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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Penske's Palace Is Reality After Years of Pipe Dreams

June 27, 1997|SHAV GLICK

The successful opening of Roger Penske's California Speedway last week did more than bring a world-class racing venue to Southern California. It ended decades of anxiety over the future of racing in the area.

Even when Ontario Motor Speedway attracted an opening-day crowd reported as 180,000, and when Riverside International Raceway was creating massive traffic jams with well-attended races, there was always an underlying feeling that neither would last. And neither did.

Ontario was doomed from the start when pre-construction projections of attendance proved wildly exaggerated. Riverside, though capably managed by Les Richter and Roy Hord, never escaped ownership problems. A succession of owners never spent the money to make it better.

The story at Riverside was that once grass was planted, to combat swirling dust storms, the track was headed for big things. Only one token patch of grass was planted.

At Fontana, Penske opened his track with grass, flowers and palm trees everywhere there weren't asphalt or grandstands. And after last Sunday's race, the anxiety was replaced by the feeling that racing is here to stay.

The track also puts to rest the endless rumors of new facilities that seemed to crop up daily once it was announced Ontario was closing in 1980. They became so commonplace that in many circles stories persisted that even Penske's dream would never be fulfilled.

Frank Arciero was building one in Palm Springs, then in Moreno Valley. The late Mickey Thompson had a lease on a secret parcel in the City of Industry. Cary Agajanian was building one in Lancaster, then Fontana (the same site as Penske's) and then Victorville.

Dan Greenwood, the last president of the Riverside track, worked for years searching for a replacement site. Every time he showed up, the rumor mongers had a new track rising--in Perris, Alberhill, Corona and Prado Dam. San Bernardino County officials proposed a track for Glen Helen Park. One was planned for Simi Valley.

The escalating value of California real estate always had been a factor. Riverside gave up to a Moreno Valley shopping mall, Ontario to what was expected to be an industrial park. Even Carrell Speedway, in Gardena, was doomed by a freeway.

"Trying to find 500 acres to buy in California, and then getting environmental approval to build a race track scared off investors," said Penske, who found his parcel of land on deserted steel mill property owned by former Kaiser employees who needed a revenue-producing project to help finance their pensions.

For years, there were more stories about tracks closing than there were about the actual building of facilities.

The Long Beach Grand Prix has been a successful street race, but its up-and-down, instant construction never offered any stability to the racing scene.

For every Perris Auto Speedway built, there was an Orange County Raceway, a Saugus Speedway, an Ascot Park, and drag strips at Irwindale, Wilmington, Fontana and San Fernando that were lost forever to increased population and land use.

It was the same back in the '20s when the great board tracks of Beverly Hills, Playa del Rey and Culver City were plowed under to make way for tract homes and businesses.

Now, for the first time, racing fans can relax and enjoy themselves without worrying if it might be the last time around.

CART

With a good foundation of rubber laid down by the Winston Cup stock cars last weekend, four CART cars took over California Speedway this week in tire tests that indicated high speeds for the season-ending Marlboro 500 on September 28.

Paul Tracy, who holds a narrow lead over fellow Canadian Greg Moore for the PPG Cup World Series championship, had an unofficial lap of 230.4 mph with a trap speed high of 234 mph in his Penske Mercedes. As with the stock cars, the speeds and lap times are comparable with Michigan Speedway, where CART will hold its U.S. 500 on July 27.

Tracy and Gil de Ferran's Reynard Honda were testing Goodyears, with Moore's Reynard Mercedes and Max Papis' Reynard Toyota running Firestones.

VINTAGE CARS

Long Beach did it, so why not Los Angeles?

On Labor Day weekend, 400 or more vintage cars will race through downtown Los Angeles in the first Ford Los Angeles Grand Prix. A 1.9-mile course will take them past City Hall, Union Station, Olvera Street and Chinatown in a three-day festival of racing. Twelve races a day are planned for Aug. 30-31 and Sept. 1.

The show is being produced by the Vintage Auto Racing Assn., whose members run regularly at sites such as Willow Springs, Phoenix, Pomona, Buttonwillow and Tustin.

IRL

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