphis, minutes from Midtown Memphis, Memphis International Raceway remains one of Memphis’ iconic hidden experiences. With a long, rich history, the raceway has evolved, and even stalled, through different owners over the years but still remains due to the undying loyalty of car enthusiasts.
Today, it’s entering an exciting new chapter as part of IRG Sports + Entertainment, which owns the Palm Beach International Raceway, the Maryland International Raceway and the Bertil Roos Racing School, among other race tracks and schools. This year has seen a flurry of new offerings, including street racing on the track or what’s called Roll Racing.
“One thing we offer here is a chance to do what a driver can’t do…which is race a car in the streets of Memphis,” says Brendan O’Brien, marketing specialist for Memphis International Raceway. Memphis International Raceway began a new Street Legal Co-Rider program that allows a co-rider that meets all program requirements to ride shotgun in 11.00 and slower vehicles in the quarter mile and roll racing events up to 120mph.
New to the track and position himself, O’Brien, however, isn’t new to the industry. As we all stand on the track, he stands next to his personal Subaru with a 2.0L turbo engine that he claims can reach 60 mph in less than five seconds. It seems, we are definitely in the right place for him to prove it.
But today isn’t about a Subaru. It’s all about the Porsche. Joining O’Brien is Ric Travis, the high-performance education lead for the 500-member Mid-South Porsche Club. As visiting continues, I eye the white Porsche with sweaty palms. For someone who usually hugs the right lane and barely exceeds 70 mph on the interstate, I wonder what 125 mph feels like. And I’m about to find out.

Memphis International Raceway covers 400 acres and opened in 1986. The property itself holds all the needed support services, space and expertise drivers expect and need. In fact, 2017 marked another milestone with NASCAR’s return to Memphis after an eight-year absence. The most recent NASCAR race just happened in early June 2018 when Ruben Garcia Jr. reigned over the three-quarter mile, tri-oval short track, going on to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship.
As I settle into the Porsche, Travis helps buckle me in the seat. The interior of the car doesn’t appear that different from a luxury sports car…until he starts the engine. Even for a novice like me, the deep rumbling sound made my heart jump. When we’re cleared, Travis hits two buttons in the center console…and we’re off. He goes easy on the first lap, explaining the track and car and how drivers use the entire track when racing. Things get more serious on the second lap. In the straightaway, Travis reaches 125 mph before he downshifts with the paddle brakes, brakes, then punches the car coming out of the turn. Through the S turns, I found myself gripping my hands as my body pushed against the side-to-side g-force.
“You doing OK?” Travis asks me. My only thought was I didn’t know. I didn’t dislike it, but the ride felt addictive. When we stopped, I thought…I could go around again.
While it may be natural for industry-blind novices like myself to discount a place like Memphis International Raceway as something too foreign to access, the truth is entirely different. As O’Brien knows, he sees men, women and children discovering the place through programs like the Test N Tune, Midnight Madness and Porsche Club of America’s events. While off-road UTV and drag-racing loyalists know the track well, Memphians looking for a new, inexpensive experience for families and kids are in for a surprise. For as little as $10 to $25, a guest can tailor an experience, choosing to watch, ride or race.
As one man remarked upon leaving, the long-time fascination with mechanics and engines has, and always will, lead to a group of individuals who gather to share knowledge and expertise. Memphis International Raceway today serves not only as a place of recreation but is poised to become another cultural heartbeat of the Mid-South region, tying strangers together under bright lights ̶ and always under the hood.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.