Zundfolge / BMW Life

Roadtrip to Qlispé Raceway

By Tom Pendergast | July 3rd, 2022
Bugs on front of M2Bugs on front of M2

As much as I love a track day at Pacific Raceways with the BMW CCA, I’d been longing for something new when I saw that Turn2 was offering track days over at Qlispé Raceway Park (formerly Spokane County Raceway). So I signed myself up and prepared for a little adventure. It was an opportunity to consider the modifications I’d made to my car in the last three years, to see the state, to enjoy a new track, and to bond with some cool people.

BMW M2 in garageBMW M2 in garageThe car is clean and ready to roll

From the moment I got my 2020 M2 Competition, I knew that I wanted this car to provide the best of both worlds, to be comfortable enough to drive around town, but capable enough to support a really great track experience. My first several track days taught me I wanted to make a few modifications, so I upgraded the brakes (steel lines, Girodisc rotors, track-focused brake pads, and high temp brake fluid), the suspension (KW Clubsport 3-Way coilovers, aFe Control sway bars, and Turner Motorsports end link sets), and the tires (I’ve experimented with Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R, Falken Azenis RT660, Goodyear Supercar 3R, and currently Hankook Ventus RS4). Ah, and just recently I added a Recaro GTS fixed seat with a Schroth four-point harness, just to hold me in place as I ripped through the corners. All of these mods upgraded the track experience, helping me steadily improve my times and my enjoyment at both Pacific and the Ridge, without big costs to my local driving enjoyment. But one question remained: how would it be to drive this increasingly track-focused car around 350 miles each way for an out-of-town track day? That’s what I got to test on my trip to Spokane.

BMW M2 in front of Newhalem powerhosueBMW M2 in front of Newhalem powerhosueMy car and my co-pilot in Newhalem.

As a driver, I had not a single complaint. The Recaro seat was plenty comfortable the whole time (as the guys at 425 Motorsports had promised) and the suspension (properly adjusted for their street setting) ensured I gripped the corners like I was on rails but didn’t shake loose my teeth. It’s really not the driver’s opinion that matters, though, it’s the passenger's–and my wife reported that it was plenty comfortable and not too noisy. In fact, it wasn’t until we were half-way back, coming west toward Stevens Pass on Highway 2, that Sara let out a deep sigh as I executed yet another multi-car pass. “What is it babe,” I asked? “Oh, I suppose I’ve had enough of these high-speed passes,” she sighed. But that was the worst she said, and while she admitted that she wouldn’t relish doing a longer road trip, I think she might prefer a somewhat more sedate driver. (In my defense, at several points I moderated my driving, reminding myself that the track was the right place to push the limits. Seriously.)

From the moment I eyed up this trip, I knew there was no chance that I’d take I-90 to get to Spokane. I dialed up a route that took us from home in Snohomish north through Darrington, then across the North Cascades Highway and over to the Grand Coulee dam via Omak and Nespelem. On the return trip, we just took the direct route, heading due west on Highway 2. All in all, there was just 60 miles of overlap on the routes, so there was plenty of variety.

Man, what a beautiful state we live in! The moment we turned east out of Arlington, the hustle and bustle of the greater Seattle area fell away and we got to enjoy some of the most scenic country our state—hell, our country—has to offer. We took a brief pit stop in Newhalem on the way up, crossing the suspension bridge to explore the cool gardens behind the power plant and enjoy the breezes off the waterfall. Then it was up and over the pass, with wide open roads the entire way, allowing us to enjoy a flowing cruise through the mountains before bedding down in lovely Winthrop at the River Pines Inn, right beside the Chewuch River.

Waterfall, Newhalem WAWaterfall, Newhalem WAThe waterfall behind the powerhouse in Newhalem.

But the beauty didn’t end as we left the mountains and skirted along the southern edge of Okanogan country, flirting back and forth between open sage country and pines. Since it was a mid-week trip, we had the roads nearly to ourselves, and despite my heavy right foot, we averaged 24 mpg on the trip over. At one point we decided we needed to stretch our legs, drawn by a sign for a nature walk not far outside of Nespelem. We pulled into this lonely parking lot and could barely make out a trail that led off into the grassland, but we said “what the hell” and enjoyed a mile-and-a-half of waving grasses, wildflowers, and clear blue skies. The signs said that trail was laid six years earlier, but in many places the only way to tell where you were going was to follow the flowers. It was pretty magical.

BMW in empty parking lotBMW in empty parking lotWe had the Mill Creek walk to ourselves ...
Faint path in grasslandFaint path in grasslandFlowers marked the path.

Our last stop before Spokane was something that every Washingtonian should see: the Grand Coulee Dam, the single largest hydroelectric facility in the nation and the likely source for most of our power. I’m not much of a visitor center guy, but I really enjoyed this one.

Grand Coulee DamGrand Coulee DamGrand Coulee Dam

I’d never thought much of Spokane before this visit. It had always been a town I just blasted through on the Interstate, or a place to catch a plane ride back east when I was a grad student at WSU many years ago. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a really lovely small city with what may be the most scenic riverfront park I have ever seen. We stayed in an AirBNB right near the park and took several opportunities to walk around and see the sights—including a visit to the Steam Plant for a beer, and then a wander across the river to the No-Li Brewhouse for some wonderful beer and dinner. The morning we left I stopped at a place called Hidden Bagel and was floored to find a first-rate bagel. Spokane: we’ll be back!

