As Raiders crash and burn, Irwindale has found a winner

Looking for trouble on a Saturday night, we end up at that speedway in Irwindale, set amid power lines and gravel pits, the sunset as peachy as a beach drink. Sure enough, this is God's country (assuming God's a pipe fitter and keeps his wallet hooked to a chain.)

I know what you're thinking: "You went where?"

But it is August and there is only so much baseball a boy can take, even if he loves baseball. The Dodgers seem to be playing every minute of every day. To make matters worse, they are working a lot of overtime. Is the Dodgers' clubhouse a union shop? Yes, obviously. Do they get paid triple overtime? Yes, obviously. Please, let's just save those extra-inning games for the playoffs.

So, we are on the prowl for something a little different, and we have found it at this 10-year-old speedway, the one you occasionally pass and wonder, "Just how crazy is Al Davis?" for this is the area where he once threatened to plop an NFL gemstone.

Yet, for stock car racing -- and just about any sort of motorized competition you can imagine -- this is a most excellent location and a heck of a way to spend a Saturday evening (we went directly from church).

I love the crowd. Good, solid Americans, about 5,000 of them. There are lots of Ozzy Osborne T-shirts and the sorts of tightly wrapped young women who make inappropriate second wives -- too tall for their dates, too old for their clothing. Assuming I am looking for an inappropriate second wife -- which I most decidedly am not -- this is where I might begin.

There are lots of families as well, terrific families, where the parents insist that the children behave and not annoy the people sitting around them -- a fine and refreshing thing. Mom and Dad are no doubt attracted by the admission: $15 for adults, free to kids 12 and under. Programs are free (try that at a Dodgers game, assuming you can even find a program) and on the night we're there, hot dogs and sodas are a buck. I bought three dogs, large fries and two 12-ounce Cokes for under $10, the best meal deal since 1975.

So, even when the $1 hot dog promotion isn't in effect, a dad could bring the kids, include a couple of their little friends, go crazy at the snack bar -- funnel cakes!!! -- and probably get out for under 50 bucks.

"You get what you pay for, pal," you are saying. Well, occasionally, you get more than what you pay for, and this is that rare L.A. nugget.

Because the races themselves turn out to be a blast. Snippy suburbanite that I am, I figured they would be smelly and loud -- which they are. They are also tightly fought and -- in the end -- all sorts of endearing.

"I'd like to thank my neighbor Kenny," says one driver over the PA system while thanking his crew.

"I gotta thank my dad," says another winner.

They race everything here. At one point, motorcycles compete while holding wheelies around the entire half-mile oval. They also race these little '30s-era replica coupes that almost look like clown cars. Next week, they'll have a "trailer race" in which the drivers drag along old boats and campers.

They also race the real stuff -- late-model stock cars that rip around the track like 3,100-pound cats. This is NASCAR's D-league, for many young drivers a first step toward the big time. Never a NASCAR guy really, but I'm starting to get the itch.

Finally, and elegantly, our night at Toyota Speedway ends with the demolition derby, an occasional promotion (check the schedule) in which the ugliest and most beat-up cars you will ever find fight for one final moment of glory.

Talk about cash for clunkers.

Here, you have eight cars in various stages of undress -- no hoods, missing fenders -- trying to smack the living spit out of the other cars. It is the most glorious metaphor for urban life that you will ever likely see.

"The one to watch is the 56 car," I tell my son. "It is a chariot of the gods."

Within 10 seconds, the 56 car loses its tire, and in one of modern sports great miracles, just keeps going. In a shower of sparks, running on raw metal, it battles the other drivers, who seem to smell its distress. For sheer courage, I compare it to the Marciano-Walcott fight in '52.

The 56 car is eventually creamed by a station wagon that resembles the one Belushi and his buddies welded together for the "Animal House" parade.

A woman is the winning driver, no surprise there. The women I know are all pretty aggressive and drive better in reverse than forward, which is an important skill in demolition derbies, backing into stuff.

Were I a betting man, which I most decidedly am not, that's where I'd always place the mortgage.


Erskine also writes the "Man of the House" column in Saturday's Home section.

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