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Not Your Average Sunday Drive

Automobiles were lined up end to end, engines revved, drivers irritated, making too much noise, following much too closely, some of them (the cars) belching smoke, unable to pass. It was a typical Southern California scene on a typical morning. Typical, except it was not a freeway.

Fifty miles east of Los Angeles, on land where a steel mill’s fiery stacks had long since cooled and disappeared, stood a property so barren and littered with rubble that Hollywood’s location scouts used it for films such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Terminator,” as a setting of post-apocalyptic doom and gloom.

At that time, it was a site that “basically looked like Hiroshima in 1945,” said Les Richter, an executive of the new California Speedway who served as grand marshal for Sunday’s inaugural California 500 race.

But this land has become useful and even beautiful again, as was evident while 42 multicolored vehicles sped around our state-of-the-art speedway, making its debut a roaring success.

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Following an expenditure of $110 million and years of effort, a dashing young hero, 25-year-old Jeff Gordon, almost had to coast to victory in auto racing’s newest 500-mile race, running on empty.

Out of gas just after he crossed the finish line, Gordon took first prize of $144,600 at what fellow racer Rusty Wallace referred to as “just the most incredible, beautiful track I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Due mainly to the determination of automotive aristocrat Roger Penske, a painfully drab piece of land was paved not with gold but with a two-mile asphalt oval, was decorated with 299 palm trees and was formally unveiled Friday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, where NASCAR President Bill France sang its praises with, “There is not a finer motorsports facility anywhere in the world.”

Drivers before and after Sunday’s race were equally enthusiastic.

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Joked one, Bobby Hamilton, who finished 23rd, “It’s a beautiful facility, and the only thing that stunk was us.”

The track’s 70,784-seat grandstand and 71 leased private suites were packed for the first Cal 500, having been sold out months ago, and more than 10,000 names are on a waiting list. Thousands also gathered in the speedway’s infield, where they could not only watch the race, but have a pizza delivered.

Penske and his son, Greg, 35, who is president and CEO of the speedway, took pains to offer creature comforts rarely seen at American racetracks, in an attempt to restore Southern California’s reputation as a stock car capital. No more would racing enthusiasts have to travel as far as Phoenix or to upstate Sonoma to follow their favorite Winston Cup NASCAR drivers and crews.

“Roger Penske and his whole clan did a great, great job,” said driver Johnny Benson, who finished 13th. “This place is tremendous.”

Traffic reflected the interest in the race, backed up on I-10 for miles, from dawn Sunday for an 11 a.m. race. Every effort was made by the Penskes to keep transportation hassles at a minimum. There were 32,000 parking spaces in a paved lot--rare for racetracks of this size--while customers also flocked to the track via Metrolink railway.

In some places, commuters drive cars to get to trains. Here, they take trains to see people drive cars.

By 6 a.m., garages at the new speedway were already alive with activity. Two hours later, in a drivers’ meeting room, the Rev. Philip DeRea conducted church services for those about to embark on a new adventure in an always dangerous sport.

The race turned out to be virtually accident-free, with few cars even bumping on the 75-foot wide track.

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Hut Stricklin hit off a wall, Hut Stricklin had a great stall, but that was about it.

After a national anthem sung by the pop group Ambrosia, the gentlemen were told to start their engines at 11:08 a.m. by Wayne Wells, a division vice president of NAPA, the auto-parts firm sponsoring the 500. The grand marshall, Richter, gave the green starting flag to the drivers at 11:15, after declaring over the public-address system, “This is a great day in the history of Southern California auto racing.”

Then, to the simultaneous roar of 42 powerful V-8 engines, the first Cal 500 began.

In a race that took 3 hours 13 minutes and 31 seconds, Gordon won by 1.074 seconds, running out of fuel on the last lap’s last turn.

Accepting a trophy named for Richter in victory lane, Gordon celebrated by saying, “That was an incredible way to win, in an incredible new place.”

He had gone for a drive in Southern California, and gotten where he was going in a little more than three hours. Not bad.


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