The northbound West Coast Limited No. 59 lay beside the railroad tracks like a dead horse. Steam seeped from the locomotive engine as frightened passengers surrendered their cash to the furtive figure in the darkness.
The armed bandit stuffed his pockets and fled afoot, leaving the derailed train and its passengers stranded beside the white wooden grandstands of the Baker Ranch Rodeo.
It was Nov. 10, 1929. “Buffalo Tom” Vernon had just committed the Not-So-Great Saugus Train Robbery.
The loot was only $200, but lawmen tracked Vernon all the way to Oklahoma before making their arrest three weeks later. Vernon was imprisoned for 35 years before dying in 1965.
Nearly 60 years later, two freeways and a network of major roads have rendered train travel all but obsolete in the Santa Clarita Valley. What once was a sparsely populated rural community is today one of the most affluent suburbs in the Los Angeles area.
Much has changed in Saugus, yet little at the scene of the crime.
The railroad tracks with which Vernon tampered still hug the same hillside beside the same wooden grandstands. Visible in yellowing photographs of the train wreckage, the grandstands, erected in 1924, remain as the last surviving witness to the robbery.
Once the property of cowboy movie actor Hoot Gibson and later the bleachers of Bonelli Stadium, today the stands support the fans of Saugus Speedway, the oldest racing facility on the West Coast, an icon to the Santa Clarita Valley racing faithful.
Saturday night at 7, the green flag will drop on Saugus’ 50th season, a span in which the one-third-mile oval has outlasted several West Coast race tracks, including Riverside International Raceway, Culver City, Gilmore and Whiteman stadiums, and Atlantic American, Carrol, Colton, Gardena, Huntington Beach, Legion Ascot, Loyola and Western speedways.
Saugus Speedway--"The Super Track” to locals--the dirt oval domain of United Racing Assn. midget cars during the 1940s and ‘50s, today is the site of some of the most competitive stock car racing on the West Coast.
This season, for the fourth consecutive year, the NASCAR All-American Challenge Series Southwest Tour will make two stops at Saugus. In August, Saugus will be the site of the Winston West 200, the first Winston West Series event at the track since 1977. The Miller 125, originally scheduled for last Saturday but postponed because of rain, will be held at the speedway June 17.
Last season, 84,905 fans--a nightly average of 2,830, excluding the average of 500 who watched from the pits--filled the stands between March and October. Special events included the Race of Champions--an exhibition involving eight Winston Cup drivers, including Davey Allison, Geoff Bodine and Rusty Wallace.
While the track’s operation has grown since 1959, the year it was renamed Saugus Speedway and stock cars replaced midgets, so, too, has its following.
“I started going out there with my dad in 1960 and ’61 when there were no buildings, no homes, no freeway and you had to take the street all the way out through Newhall to get there,” said Sportsman Division champion Dave Phipps, 40, who grew up in Van Nuys. “I’m still gung-ho about it.”
Adds Street Stock driver Rick Crow, 26, a lifetime resident of Canyon Country: “I grew up idolizing Jimmy Insolo. After the races, I’d go down to the pits and ask him to autograph my program. He always had time for you and he always raced clean. When I started racing, I took his No. 38.”
When Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, Ben Thomas and “Wild Bill” Foster were were leading the pack at Saugus.
Insolo, “Roarin’ ” Oren Prosser and “Steady” Eddie Gray sped through the ‘60s, Tru Cheek, Dan Press and Jim Thirkettle through the ‘70s. The ‘80s belong to Roman Calczynski, Ken Sapper and Phipps.
With last year’s closure of Riverside, Saugus appears to be Southern California’s top racing venue. Ascot and Ventura raceways--both quarter-mile dirt ovals, and Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino--a quarter-mile paved oval--all are smaller than Saugus in size, prestige and promotions.
Special attractions at Saugus this season will include two 150-lap Factory Stock Enduros, U. S. Auto Club midgets, an antique race car show and the annual Fall Spectacular, featuring a 100-lap figure 8 race for Street and Hobby stocks.
Traditional Sportsman, Street and Hobby stock races, destruction derbies, figure 8 races--all will highlight the final season of the track’s fifth decade.
Somewhere, Buffalo Tom must be smiling.
Take three beat-up stock cars and chain them together like a train. Place a driver in the first car, a driver in the “caboose” and nothing--no driver, no engine--in the middle car.
Place the train on the track with 10 similar crazy creations for a 15-lap figure 8 race and what have you got? Train racing--the hottest attraction to hit Saugus Speedway since the destruction derby.
Train racing, the brainchild of Saugus promoter Ray Wilkings, is more than a novelty. It has placed Saugus on the national racing map and is largely responsible for Wilkings being selected the 1988 Far West Region Promoter of the Year by Racing Promotion Monthly.
