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California 500 Dreaming : It Was Fun While It Lasted at Ontario Motor Speedway (1970-1980)

November 27, 1995|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ONTARIO — From Les Richter's California Speedway headquarters in the Empire Towers, he can look out his eighth-story window and see remnants of the late Ontario Motor Speedway--a few yards of dirt berm along what was the old front straightaway.

Richter is the project manager for Roger Penske, who is planning to build a $70-million motor racing facility less than three miles from the Ontario track.

The irony is not lost on Walt Czarnecki, president of Penske Speedway Inc., and a regular visitor to Richter's office.

"The first time I visited Les and realized where I was, right above the old fourth turn at Ontario, I couldn't believe it," Czarnecki said. "Here we are, building a new track within walking distance of what was once the finest track in the world. It's a constant reminder of what racing lost--and what we need to regain."

Ontario Motor Speedway, which opened in 1970, closed in 1980. The $35-million facility was demolished to make way for commercial and residential development.

The 2.5-mile track was built as a replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, complete to its rectangular oval configuration and its low banking in the turns. On opening day, for the inaugural California 500 Indy car race--after one of the most expensive advertising campaigns in sports history--a crowd announced at 170,423 saw Jim McElreath beat Art Pollard on the last lap. Dick Simon was third.

President Nixon, who flew over the track that day while en route from his home in Whittier to Washington, saw the huge crowd and was moved to invite a party of motor racing personalities to the White House.

From opening day, though, things went pretty much downhill. Although there were ownership changes, track closures and cost cutting that eventually closed it permanently, there were some outstanding races at Ontario.

The California 500 became pretty much an Unser production. Bobby won it four times, in 1974, 1976, 1979 and 1980, and brother Al won it in 1977 and 1978.

Jerry Grant became the first Indy car driver to qualify at more than 200 mph for the 1972 race, and then failed to start in the race when his engine expired on the pace lap.

A forgettable 3.2-mile infield road course, with 22 turns and no elevation changes, was quickly abandoned after a Questor Grand Prix for formula cars, won by Mario Andretti in a Ferrari, and several world championship motorcycle races.

The front straightaway was used as a drag strip and was the site of numerous National Hot Rod Assn. World Finals.

Nine Winston Cup stock car races were held there, A.J. Foyt winning the first two and Benny Parsons the last two. The track closed after Parsons' last victory, Nov. 15, 1980.

It had been purchased by the Chevron Land and Development Co., a subsidiary of Chevron Oil, and demolition began almost immediately.

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