The Hlavka name may be a household one in South Wasco County, but the man attached to it – genuine and kind-hearted Merle – prefers to carry on his father’s legacy from behind the scenes.
Merle recently honored me with an invitation to his and Donna’s home to visit about his life, the Wampinrock News, and Sportsman’s Grasscar Racing. I had the pleasure of meeting his daughters: They are warm and gracious. Merle and Donna’s home is filled with happy memories and love. Merle is, not surprisingly, an excellent storyteller; he did not begin his story with himself, but rather with his parents.
Merle’s father Richard (Dick), a former newspaperman in the Gorge, and his mom, Ioala Hlavka, felt compelled to start a small South County newspaper in 1986, though it began as something called the New Leaf. Prior to the Spotted Owl debacle of the 1980s and 90s, South Wasco County was a rather tight-knit, thriving corner of the world; however, with the decline in the timber industry as a result of the owl controversy, and the ultimate closure of lumber mills across the state after its official listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the struggle for financial survival began to take its toll on the relationships between residents of the cities of South Wasco County.
Dick’s vision was to create a platform that would help folks from Wamic, Pine Hollow, and Rock Creek find common ground. In an effort to create a sense of ownership in this endeavor, they held a contest for renaming the paper, and Wampinrock was ultimately chosen as the all-inclusive winning title. Back then Dick typed everything up on a typewriter – never a computer – and pasted stories together with beeswax, then used a mimeograph to create copies. Back then, according to Merle, a lot of the news was “who’s visiting whom from Oklahoma” and equally important local goings-on. The paper was created, and continues, to bring people together. Such is the power of the written word.
Upon Dick’s death, his one request was that Merle and Donna not let the paper die with him. It has been a legacy that Merle considers both “an honor and a responsibility.” And for those of you who may be wondering: Yes, Merle does have a plan for the future of Wampinrock News.
Prior to settling back in South Wasco County, Merle spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. He started out as an auto mechanic and quickly moved into administrative positions which included lengthy stints as both an efficiency expert and a statistical analyst; he retired from his military career at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska and continued to enjoy Alaskan life for a time before returning to care for his aging parents.
But those who know Merle also know that he has done much more for our community than faithfully keep the family vision alive; the shy and introverted accordion player and statistician is also a NASCAR junky. He loves stock car and dirt track racing and enjoyed emceeing races on the weekends – enough to drive Donna just a little bit crazy – until his old high school buddy, Mike Sofich, together with Scott Bell and Russ Lane, convinced him of the need for a grasscar track in Wasco County.
In true South County style, efforts were combined, and a rough track popped up in the middle of a field in Wamic, Oregon, on what is now the location of the largest grasscar operation on the West Coast. But their beginnings were not without a few bumps.
Merle recalls that on their first practice race attempt, Randy Marshall took a bad spill and ended up being Life-Flighted to Portland, though not before imploring them all to “Keep on racing!” Luckily Randy recovered from his extreme injuries and the group was able to make some improvements in operations and carry on.
Merle was named president of Sportsman’s Grasscar Lawn Mower Racing, Inc. – a non-profit organization – in 2008, and in 2009 they held their first official race. As a non-profit organization, Sportsman’s invests all race revenue back into track maintenance and improvements—after making a small annual donation to the Wamic Rural Fire Protection District—and the organization’s dedication to a high-quality race environment is evident.
Track operations are still a community effort, with the American Legion donating revenue from food sales to veterans and more than 100 different volunteers over the years showing up to help with everything from setting up to cleaning up. Jerry Tripp has set up scaffolding on turn four, and his cameras feed directly into Sportsman’s Pub and Grub, so spectators can even enjoy the show from indoors.
Ten years after that first near-tragic test drive around a make-shift track in the middle of nowhere, Sportsman’s is the only West Coast track to hold 13-14 races per season, drawing racers from all over the country, and they are looking forward to hosting the 2020 United States Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA) National Finals on Labor Day weekend next year—something to mark your calendars for, whether you are a racer, a fan, or an area business owner.
Two hours into our conversation, thoroughly entertained and with the deepest respect for this soft-spoken man who at the age of 17 was slated to become the next Myron Floren on his accordion, I see clearly how he has become the rock that continues to unite the people of South Wasco County with news and lawnmowers—and so much more.