It was the chariot race from Ben Hur 20 times a night! Speedway motorcycle racing featured riders with no friends, no fans, no fear and no sense--riding spindly motorcycles that accelerated from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in less than three seconds with no brakes. No kidding! Four or six crazy riders would try to pass one another around corners where only three would fit.
Not surprisingly, the injury rate equaled that of the extra crew members who beam down to that uncharted planet with Kirk and Spock. It was a heavy-metal concert with no music. "Speedway" was part Rollerball, part Roller Derby, part ice hockey and a kamikaze attack on wheels.
Speedway at the Ventura Raceway--the "Commotion by the Ocean"--was the antidote for Tuesday night television for local racing fans for 18 years. It was a party interrupted by some racing. It's a party somewhere else now. Speedway croaked at the Ventura Raceway in 1988.
And, according to owner and promoter Jim Naylor, without speedway, the Ventura Raceway has never been healthier.
"When I would see 'Flyin' ' Mike Faria and 'Sudden Sam' Ermolenko go wheel-to-wheel for four laps, it used to get me all pumped up," Naylor said. "What can I say? I love it. But it just got harder and harder over the years to get riders to come up here and we finally had to pull the plug on speedway."
But there are plenty of other types of vehicles that are just as loud, just as fast, and maybe just as exciting. The Ventura Raceway now routinely stages races involving street stocks, mini-stocks, TQ midgets, USAC full midgets and motocross. And since speedway went south for the duration, the Ventura Raceway is actually making money after 10 years in the red, Naylor said.
"Motorsports have been on a continuous upswing for the last three years, particularly the stock cars and the USAC Midgets," said Art Amelio, assistant manager for the Ventura County Fair. "We see continued growth for motor sports at this location."
The raceway, located at the County Fairgrounds, opened in 1971 to stage speedway motorcycle races. The promoter, a one-armed ex-racer named Johnny Mantz, was killed in 1972 in a traffic accident in Oak View. The "godfather of speedway," Orange County promoter Harry Oxley, took over the operation for the next five years, and the Ventura Raceway prospered, often drawing over 3,000 racing fans.
Riders, who sounded as if they just rolled off the guest list at the Big House--Danny (Berzerko) Becker, Mike (The Madman) Muntean, (Dangerous) Dubb Ferrell and Fillmore's own Bobby (Insane) McLain--dazzled the fans with meticulous motorcycle moves. And the likes of National Champion Mike Bast, Mike Curoso and Dennis Sigalos were just as good (even better), despite the fact that they couldn't afford a decent nickname. The last American world champion, Bruce Penhall, was a Tuesday night regular.
A riders strike crippled the speedway in 1978 and Oxley bailed out of Ventura, leaving a new promoter, Mike Doyle. By 1979, he was bankrupt, and Port Hueneme native Naylor bought the Ventura Raceway in order to promote TQ midget races, inheriting the speedway in the bargain. It lasted another 10 years as Naylor enlarged the track more times than Warren Beatty changed girlfriends.
The raceway had its ups and downs. Speedway Magazine called it Track of the Year in 1985. But in the 1984 preseason opener--the Spring Classic--the riders refused to ride despite a full house, saying that the condition of the track was too dangerous.
Naylor wouldn't have won any popularity contests that day. Then National Champion Mike Bast led the riders strike and was quoted as saying to Naylor, "What if I break my neck? Are you going to tell me you're sorry?"
The other top riders agreed with Bast and the race was off. Later, the Speedway Control Board told Naylor he wouldn't open the season unless he fixed the track. He did.
Speedway began to lose its attraction to racing fans, gradually becoming about as popular as the edible screwdriver. Three-quarters of the sellout crowds came disguised as empty seats. Top riders began to stay away because Ventura was too far, too fast and too cold.
"The riders strike in 1978 was actually the beginning of the end," said Naylor. "The rider walkout at the 1983 Spring Classic didn't help, either, and finally the road work on the Conejo Grade in '87 and '88 was about the last straw. It was just too hard to get here from L.A. Also, we couldn't get any local press coverage."
And that was the end of speedway.
"But motocross lives," Naylor said.
"We started doing motocross the next weekend after the last speedway race in April, 1988. Last weekend, for example, we had 131 riders sign up to race. We've had over 700 different motocross riders here."
Naylor has been involved in racing all his life. Racing is his life. On Fridays, he can be found building the race track, and he's also the track announcer.
When he's not at the track, Naylor has a business, Auto Graphics, a custom painting/lettering shop in Oxnard. He paints lots of race cars.
"I originally got into racing because I had no choice. It was my dad's No. 1 hobby. It's all he cared about."
Now it is all Naylor cares about.
"I love the cars. I love the smells, the noise, the competition. I love good racing."
UP CLOSEJIM NAYLOR
Occupation: Promoter, Ventura Raceway
Best thing about racing: I love the smells, the noise. I love competition.
Worst thing: Racing is a business and you have to treat it like a business. A lot of people don't understand that.
WHERE AND WHEN
The Ventura Raceway season ends this Saturday with motocross class-10 buggy races at 7 p.m. The raceway, located at the Ventura County Fairgrounds at Harbor and Figueroa in Ventura, is open from mid-March through mid-November. For more information call (805) 656-1122