New Track Is a Steel : California Speedway Will Be Built on Site of Old Fontana Mill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drive down Coke Oven Road and you'll be on the back straightaway of the about-to-be-built California Speedway's two-mile tri-oval. Before construction can start, however, the sign that says "DANGER--Molten Slag Being Carried" must be removed.

The front of the tri-oval is harder to define. At the moment, it is a tangle of rotting lumber and steel, dilapidated buildings with broken windows and shuttered doors, covered with weeds and a years-old layer of dust--remnants of the abandoned Kaiser steel mill that closed in 1983 after 40 years of operation.

The 100-foot water tower, a landmark of the Kaiser property, will remain in the center of the track and be used as a scoreboard.

A 475-acre parcel of Kaiser's original 1,175 acres, between Etiwanda and Cherry avenues, just outside the Fontana city limits near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 15, is rapidly being cleared of the debris so that construction can begin on a $70-million state-of-the-art motor racing facility owned and operated by Penske Speedways Inc.

"How bad did this place look when we started?" project manager Les Richter said, repeating a question. "Well, I can tell you this. It was used to shoot the TV movie 'Hiroshima'--and it didn't need any help."

Although Penske and Kaiser Ventures have been working together since April 1994, demolition could not begin until 13 acres that required special environmental remediation were cleansed and approved by the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control. The final approval came down Sept. 26, after seven years of remedial work by Kaiser Ventures at an estimated cost of $6 million.

Before the 13-acre remediation was approved, the entire area was dug up and about 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated dirt was removed and taken to a toxic waste landfill in Utah. A non-porous cap of polyethylene was put down and covered with two feet of clean soil--50,000 cubic yards. The cap prevents any remaining impurities from rising to the surface and contaminating humans or the environment, according to state officials.

"The agreement between Penske and Kaiser called for Kaiser to do all the remediation and then turn it over to us to build and operate the race track," Richter said. "Now it's up to us, and we're going full-speed ahead."

Graded and smooth as a table top, the 13 acres offer a stark contrast to the adjacent property. But before the first of the year, Richter expects the cleanup crews to have the entire 475 acres ready for preliminary construction.

Miles of railroad lines, which carried steel to World War II airplane and ship-building plants, crisscross the property. Many will be eliminated, and others must be redirected to furnish spur lines for California Steel, an Argentina-owned manufacturing company that will remain south of the speedway.

The brick powerhouse, standing where the main grandstands will be built, is awaiting demolition, brick by brick. As it comes down, trucks will carry the debris down Molten Slag Haulage Road to a rubble hole 35 feet deep and 800 feet wide. Once the building and its adjacent cooling bins are leveled, work can begin on Roger Penske's California Speedway.

Racing, probably an Indy car event, is scheduled for the spring of 1997. NASCAR has also reserved a Winston Cup date for the track.

"We have two races guaranteed, but we'd like to have six a year," Richter said. "We expect to keep the place busy the year-round with testing, shooting commercials, car showings, all that sort of thing."

The Penske project is one of a number of racing sites being pursued in Southern California, but with the toxic waste clearance, it would appear that Richter is leading the race.

Other proposed sites include Victorville, where Indy Racing League executive Cary Agajanian is among those planning a 1.5-mile speedway on the grounds of the Southwestern Portland Cement Co.; Riverside, near March Air Force Base, where Samuel Bowlby, Howard Omdahl and Tony Polo hoped to build a Formula One-type road course; another Bowlby road racing site, near Alberhill, along I-15 between Corona and Lake Elsinore; and Signal Hill, where Long Beach Grand Prix founder Chris Pook announced plans for a $200-million motor sports and automotive research complex last year.

"There isn't room for more than one superspeedway," said Richter, who tried to promote races at Riverside International Raceway against Ontario Motor Speedway in the 1970s. "Look at the Los Angeles area today. There are no [professional] football teams left, and two of the finest tracks in the country closed. Southern California is a difficult place for professional sports to operate.

"One track could be a big success. But not two. That is why we are working so hard to get ours finished first."

The California Speedway will be a two-mile oval designed to replicate Michigan International Speedway, also a Penske-owned facility. It will have 69,338 seats available for its first race, with plans to eventually accommodate more than 100,000 fans.

One difference between it and Michigan will be in the grading of the track. Instead of Michigan's 18-degree banking on the turns and 11 degrees on the straights, it will be 18 and 14.

"Speeds have been getting too high," Richter said. "You don't need 200-mph speeds to have a good motor race."

Among the pitfalls to building a race track in Southern California, other than finding a piece of property, have been complaints from neighboring communities that find their way into political meetings.

Anticipating such problems, Richter and Kaiser Ventures officials began a series of community meetings to tell their story.

"Our first meeting was at the Carpenter's House Church, near the track site," Richter said. "It was an old-fashioned public forum. We had the usual complaints, but we tried to explain to them that what we had planned, a clean racing environment, was much better than what they had now.

"It's funny, most of the close-in neighbors had complaints about traffic, noise, the usual stuff. But after seeing our plan and learning what we had in mind, they're nearly all on our side now because they see their land values going up. This was a really depressed area and the new track may be the start of a rejuvenation of the community."

An economic impact study estimated that 1,200 permanent jobs will result from the speedway, with an average of $125-million income to the Inland Empire economy.

As a side effect of the town meetings, a speedway fan club, called the Pacesetters, was formed and now has 6,000 members.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors had to approve the speedway before permits could be granted. To assure that supervisors and staff members understood just what the project involved, they were taken to Michigan International Speedway to see what the track would look like. When they arrived, Walt Czarnecki, president of Penske Speedways Inc., greeted them, saying, "Welcome to the California Speedway."

Said Richter, "We wanted them to get a better understanding of what they could expect to have in place of a blighted steel mill. I think we got our point across."

The supervisors approved the plan unanimously last May 2.

By May 2, 1997, they should be watching the California Speedway's first major race.

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