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End of an Era : Ascot Park to Join Southland Tracks That Have Passed Into History

November 17, 1990|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ascot Park, the busiest dirt race track in America for 33 years, comes to the finish line Thursday.

The 50th annual Turkey Night Grand Prix for United States Auto Club midget cars figures to be the last of more than 5,000 main events held since the track opened at 182nd and Vermont Avenue in 1957.

Its demise, brought on by inevitable urban and industrial development, will leave a void for Southern California motor racing enthusiasts who have seen the Ontario Motor Speedway, Riverside International Raceway and the Lions, Orange County, Irwindale and San Fernando drag strips disappear in recent years for similar reasons.

Only Saugus Speedway, which runs primarily stock cars from April to October, remains in Greater Los Angeles.

Ascot Park is no Taj Mahal. It is a grubby little place with a half-mile oval laid out on a dump site in South-Central Los Angeles. Engine fumes that sting the eyes, drifting dust and flying dirt clods are part of the show.

It's not a place where spectators show up in suit and tie or high-heeled shoes. Racing jackets, jeans and work shoes are the style.

For race drivers and motorcycle racers, though, Ascot Park ranks behind only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Daytona International Speedway as the best-known racing facility in the country.

"Ascot is probably the most popular weekly short track in North America today," wrote Dave Roberts in Speedway Scene earlier in the year.

The roll of drivers and riders who have competed on its dirt reads like a racing hall of fame.

World motorcycle road racing champions Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey were weaned on its testing corners as teen-agers. Every national cycle champion since 1959 had to pass through Ascot before earning his No. 1 plates.

"You can't say you're a motorcycle racer until you've ridden Ascot," Roberts said. "And you can't say you're a champion motorcycle rider until you've conquered it."

Back before Jimmy Clark drove a rear-engine car to victory at Indianapolis in 1965, the road to the 500 passed through Ascot. If a driver could win at Ascot in a front-engine sprint car or midget, he became a prospect for a Speedway ride.

Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford won at Ascot before they made it to Indy. So did Jim Hurtubise, Roger McCluskey, Gary Bettenhausen and George Snider.

Al Unser Jr. drove a sprint car there when he was 18, so small he had to sit on a couple of telephone books to see over the hood.

Records show that 62 Indy 500 drivers, among them winners Troy Ruttman, Rodger Ward and Johnnie Parsons, who came back after winning to display their talents, raced at Ascot.

That list also includes Rick Mears, who did not drive sprint cars or midgets but who won the track off-road championship in 1972 on a makeshift course before the late Mickey Thompson ever thought of staging a stadium race. Old-timers recall the night Mears was leading when he flipped, landed upside down, climbed out and righted his buggy, got back in and charged from last to first.

That was seven years before Mears won the first of his three Indy 500 championships.

Evel Knievel, who became a legend by jumping over cars on a motorcycle, made his first public jump at Ascot.

Winston Cup champions Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip have driven at Ascot in stock car races. Earnhardt, although he didn't win, helped Marcus Mallett become the first black track champion in NASCAR history a few years later.

"I couldn't do a thing with my car until I loaned it to Earnhardt for a race, and I got a film of the race and studied every move he made," Mallett said. "Then I went out and tried to copy what I'd seen."

Mallett won the Winston Racing Series this season.

Although first Bill McKay and later Harry Schooler leased the 37-acre property on the east side of Vermont Avenue from Max Zeigler, the man who brought big names and big-time events to Ascot was J.C. Agajanian.

Aggie, as he was known, sublet the facility for individual events until 1976, when he assumed full control of the track and formed Agajanian Enterprises with his sons, Cary, J.C. Jr. and Chris, and Ben Foote, longtime publicist and vice president.

The Agajanians' 15-year lease expires Dec. 31, and Zeigler's heirs have already committed the property to Howard Mann and Andrex Development Co. of Torrance, beginning Jan. 1, 1991.

"The value of the property made it prohibitive to continue as a race track," said Cary Agajanian, president of Agajanian Enterprises.

What was first known as the L.A. Speedway lasted only a year, but the owners of Gardena Speedway--at 139th and Western Avenue--sold their property to real estate developers and took over McKay's track in 1958, renaming it Ascot in hopes of capitalizing on memories of the historic old Legion Ascot track that had burned down in Alhambra in 1934.

For years, it was common to see smoke curling up from cracks in the ground along the back straightaway of the former dump.

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