No-Li BierhallNo-Li BierhallNo-Li Bierhall
Riverfront Park, SpokaneRiverfront Park, SpokaneRiverfront Park, Spokane
Riverfront Park, SpokaneRiverfront Park, SpokaneRiverfront Park, Spokane

The real reason for this whole trip, of course, was to try out a new track … well, new to me anyway. Qlispé is certainly not new. Originally built in 1974 as Spokane Raceway Park, it enjoyed a run of success (especially with drag racing) in the late 1970s and 1980s and was the home track to 1983 Indy 500 champion Tom Sneva. But poor management led to its decline, and it was sold to the county (and renamed Spokane County Raceway) in 2008. COVID put an end to any organized racing in 2020, and the county looked to get out of the racing business, selling the track to the Kalispell Tribe of Indians in 2021.

Qlispe Raceway ParkQlispe Raceway ParkA panorama of the track

The tribe reopened the raceway in 2022 as Qlispé Raceway Park, and when local track day operator Turn2 Lapping started offering lapping, I jumped at the chance. The track is a 2.3-mile course, stretched long, a lot like Pacific Raceways. The first straightaway is LONG, with a slight bend to the right (Turn 1) before you take a tight sweeper (Turn 2) onto the back “straight,” which you turn into a straight by finding the straightest path through the wiggles. You lower speed to get through the tightest part of the track—Turns 6, 7, and 8—before sweeping around Turn 9 and trying to build speed as you flow back past the start tower and onto the front straight. Clearly you should read a proper track description if you’re getting ready to go—but there’s not a lot out there, nor lots of videos to prep.

Since it was my first time on the track, I basically spent the day figuring stuff out—learning where to maintain speed, where to late apex, how to set up for the straights to maximize speed. I regularly touched 145 on the front straight, 125 on the back. I certainly didn’t master it in one day there, but I had a lot of fun.

You’ve heard the track is “rough” and it is—but not nearly as bad as I expected. There are some gaps in the pavement as you get to the end of the front straight that transmit a lot of noise—whack, whack, whack—but they don’t really upset the car’s balance. While the surface isn’t super smooth, I think it’s tolerable, maybe comparable to Pacific before the repaves. I wouldn’t want this to be my only track to drive on, but it sure was fun for a change of pace.

If I had to characterize the track in a few words, I’d call it “old school.” There are very few amenities (basically, there’s a bathroom!), ramshackle grandstands, concrete barriers, and not much room for graceful runoff if things go wrong. (On the other hand, there’s a prison, a casino, an airport, and a dump nearby.) The old half-mile oval has seen better days. But dammit, it’s got curves and straightaways and I feel a whole lot better going fast here than I do out on the public roads. It’s a racetrack and I like racetracks.

Oval trackOval trackThe old half-mile oval track

Perhaps my favorite part of the whole experience was the people I ran into. Tom Pritchett, the guy who runs Turn 2 along with wife and daughter, is just one of the nicest and most enthusiastic people you’ll run into on the track scene. His track talks are short and fun, and he ends them with an enthusiastic group sing of the national anthem. He’s not being political; he just loves his country and you can’t help but agree with him. He also loves driving, so he does everything he can to make sure people are having fun on the track and getting maximum drive time. He has a lean crew, so there’s no between session driver’s meetings, but he keeps things running on time and to me, that means a lot.

Some of the most enthusiastic people at the track the day I went were the motorcycle riders. They opened a session for bikers, and had about seven or eight riders show up—including a group of young guys who had never been on a racetrack before and were dying to see what their sport bikes could do (there were some old pros too, including a lady named Robin who was a pro at setting up for a track day). I loved talking to these guys, seeing their enthusiasm for the track.

two young men with motorcyclestwo young men with motorcyclesEnthusiastic riders ready for their time on track

As for the cars, what a range (as you’ll see from the pics). There was a guy in a Tesla X who was just flying around the corners—that was the most body roll I’d seen in a long time. I expected him to toast his street tires, but he didn’t. There were some fast cars—including a violet Porsche GT3 that was the fastest car on the track (as judged by how rapidly he caught up to and passed me), and a tricked-out Mustang GT 350–but my favorites were a Mercury Cougar and a Nissan GT-R.

Mercury Cougar at racetrackMercury Cougar at racetrackNot your usual track car ...
Nissan GT-R at racetrackNissan GT-R at racetrackPhil's GT-R was plenty fast
Tesla X at racetrackTesla X at racetrackThe Tesla was the winner for the body roll contest ... but it was plenty fast

In one session, I thought for two laps that I might catch the GT-R … and suddenly he just left me in the dust. I caught up with the driver, Phil, in the paddock, and he said he had just been loafing for a few laps. He was kind enough to loaf for a few more laps in the next session, in order to show me a couple tricks about how to handle the corners I was having a hard time mastering. There’s nothing like following an experienced driver to teach you a track. And I had some good conversation with Sam, driving his brand-new Toyota GR86. The Spokane crowd was glad to have a track to drive on again.

I can’t mention my favorite people on this trip without calling out my wife, who decided long ago that she loves me enough to be the perfect passenger. No matter how fast I take the corners, no matter how many passes I make in the mountains, no matter how fast I go on the long straights in eastern Washington, Sara just smiles and never complains. She didn’t come to the track with me—she hung out in Spokane, painting—but she sure made the road trip pleasant.

Tom and Sara PendergastTom and Sara PendergastThe author and his favorite passenger

If you’re considering heading east for a track day, I’d strongly urge you to make a multi-day event out of it. Our state sure has a lot to offer.

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