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Racing to Develop Portland International Raceway

Posted by Social Venture Partners Portland

As part of SVP Portland, the Encore Fellows Program provides a source of expertise for nonprofit organizations, helps individuals (Fellows) transition from their careers into social-purpose work, and gives corporations a new way to positively impact their communities. Encore Fellows who have retired from a career are matched with host nonprofit organizations based on their passions, skills, and experience.

In 1948, Vanport was the second largest city in Oregon and America’s largest public housing project. It was home to workers in Portland’s shipyards and their families, many of whom were Black. The city was 640 acres of low-lying farmland, and had a library, post office, police station, several fire houses, an infirmary, stores, five elementary schools, a 750-seat movie theater, and Vanport College (which later moved and became Portland State University). On the evening of May 30, 1948 the dikes holding back the swollen Columbia River collapsed and Vanport was washed away, never to be rebuilt.

Little remained of Vanport when the City of Portland acquired the land in 1960. It was a time of growing interest in sports car and drag racing, and by 1961 the site transformed into the Delta Park complex, which includes the Portland International Raceway (PIR). Today, more than half a century after the devastating flood, PIR – the only city park racetrack in the world – hosts approximately 550 events a year including IndyCar, NASCAR, autocross, motocross, and bicycling races. 

Darrell LeBlanc started racing cars when he moved to Oregon from California in 2006. When his kids went to college, he wanted to do even more with the racing community so he volunteered at Friends of PIR. This nonprofit helps to ensure that PIR continues to thrive as a venue for motorsports and other diverse forms of recreation and entertainment. Since he was already deeply involved in the PIR community, both as a racer and volunteer, it was a natural fit for him to do his Encore Fellowship at Friends of PIR when he retired in 2021 after 16 years at Intel. 

Community and culture are the focus of Darrell’s fellowship project – he is taking the lead to build a permanent covered pavilion and then pilot a community day camp. This will expand PIR’s use beyond racing events, and provide a year-round space at low to no cost for people who wouldn’t use PIR otherwise. The pavilion design includes a Pacific Northwest wood/outdoor aesthetic, solar panels, and a scalable design for possible future additions.

Darrell is investing in the project in more ways than one. “Given my passion for the project, I decided to donate the money from the fellowship to the nonprofit, which Intel then, in turn, matched. My donation and Intel’s match then spurred on the other Board members to also step up fiscally.” However, Friends of PIR still needs additional donations so the pavilion and day camp can become a reality.

What are the next steps? As Darrell puts it, “Break ground, get the pavilion built, develop the day camp curriculum with the help of Portland State University, and get the camp into Portland Parks and Recreation pamphlets for next summer.” The ultimate goal of using the pavilion for community day camps links to the tragic past of the site. Currently, Vanport Mosaic collects stories by interviewing people who were alive at the time of the flood in 1948 and also gives walking tours of the park. According to Darrell, “PIR is working with them to start incorporating the history of Vanport and the park into the STEM summer camp program. The good news is that the park is part of the Portland Parks and Rec. department, so we are already connected to the neighborhoods and local community.”

Although his fellowship has ended, Darrell remains passionate about this project. “The transition from working at Intel as a full-time program manager to working with a nonprofit has been hard. My wife thought I was retiring and it turns out it was a second career!” He is currently the President of Friends of PIR and is also still actively racing vintage formula cars, so you may find him at the racetrack or, sometime soon, at an event under the pavilion.

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