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June 19, 1997|SHAV GLICK

A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here.

What: California 500 inaugural program

Price: $10 at California Speedway, $15 by mail

"Firsts" are always collectible, and the first program for the new California Speedway in Fontana is definitely collectible for race buffs. In addition to 212 pages of information--and advertising--between its covers, the price includes a fold-out poster of the program's front cover, an artist's rendition by George Bartell of opening day.

The program tells who's who at the track, how to get there, how to find your way around when you do get there, the difference between green, red and checkered flags, a schedule of practice, qualifying and races, and a history of racing in Southern California with old photographs of board track races, midgets at Ascot Park and competition at California Speedway's predecessors, Riverside and Ontario.

For anyone who saw the dilapidated grounds of the Kaiser steel mill before Kaiser Ventures and Penske Motorsports transformed the place into a modern motor racing track, a photo essay by Andrew Crask describing the changes over the last two years is a collector's item itself.

And, of course, there are profiles of the drivers, those daring young--and not so young--men who risk their lives at 200 mph on the banked two-mile oval. Winston Cup champions Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip are pictured with full-page photos. All of the others receive their due too.

What sets this program apart from other racing programs are a section on the teams by Southern journalist Ben Blake, profiling the owners and crew chiefs who do the work before the drivers climb through their windows, and an article on track owner Roger Penske and his racing empire by Racer magazine editor John Zimmerman.

If you want one of the programs, and you're not going to the track, they're available by mail at California Speedway, 9300 Cherry Ave., Fontana, Calif. 92335.

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