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A Racing Way of Life Ends Tonight as Checkered Flag Falls on Ascot

November 22, 1990|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Late tonight, from behind the retaining wall on the back straightaway, Edward Green will rise from the seat of his old Ford pickup and close the mud-splattered pit gate at Ascot Raceway for the final time.

Darlene Maher, who celebrated her 21st birthday in the pits five years ago, will shut down the grill of the infield snack bar about the time the last sprint car is towed out that gate. And pit steward Evelyn Pratt, a spunky 72 years old, will pack up her famous bullhorn and walk away.

Thirty-four years of racing--from motorcycles to demolition derbies--roars to an end tonight with the 100-lap Turkey Night Grand Prix for sprint cars.

The aging racing facility is scheduled to be razed in January to make way for a business center. But the legacy of the famous track, popularized locally in radio commercials as the place "where the Harbor, San Diego and 91 freeways collide," will never be forgotten by the people who shared its intimate appeal.

Ascot was mud stains and roaring engines, the smells of motor oil and hot dogs. In the pits, cowboy boots sometimes outnumbered tennis shoes.

Regulars learned quickly that it was never wise to wear a good pair of shoes. That is because the famed dirt, according to General Manager Rico Hawkes, "could suck the shoes right off your feet."

Ascot had some of the best stadium food in the Los Angeles area--better than Dodger Dogs, fans often claimed, although not as famous. Beer, some of international quality, could be purchased in cans at reasonable prices, and drivers usually found the pit showers and lockers clean and safe.

"I've been all over the world," said sprint car driver Ron Schuman, a native of Arizona who nevertheless referred to Ascot Raceway as his home track. "You won't find a better place than Ascot."

Romances and racing flourished. Couples met, married and raised children there. Kids went on to racing careers or worked on pit crews. Fathers turned the driving over to their sons and, in rare cases, daughters.

Loyalty reigned supreme with people like Green, who called Ascot his second home. Public relations director Ben Foote, 70, said that attitude was part of "the mystique of Ascot."

"You'll see a lot of these guys down in the pits who are more bald and gray than I am," Foote said. "That's how long they've been here."

Fans, owners and employees will share a few tears when the last burst of a spectacular fireworks show fades into the sky tonight, signaling the end of an era.

Said Hawkes, a 15-year employee: "Racing people that come here are as religious about (this place) as they are about going to church on Sunday."

Run by three sons of its founder, the late J. C. Agajanian, Ascot was built on 36 acres at Vermont Avenue and 183rd Street in Harbor Gateway. The site was originally a dump, but in 1957 motorcycle racing started there. A year later, Agajanian began to promote motorcycle races and eventually took over the lease.

The current 15-year lease expires Dec. 31. The new leaseholders, Howard Mann and the Andrex Development Co. of Torrance, say the land is too valuable for a race track.

Rumors that the track will get a last-minute reprieve are not true, said Cary Agajanian, a lawyer and J. C.'s oldest son. He will watch the final night of action from a seat in the press box, turn out the lights and "run out the back door."

About a possible reprieve, Agajanian said: "I spoke to the developer the other day. He wanted to know how soon we could be out after the last race."

Green, a native of San Pedro now living in Paramount, has worked at the track since 1957.

"I'm going to lose a piece of myself, that's for sure," he said. "I was born up to racing. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Former California Racing Assn. executive Leonard Faas, whose son will drive in the final race, said this is the end.

"There will be a lot of lost souls," he said. "This is a way of life for a whole lot of people."

Maher, 26, a concession supervisor who has worked at the track for more than five years, said: "This place, it's like family. I'm not sure what I'll do--maybe get back to office work."

T-shirt vendor Jim Bartosh said: "The racing community is very close-knit. Very honest, nice people. I've made a lot of good friends over the years."

Pratt, who wore orange earrings in the shape of racing cones and a CRA cap over graying hair, has been a fixture in the pits for 15 seasons. She and her bullhorn have been featured in many newspaper and magazine articles. Her husband, Bill, raced sprint car No. 22 at Ascot.

"I'm going to go with my suitcase wherever they race, but there will never be another Ascot," she said. "It has a tradition that everyone loves."

Pit announcer Chris Holt, who ends eight seasons at Ascot, first attended races at the track as a fan.

"This (place) is an addiction," he said.

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