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End of an Era : Ascot Park to Join Southland Tracks That Have Passed Into History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ascot Park, the busiest dirt race track in America for 33 years, comes to the finish line Thursday.

The 50th annual Turkey Night Grand Prix for United States Auto Club midget cars figures to be the last of more than 5,000 main events held since the track opened at 182nd and Vermont Avenue in 1957.

Its demise, brought on by inevitable urban and industrial development, will leave a void for Southern California motor racing enthusiasts who have seen the Ontario Motor Speedway, Riverside International Raceway and the Lions, Orange County, Irwindale and San Fernando drag strips disappear in recent years for similar reasons.

Only Saugus Speedway, which runs primarily stock cars from April to October, remains in Greater Los Angeles.

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Ascot Park is no Taj Mahal. It is a grubby little place with a half-mile oval laid out on a dump site in South-Central Los Angeles. Engine fumes that sting the eyes, drifting dust and flying dirt clods are part of the show.

It’s not a place where spectators show up in suit and tie or high-heeled shoes. Racing jackets, jeans and work shoes are the style.

For race drivers and motorcycle racers, though, Ascot Park ranks behind only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Daytona International Speedway as the best-known racing facility in the country.

“Ascot is probably the most popular weekly short track in North America today,” wrote Dave Roberts in Speedway Scene earlier in the year.

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The roll of drivers and riders who have competed on its dirt reads like a racing hall of fame.

World motorcycle road racing champions Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey were weaned on its testing corners as teen-agers. Every national cycle champion since 1959 had to pass through Ascot before earning his No. 1 plates.

“You can’t say you’re a motorcycle racer until you’ve ridden Ascot,” Roberts said. “And you can’t say you’re a champion motorcycle rider until you’ve conquered it.”

Back before Jimmy Clark drove a rear-engine car to victory at Indianapolis in 1965, the road to the 500 passed through Ascot. If a driver could win at Ascot in a front-engine sprint car or midget, he became a prospect for a Speedway ride.

Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford won at Ascot before they made it to Indy. So did Jim Hurtubise, Roger McCluskey, Gary Bettenhausen and George Snider.

Al Unser Jr. drove a sprint car there when he was 18, so small he had to sit on a couple of telephone books to see over the hood.

Records show that 62 Indy 500 drivers, among them winners Troy Ruttman, Rodger Ward and Johnnie Parsons, who came back after winning to display their talents, raced at Ascot.

That list also includes Rick Mears, who did not drive sprint cars or midgets but who won the track off-road championship in 1972 on a makeshift course before the late Mickey Thompson ever thought of staging a stadium race. Old-timers recall the night Mears was leading when he flipped, landed upside down, climbed out and righted his buggy, got back in and charged from last to first.

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That was seven years before Mears won the first of his three Indy 500 championships.

Evel Knievel, who became a legend by jumping over cars on a motorcycle, made his first public jump at Ascot.

Winston Cup champions Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip have driven at Ascot in stock car races. Earnhardt, although he didn’t win, helped Marcus Mallett become the first black track champion in NASCAR history a few years later.

“I couldn’t do a thing with my car until I loaned it to Earnhardt for a race, and I got a film of the race and studied every move he made,” Mallett said. “Then I went out and tried to copy what I’d seen.”

Mallett won the Winston Racing Series this season.

Although first Bill McKay and later Harry Schooler leased the 37-acre property on the east side of Vermont Avenue from Max Zeigler, the man who brought big names and big-time events to Ascot was J.C. Agajanian.

Aggie, as he was known, sublet the facility for individual events until 1976, when he assumed full control of the track and formed Agajanian Enterprises with his sons, Cary, J.C. Jr. and Chris, and Ben Foote, longtime publicist and vice president.

The Agajanians’ 15-year lease expires Dec. 31, and Zeigler’s heirs have already committed the property to Howard Mann and Andrex Development Co. of Torrance, beginning Jan. 1, 1991.

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“The value of the property made it prohibitive to continue as a race track,” said Cary Agajanian, president of Agajanian Enterprises.

What was first known as the L.A. Speedway lasted only a year, but the owners of Gardena Speedway--at 139th and Western Avenue--sold their property to real estate developers and took over McKay’s track in 1958, renaming it Ascot in hopes of capitalizing on memories of the historic old Legion Ascot track that had burned down in Alhambra in 1934.

For years, it was common to see smoke curling up from cracks in the ground along the back straightaway of the former dump.

“For the first few races, it would sink in spots and bed springs and stuff would come up through the surface,” recalled Walt James, a former racer who became the first president of the California Racing Assn.

The original crash walls were made from old wharf beams hauled in from the San Pedro harbor area.

Lighting was poor and a favorite story told of a jalopy driver cutting across the infield in the dark and winning a race without being detected. Photographers often threw up their hands at the prospects of getting any kind of an action pictures in the gloomy surroundings.

Until 1970, the staple at Ascot was its Friday night motorcycle races, promoted by the senior Agajanian.

Early duels among Sammy Tanner, the Flying Flea; Al Gunter and Bart Markel filled the stands to overflowing every week.

“Ascot is the toughest track in the country to come in and race against the local riders,” said Carroll Resweber, a four-time national champion from Wisconsin who never could win a national race at Ascot. From 1959, when Tanner won the first national half-mile on a Triumph, until 1976, no non-California rider won against the Ascot regulars.

