Walking the paddock during the NASA Central event in June at Ozarks International Raceway, one thing you might have noticed is that the least-common license plate was that of Missouri. Quite literally, people had come from all over the country to set a wheel on what has quickly become a bucket-list track. There were plates from California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and on and on.
Located deep in the heart of south central Missouri, Ozarks International Raceway is right in the wheelhouse of NASA Central, one of NASA’s fastest-growing regions, thanks to the stewardship of Randy and Donna Lane, who took it over in December 2019.
This was a combined event with NASA Great Lakes and — given the license plates in the paddock — anyone else who wanted to come. That included a good field of Spec Corvette racers, who had gathered for their championship event, and a big field of Thunder Roadsters.
This was NASA Central’s third event at Ozarks, a track the Lanes had visited five or six times before they held their first event there last November. As the track was coming together, the Lanes began working with track owner and builder J.R. Pesek, who took what was a farm and turned it into one of the most challenging and interesting racetracks in the country.
“When we started talking to J.R., it was really interesting how quiet the whole world had been about it,” said Randy Lane. “It’s a track that’s really hitting a lot of the bucket lists now because they’re hearing about it. Then this event we’re at this weekend here in June, I think we’re approaching somewhere around 250 registrations for the event. So again, it’s a growing event for us. Our race group is growing as a part of that. So, we’re looking to put it in the rotation more and more, as much as we can.”
The track itself is something of a masterpiece. It’s the kind of track you drive once and it instantly becomes your new favorite track, even though you could spend two racing careers trying to master it. The video below comes courtesy of TT2 driver Jay Dee Krull, who showed Speed News around the track in his Ford Mustang GT350R. Take a few minutes to watch it. The flow and elevation changes are like no other track in the country.
Ride along with Jay Dee Krull in his Mustang GT350R as he takes us on lap around Ozarks International Raceway.
“It’s like one driver said after November,” Randy Lane remarked. “He said, ‘I know they have a Roller Coaster, but when you get it right, it’s like the whole thing is a roller coaster.’ I thought that was a great comment from him. So from that standpoint, I think, it’s going to be on our list for a very long time.”
Roller coaster is an apt description for the track, especially if you experience it in the back seat of track owner/builder J.R. Pesek’s Ford Raptor pickup truck. At one time, this piece of land was home to Walker Farms, a turkey and cattle farm. On a driving trip across the country, Pesek spotted the property and called his attorney to ask about purchasing it. His attorney asked where it was, and as fate would have it, his attorney also was helping the Walker family close the estate. Pesek closed on the property, which totals more than 600 acres. The road course covers 400 acres, so there is room for expansion.
“We tried to find a, a place that was in center of the country where we could build. Actually, the first thing we looked at doing was the old Greenwood Roadway in Iowa,” Pesek said. “We looked at jumping on that after some other guys tried it and that just didn’t work out. It would’ve been a great place to reopen, but it didn’t work out.”
Here’s a look at the cars and people of the NASA Central June event at Ozarks International Raceway.
When Pesek found the land, he was convinced it could become a destination track, given its proximity to Lake of the Ozarks, which is a big weekend destination and a performance boating epicenter in the region. The racetrack is located in the lesser-developed northwest fingers of the lake, but close enough that people could find lodging in the more established eastern tendrils, where thousands of hotel rooms are available.
Pesek sold his refuse business in Kansas City and has a background in racing. He and his son raced in Continental Challenge and IMSA and cut their teeth in NASA racing, so they are approaching everything they do from the perspective of the racer, and it shows in the details.
The entrance is built so that it can fit a hundred tractor trailers so they don’t clog the highway while teams are loading in. Pesek has plans to host big-time professional race series at the track, and there’s no reason to doubt that will happen. The corner worker stations have ceiling fans, cameras, fiber-optic connectivity and electronic flagging equipment suspended high to make them easy to see.
Pesek used a handheld GPS and a lawnmower to lay out the first track, but not before using Google earth and some mapping programs to “build” the track before moving any earth. That meant changing things to create something that worked for the driver, but also met with approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, which had identified creeks and weeping streams that had to remain intact. Pesek and his team also partnered with Multimatic, whose modeling software helped determine if given portions of the track were too fast to be feasible for some of the kinds of racing cars Pesek wanted to attract.
The previous owner had removed most of the walnut and other hardwood trees, but there was no small amount of debris to be removed. Pesek left as many of the trees as he could because he wanted the track to feel as though you were racing through a park. From any perspective, including that of the bald eagle nesting in a tree high above the last run back up to the front straightaway, he has succeeded in creating that park-like setting.
All totaled, Pesek and his crew moved about 3 million cubic yards of dirt, all done by an in-house team operating 12 to 13 bulldozers every day. The only contractors he used were for asphalt, concrete and plumbing work. The construction process took less than three years before NASA held the first event at the track back in November.
The track features 19 turns and 150 feet of elevation change overall, and 1,200 feet of elevation change in a car during a single lap. Wherever you are on the track, you’re either going up or down, or you’re about to.
“We tried to build something from, you know, all the great tracks,” Pesek said. “You go to Laguna for the Corkscrew. You go to Road America, because of the top speed and everyone likes the Kink and Canada Corner, which is really cool to race through. You go to Watkins Glen for the Boot and the Bus Stop. So you have these tracks that had these iconic pieces. I said, why don’t we just try to build a little bit of everything at one and add a ton of elevation because a lot of tracks in the United States, don’t have a lot of elevation to them. I think elevation adds the challenge of the racing.”
The irony is that despite including elements from other tracks, Ozarks International Raceway ended up being nothing like any track you’ve ever driven. Sure, some of its turns might seem familiar, but that happens for any driver who has been to a decent number of tracks. It is the overall experience of a lap at Ozarks that leaves you with the impression that there’s no other track like it despite the familiarity of some of its turns.
“I wanted the best. I wanted to make it the most complex. I didn’t want to build something that you came in here today and walked out of here going, OK, I got it. It’s on my checklist. I’m done,” Pesek said. “You know, I want you to come back here five or six times, and every time you come back here, I want you to figure out something different, you know? And I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Now that the track is built and raceable, Pesek is not done. He has ambitions for other attractions, such as kart tracks, rally cross, a dirt oval, rally stages and more. Randy and Donna Lane also are just getting started. Ozarks is going to become a regular fixture on the NASA Central calendar, and it’s difficult not to imagine each entity helping the other grow and become more prosperous. The future looks bright for both.
“I think it’s the word’s getting out about this track, and I think the word’s getting out about NASA Central,” Randy Lane said. “The kind of events we’re running and bringing the chief of tech for NASA here and really upping our game on the technical side, and making sure everybody’s compliant.
“TT drivers like to know they’re competing on an even scale, you know? And so we really upped our game there. We hope that Hank (Padilla) can train somebody on our staff too, at some point here, but we knew we had to make a change to be able to get that going. Seeing registration from all over, having the Thunder Roadsters here, having Spec Corvette here doing their championship run, both of those are fantastic. I mean, it’s exciting when you see those cars out there. It’s good racing.”