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ROUNDING INTO SHAPE : Directors of Encino Velodrome, Stifled for 1984 Olympics by Recalcitrant Neighbors, Still Dream of Renovating Dilapidated Facility

Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, the wrath of Valley homeowners descended on the U. S. Olympic Committee for wanting to tear down the aging Encino Velodrome and replace it with a modern cycling track for the 1984 Games. Homeowners knew what an Olympic event in their back yard would mean: For maybe two weeks, more traffic, more congestion, more smog.

Chased over to Dominguez Hills, where the residents were more agreeable, the committee built a beautiful $3 million velodrome. The Valley was left with the Encino track, a dilapidated concrete oval constructed in 1962 for the miserly sum of $25,000. Racing at the velodrome was top quality, attracting some of the nation’s best riders, but it was also low key and laid back. Homeowners hardly knew the track existed.

“It was the best-kept secret around,” says Carol Henry, mother of a rider. “Nobody knew it was here.”

But awareness will be going up if Tana Curtis gets her way. Curtis, president of the nonprofit velodrome, dreams of constructing a wooden track, putting a roof over the oval, laying artificial turf on the infield for indoor soccer and building stands for 5,000 fans. All she has to do, she says, is raise two or three million dollars, a not-unrealistic sum with corporate sponsorship (the track in Dominguez Hills is officially the 7-Eleven Olympic Velodrome).

And Curtis’ fund-raising possibilities have increased because the Encino track is the only 250-meter oval in the country. All the others, Dominguez Hills included, are 333 meters. This wouldn’t really matter except that the next two world championships as well as the 1992 Olympics will take place in Europe on 250-meter tracks, making it almost mandatory for American cyclists to train in Encino the next few years.

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“We anticipate getting a lot of usage here,” says Curtis, a Reseda bookkeeper. Encino, she says, is almost assured of playing host to the 1990 Junior Nationals and the 1991 Olympic Festival and is the obvious choice for the Olympic Trials before the Barcelona Games.

But even if Curtis can get past homeowners’ associations and financial hurdles to turn Encino into a five-star velodrome, the track probably will stay low key and laid back. A mom-and-pop operation run by unpaid volunteers, the velodrome is the kind of place where riders lounge on lawn chairs in the infield, the snack bar has been run by the same two women for a decade, the public-address announcer makes jokes and everybody knows everybody.

“This is a velodrome of love,” Curtis says, “a family track. Riders love coming here.”

Indeed, “This is my favorite track in the country,” says John Harvey of Chatsworth, a Junior World competitor last year in Denmark. “It’s definitely got more personality.”

But the oval itself doesn’t have many fans. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, it seemingly wasn’t designed with the laws of physics in mind. The banks are only 29 degrees, about 11 degrees under the minimum “to make it safe so you don’t have to worry about staying on the track,” says Mark Garrett, a U. S. National Team member in the tandem sprints and an Encino regular. “It’s a hard track to ride and takes a while to get used to.”

Cycling in any velodrome isn’t like cruising the Venice Beach bike path. Three years ago, the sport was nearly shut down when the U. S. Cycling Federation--an arm of the U. S. Olympic Committee--wasn’t able to get liability insurance. With riders accelerating to speeds of 40 miles an hour in tight packs, crashes aren’t uncommon, and neither are broken bones. Four years ago, a 36-year-old rider was killed in a spill at the Encino track when his head struck the concrete after he brushed another bike. Since then, hard helmets have been mandatory at USCF races.

“The higher the level of competition the more likely you are to see a crash because you’re trying to force people out of position,” says Westlake High’s Amanda Henry, a top rider who broke her collarbone in a race last year.

But most riders downplay the hazards. “Cycling here is no more dangerous than most sports,” says Matt Rayner of Sylmar. “Actually, training is more dangerous because you’re riding on streets with cars.”

The Encino Velodrome has the longest racing season of any track in the country. From mid-April through mid-October, 75 to 100 riders, aged 9 to 60, take part in 24 races on Saturday nights. Despite the high caliber of competition--Curtis says as many as 30 are “national riders"--the races draw only 200 or so spectators, most probably relatives of the riders, at $5 each. Even in the 1970s, when the track was producing “50 to 60% of the U. S. international team,” only about 500 attended races, says Alex Baum of North Hollywood, a member of the 1984 Olympic Organizing Committee who is also on the velodrome’s board of directors.

Running the track since 1987, the current board has been the beneficiary of the 1984 Olympic surplus. The Amateur Athletic Foundation, which is responsible for allocating the money, has given Encino $60,000 from the surplus and an additional $50,000 in corporate donations to refurbish the velodrome. The AAF also gives the velodrome $40,000 a year for junior development, which has become a thriving program under Curtis and race director Rick Denman. This summer alone, about 300 kids are taking the free six-week course taught by riders like Rayner, a U. S. national champion in the team pursuit last year.

“When I started cycling, there was no such thing as a junior program,” says Rayner, 26. “So cycling always used to be a second sport for kids. They’d play football in high school and then discover cycling after they graduate. Now it’s the first sport for a lot of them.”

With about 30 of its juniors competing nationally, “We’re shaking up the rest of the nation because our kids are doing so well,” says Curtis, who is coach of the women’s junior team at the Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City.

One of those kids is Amanda Henry, a petite 18-year-old rider. Two years ago, she and her mother Carol came to the races to see Janie Eickhoff, a double Junior World champion, and “we heard them announce the free classes,” Carol recalls. Amanda started in the program and quickly picked up the knack of riding a bike that has no brakes and no gears. She’s among 25 of the track’s regular riders who have qualified for the U.S. Nationals next week in Redmond, Wash.

“A talented kid can go very far very fast on the national scene,” says Jeff Morseburg, an L. A. art dealer who’s on the track’s board.

Garrett and Rayner, two of the track’s star riders, will compete in the nationals in the tandem sprints, “one of the hairiest events in cycling,” says Garrett, 26. “Most people don’t even want to try it.” Garrett and Rayner were born for a track as laid back as Encino’s. Track announcer Ray Joiner tells the crowd that Garrett “is the funniest rider in cycling.” Rayner blames their whimsical attitude on the sport.

“Sprinters tend to be loud and boisterous,” he says. “Pursuers tend to be calmer. There’s a joke that once you quit pursuing to do sprinting, your IQ goes up. I’ve gone from pursuing to sprinting. I guess mine is plummeting.”

Diminished mental capacities haven’t hurt his riding, however. In a one-man exhibition race at the velodrome the other night, Rayner broke the track record for the flying 500 meters. Wearing prescription sunglasses, he made 2 1/2 trips around the oval in a dizzying 31.18 seconds. On a regulation track, he says, he probably could have clocked 28 flat.

Tana Curtis, of course, can’t do anything about the size of the velodrome, but she can change the surface. Think wood, she says dreamily. “It would make this a hot, hot track.”


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