The towering stadium lights strategically turned to set Mark and Karin Rivard's bedroom aglow, sometimes as late as 2 a.m., were pretty bad. Even worse was the time that a stark naked Mark stepped out of the tub and locked eyes with the giggling passengers of a helicopter hovering outside his second-story bathroom window. But the YouTube video accusing Karin of bestowing herpes on an Alameda County supervisor sympathetic to her family's plight that cut the deepest.
And that's just the short list of punishments the Rivards say they have endured in return for meddling in the business of their new neighbor, the Altamont Motorsports Park.
The Rivards and their two daughters live in a tall, industrial-style house nestled among the white windmills of the Altamont Pass. They designed the three-bedroom, 4,500-square foot home themselves, carefully selecting its high ceilings, concrete and metallic flooring and walls, and vast, open rooms. They imagined they'd spend the rest of their lives there. And yet, 120 feet from the Rivard's property line and 1,000 feet from their front door sits the Altamont Motorsports Park, a paved, half-mile oval racetrack on 83 acres. From their driveway, the Rivards can see the entire track below.
In 1999, when the Rivards bought the property on which their house now stands, the Altamont Speedway was rarely used. For the five years before they started building there, the Rivards traveled often to their 56-acre plot. They rode their bikes and took long walks, a welcome alternative to their home in the Oakland Hills. Occasionally, they saw cars circling the track, but most days during the two and a half years their house was under construction, Altamont appeared all but abandoned.
"The argument we hear all the time is, 'How stupid can you be; what did you expect when you built your house next to a racetrack?'" said Karin, 38. "But it's not that simple."
After all, the couple had done their research. In the forty years since Altamont was built, it had rarely hosted more than a couple dozen races a year. At one point, it shut down completely for years. Odds are, they thought, not much will change in the next forty years. "We had no problem with how the racetrack had been used historically," Karin said.
Then, two weeks after the Rivards moved in, the speedway sold to a new owner. The Rivards didn't know it had been up for sale until trucks, pavers, and bulldozers began rolling up the narrow country road that winds to their property, just west of the Alameda County line.
The track was no longer in the hands of someone looking to run a few weekend races for a small profit. Altamont now belonged to a group of investors headed by a man looking to make a name in racing a man whom some say will change the face of motorsports in California, but whom others regard as an unscrupulous businessman who doesn't play by the rules.
Two million dollars in improvements later, Altamont runs at least three days a week, well into the night, seven months out of the year. It hosts stock car, truck, and motorcycle races, and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. On good days, Altamont attracts a couple hundred people. On the best days, it draws a few thousand. And the track's new owners want to add more, including live concerts for as many as 6,500 fans and year-round, daily operations.
The changes at the track instantly transformed the neighborhood. On race days, the Rivards and other neighbors say, it's too loud to go outside. When Altamont's new lights are on at night, the neighbors closest to it say they can't go to sleep. "What's going on over there now is nothing like it's ever been the entire time we've lived here," said Jim Tanner, who has lived a half-mile from Altamont for 25 years. "You wouldn't believe how fast I've seen people drive down our two-lane country roads," added his wife, Tina. "We have kids and we have animals. It's scary."
In the spring of 2006, four months after the track was sold, a small group of neighbors formed Community for a Better Altamont to oppose the racetrack's new way of doing business. In the last year and a half, they have held nearly two dozen meetings with Alameda County officials. They've made countless phone calls, typed hundreds of e-mails, snapped dozens of pictures, and spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers and noise experts.
In May, Karin took a leave of absence from her job as the manager of a medical office to focus full-time on the fight against Altamont. Instead of the job, she now has a two-drawer Rubbermaid filing cabinet on wheels, stuffed with noise reports, legal bills, letters from county agencies, copies of Altamont's permits, and stacks of police reports. "This is just some of it," Karin said on a recent Saturday.
Although deeply unsatisfied with the results of their efforts, the Rivards have undoubtedly gotten the track's attention. Alameda County is requiring Altamont's owners to seek a new zoning permit. County supervisors also recently banned drifting, a particularly noisy class of motor sport. Finally, attitudes toward Altamont have begun to change, as county supervisor and former track supporter Scott Haggerty has concluded that the facility's managers can't be trusted to tell the truth.
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