Crime and Justice

Pownal race track burns in a massive fire authorities call suspicious

POWNAL — Authorities are calling a fire suspicious that burned the grandstand building of the former Green Mountain Race Track Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.

Pownal Race Track
The main building at the Pownal Race Track is a total loss after a fire on Thursday. Vermont State Police photo

Thick plumes of smoke rose from the building, whose roof collapsed in several places. There were no injuries, according to a report released by Vermont State Police, but authorities have called the incident a total loss.

Pownal Fire Chief Keith Coon instructed firefighters from 12 departments to attempt to control the blaze from the exterior only, fearing that the structure could collapse. 

The Department of Public Safety Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit was on scene Thursday to determine the cause of the fire.

Because the structure did not contain electric power, and there were no reports of lightning before the fire, the investigation team is focusing on recent activity at the scene that may point to arson. 

Stephen Solar, a managing member of track owner Green Mountain Race Track LLC, told the Bennington Banner that he’s spent a significant amount of money trying to secure the building, and believes the fire should be considered arson “since they had to tear boards down to get in there.”

The fire department extinguished several smaller fires at the building over the summer, and police are aware of multiple recent instances during which the property was vandalized. 

“These were deemed to be young adults hanging out in the area and entering the building to vandalize the structure, skateboard and even more recently, ATV riders were noted inside the structure driving around,” the state police report reads.

The facility hosted harness and thoroughbred horse racing starting in 1963, then transitioned to greyhound racing in the 1970s. Racing at the facility was shut down in 1992 after animal rights activists protested. 

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After that, the building was home to concerts, like Lollapalooza of 1996, which featured headliner Metallica. 

These solar panels are part of a 2.2-megawatt generating facility at the former Green Mountain Race Track site in Pownal. File photo by Holly Pelczynski /Bennington Banner

Most recently, stables and barns were torn down and replaced by a large solar array. The building has stood vacant in recent years. 

The structure now stands blackened and made weak by the fire, which ate up wooden material on the inside and was bolstered by cement block walls, creating a furnace effect, according to the Bennington Banner, which first reported the fire

Authorities are worried that people may still attempt to enter the building, which has become unstable, and town officials are hoping that the owners will demolish it. 

“Based upon the examination of the exterior, and noting several areas of collapse in the roof and the damage to heavy support columns to the three-story steel and concrete building, it was deemed too dangerous to conduct an internal examination,” the state police report reads.

WCAX footage shows curious residents entering the area following the fire on Thursday. State police detective Sgt. Steven Otis said he’s worried that someone exploring the property after the fire could become seriously injured.

The Vermont Tip Award program offers $5,000 for information that “will lead to the arrest of anyone involved in the crime of arson.” Those with information are encouraged to call Otis at the program’s hotline: 1-800-322-7766. 

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. In 2018, she received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in the columnist category.

Email: [email protected]

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