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Penske Hopes to Put CART Before Horse : Auto racing: His proposed California Speedway already is on that group’s schedule for Indy car race.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roger Penske’s California Speedway is on the 1996 CART Indy car schedule and has been approved for a date on a future NASCAR Winston Cup schedule.

Now all that’s needed is a track.

Before work on a facility can even begin, however, the site must be cleared of toxic waste and approved by the California Environmental Protection Agency. Then permits must be granted by the County of San Bernardino. All of which takes time--and money.

The proposed site is 500 acres of a 1,175-acre parcel where the Kaiser steel mill operated from 1942 to 1983, only a few miles east of the old Ontario Motor Speedway property. Located near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 15, it is bordered by Cherry Avenue on the east, Etiwanda Street on the west, San Bernardino Avenue on the south and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway on the north.

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Covering most of the property are rusting machinery, ramshackle buildings, stacks of pipe, piles of slag from the mining operation and dusty weeds.

In its 1993 annual report, Kaiser Resources, Inc., owner of the property, estimated the cost of remediation at between $11 million and $32 million, “depending on which redevelopment or remediation alternatives are selected” for the entire 1,175 acres.

“Only about eight to 10 acres (of the 500 involved) need serious remedial cleanup,” said Les Richter, who began work Monday as point man on the project while on loan from his duties as a NASCAR senior vice president. That area is where the coke ovens were located.

Walter Czarnecki, president of Penske Speedway, Inc., which operates Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., and Nazareth Speedway in Nazareth, Pa., and hopes to operate the proposed California track as well, said he expects Kaiser to have the 500 acres bulldozed, graded and ready for construction by the end of the year.

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“Kaiser owns the property and is responsible for the cleanup,” Czarnecki said. “Penske will be responsible for building and maintaining a two-mile tri-oval with 60,000 seats and conducting major stock car and Indy car races.”

If the Kaiser site rings a bell, it is because that is where Agajanian Prime Ventures, headed by Cary Agajanian, proposed building a multifaceted racing facility last year. Others involved in the Agajanian proposal included Roger Werner, president of Prime Ticket, and Bill Daniels, prominent Denver sports financier.

Agajanian, a Universal City attorney whose family operated the Ascot Park half-mile oval until it was closed in November of 1990, signed a letter of intent for use of the steel mill site in March of 1993. Kaiser officials say the agreement expired last October before negotiations were completed.

“They changed the rules on us,” Agajanian said. “We were told at first that Kaiser would do the cleanup and we would construct the race track. But later they said we had to share the cleanup costs. We could not agree to that.”

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Shortly after the Agajanian option lapsed, Penske representatives entered the picture through the suggestion of Solomon Bros., a New York underwriting firm that does business with both Penske and Kaiser.

“Once we were told that Agajanian was out of the picture, Roger (Penske) and I took Dan Larson (president and CEO of Kaiser Resources) and Rick Stoddard (chairman of the board) to Michigan last fall to give them the feel for the facility,” Czarnecki said. “At that time, we were concerned that perhaps Kaiser was riding two horses, but they assured us they were not. At no time did we want to encroach on Cary’s (Agajanian’s) deal.”

An agreement between Penske and Kaiser was signed last March, the week after the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“With Penske Speedway’s experience in the development and operation of motorsports facilities, combined with the local community and political support, we intend to make every effort to bring this concept to reality,” Larson said.

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Penske resolved the financial issue of cleanup by giving 20% of the assets of the Michigan and Nazareth Speedways to Kaiser Resources. Kaiser will also retain 20% of the California facility’s assets.

“The track will be a mirror image of Michigan International Speedway,” Czarnecki said. “The only difference may be in the banking. We have talked with drivers and racing officials and it is possible that the Fontana track may have 15-degree banking instead of the 18 degrees at Michigan.”

More than a dozen track sites have been proposed for Southern California since Ontario was razed in 1980 and Riverside International Raceway was closed in 1988 to make way for a Moreno Valley mall.

Frank Arciero was going to build one in Palm Springs, then switched his site to Moreno Valley, near the De Anza Cycle Park. Dan Greenwood had proposals for the Prado basin in Corona, the Alberhill area near Lake Elsinore, and a parcel in Perris. Carl Godfrey announced plans for a track near Moreno Valley.

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A number of promoters, among them Gary Sigman, Don Brown and Thomas Lipiri, had proposals to build in Glen Helen Park, a San Bernardino County recreational park.

The late Mickey Thompson had options on land in City of Industry for a track. Chris Pook, promoter of the Long Beach Grand Prix, has announced plans for an oval in Signal Hill. Agajanian looked at sites in Lancaster and Riverside county before Fontana.

None of those plans ever materialized. What makes this one different?

“If anyone has the clout to pull off building a track in Southern California, it’s Roger Penske,” a high-ranking racing official said earlier this month during the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Everything he tries, selling cars, leasing trucks, building diesel engines, running race teams, is successful. And Lord knows, Southern California needs a racetrack.”

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One thing that sets the Penske plan apart is that it has sanctions for races from CART and NASCAR.

“Anybody can build a big top, but no one can guarantee anyone can come to the show unless you have a sanction,” Czarnecki said.

Eyebrows were raised in the racing community when NASCAR gave its long-range approval for a date because the stock car racing organization had never offered a sanction before a track was completed, much less not even started. Then it gave permission for one of its vice presidents, Richter, to become heavily involved in the track.

“Getting the sanctioned dates was as important to us as it would be for a city to get a major league baseball or football franchise before it built a new stadium,” Richter said. “From NASCAR’s viewpoint, Bill France knows how important the Southern California market is to the sport. We have wanted back here ever since Ontario and Riverside closed.”

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Penske also has close ties with CART and NASCAR, other than as a track owner.

His Indy car team of Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy has dominated the season this year, Unser having won the Indianapolis 500 and the team having won eight of 11 races.

Penske also has a Winston Cup team with Rusty Wallace the driver. Wallace has won five races and is third behind Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan in points.

The Fontana site is not the first explored by Penske in Southern California. Last year, he and Czarnecki looked at property in Carson, near the Goodyear blimp hanger, but decided they could not get sufficient land.

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“Roger and I have talked for a long time about the need for a track out here,” Czarnecki said while visiting Kaiser headquarters in Rancho Cucamonga. “It turned out that Fontana is perfectly suited for us because Penske has a large truck leasing facility in Fontana and other businesses in the area.”

Penske holdings in Southern California include car dealerships in El Monte, Downey, Westminster, Ontario and Bakersfield, with 830 employees; 17 truck leasing locations with 384 employees, and the western regional office of Detroit Diesel Corp.

Richter was chosen to head the California Speedway project because he was a prime mover in the development of the Michigan track, which will be the model for the Fontana facility, and as former president of Riverside International Raceway he is familiar with contractors, suppliers and the like in the area.

If the toxic cleanup progresses according to plan, work could start on the track by January.

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