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Speedway Accelerating : Saugus Racetrack Keeps Rolling While Competition Has Run Off the Road

September 15, 1993|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saugus Speedway isn't exactly the jewel of auto racing.

A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti never raced here. The drivers in Saturday night stock-car races are mostly hobbyists who have long given up any dreams of becoming the next Richard Petty.

The winners get a purse that barely covers their cost of replacing a set of tires. And the track's mostly local fans sit on rickety benches that are said to have more historic value than comfort.

Yet this racetrack in the Santa Clarita Valley has survived--and largely prospered--for more than 50 years. It is Los Angeles County's only remaining speedway, having outlasted many bigger and well-known facilities in the Southland, including Ascot Park in Gardena and Riverside International Raceway.

And its business has grown in recent years, thanks to greater television exposure of motor racing, a savvy race promoter who has filled the grandstands with more women and children by adding offbeat shows--like demolition derbies--while cutting the winner's purses, and relying on a booming population in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Racing at Saugus Speedway is from late March to September, on Saturdays nights, over a one-third-mile asphalt oval track. This year, Saugus Speedway's audience is averaging 4,200 fans, up from about 2,800 five years ago.

"Saugus is one of the top 10 tracks of its kind in the country, in attendance and probably in profit," said Brian France, vice president of marketing for the National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing. NASCAR is the major stock car sanctioning organization, and Saugus Speedway joined it in 1986 to get the benefits of its Winston West tour and other promotions.

Stock cars that race at Saugus look like regular passenger cars, with Ford Thunderbirds and Chevy Camaros particularly popular. But inside the car are supercharged, 8-cylinder, 500-horsepower engines that can go 150 m.p.h. and can be deafening to the race fan.

But Saugus Speedway's longevity probably has a lot to do with the land that it is on. Ascot, Riverside and a host of other tracks in Southern California were closed by landowners who saw more profitable uses for the land. By contrast, the Saugus Speedway's owner, the Bonelli family, have declined offers to sell the site for commercial development, real estate executives said.

The Saugus site was bought by William Bonelli in the late 1930s when the facility was a rodeo arena. According to property tax records, the 40-acre site has an assessed value this year of about $550,000. Commercial developers, however, say the land could probably be sold today for $20 million.

William Bonelli's son, Benjamin, is president of Rodeo Land Co., which technically owns the Saugus Speedway property. Benjamin Bonelli, who lives in the Bay Area, declined to be interviewed, as did other members of the Bonelli family, including his brother Robert, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Bonelli family, which also owns Santa Clarita Water Co., leaves the track's operations to Ray Wilkings, the speedway's promoter and general manager.

Wilkings, 40, declined to provide any financial figures for the racetrack. But looking over the track's average attendance, plus its swap meets, the Saugus Speedway probably grosses more than $3.5 million a year.

Based on average attendance figures--with 2,500 adults paying $8 per ticket, plus 1,000 children, ages 6-11, at $3 each--plus the $15 to $20 mechanics and car crews are charged to get in the pits, plus programs and the markups for gas and tires sold to racers, the track figures to gross more than $1 million this year.

And since 1963, the track's grounds have been converted on Sundays into a year-round swap meet. Based on a $1 fee for attendance--which averages between 15,000 and 18,000--and the rent of more than 900 spaces to vendors at $20 to $55 each, the swap meet would gross about $2.5 million.

That doesn't include revenues from 20 concession stands, which are operated separately by Wilkings' company, Olympic Concessions.

Although the swap meet may generate more money than racing does, observers say the Bonelli family is a big reason auto racing has survived at Saugus.

"They appreciate and enjoy motor racing," said Cary Agajanian, a Universal City lawyer whose racing family operated the Ascot Park in Gardena until its lease expired in 1990 and the owner signed a deal with a commercial real estate developer.

Added Jim Naylor, operator of the Ventura Raceway, a 1/4-mile dirt track on the Ventura County Fairgrounds, "If it wasn't in the canyon there and wasn't owned by the Bonelli family, it probably would be gone too."

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