It's tough being a race fan in the Los Angeles area.
Irwindale Speedway in California has been pronounced dead almost as many times as actor Abe Vigoda. The good news is that at this very moment, both survive. Vigoda is 94, Irwindale turns 16 tomorrow. It’s a tossup as to whether which one goes first. Both will be missed.
Irwindale Speedway opened March 27, 1999, a half-mile banked paved oval with a seating capacity of about 6,500 – nowhere near enough to attract NASCAR Sprint Cup or Xfinity races, but it should have been able to handle a Camping World truck series race.
But all the big-league NASCAR stuff went to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which struggled to draw a crowd when it hosted two Cup races a year, and both were often among the dullest of the year. Now that the track surface has aged, and the Sprint Cup guys just come once a year, presumably the track is OK, though it costs a lot of money to do business in the Los Angeles area, compared to, well, pretty much everywhere else.
Located elsewhere, it’s likely Irwindale would have done well, too, except for two problems: The aforementioned cost of everything in Southern California, and the fact that given the enormous population there, there aren’t that many short-track fans.
I was at Irwindale long before it opened, using the track as the background for a TV episode of “Car and Driver Television,” which I produced. The track was built next to a strip mine on one side, Interstate 605 on the other, in what can only be described as a less than premium piece of real estate. I remember thinking: If a short track can’t be allowed to exist here, we’ll probably never see another one built in the LA area.
After all, that neighborhood, even expanded dramatically, hasn’t been kind to racetracks. The 2.5-mile Ontario Motor Speedway opened in August, 1970, billed as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of the West.” It closed 10 years later, replaced by a hotel, condos, offices, homes.
Riverside International Raceway opened in 1957, closed in 1989. The road course hosted NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, even Formula One. I got to drive it twice, but it was pretty far gone by then. It, like almost all the other California ghost tracks, was worth more as real estate than as a race track. It was turned into a shopping mall an condo complex.
Ascot Speedway in Gardena, built in 1957 on top of a garbage dump, is perhaps the most publicly mourned track in the LA area. The half-mile dirt oval hosted USAC, motorcycles and sprint cars. It closed in 1990, and adding insult to injury, the property sat undeveloped for years before a car auction replaced it. I managed to get to Ascot once, and still have the teeshirt. Somewhere.
Up north, Saugus Speedway, located in the middle of nowhere amidst the hills used in countless cowboy movies, was built in 1937 as a dirt track, and paved in 1954. Saugus, basically a flat, parking-lot-sized oval reminiscent of Flat Rock Speedway in Michigan, still made for some pretty good late-model racing right to then end, when it closed due to, if I recall, problems with the aging grandstands and other concerns. It remains, but it isn’t a race track anymore – it’s the Saugus Speedway Swap Meet.
Somehow Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino and the beautiful little Ventura Raceway have been allowed to survive – both are fairgrounds tracks, dating back to when most every fairground had some sort of racing. Perris Auto Speedway is a great dirt track, located so far east that you think you’re almost to Nevada.
Irwindale coulda been a contender...
But Irwindale was supposed to be the new kid in town, located on a scrap of land next to a compact eighth-mile dragstrip and thought to have a solid future in hosting stock car racing, bracket racing, drifting, maybe concerts, and certainly movie, TV and commercial shoots, like all the above tracks did at one time or another. The track even had one of the best PP men in the business, Doug Stokes, and one of the best motorsports announcers, Bruce Flanders.
Today, Irwindale city officials are meeting to discuss plans for razing Irwindale, replacing it with a 700,000-square-foot outlet mall. If it doesn’t happen today, it will happen eventually.
Call it the Abe Vigoda rule – if enough people think he is gone, eventually they will be right.