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Nostalgic End as Saugus Speedway Closes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saugus Speedway--the oldest race track operating in the Western United States and a Los Angeles area motor racing mecca for 56 years--closed Wednesday, generating a nostalgic turnout by race drivers who took over the track for a night of their own.

The remainder of the Winston Racing Series stock car season has been canceled, and there are no plans to resume racing in the future at the Santa Clarita oval, known as “the Super Track.”

In a spontaneous response, about two dozen drivers showed up at the track Wednesday night as their telephone grapevine spread the word. They drove in a roaring circle before stands empty of spectators, throttles open in a last sentimental salute to their pastime’s home.

Ray Wilkings, general manager of the speedway, said he turned on the lights as more and more drivers showed up, towing race cars on trailers, so they could enjoy a few laps “for nostalgia’s sake.”

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A structural engineer’s report filed with the Rodeo Land Co., principal owners of the facility, revealed that the grandstands do not meet 1994 standards. When the report was received, the owners announced that racing would be discontinued.

The decision will have no effect on the operation of the Sunday swap meet at Saugus.

“It’s a sad day, a real shock,” Wilkings said. “There’s been racing here 56 years, and my family has been involved in the place since 1959. The Bonelli family, who control the ownership, said they had no plans to bring the grandstands up to current standards or to build new ones. Essentially, they told us to close up shop.”

Saturday night racing, from April to October, has been a staple at the tiny one-third mile paved oval for many seasons.

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The last race at the track, a Winston West late model stock race last Saturday night witnessed by 3,997 fans, was won by Butch Gilliland of Anaheim, in Bill Stroppe’s Ford. The jockey-sized Gilliland had been racing nine years looking for his first win.

Other winners in street stock races on the final night were T.K. Karvasek of Reseda on the oval and Kirk Miller of Alta Loma on the Figure 8 course.

The grandstands seated about 5,000 and portions of the wooden structure dated back to 1924, when it was built for rodeos by shoe magnate C.H. Baker. Cowboy star Hoot Gibson purchased what was then known as Baker Ranch Stadium in 1930 and continued to use it for rodeos.

William (Big Bill) Bonelli purchased the site, renamed it Bonelli Stadium in 1939 and introduced auto racing on a dirt oval. Such future Indianapolis 500 drivers as Sam Hanks, Troy Ruttman, Bill Vukovich, Walt Faulkner, Jack McGrath and Mel Hansen raced their big roadsters on Sunday afternoons until racing was halted by World War II.

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Vukovich won the first post-war race in 1945 in a roadster, but the big attraction was midget racing.

In 1950, when Gilmore Stadium was razed, portions of its grandstands were moved to Saugus and placed along the backstretch.

The Saugus track was paved in 1956, and the first Saturday night stock car race was promoted by Tony Coldeway’s Pacific Racing Assn. in 1957. Marshall Wilkings, Ray’s father, took over as promoter in 1973 after his close friend, Coldeway, was injured in a highway accident.

The Wilkings family has run the speedway ever since.

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Times correspondent Bryan Rodgers contributed to this story.


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