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Young Turks of the Track : Tired Old Dirt Raceway Enjoys a Resurgence as It Faces Its Demise

June 08, 1989|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

The roar from stock cars careening around the quarter mile at Ascot Raceway did little for Mike Kirby's headache.

Kirby, a Long Beach resident, has been one of the hottest newcomers on the California Racing Assn. sprint-car circuit the past year and a half. He has also shown a propensity for racing pro stocks, bomber ovals and figure-8s in a career that is nearly a decade old. But on a recent Sunday evening, as he sat on a bale of straw in the windy infield at the Gardena track, he was not sure he wanted to race anything again except figure-8s.

"I'm not going to race today. No way," he said about that night's stock car card. He was still reeling from the previous night, when problems with his sprint car forced him out of the main event.

Still, Kirby, who grew up in nearby Carson, wanted it known that he is capable of driving just about anything, and he changed his tune about driving that night several times.

"If I want to drive (stocks) I will," he asserted. "I can race those things if I have to."

Young Home Boys

Kirby, 26, is a versatile driver, but he is just one of Ascot's promising young home boys. The group, which includes P. J. Jones of Rolling Hills Estates (full midgets), Frank Pedregon of Gardena and Sean Birmingham of Torrance (three-quarter midgets), and Chris Laney of Gardena (stocks, bomber ovals and figure-8s), is part of the reason the tired, old Gardena track is experiencing a revitalization less than 18 months from its final event. The land it sits on, roughly a triangular lot where the Harbor, San Diego and Artesia freeways meet, is slated for development once the lease with the raceway's owner, Agajanian Enterprises, expires in 1990.

Ironically, the number of competitors at the track has increased over the past two years after about a decade of decline, according to Executive Vice President Ben Foote. About 117 cars of various types run there on any given Sunday.

"In the sprints alone, it was not uncommon 10 years ago to have at least 50 cars running," Foote said. "In the mid-'80s we had 30 to 32 cars. Now on most nights we have 40 to 45, about the most of any association in the country."

Foote attributes the rise in new, young drivers to a variety of factors. In the midget class, he said, the allure of racing under the national banner of the United States Auto Club is important to younger drivers. USAC became involved with Ascot a few years ago.

"For the young guys, I think there is enthusiasm for running with a national organization," he said.

Racing for Fun of It

Foote also said that the type of events offered at Ascot, like Enduro racing, attract a lot of drivers who just want to race for fun and then later take up the sport seriously. Laney began his career in Enduro, which features street cars modified only with a roll bar for the driver's protection.

"I think racing for fun appeals to the younger guys," Foote said.

Ascot's demise is not news around the track, but it certainly does not set well with the youth invasion. "We just want to race," Pedregon said.

As for Kirby, he has had good reason not to run pro stocks recently. A fiery crash May 20 took the life of fellow sprint-car racer Jeff Bagley, the 1988 Rookie of the Year. In addition, Kirby's misfortune in the main event later that same night caused speculation that his sprint sponsor was considering canceling the remainder of the season if problems with the car were not corrected quickly.

Kirby has had his best days at sprint tracks other than Ascot and track officials say he would have little trouble hooking up with another racing team. Kirby ran second at Hanford, in the San Joaquin Valley, and set a track speed record in Tucson over the Memorial Day weekend.

A slow starter, Kirby is the oldest of the younger drivers. He did not qualify for a sprint main until his ninth time out last season. But since then he has recorded some impressive finishes, including third in a major national event two weeks ago in Knoxville, Tenn. He won Ascot's novice figure-8 title in 1981 and the overall figure-8 crown in 1987. He was Most Improved Driver last year in quarter-mile sprint-car racing.

Jones, 20, is among the youngest successful drivers at the track. He began his career in go-carts and won more than a third of all his races. He began racing midget cars late in 1986 but was still voted USAC Rookie of the Year. In 1987 he finished fifth in overall points in USAC midgets. He is the eldest son of 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones.

Pedregon, 25, spent most of his youth in the pits for his father, Frank, a top-fuel drag racer at famed Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington. In 1980 he raced diesel trucks, then switched to dirt carts in 1983. A year later he won the Grand National title on pavement. He set a record of eight consecutive main event victories in 1986, then moved up to three-quarter midgets. He has been seen on ESPN TV's recently concluded Thunder Series from Ascot, and on May 4 finished third in the full midget main.

Trained as a Mechanic

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