If all inaugural years are unforgettable, Irwindale Speedway's opening year had to be judged as absolutely indelible. Breaking new ground in the concept, design, and operation of paved oval short tracks, this special Speedway set about to change...
If all inaugural years are unforgettable, Irwindale Speedway's opening year had to be judged as absolutely indelible. Breaking new ground in the concept, design, and operation of paved oval short tracks, this special Speedway set about to change the way in which people regarded local weekly racing in the United States.
Located closer to a major metropolitan center (Los Angeles, California) than any new facility in recent memory, the racetrack quickly gained a national reputation for the competitive quality of its on-track action as well as the exceptional quality of its fan and sponsor accommodations.
From unique idea to steel and asphalt reality, some four and half years elapsed before the facility first filled with excited fans on Saturday night March 27, 1999. Starting with the first few ceremonial shovelsful of dirt on a rainy March 31, 1998, the actual construction took less than a year with hundreds of skilled workers putting in thousands of hard hours to complete a true "1/2-Mile Superspeedway".
By actual count there were 51 nights of racing action, 3 rainouts, and 198 main event wins distributed among 98 different drivers.
The season both began and ended on nights when the grandstands were completely sold out and the track's twelve corporate suites were full to capacity with cheerful guests. Closing on a high note, Irwindale Speedway seemingly saved the best for last with the traditional Thanksgiving evening presentation of a 66-old classic called "The Turkey Night Grand Prix".
The 59th, and some said best, running of the annual 100 lap event for USAC Midgets was a thriller with teammates Jason Leffler and Tony Stewart battling tooth and nail for 99 laps until Stewart's motor let him down allowing Leffler to write his name in the Turkey Night Winners Book alongside of A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Ron Shuman, Stan Fox, Mel Kenyon, Billy Boat and 31 other open wheel immortals.
Drivers from all over the United States, reining champions as well as hopeful tyros, all came to Irwindale Speedway with one goal in mind, to race and win there. As we said, nearly 100 did that very thing during the '99 season and many more followed those drivers under the checkered flag already plotting their next attempt on the track. Along the way, five major NASCAR Western title races were held at Irwindale in 1999.
Sadly two drivers were lost at Irwindale Speedway during its first year in operation, Casey Diemert and Keith Cowherd. Both of these young men will be sorely missed by all. But, let it always be remembered: both were doing what they chose to do when they suffered unsurvivable accidents. It also must be remembered that there were thousands of laps made by hundreds of drivers with speed and safety during the Speedway's inaugural year.
Support for the brand new facility came from almost everywhere in the corporate world. Automobile companies, banks, national bottlers, tire companies, fuel providers, region-wide newspapers, top safety equipment suppliers, markets, food provisioners, home improvement chains, and half a hundred other leading corporations got intimately involved with Irwindale Speedway all of them making the Speedway a vital part of their (very successful) marketing plans.
On the regional scene, Irwindale Speedway's contribution to the local economy was strong and steady. Local businesses benefited on almost a daily basis from fan patronage. Hotels, restaurants, equipment rental companies, caterers, auto parts suppliers, service stations, trophy companies and a host of others all enjoyed the positive economic impact of the new Speedway.
The local workforce too, benefited from the Speedway's 51 nights of operation during 1999. Hundreds of part-time jobs were created by the new Speedway. Track workers, fire and safety people, food service employees, souvenir sellers, ticket sellers and takers, clean-up and maintenance people all were able to find a unique place to augment their regular weekly employment or pick up some needed cash for school expenses.
Numerous visits were made to the track by deserving school, church, hospital, and social groups. People from all walks of life came to the track and had a wonderful time; many of them seeing a live motorsports event for the very first time.
And, the "track" made over two hundred visits to service club meetings, car club gatherings, schools, parades, other motorsports events and shows. With the help of many racers the Irwindale Speedway reached out to the neighborhood and beyond by bringing race cars, drivers, plenty of race schedules and those always-appreciated "$-Off" coupons right to thousands of eager fans.
And the people who made it happen? They're mostly a quiet bunch, preferring to take their bows and congratulate each other in private and then quickly get on with the work of planning the next season.
They know, even with the universal praise from both the public and press, that there were numerous things that could have gone a little bit better; that there were times when the timing wasn't perfect; when the show wasn't all that the staff wanted it to be; or when they didn't quite hit all the high marks that they had set out to. Ask any one of them what they are doing in the "off season" and they'll tell you that they have only a few short months to get ready for a whole new year of great family entertainment.
1999 was a year that no one associated in any way with the track could ever forget … And one that everyone will always look back on with great pride … But one that they will try their level best to surpass in every category when the racing curtain rises again on March 25, 2000.
… WE'LL SEE YOU THEN!