Irwindale Speedway Paves Way for Return of Full Racing Calendar

Construction of Irwindale Speedway, which got underway this week, means that by next March, motor racing will have come full circle since the closing of tracks in Riverside, Ontario, Ascot Park and Saugus left the Los Angeles basin without a major league racing facility.

First, Perris Auto Speedway, a half-mile dirt oval dedicated to sprint car racing, opened in 1996, filling the void left by the closing of Ascot.

Then California Speedway opened last June, providing superspeedway racing on a two-mile oval for NASCAR Winston Cup and CART champ car racing. There had not been a major track here since Ontario Motor Speedway closed in 1980. California Speedway also has a road course, as yet unused for racing, to replace Riverside International Raceway.

Now comes Irwindale Speedway, with half-mile and third-mile paved ovals for the various types of cars that ran for many years at Saugus Speedway. The smaller oval will be inside the half-mile track.

Plans call for 6,500 seats, with 14 corporate suites and a press box atop the grandstand, and parking for 2,000 vehicles.

"What we're in the process of building is a half-mile superspeedway," said Ray Wilkings, promoter-general manager of the $7-million project at the intersection of the 605 Freeway and Live Oak Avenue, just south of the 210 Freeway.

"We want it to be the finest half-mile paved track in the country," Wilkings said. "We're looking at a number of exciting racing series, more than a dozen superstar concerts, driving schools, civic events and other special events."

The anticipated opening date is March 27, 1999, with an open-wheel racing program featuring U.S. Auto Club midgets, sprint cars and super-modifieds.

Other racing dates are already being filled for NASCAR stock cars, Craftsman trucks, legends cars, Formula 2000, Formula Mazda and other open-wheel formula-type cars. Unlike Saugus, which had racing only on Saturday nights, Irwindale will schedule programs on Friday and Saturday nights.

Also unlike Saugus, which had a flat racing surface, Irwindale will have up to 12-degree banking in the corners on the half-mile.

"We're a year behind on getting this project off the ground but we think the wait will be worth it," Wilkings said.

Wilkings, 45, revealed plans for a track at Irwindale shortly after Saugus Speedway closed abruptly in the middle of the 1995 season. He had been general manager at Saugus for seven years, after taking over from his father, Marshall, who had been the track's promoter since 1973.

However, plans were delayed when Wilkings, named national motor racing promoter of the year in 1990, was chosen by Richie Clyne to become vice president and general manager of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In that capacity, Wilkings oversaw both construction and the first year of competition on the $200-million racing complex.

"Even when I was with Las Vegas, I never lost sight of my dreams to build a track in Irwindale," Wilkings said. "I thoroughly enjoyed my work at Las Vegas, where I learned a great deal about building and running a new facility, but my roots are in the short tracks like Saugus and Irwindale.

"With the Irwindale site, we've got an outstanding location, super backers, and a truly clean sheet of paper. It's a wonderful opportunity to build a great half-mile and third-mile paved oval facility.

"And most important, we have assembled one of the strongest and most dedicated teams of investors that I have ever had the pleasure of working for."

Nine men--Dennis Alfieri, Victor Ciulla, William Close, Dennis Costanzo, Gene Olson, Robert Pernecky, Jim Williams, former race driver Danny Sullivan, and Wilkings, acting as the operating partner--make up the Irwindale development team.

Doug Stokes, who was public relations director for Perris Auto Speedway when it opened, will be in the same position at Irwindale.

INDY CARS

The path to the Indianapolis 500 runs through Phoenix this weekend when the Pep Boys Indy Racing League hosts its second race of the season, the Dura-Lube 200, on the paved mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway.

The winner of the Phoenix race hasn't gone on to win at Indy since Al Unser did it in 1971, but the 33 cars that will try to qualify Saturday for Sunday's 200-mile sprint will be almost identical to the 33-car lineup for the May 24 centerpiece of the IRL's 11-race schedule.

Until last year, it was possible for drivers from other sanctioning bodies to enter the Indy 500. Now, though, because of the IRL's unique engine and chassis regulations, that is highly unlikely.

That means that two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk and defending IRL champion Tony Stewart will be the favorites at Phoenix and very likely at Indy too.

Luyendyk, who lives a few miles from the Phoenix track in Scottsdale, has won twice at both tracks. He won Indy in 1990, when it was a CART race and last year in the IRL's second season. The Dutchman won at Phoenix in 1991 and 1996.

Stewart, who won the season opener at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., holds the Phoenix qualifying record of 170.012 mph, set last March 22. In the race, he finished second to rookie Jim Guthrie.

Both Luyendyk and Stewart will be driving G Force chassis, powered by Oldsmobile Aurora engines.

J.J. Yeley, 21, and Dave Steele, 23, rookies from the USAC ranks, will make their Indy car debuts. Yeley, a hometown Phoenix driver, also races in the Sprint Car Racing Assn. series. Steele, from Tampa, Fla., won six USAC sprint car races last year.

ENDURANCE RACING

Following a family tradition that began when his father won the Sebring 12-hour race in 1985, Bill Auberlen of Redondo Beach will defend his GT3 championship Saturday in a BMW M3 when America's oldest endurance race is run on the narrow, twisting and bumpy airport track in central Florida.

Auberlen, 29, will drive with fellow Southern Californians Boris Said III, 35, and Mark Simo, 38, both of Carlsbad. That is the same team that finished first in class in the Rolex 24-hour race in January at Daytona, where Auberlen qualified on the pole and their car finished 22 laps ahead.

"We've got all the momentum anyone can ask for," Auberlen said.

It was Auberlen's second consecutive Daytona victory. The one in 1997 was a come-from-behind victory with a team that included Derek Hill, Tom Hessert, Javier Quiros and Said.

Auberlen's father, Gary, won driving a Porsche 911. Bill also won Sebring in 1995, driving his own Mazda RX-7.

WINSTON CUP

For the second time in three races, NASCAR has changed the rules that affect aerodynamics on the Ford Taurus in an attempt to achieve parity with the Chevy Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix.

This time it has narrowed the width of the rear spoiler on the Taurus by two inches, from 57 inches to 55. The width remains at 57 inches for the GM cars.

"This is the fifth race of the season and only two have been with the same set of rules," said Ford driver Jeremy Mayfield. "Daytona was totally different with restricter plates. Rockingham and Las Vegas had the same non-restricter plate rules, but then we made a change after Las Vegas for Atlanta. And now we're changing for Darlington.

"I'm a driver. I don't like it any time they cut the spoiler. That's my control stick back there. It's the thing that keeps my car planted so I can go through the turns with it staying right-side up instead of upside down."

The TransSouth 400 is scheduled Sunday at Darlington, S.C.

DESERT RACING

Defending race and series champion Curt LeDuc of Cherry Valley will pace a field of 11 drivers in the Trophy Truck portion of Saturday's Tecate SCORE San Felipe 250. LeDuc, who drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee, will be challenged by Jeff Lewis in a Chevrolet, the Herbst brothers, Ed and Tim, in a Ford, and the team of David Ashley and Dan Smith in another Ford. Ashley and Smith won the opening desert series race at Laughlin, Nev.

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