Irwindale's Track Record Is Second to None

Times Staff Writer

Before Irwindale Speedway opened four years ago this week, it was already being projected as the finest short-track motor racing facility in the country.

As the track readies for the opening of its fifth season on Saturday night, there is no doubt about it.

"It's like a mini-superspeedway," Winston Cup veteran Rusty Wallace says. "I love to go there every chance I get. There's no better racing track in the country, big or little. It's just what you would expect from JW, the best."

JW is Jim Williams, president and the driving force behind building and operating Los Angeles County's only short track. Actually, two tracks, a half-mile oval and inside that, a one-third-mile oval, with a 6,500-seat grandstand and 12 private suites.

Dick Bergrren, editor of Speedway Illustrated and Fox TV commentator, writes in a forthcoming issue: "Irwindale is the nicest short track in America."

And, he added in an interview, "I have been to just about every track there is and no track focuses on what fans want -- entertainment in a racing environment -- the way Irwindale does."

Fans get more than three hours of racing when they visit the $12-million layout built on a former swap meet site where Live Oak Avenue intersects the 605 Freeway, just south of the 210 Freeway.

Kids get face-painting, go-kart racing and a chance to buy plenty of toy cars and collectibles. Food service is exceptional, including a full bar. For nostalgic old folks, there are vintage cars on display.

Before each night's racing, there is an autograph session during which spectators can walk the track, see the cars up close and chat with drivers.

"I think our fans love getting down on the asphalt with the cars and drivers almost as much as the racing," public relations chief Doug Stokes said.

Saturday night's opening program, featuring NASCAR Weekly Racing Series super late model stock cars, along with late models, super stocks and super trucks, will be the same price as it was for opening night in 1999 -- $15 for adults, $5 for 6- to 12-year-olds, free for 5 and under. And the same $3 for parking.

"We could just refer everybody to last year's press announcement [about tickets], or to the one from the year before last, or from the one before that," General Manager Bob DeFazio said.

The first U.S. Auto Club show for open-wheel cars will be April 28, when Steve Lewis will present the $50,000 Mopar Twin 25s for midget racers.

Veteran announcer Bruce Flanders, who is the public address voice for Irwindale and the CART champ car circuit, says: "Irwindale is the most beautiful half-mile track in the world. For creature comfort, closeness to the freeway and clean bathrooms, I haven't seen one better."

When the track was built under the direction of Williams and Ray Wilkings, former Saugus Speedway operator, it was the public perception that it was a hobby for Williams, former owner of Golden State Foods.

"That's a misconception; we expect Irwindale to turn a profit and we feel the way to do that is to continue what we have been doing, and that's to make it a pleasant destination for fans," Williams said.

"We feel pretty good about what we have. If I go to the track and the fans are not bitching, and the drivers are not bitching, I think we're doing all right."

Wilkings, who found the site and then found Williams and other investors, resigned as general manager two years ago to run a family business in Georgia.

There have been three major changes in the landscape of Irwindale in the last four years.

* One, their projected plan for Friday and Saturday night races ended when not only spectators, but also competitors, could not solve the Friday night traffic in time to get to the track.

"Bill France told us, and we should have listened to him, that Friday night would never work," Williams said. "I remembered years ago when I would go to Lincoln Park for short-track races Friday nights, but that was before millions more people came to Southern California.

"When we opened the track, I lived in Orange County and traffic was so bad that if I hadn't owned the place, I would have turned around and gone home."

* Second, the 63-acre facility is alive with activity nearly seven days a week, year round.

"We weren't counting on so many outside activities before we opened," Williams said. "It has been pleasant surprise."

Among them have been new car introductions, television commercial shoots, Society of Automotive Historians' Literature Faire, school bus rodeos, hot air balloon launches, car shows, swap meets, police and fire department training exercises, concerts and several driving schools, including Keith Code's motorcycle wheelie class.

One of the more unusual events was the setting and re-setting of a "world record" for New Year's Day Tournament of Roses floats.

A 16,500-pound, 35-foot City of Duarte float with a mother duck and her ducklings reached 16.937 mph in October 2000 with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward one of the riders.

A year later, Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Floats in Duarte, brought his City of Hope float for a new record try and hit 35.080 mph for a lap of the oval.

The track record for race cars is 14.9 seconds, or 120.5 mph set by USAC veteran Davey Hamilton in a supermodified car.

"I'm not sure which was the most impressive, Hamilton or the float," Stokes said. "It was an awesome sight cruising at that velocity."

* Third, the addition of an eighth-mile drag strip along the south side of the parking lot, next to a gravel quarry, has enhanced revenue and good will from police in surrounding communities.

"The drag strip was never in our thoughts when we built the track," DeFazio said. "But when Pomona [Fairgrounds] closed its street-legal racing program and it became evident that the only place for kids to race was on the streets, we decided to build a strip."

The strip is open Thursday nights through Dec. 18, with special racing programs on specified Friday, Saturday and Sunday dates.

"The interesting thing about the drags is some of the guys who come out here tell us that they used to race illegally right down Live Oak Avenue in front of the speedway," Williams said. "Now they come to our place and do it legally. Law enforcement likes that a lot better."

The Los Angeles Kart Club also uses the infield for Thursday night practice and 10 Sunday races, once a month through November.

"We love to cater to kids, they are the NASCAR fans of tomorrow," said DeFazio, whose son, Nick, is a karting champion now driving in NASCAR races.

Another important part of the facility is the Performance Race Training Center, where budding drivers can learn the trade and curious would-be drivers can learn what it takes to get around Irwindale Speedway without hitting anything.

And for the historically minded, this is the 100th anniversary of motor racing in Southern California. On Nov. 22, 1903, Barney Oldfield drove his Winton Bullet 65.6 mph to win a one-mile dirt track race at Agricultural Park, now the site of the Memorial Coliseum.

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