Owner looks at bright side of relocation after 33 years in Beaverton

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Malibu Raceway Owner Kevin O'Connell walks by a row of race cars waiting to be loaded up and taken to a new location at Mt. Hood Adventure Park at Skibowl in Government Camp.Kevin O’Connell remembers a time when he gently chided a job applicant to Malibu Raceway who listed his own mother as a professional reference.

“I said, ‘You know that’s not the best idea, using your mother as a reference,’” O’Connell noted with a laugh. “He looked at me and said, ‘My mom used to work here — for you.’”

What O’Connell’s saying is that 33 years flies by pretty quickly. That’s how long the 52-year-old Beaverton resident devoted to Malibu Raceway, the venerable race car track, arcade and family recreation center located at 9405 S.W. Cascade Ave., across Highway 217 from the Washington Square Mall.

Starting at 18 years old as a ticket taker for $2.10 an hour, Ithaca, N.Y.-native O’Connell stuck around Malibu Grand Prix long enough to own and rename the business, watch the surrounding landscape transform from suburban countryside to shopping mall central, weather a roller coaster of economic fluctuations and make countless friends — actor Paul Newman among them — along the way (see accompanying story).

In the past several days, however, he’s struggled to keep a flood of memories and emotions from overwhelming him as he prepared to close the raceway that’s served as his lifeblood since 1979. O’Connell’s longtime landlord recently ended the property’s lease to make way for CarMax, a used-car retailer.

Although Malibu’s race cars made their final laps around the track on Sunday afternoon, the beloved local business will live on in a new location at Mt. Hood Adventure Park at Skibowl, adjacent to the ski resort about 80 miles east on Highway 26 in Government Camp. O’Connell announced the deal he struck with Kirk and Derek Hannah, the two brothers who own the adventure park, at a news conference at the track on Monday morning.

The brothers approached O’Connell about purchasing Malibu’s name and assets after they heard that Malibu was closing from a local TV station.

“Kirk and Derek came walking through the door around April 10,” said O’Connell. “We sat and talked and thought it was a great fit. They said with all my experience, they’d love for me to stay on as a consultant.”

The new raceway could be open as early as Memorial Day weekend, he TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Malibu Raceway Owner Kevin O'Connell walks along the race track where thousands have enjoyed racing. O'Connell started working at Malibu in 1979 and bought the business in the late 1990s.

Rounding the bend

Directing the dismantling of the raceway’s remains on Tuesday afternoon, O’Connell remained largely philosophical about the rather abrupt, bittersweet turn of events.

“It doesn’t take long to rip down 30 years of business,” he observed. “About a day and a half.”

From a practical standpoint, he’s eager to be part of the new venture at Mount Hood, but knows he’ll need a bit more to sustain himself both financially and energy-wise.

“I’m going to be out there looking for a job,” he confessed. “I’m not going to take the first thing that comes along, but I’m in no way ready to retire — even if I had the money. I’m an active guy.”

On Sunday evening, as hundreds of loyal and first-time customers flooded the raceway, O’Connell was admittedly an emotional guy as he grasped the microphone for the public address system, reminding the throng that a way of life he’d been a part of since Aug. 1, 1979, was about to disappear.

“I broke out in hysterical tears,” he said, “and everybody started spontaneously applauding.”

Cashier Arianna Gittins was among those trying, with little success, to fight back tears as the end drew near. The 18-year-old Tigard resident, who started racing at Malibu as soon as she was tall enough to reach the 3-foot, 6-inch minimum-height requirement, said she could hardly believe it when her managers told her the news.

“It was April Fool’s Day, so I thought they were kidding,” said Gittins, one of Malibu’s 60, mostly part-time employees. “I walked out and sat in the car and cried. It was a great big family that was fun to come into every week. Everybody cared about each other.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Malibu Raceway Owner Kevin O'Connell hugs former employee Ariana Gittins, 18, after she picked up her last paycheck and paperwork on Tuesday.

Back on the track

The family feeling, O’Connell emphasized, extended to his Malibu Raceway landlord, Scott MacTarnahan, and his father, the late Malcolm “Mac” MacTarnahan, owner of Portland Brewing Co.

“Our relationship was nothing but cordial and respectful,” he said, calling the lease-ending settlement “strictly” a business decision. “Of course, over 30 years you’re going to have some issues from time to time.”

O’Connell is proud of the track and arcade’s safety, as well as financial record under his leadership.

“In 33 years, no one’s ever gotten hurt,” he said.

Since 1979, he’s seen the economy go from “great to good to horrible to good to very good — really a roller coaster,” but never considered going out of business. “We’re not closing down because we’re not profitable.”

As dust from the closure and its attendant hoopla settles, O’Connell plans to regroup. He’ll focus on helping re-establish Malibu Raceway on Mount Hood, spending time with his wife, Lisa, and their 12-year-old son, Riley, and keeping his eyes open for a new career adventure — preferably one with a fast lane.

“I need that adrenaline fix,” he said. “This is fun. This is what I do.”

Paul Newman among Malibu’s fans

When Paul Newman likes to race at your speedway when he comes to town, you must be doing something right.

That’s what Kevin O’Connell, owner of Beaverton’s Malibu Raceway, learned as he got to know the late actor. Known as much for his salad dressing-fueled charity mission and love of auto racing as for his iconic performances in “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Sting” and “The Color of Money,” Newman was a frequent participant in Indy racing at Portland International Raceway. There he often crossed paths with O’Connell in the early 1980s, a couple years after he started working at Malibu Grand Prix. In the late 1990s, he bought the business and renamed it Malibu Raceway.

“He came out every year,” O’Connell said of Newman. “He’d say, ‘Can I come out and do some racing (at Malibu)?’ We got to be friends, and we hung out a little bit every Saturday during the Indy races.”

On Tuesday afternoon, as he worked to dismantle the business he closed on Sunday — to will relocate to Mt. Hood SkiBowl — O’Connell proudly showed off a framed photo collage of his afro-sporting younger self hanging at Malibu with Newman.

“He was constantly asking me for tips — how to go faster,” O’Connell said.

They would talk braking, accelerating and other technicalities and sometimes walk the Malibu track to get a better feel for its turns and nuances. If anything, his advice was a little too good: Cool Hand Luke soon got his times down to rival that of the track’s owner.

“After the pointers, he got down to a low of 51-second lap times,” O’Connell said. “I was always low 50s, a couple below him. We were always so close. There were definitely times he beat me. It was an extremely friendly rivalry.”

Newman made it clear his love for racing was at least partially fueled by a desire to escape the trappings of the Hollywood movie-star machine. O’Connell was happy to oblige.

“He never wanted to talk about movies,” he said. “I took that as a signal. I would never bring up his (acting) career. We just talked about racing and enjoyment of life in general.”

As kind as Newman was to his fans at the track or elsewhere, O’Connell said he drew the line at autograph signing.

“He’d say, ‘I’m just a guy. Why would you want my signature?’ ”

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