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Revving Up for Some Fast Cash : Can a New Track Erase Southland Racing's Checkered Financial Past, or Will It Be the Pits Again?

March 05, 1997|GRAHAM WITHERALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The eyes of hard-core auto racing fans and Wall Street will be on the Inland Empire this summer when big-time track racing makes its Southern California comeback after almost a decade in the pits.

A company led by one of the sport's most famous names, Roger Penske, is testing the adage that nothing goes out of style for good by pouring $100 million into a 530-acre racing facility on the edge of Fontana.

Work crews last week bolted in 71,000 grandstand seats overlooking the California Speedway's 2-mile oval track, which is expected to solidify the sport on the West Coast and provide a major economic and psychological boost to San Bernardino County.

More than $120 million of racing-related revenue will reach the coffers of area hotels, restaurants and other businesses each year, according to a study of the site's impact.

But there is no guarantee that the sport--so popular in places such as Talladega, Ala., and Bristol, Tenn.--will be a hit here.

Just a few miles west along the San Bernardino Freeway is the grave of the Ontario Motor Speedway. That track, considered the crown jewel of motor racing when it opened in 1970, met the wrecking ball in 1980 after skidding through a decade of red ink.

A short drive southeast is the Moreno Valley Mall, which marks the resting place of the former Riverside International Raceway. Developers decided in 1988 that shopping made a lot more financial sense than racing at that location.

Mindful of the fate of the California Speedway's predecessors, organizers of the new track insist that the sport's evolution over the last decade makes a local racing renaissance possible. Wall Street and television are now counted as key allies and have helped broaden the sport's appeal beyond its traditional following.

"The way this sport is going, we think the time is right for this track," said Greg Penske, president of the California speedway and son of Roger Penske, the most successful owner of race cars in the sport's history.

"We feel very confident about this," said Penske as crews recently rolled the final layer of asphalt onto the track.

The facility will host the two most popular types of track racing: souped-up sedans in stock car competitions and the low-slung, rear-engine vehicles used in Indy-style contests. Races for other vehicles, such as trucks, are also planned.

The track replaces a scar of San Bernardino's gritty industrial past: the former Kaiser Steel mill. The land's previous owner, Kaiser Ventures, exchanged the 530 acres for cash and stock in a package worth about $40 million.

Local tourism officials say the racing stadium heralds the arrival of a dynamic new era for their county to the east of Los Angeles.

"The speedway shows that this area is rocking and rolling again," said Dan Stark, executive director of the San Bernardino Visitors and Convention Bureau.

"It also helps psychologically," he said. "You might have to go to Orange County or L.A. for major league baseball, hockey or basketball, but you've got to come out here for auto racing."

A strong early fan response has encouraged track organizers and tourism officials alike.

Local hotels that struggle to fill half their rooms most weekends are fully booked for the site's first races in June and September.

Corporations and individuals quickly snapped up 71 luxury infield suites priced at $20,000 per event for the next three years. More than 26,000 season tickets, ranging in price from $100 to $190 for two races, have already been sold.

Additionally, 4,200 people shelled out $1,200 for "permanent seat licenses" that give them the right to buy tickets for the same seat for events at the track over the next 20 years.

"We're right on schedule with our ticket sales," Greg Penske said. "I think for sure we'll be sold out" for the June and September races.

Despite the solid early ticket sales and the optimism of organizers and local boosters, the question lingers: If there wasn't enough interest to sustain Southern California racing in the 1980s, why will it succeed in the 1990s?

The answer, organizers say, is timing and growth.

"I think you can say that the Ontario speedway was before its time," said Les Richter, a former Los Angeles Ram football player who served as director of the Riverside raceway for more than 20 years.

Richter, now executive vice president of the California Speedway, cites attendance and television exposure as evidence of the sport's increased popularity.

More than 5.5 million spectators turned out nationwide to see 31 Winston Cup stock car races last year. In 1980, just 1.5 million watched 32 events.

Buoyed by strong ratings, five networks will take turns showing all 32 1997 events live. In 1979, just one Winston Cup race, the Daytona 500, was shown live.

"People see these events on TV, then want to see them in person," Richter said.

With no track competition closer than Las Vegas or Sonoma County, Penske has the Southern California market to itself, apart from the Long Beach Grand Prix each April.

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