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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : BYWAY BAEDEKER : One of racing's greats guides you along five of his favorite roads

March 13, 1988|PHIL HILL | Hill is a former driver for Ferrari in Europe who in 1961 became the first American to win a world Grand Prix driving championship. He is now a partner in Hill & Vaughn, a Santa Monica classic-car-restoration firm.

It is no accident that so many noted race drivers come from Southern California. For one thing, the area has consistently excellent weather, making racing easier to schedule here than it is where there's more threat of rain. But the greatest contributing factors have been the Southland's good highways themselves--always state-of-the-art or nearly so--that enrich the driving experience.

Things change, of course, and these days the speed limits make it more enjoyable for me to cruise our highways in my 1915 Packard than in a Ferrari, because I can drive the older car closer to its limits without breaking too many rules.

I have lived in Santa Monica for the past 60 years when I haven't been off racing, and I can remember back in the pre-freeway days when you could have a great deal of pure fun driving over the Sepulveda Pass to the San Fernando Valley. Then on across the "Mojave Bridge," when that was the route we took to get to the midget races in Saugus. And how could I forget doing 120 m.p.h. in a Ferrari through the intersection of Reseda and Devonshire boulevards while driving in the movie "The Racers"?

These days, you have to go a bit farther to have your fun, and with Southern California traffic as heavy as it is, our highways are not the places on which to learn high-performance driving. As the bumper sticker advises: "If You Want to Race, Go to Daytona." Or you could consider our local race tracks in Riverside or Willow Springs, but, please, not on the public roads.

Pleasures of the Road asked me to choose five of the ultimate driving roads in Southern California, and I admit it was a tough assignment. I've pored over maps and searched my memory to pick the top five, which I offer in no particular order:

You need to be in San Diego County for the first one, which is a combination of California 76, 78 and 79. You begin on California 76, reaching it where it intersects with either Interstate 5 or 15, though the latter is preferable. East of 15, you wind your way through the Pala Indian Reservation towards Palomar Mountain State Park, which is worth a side trip, especially twisting Route S6 up to the observatory.

Farther out 76 you come to Lake Henshaw. You can continue to the junction of California 76 and 79 and turn right to Santa Ysabel. If you like tight, winding roads, however, I'd suggest you turn right before the junction and use Mesa Grande Road to get to 79. The panoramic views at both ends of the road are very impressive. This road ends at 79, where you turn right toward Santa Ysabel. Go left, up the hill to Julian on 78 /79.

Transplants from the Rocky Mountain states might recognize the landscape around Julian, but they'd better look quickly, because you should branch off on 78 as you leave town, and the pavement winds downhill and into the desert. This is a wide, smooth road that's particularly nice during spring when the desert is in bloom. After twisting down from Julian, the road straightens out and--with the exception of one more short, winding section--it runs straight and true out to the Salton Sea. There, a left turn on 86 will take you back north to Indio and Interstate 10 toward Los Angeles.

My second choice is something of a sentimental favorite, because it's little used these days. No complaints, mind you, because if the old Ridge Route had to handle even a fraction of the traffic that uses the portion of Interstate 5 that it parallels between Castaic and California 138, no one would ever get from Los Angeles to Bakersfield.

When built just after World War I, the Ridge Route was considered something of an engineering masterpiece. You can still see the original winding road and how it was straightened and improved in subsequent years by merely cutting right through the corners.

The easiest way to the Ridge Route is to take Interstate 5's Exit 5 at the Templin Highway and go east a mile to where the route crosses the highway. There you can turn right to Castaic or left toward Sandberg. Before long, you'll realize how the road got its name, as it tiptoes along the top of the hills. At some points, you can see the three "Ridge Routes" that lead to the Tejon Pass: the original one that you're on, the more recent four-lane road that now goes to Pyramid Lake, and modern Interstate 5.

My third choice also is a favorite of many Southern Californians. All you have to do is drive Angeles Crest Highway on any Sunday and its popularity becomes immediately evident. There's good reason, of course, because the drive is spectacular. If you want to really impress friends visiting from the East, start them out at Santa Monica beach on a warm January day, take the freeways--10 east to 110 north to 5 north to 2 north--to Pasadena, then up Angeles Crest and along the mountain ridges to the ski resorts around Wrightwood. It only takes a few hours, but it proves a great deal about what makes our area such a spectacular one in which to live.

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