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After losing court appeal, Onondaga Dragway fights to remain open

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo courtesy Onondaga Dragway.

A bittersweet farewell message greeted visitors to Onondaga Dragway’s website earlier this month, noting that “we don’t know where to go from here” after a six-year-running court battle to keep the eighth-mile Michigan drag strip open. However, operators of the track have vowed they’ll continue to fight any attempts to shut down the racing facility, starting with a fundraising effort announced this past weekend.

“Nothing is guaranteed, but we are willing to do whatever we can to make this work and we will not give up,” track spokesperson Marcie Seavold said in a video posted to the track’s Facebook page Sunday night. “We will not stop until we have done everything we can.”

According to Onondaga Dragway’s operators, that means raising enough money — up to $500,000 eventually — to appeal a recent court decision that effectively put a stop to racing at the drag strip and that denied court costs to the drag strip’s operators.

Originally built as a potential landing strip during World War II amid farmland about halfway between Lansing and Jackson, Michigan, the track opened for racing as a quarter-mile strip starting in 1961 and saw many of drag racing’s star drivers make passes there before it closed in 1978. A bid to re-open it in 1985 failed, and over the next 20 or so years the strip fell into disrepair. At one point, part of the paved surface became a cattle feed lot.

Then in 2007, drag racer Dan Pranshka, who lived near the abandoned strip, got permission from the landowner, Raymond Comer, to clean up the area and run his Chevelle on the strip. By 2009, Pranshka and Comer had interest from enough other racers to ask Onondaga Township officials to re-open the strip for business.

Except that didn’t happen, at least not right away. Another neighbor and the owner of a nearby mobile home park filed an injunction to “permanently shut down” the track. A special-use permit from the township allowed Pranshka and Comer to start racing in March 2013 on the 70-acre property officially zoned agricultural residential. But then a lawsuit from the neighbors who opposed the track — Mark Cooper and Gary Caltrider, claiming it to be a nuisance — resulted in another injunction in November of that year.

It took another nearly four years of legal wrangling for Pranshka and Comer to win an appeal in Ingham County Circuit Court that allowed them to re-open Onondaga Dragway in August 2017. That ruling did decree the track to be a private nuisance, but it also cited misconduct on Cooper’s behalf — including intimidation of a witness and filing false articles of organization for Onondaga Dragway, thus preventing its operation as a business — in allowing the dragway to operate. On the other hand, the court denied Pranshka and Comer’s request that the court pay them the $381,000 surety bond that Cooper posted when he filed the suit. The bond, which would have covered Pranshka and Comer’s court costs, wasn’t entitled to them, the court ruled, because the track was still legally considered a nuisance, as Cooper originally claimed in his lawsuit.

The track then continued to operate throughout last year and had even released a schedule for 2019, with test and tune sessions slated to begin April 5 and 6. But then the drag strip lost perhaps its greatest champion when Pranshka died in January and made his last pass down the strip on February 6. On top of that, the Michigan Court of Appeals earlier this month issued a ruling effectively stating that the lower court should not have allowed the dragway to operate based solely on Cooper’s misconduct.

According to Seavold, no injunction prevents the track from opening next month as planned, but the track’s lawyer has advised track operators that they’d be subject to a temporary restraining order should they attempt to open.

“So we have no plans to open until we can be sure to avoid the TRO,” she said.

In response, racing organizers for the track started a GoFundMe fundraiser Sunday night, looking to raise at least $10,000 by this weekend to convince the track’s lawyer to continue working on their case. “We’re not saying that $10,000 means anything’s going to magically happen,” Seavold said. “But people have to understand that you can’t pay a lawyer if you can’t open, and we’ve only been open two years combined out of a court case that’s going on six years.”

Any additional money will go toward the nearly $340,000 in back legal fees the track still owes, Seavold said. As of this writing, the fundraiser has generated nearly $33,000 in donations.

“We are not willing to stop fighting,” Seavold said in the video. “We’re only missing one and we’re not gonna let him down.”