Raceway to Start New Season Amid Uproar of Neighbors

Times Staff Writer

Racing fans are gearing up for tonight's season opener at the Ventura Raceway in what could be one of the final laps for the Saturday night "roar by the shore."

At odds are a 25-year spring tradition of racing sprint, midget and dwarf cars around a dirt oval at the beachside track and a more upscale lifestyle featuring resort-like apartments, trendy restaurants and wine-tasting bars.

Old school and new collided last fall when the Ventura County Fair Board considered the raceway's contract renewal for Seaside Park, which is home to the annual Ventura County Fair in the summer and racing from spring to fall.

Despite opposition from neighbors and some city leaders about the high-decibel noise caused by screaming engines, the board ultimately renewed the contract of track promoter Jim Naylor for one year.

The future of his operation rests with the fair board, which is developing a master plan for Seaside Park that may not include racing.

As the nearby downtown district rapidly gentrifies -- plans include an upscale restaurant just steps from Seaside Park -- some acknowledge the raceway's prospects appear dimmer and dimmer. Thrift stores that once lined Main Street have given way to pricey boutiques, and developers are building $1-million hillside penthouses with views of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's going to close sooner or later," said Jim Cherry, a Simi Valley businessman who has raced midget cars at the speedway.

Not one to be dissuaded from his life's passion, Naylor has introduced a number of changes designed to stifle the complaints.

They include installing a sound wall at the back straightaway and requiring special mufflers on race cars to keep the noise at 90 decibels or less. Racing is scheduled to finish at 10 p.m., half an hour earlier than the previous closing time.

"I'm doing everything I can to be a good neighbor, including building the crash wall," Naylor said. "I didn't put all this money into it to have to take it down after one year."

He declined to say how much he spent on the project.

"I donated millions of dollars to Seaside Park over the years," Naylor said. "Are we getting credit for that? No, we're not. But we have made the park better."

He said fans travel from as far as San Diego and Bakersfield to watch the races in Ventura, and they stay in local hotels and buy food and gas from local businesses.

"The whole point of this is to make sure people understand that motor sports is one of the things that made Ventura famous," he said. "We bring a lot of revenue to the city."

Southern California, once the largest racing market in the United States, was home to 172 tracks over the years, with about two dozen operating at once in racing's heyday in the 1950s. Several remain open, but many important tracks have shut down, including Ascot Park in Gardena, Ontario Motor Speedway and Saugus Speedway.

Despite the black cloud hanging over Ventura Raceway, sprint car owner Jeff Johnston said he is looking forward to the season.

"I think it'll be great," said Johnston, owner of Billet Fabrications in Simi Valley, which builds products for the racing industry worldwide. "They've done a lot of things to keep the noise down. I think it's an issue for some people out there but not for most.

"It's too bad all this is going on. They're shutting down all our tracks now in Southern California."

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