A loud screeching sound echoed across the oval racetrack as a driver burned rubber, revving the engine of a silver Mercedes-Benz and spinning the vehicle a full 360 degrees while kicking up a cloud of dust and smoke.
This wasn’t a stock car race, but a shoot for an upcoming Mercedes commercial that was being filmed at Irwindale Speedway, where about two dozen crew members huddled Monday morning under blue pop-up tents next to camera stands and film equipment to escape the suffocating 104-degree heat.
“We shoot here all the time,” said Matt Moses, a driver with North Hollywood film services company Pursuit Systems who was sitting in a black Porsche Cayenne mounted with a camera crane. “Whether it’s doing a commercial for Mercedes, Audi — you name it, we’re here.”
Best known for its NASCAR stock car races, drag strip events and occasional demolition derbies, the Irwindale Speedway is making a name for itself in another entertainment arena: film production.
Formerly the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, the raceway has long been a popular if unheralded film location, used in such movies as “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” TV dramas such as “90210" and reality TV programs including “Fear Factor” and Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls,” which last month had several women with paralysis driving race cars at the track.
The biggest source of business, however, comes from TV commercials for Coca-Cola, Domino’s Pizza and other brands, especially car companies that want to take advantage of its half-mile and third of a mile racetracks, in addition to a drag strip.
Irwindale Speedway got national exposure during the 2012 Super Bowl with Kia’s “Mister Sandman” commercial spot for the Optima. The commercial featured supermodel Adriana Lima, fighter Chuck Liddell, at least 50 girls dressed in bikinis and waiving race flags, and rock band Motley Crue, which performed from a stage inside the speedway.
Known for being film friendly and charging reasonable rates — about $10,000 a day — the speedway also is favored by film scouts because of its proximity to Los Angeles. It’s closer than the larger Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and is within the so-called 30-mile zone. Productions beyond the zone are more expensive because union rules require payments for travel time and mileage expenses.
The Mercedes commercial is the latest among several this year at Irwindale. Luxury carmaker Lexus has a photo shoot scheduled at the venue next week.
A new reality TV show for NBC Sports Network called “Octane Academy,” about professional and amateur race car drivers trying to make it to the big time, filmed several races at the speedway last week.
“They’re easy to work with and they made the production easy for us,” said Kemp Curley, executive producer of the show.
Italian American race car legend Mario Andretti once visited Irwindale Speedway — not to compete in a race, but to shoot a commercial for Toyota’s second-generation MR2. More recently, Honda filmed a nighttime scene at the raceway for a promotional series highlighting the company’s racing heritage and efforts to promote fuel-efficient cars.
“We were looking for a track that we could use in Southern California for a nighttime shoot,” said a spokesman for America Honda in Torrance. “It had what we needed, and they were willing to work with us.”
The film activity has provided an important source of income to Irwindale Speedway, which has faced some financial struggles in recent years. Opened in 1999, Irwindale Speedway operated for 13 seasons, but the company that managed the track filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February 2012, owing creditors $331,733. The track also closed its NASCAR racing season last year.
Former management offered no explanation for the action, but the raceway was reportedly hurt by poor attendance and a loss of sponsorship revenue. Toyota decided not to continue as the title sponsor at the end of the 2011 season.
A new management company took over the property and in April reopened the raceway to NASCAR events.
The filming is “a very important adjunct to our business,” said Doug Stokes, the facility’s spokesman. “It’s not just the income it provides us, but the word of mouth it gives us.”