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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Racing

Irwindale Speedway Paves Way for Return of Full Racing Calendar

March 20, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Construction of Irwindale Speedway, which got underway this week, means that by next March, motor racing will have come full circle since the closing of tracks in Riverside, Ontario, Ascot Park and Saugus left the Los Angeles basin without a major league racing facility.

First, Perris Auto Speedway, a half-mile dirt oval dedicated to sprint car racing, opened in 1996, filling the void left by the closing of Ascot.

Then California Speedway opened last June, providing superspeedway racing on a two-mile oval for NASCAR Winston Cup and CART champ car racing. There had not been a major track here since Ontario Motor Speedway closed in 1980. California Speedway also has a road course, as yet unused for racing, to replace Riverside International Raceway.

Now comes Irwindale Speedway, with half-mile and third-mile paved ovals for the various types of cars that ran for many years at Saugus Speedway. The smaller oval will be inside the half-mile track.

Plans call for 6,500 seats, with 14 corporate suites and a press box atop the grandstand, and parking for 2,000 vehicles.

"What we're in the process of building is a half-mile superspeedway," said Ray Wilkings, promoter-general manager of the $7-million project at the intersection of the 605 Freeway and Live Oak Avenue, just south of the 210 Freeway.

"We want it to be the finest half-mile paved track in the country," Wilkings said. "We're looking at a number of exciting racing series, more than a dozen superstar concerts, driving schools, civic events and other special events."

The anticipated opening date is March 27, 1999, with an open-wheel racing program featuring U.S. Auto Club midgets, sprint cars and super-modifieds.

Other racing dates are already being filled for NASCAR stock cars, Craftsman trucks, legends cars, Formula 2000, Formula Mazda and other open-wheel formula-type cars. Unlike Saugus, which had racing only on Saturday nights, Irwindale will schedule programs on Friday and Saturday nights.

Also unlike Saugus, which had a flat racing surface, Irwindale will have up to 12-degree banking in the corners on the half-mile.

"We're a year behind on getting this project off the ground but we think the wait will be worth it," Wilkings said.

Wilkings, 45, revealed plans for a track at Irwindale shortly after Saugus Speedway closed abruptly in the middle of the 1995 season. He had been general manager at Saugus for seven years, after taking over from his father, Marshall, who had been the track's promoter since 1973.

However, plans were delayed when Wilkings, named national motor racing promoter of the year in 1990, was chosen by Richie Clyne to become vice president and general manager of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In that capacity, Wilkings oversaw both construction and the first year of competition on the $200-million racing complex.

"Even when I was with Las Vegas, I never lost sight of my dreams to build a track in Irwindale," Wilkings said. "I thoroughly enjoyed my work at Las Vegas, where I learned a great deal about building and running a new facility, but my roots are in the short tracks like Saugus and Irwindale.

"With the Irwindale site, we've got an outstanding location, super backers, and a truly clean sheet of paper. It's a wonderful opportunity to build a great half-mile and third-mile paved oval facility.

"And most important, we have assembled one of the strongest and most dedicated teams of investors that I have ever had the pleasure of working for."

Nine men--Dennis Alfieri, Victor Ciulla, William Close, Dennis Costanzo, Gene Olson, Robert Pernecky, Jim Williams, former race driver Danny Sullivan, and Wilkings, acting as the operating partner--make up the Irwindale development team.

Doug Stokes, who was public relations director for Perris Auto Speedway when it opened, will be in the same position at Irwindale.

INDY CARS

The path to the Indianapolis 500 runs through Phoenix this weekend when the Pep Boys Indy Racing League hosts its second race of the season, the Dura-Lube 200, on the paved mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway.

The winner of the Phoenix race hasn't gone on to win at Indy since Al Unser did it in 1971, but the 33 cars that will try to qualify Saturday for Sunday's 200-mile sprint will be almost identical to the 33-car lineup for the May 24 centerpiece of the IRL's 11-race schedule.

Until last year, it was possible for drivers from other sanctioning bodies to enter the Indy 500. Now, though, because of the IRL's unique engine and chassis regulations, that is highly unlikely.

That means that two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk and defending IRL champion Tony Stewart will be the favorites at Phoenix and very likely at Indy too.

Luyendyk, who lives a few miles from the Phoenix track in Scottsdale, has won twice at both tracks. He won Indy in 1990, when it was a CART race and last year in the IRL's second season. The Dutchman won at Phoenix in 1991 and 1996.

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