The first race set the tone for excitement at Ascot. Resweber, the reigning national champion, came West for the race and was heavily favored. Tanner, little known at the time, started last in the 12-rider field but scrapped his way to second place, behind Resweber, by the halfway mark.

Tanner couldn’t get past the national champion until the gas cap came off Resweber’s bike and fuel began spraying him in the face. Tanner managed to squeeze past Resweber with a lap to go and when he crossed the finish line, Agajanian was so caught up in the excitement that he picked the diminutive Tanner off his bike and carried him into the winner’s circle.

The luster of motorcycle racing began to fade in the early ‘70s after local riders struck over purses and boycotted several races. Many fans never returned.

In 1974, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. began sponsoring the Grand National season and, as purses became bigger, California riders such as Roberts, Gene Romero, Gary Scott, Steve Eklund and Ricky Graham began to tour instead of remaining home at Ascot.

“Every Friday night was like a national championship until the better riders began leaving,” recalled Foote. “Then, we couldn’t get enough riders for a full field.”

In 1973, after Agajanian became ill with cancer, the track deteriorated to such an extent that in 1975 Zeigler foreclosed on Schooler and padlocked Ascot. Among other things, this caused the Turkey Night Grand Prix to move to Speedway 605 in Irwindale, the only time in 30 consecutive years that it was not held at Ascot Park.

In 1976, after Agajanian recovered, he signed a new lease to run Ascot.

Under Agajanian Enterprises, the track often had racing shows five nights a week. Every motorized sport imaginable ran there: late model stock cars, sprint cars, midgets, three-quarter midgets, super modifieds, jalopies, off-road buggies, mini-stocks, foreign stocks, Figure 8s, destruction derbies, ATV three-wheelers and flat track, TT steeplechase, speedway motorcycles and motocross.

It was the place to go just about any night in the week if racing was your game. Jay (J.C. Jr.) Agajanian set the tone with his long-running radio commercial in which he shouted, “Come to Ascot, where the 110, the 405 and the 91 freeways collide!

Several things set Ascot apart from other tracks. For one, it is 60 yards short of a half-mile, so it is exceptionally fast. And being close to the ocean, the sea air rolls in during the evening and helps keep the track from drying out and becoming too slippery.

“There’s no feeling like going in deep when the track is damp and tacky, throwing your rear end around and then stomping on the gas coming out of the corner,” says Jimmy Oskie, a five-time sprint car champion who has raced regularly at Ascot since 1963.

When Agajanian found that motorcycles were no longer an attraction, he moved sprint cars into Saturday night dates and, with the CRA, helped maintain the only major non-winged series in the country.

Every sprint car driver of any reputation, from World of Outlaws champions such as Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell to CRA favorites Oskie, Dean Thompson, Bob Hogle, Ron Shuman, Bubby Jones and Brad Noffsinger, has tested his skills and nerve on Ascot’s track.

“Ascot has a special character of its own, being where it is and the way the track is laid out, but what makes it extra special is all the history behind it,” said Kinser, arguably the best sprint car driver ever. “Any driver worth his salt wants to try it at least once.”

The history began in 1957 when Rip Erickson won the first race there. Jack Gardner, the only person to win the CRA championship as a driver and a car owner, was sixth. Noffsinger drove Gardner’s cars when he won the championship in 1986 and 1987.

Thompson, the Carson Comet, who tagged along with his mechanic father when Ascot opened, won 95 races there in Bruce Bromme’s cars, an Ascot record. The most memorable, he says, was his last.

“I had announced a few races earlier that I was retiring after the 1985 season, and the last race was the Peabody Classic, 50 laps,” Thompson recalled. “I led from start to finish, but I remember those last few laps I was just hoping the thing would stay together. It was a great night, winning and realizing all those good years of Saturday nights was coming to an end. I haven’t even sat in a race car since.”

Hogle, who retired at 40 at the peak of his career in 1973 as driver of the Morales Brothers’ Tamale Wagon, recalls his first victory as the most cherished.

“Getting that first one is the toughest,” he said. “After that, they’re like olives coming out of a bottle. They come a whole lot easier.

“I remember I was driving a flathead Ford for B&E; Supply of Long Beach. It was only 30 laps but it felt like 500. I was out in front and I thought it would never end. After the flag man signaled five laps, I know I counted at least 10.”

Bubby Jones came West in 1973 with Rick Ferkel for the Pacific Coast Open, and sprint car racing has not been the same since. They had a big old drag racing tire--at least eight inches bigger in circumference and four inches wider than the other tires--on the right rear wheel.

“We called ‘em humpers, for lack of any other name,” Jones says. “Now they’re built special for us. Then it was just a tire off a dragster. During the race, the tire grows and when you come off a corner, the left rear pushes you off and the acceleration puffs up the right rear so fast it makes it almost like a gear shift.

“That’s why you’ll see one car suddenly shoot past another one on the straight. It’s caused when the tire hooks up with the surface when you straighten out.”

Jones enjoyed racing at Ascot so much that he moved here from Danville, Ill., in 1979 and ended up winning 61 races, four Peabody Classics and CRA championships in 1983 and 1984.

He will be in tonight’s Peabody Classic, as will former winners Shuman, Noffsinger and Oskie, as well as CRA points leader Rip Williams. It will be the final sprint race at the track and the beginning of the end of racing at Ascot Park. Thursday’s Turkey Night Grand Prix marks the end of an era.


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