“We get written up in magazines about it and people are writing from all over the country,” said Wilkings, who originated the event last season and has scheduled four this year. “Everybody wants rules and regulations for having a train race.”
The track was purchased in 1939 by former L. A. County Supervisor Bill Bonelli and is still owned by the Bonelli family. Under Wilkings, who became the track’s promoter in 1985, the speedway has flourished.
In 1986, the track became a NASCAR-sanctioned facility, a major step in credibility after previous affiliations with the Olympic and Pacific racing associations. Nightly purses at Saugus averaged about $14,000 last season, an increase of about $5,000 since Wilkings took over.
“The big thing with NASCAR is credibility,” Wilkings said. “Everybody on Sunday can turn on ESPN and see some form of NASCAR race. And if they know the local track is also a NASCAR-sanctioned facility, then they can identify with that and they tie the big-name driver with the local guys.”
To date, Wilkings has arranged two visits by NASCAR veteran Bobby Allison, including a memorable race last June in which Allison narrowly defeated Phipps in a 40-lap main event.
Wilkings, 36, who began working in the track’s concession stands in 1966, succeeded his father, Marshall, who served as promoter from 1973 until his death in 1985 after a lengthy bout with cancer.
“It’s been my whole life since I was 14,” Wilkings said. “I’ve seen it go through a lot of refurbishment. The track used to have a dirt infield before my dad had the whole thing paved. Now, we have paving around the whole outside. We paint it every year and we’ve got billboards and flags now to add to the atmosphere.”
Wilkings adds to the atmosphere of train racing by distributing engineer caps to fans as they file through the turnstiles, and he starts the race with a train whistle.
“I think the only way that racing can survive is to treat itself as an entertainment medium instead of just a place to watch cars go around in a circle,” Wilkings said.
Train racing, figure 8, destruction derby--all are immense crowd-pleasers. But Saugus has more than satisfied the serious racing buff--and honed the serious racer’s skills.
Several drivers, including Calczynski, Press, Thirkettle, Jim Robinson and Ron Hornaday Jr., have graduated to a more competitive level after cutting their treads at Saugus.
Calczynski, the only driver to win Saugus championships in Street Stock, Sportsman and Modified divisions, is the defending Southwest Tour champion. Press and Hornaday, who finished fourth last year in his rookie season, also compete on the Southwest Tour.
“If you can handle your car at Saugus, you can handle your car anywhere,” said Calczynski, a Sepulveda resident. “It’s a tough track to drive.”
Said Prosser, 48, the only five-time champion in Saugus history: “The straightaways are too long for the corners. So, almost anybody, if they can get around the corners at Saugus, can go out of town and be sharper than the average guy from Colorado.”
Saugus Speedway, in fact, might be the most difficult short track to negotiate on the West Coast. Phipps, who has raced at Ascot, Ventura, Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, and Orange Show and El Cajon speedways, rates Saugus “the toughest one around.”
“The turns are sharp, the track is narrow--it’s really only about a three-car width--and it’s flat,” said Phipps, the track’s only three-time Sportsman division champion. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flatter track. Bobby Allison came out and said it was the flattest track he’d ever seen and he’s seen a whole lot more than me. Flat as a parking lot, he said it was.”
Other variables enter into the racing equation.
“The weather doesn’t seem like much,” Phipps said, “but it changes during the season. It might be 60 degrees up there in April and 90 to get their traction. It even changes from afternoon to evening. It might be 90 degrees, but at night you’ll need a sweater. It just makes things unpredictable.”
The greatest driver in Saugus history? A matter of conjecture and one that invites heated argument in a community that takes its racing seriously. And one reason Wilkings steers clear of singling out anyone.
“It’s hard to say,” Wilkings said. “There are so many.”
Only eight drivers have won multiple championships. Thomas (1959 and ’60), Gray ('63 and ’67), Mike Fortier ('73 and ’75), Press ('78 and ’82) and Cheek ('79 and ’81) all have posted a pair of titles.
Sapper won four Modified titles beginning in 1984. But Phipps, who won his first championship in 1984, has won three titles virtually unchallenged, establishing himself, perhaps, as the track’s most dominant driver of the past two decades.
“But the best driver I ever saw was Oren Prosser,” Phipps said. “That was back in the days when cars weren’t nearly as sophisticated as they are now.”
Many agree that Prosser, who hints about coming out of retirement, is the track’s best ever.
“I’ve had great times up there,” Prosser said. “Broke my arm, broke my leg, but it was great. It was a great time of my life.”
An official list of the track’s all-time greats may never be compiled. Establishing a track hall of fame, Wilkings said, has never been considered.
Reminiscing is fine, but accentuating the present is more important.
“I’m prejudiced,” Wilkings said. “But I think the track’s heyday is now.”