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April 30, 2014

Interest in Crows Landing airfield revs up

A mostly abandoned airfield, more popular with ground squirrels and the occasional hawk for several decades, suddenly and secretly is attracting fast company such as Mercedes-Benz, Tesla Motors, Chrysler and TV’s “MythBusters.”

A mostly abandoned airfield, more popular with ground squirrels and the occasional hawk for several decades, suddenly and secretly is attracting fast company such as Mercedes-Benz, Tesla Motors, Chrysler and TV’s “MythBusters.”

They’re drawn by open miles of hard-to-find, dense concrete runways at the isolated former naval air base. The surface is perfect for fancy driving without fear of offending neighbors with dust and noise.

“We were thrilled with it,” said Dan Tapster, a producer of Discovery Channel’s popular “MythBusters” series. Its eccentric goateed stars, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, and crews filmed part of an episode there for the 2015 season a few weeks ago.

The science show with a twist seeks to confirm or disprove, for example, whether people can dodge bullets, whether some sports cars are more aerodynamic when driven backward and whether toast always lands butter-side down. “MythBusters” sought out Crows Landing for an episode “devoted to myths about drifting, a driving technique in which you allow the car to slide around bends rather than turn through them,” Tapster said.

Savage and Hyneman, who performed at Modesto’s Gallo Center for the Arts in 2011, returned to Crows Landing a couple of weeks ago to film a short video for Chrysler that was unrelated to their TV show.

Also a few weeks ago, Tesla brought a half-million-dollar prototype of an electric car for a test run there. The company last week announced it will lease a 430,000-square-foot factory in Lathrop that was vacated a few years ago by DaimlerChrysler.

Tesla has yet to ink a contract with the airfield’s owner, Stanislaus County. Mercedes-Benz formalized such a research and development deal with the county about a year ago but has not yet acted on it.

“If we can show professional activity out there, it gears everything up to say this is going to be something wonderful someday,” said Keith Boggs, an assistant executive officer for the county.

Why the sudden interest?

Boggs gives credit to the Sports Car Club of America, which finally persuaded the county to loosen up and let hugely popular autocross racing return to Crows Landing for a pilot run in August after an absence of at least two decades.

“We’re certainly not marketing it,” Boggs said. “I think the Sports Car Club of America guys are talking it up.”

They are, indeed. And they parlayed last year’s success into contracts for four racing weekends this summer.

“We like the site,” said Bryan Nemy, event chairman with the club’s regional chapter, based in San Francisco. “It’s big and it’s grippy concrete.”

Regular street asphalt is mushy compared with runway concrete, built to accommodate aircraft. National championships will be held on a similar surface later this year in Nebraska, and serious drivers crave opportunities to prepare.

Two of the racing weekends will come back-to-back in June. The club found a spot in town for people to store cars, trailers and motor homes, enabling them to stay. Many will head to such places as Yosemite and San Francisco in between the weekends.

County leaders initially rebuffed racers, citing liability and security hurdles at the airfield, which was established in 1943. NASA has privately used the base to test unmanned drones since the Navy pulled out in 1993.

Law enforcement officers regularly have used the isolated runways for high-speed driving exercises. If not for Crows Landing, “we’d be forced to send our staff to Alameda or Sacramento to receive mandated training,” said Sheriff Adam Christianson. “The value and benefit of the facility are tremendous.”

The county charges $600 a day to rent the airfield on weekdays and twice that amount on weekends.

A consulting firm is continuing to prepare studies needed to draw developers who will help transform the base into an industrial complex. Boggs hopes the documents will be ready late next year.

Meanwhile, he’s starting to shop the base’s research and development potential to universities, aviators and other companies. And he doesn’t think Crows Landing has seen the last of Savage, Hyneman and their often explosive antics.

Tapster said, “It’s fair to say we had a blast.”

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