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FOCUS ON MOTOR RACING / CART AT CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

Track Made an Impressive Opening Statement

California 500: Event in June went smoothly, and any problems supposedly have been fixed by the Penskes.

September 24, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking for an analogy and lacking the usual burning oil and rubber odors to pique the senses, drivers decided California Speedway was a "racing country club," because with all the palm trees, flowers and grass, it seemed there should be a golf hole or two somewhere on the grounds.

But Geoff Bodine was having none of it.

"We don't race at country clubs," he said, sniffing a bit and showing that most of his entertainment knowledge was gleaned in the East, rather than in Orange County. "This is Disney World."

It was June, hot in Fontana and NASCAR was in town, revisiting Southern California for the first time in a decade, seeing a new facility that some had seen in its previous incarnation.

"I can't believe this," Bodine said. "I came by here on a motorcycle with Kyle [Petty], riding across the country, and we had heard that they were going to build here. All we saw was the old steel mill. I put one of the bricks from one of the ovens in my saddlebags. I still have it."

Out of the ashes of the Kaiser mill in Fontana rose the speedway, and it was open for business on this June weekend.

And what a business!

By sundown Sunday, more than 180,000 had trooped through, watching Friday qualifying, Saturday racing or the Sunday California 500, which Jeff Gordon won before running out of gas on the way to victory lane.

It was the second opening of the season for the NASCAR drivers, who had christened Texas Speedway a few weeks earlier, but this was different. They went to Texas with high hopes, then left, saying that the track should be plowed and planted.

They came to Fontana and left, singing its praises.

Darrell Waltrip: "I've been out here [in Winston Cup racing] for 25 years, and I'll say it again and again: This is the best track I've ever seen."

Roger Penske sank $110 million into the future of Southern California, then turned over the keys to son Greg to make it work.

Apparently it did, and there are indications it will continue to.

"We thought it was a good opening," Greg Penske said. "But because it was the first time for everything, we learned some things for it and we're constantly fixing things.

"You test and test and test until you think you have it right."

In this case, the opinions of the "guests" (as the Penskes insist on calling their customers), the reporters, the drivers and anybody who crosses the property line, were sought.

Easier pedestrian access to the infield? New bridges have been built for this weekend's CART race. A new scoring pylon because it was hard keeping up with the race on the 13 message boards? It's ready.

Tough to get to the track from the parking lot? New routes for the trams have been drawn up.

Traffic problems? The Penskes and General Manager Les Richter believed they were solved, only to learn that only two of the 15 exits off various freeways to the track were being used.

Yes, that was Greg Penske, in black jacket and tie, directing traffic on the morning of the NASCAR race. And yes, this time there was a separate mailing of a ticket-holder's guide that explains ways to get into the track.

Signs? A tougher problem, because there are a lot of them on barroom walls in Southern California now.

"There were 57 of our signs stolen on the freeways," Penske said. "Every day, Les and I would go out and put new ones up, and every day somebody would steal some."

They're still trying.

He figures this time they're ready.

And where they weren't ready last time, they were eager.

Yes, that was Roger Penske apologizing in person as he went down a row of wheelchair guests awaiting an elevator.

Before the seats, before everything else, the track was built, because before all, the Penskes are racers. Roger Penske's driver, Paul Tracy, took his Indy car around on the track with a gold-colored substance painted on its bottom. The idea was to leave a stripe where the car bottomed out on a bounce.

Then the top layer of asphalt was laid.

The feedback from the drivers was universal: "Smooth."

"Usually, I can tell where I am on a track by the bumps," Bodine said. "Here, I had no point of reference because there were no bumps."

There was a pristine wall until Robby Gordon christened it with a crash during practice on Thursday. And the wall grew scars during the Winston West race on Saturday as drivers, used to running half-mile facilities, suddenly found the need--and, in some cases, the ability--to keep the hammer down.

Ken Schrader, a Winston Cup driver, won the race, using it as practice for his Sunday run.

He beat Kenny Wallace by 0.569 of a second in an event that was stopped for 13 minutes when Daniel Krentz's car caught fire, and in which 33 of 100 laps were run under caution because of seven crashes.

And then came the International Race of Champions, in which Alex Zanardi, who runs this weekend as champion of the PPG CART series, ran four laps.

In two cars.

"This is the most embarrassing day of my life, crashing two cars in five minutes," he said.

Mark Martin won that race, en route to the IROC championship.

And, yes, when the IROC ran beyond the scheduled return of the train back to Los Angeles, there were the Penskes, hiring taxis for 35 or 40 people left at the station in Fontana.

It was all part of the first weekend at California Speedway. Or, the first weekend of the rest of the life of big-time racing in Southern California.

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