WATERFORD TWP., N.J. — The air hung heavy with high-octane fuel and burned rubber, just the way they like it, but the racers tuning up big block engines and motorcycles in the pits wondered whether this beloved drag strip in the Pinelands would soon go silent.
Atco Dragway was the first official drag strip in New Jersey, originally opening in sleepy Waterford Township in 1960 as Atco Raceway. For decades, it drew professional racers and amateur motorheads alike, with some events bringing thousands of spectators to the Atco section of this mostly wooded Camden County community of 10,707.
“When you say Atco, you think racetrack,” said Rickey Gadson, a Southwest Philly native and champion motorcycle drag racer who called Atco his home track.
Atco may soon be home to cars that don’t race. Insurance Auto Auctions, an Illinois company, submitted a development application to the New Jersey Pinelands Commission to redevelop the 180-acre site. The company has already purchased the former Raceway Park in Englishtown, 60 miles north.
According to the application, “existing paved areas” at the drag strip would be “used for an automobile auction facility.” At the moment, it’s unclear if the racetrack is under contract to be sold. Waterford Township officials, including Mayor Richard Yeatman, did not respond to several requests for comment. Insurance Auto Auctions could not be reached. The application was co-signed by Leonard Capone Jr., Atco Dragway’s current owner. Capone declined to comment when reached by The Inquirer, and on Tuesday’s “Test n’ Tune” night at Atco, where anyone with a helmet can hit the quarter-mile drag strip, racers said neither Capone nor track employees would talk about the matter.
“With Englishtown going down and now this potentially, I’ve already seen a lot of people selling their cars,” said Greg Ditbrenner, a Delaware County resident working on his 1972 Oldsmobile at Atco on Tuesday. “A lot of people are giving up. From what it sounds like, this is going to happen.”
News of the track’s potential sale was first reported by the website Drag Zine on June 30. Andrew Wolf, the website’s executive editor, said Atco is known to racers nationwide and its potential closure would have an impact on Philadelphia, 30 miles to the west, as well as South Jersey. Atco usually hosts races on Tuesday and Friday nights, with bigger events on the weekends.
“If it were to close, Philadelphia would lose its nearest dragway,” he said.
New Jersey’s only remaining drag strip would be Island Dragway, 90 miles north of Atco in Warren County. In Pennsylvania, Berks County’s Maple Grove Raceway is 50 miles west of Philadelphia.
As news spread through the racing community, a Save Atco Dragway Facebook group was formed. It currently has more than 2,000 members, and most of them would like to see Capone change his mind.
“I can’t blame him for wanting to sell,” said Scott Oliver, a Bordentown City resident who often races his Kia Stinger at the track. “I’m disappointed he wouldn’t try to sell to someone who would keep it as a raceway.”
Kyle Rosner, who grew up nearby in Marlton, said his grandfather, Edwin Rosner, was one of the founders of the track in 1960. Rosner, who works in filmmaking, said he has talked to business partners about potentially buying the track and creating additional uses for it, including drive-in movies and concerts. He said Capone, who bought Atco in 2012, won’t return his calls.
“With the right owner and the right team, it could work,” Rosner said.
New Jersey Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R., Hainesport) and Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R., Westampton), having spoken to Rosner, issued a statement earlier this month in support of saving the track.
“We’re on the verge of losing something great,” they said in the letter. “There is too much history in the Atco Dragway to see it end like this.”
A spokesperson for Peters said the assemblyman wasn’t trying to interfere with the sale of the property.
Some reports have said drag racing was hurt by the 2008 recession and never recovered. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped either. On Tuesday, a dozen or so spectators sat in stands that can easily hold hundreds at Atco, watching everything from BMWs to Harley-Davidson motorcycles tear down the track. There were a few delays for rain, car parts coming undone, even a snapping turtle on the track, but as the sun set, the racing continued, for now.