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Despite Noise, Track Operator Hopes to Stay in Driver's Seat

Jim Naylor, guiding spirit of the Ventura Raceway for 25 years, is working to lower the decibels. His contract is up for renewal.

November 26, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Approaching 56, Jim Naylor speaks with the ceaseless passion of a man who has spent most of his life watching small cars whip at high speed around a tiny dirt oval.

But he doesn't raise his voice. Noise from the Ventura Raceway has become a hot political issue and Naylor, the track's promoter, bulldozer operator, announcer and guiding spirit for 25 years, has no desire to add to it.

Today, Naylor's contract to run the raceway at the Seaside Park fairgrounds will be up for a one-year renewal. A Ventura County Fair Board committee has recommended approving it -- but only after acrimonious meetings packed with racing fans, a barrage of angry letters to the editor and accusations of just plain snobbery.

"They think the raceway is a bunch of dirt, and it must be dirty people who play in it," said racing supporter Ron Barrett, a Ventura software developer. "We're seeing a cultural division between those of us in the dirt and those who like a more cosmopolitan atmosphere."

Raceway critics like Doug Halter disagree.

"A lot of people think it's a classist issue, but that's not it," said Halter, a downtown businessman and a founder of the Laurel Theatre. "Anyone trying to spend an evening at home on the hillside, or in midtown, or on the west side, shouldn't have to put up with the noise. There could be a lot of better uses for Seaside Park."

The issue is made more urgent by a rapidly gentrifying downtown just blocks away and plans for a four-star, 140-room ocean-side hotel practically next door.

During an eight-month race season beginning in March, everything from midget racers to sprint and stock cars thunder around the track.

For Naylor, the conflict is the biggest threat ever to his baby, the fifth-of-a-mile-long brown strip into which he says he has poured countless hours and dollars.

"I don't know how much it's been," he said. "I don't want to know. I don't have a good long-term memory -- that's got to be the only reason I do this."

Naylor grew up in Port Hueneme, where his father operated heavy equipment for the Navy. Jim Sr. raced at tracks here and there, tinkered on his cars with young Jim by his side and passed on to his son a zest for racing's perpetual left turn.

"When you're around motor-heads as much as I was, you get addicted to it -- the sounds, the smells, the whole nine yards," Naylor said.

A sometime racer himself, Naylor came up with $22,000 to buy the failing operation at Ventura's fairgrounds in 1977. He ran it as a family affair, with his dad hopping on the raceway's battered bulldozer to mold the track until he died two years later.

Naylor's mother, Ann, answered the phones, as she still does. His two daughters grew up amid the roar of the engines, doing all kinds of raceway chores.

Meanwhile, Naylor built the place up. He promoted let-it-all-hang-out motorcycle racing with the likes of "Flyin' " Mike Faria and "Sudden Sam" Ermolenko. He enlarged the track, installed a press box and new lights and staged gimmicky promotions: mud wrestling night, wet T-shirt contests, a visit from streakers, the crowd-pleasing occasion when fans dashed onto the track to snatch up $1,000 in small bills.

For a couple of years, Naylor offered a "Blind Man's Bluff" race each month, in which hooded drivers piloted Ford Pintos around the track as a passenger gave directions. The popular stunt was done on behalf of Greg Kauffman, a blind mechanic.

"We did it," Naylor said, "so Greg could race."

Naylor doesn't spend much time away from racing. Recently, he spent most of a month's time off downloading the sounds of train whistles, gunshots, crying babies, oinking pigs and hundreds of other effects to go with his excited lap-by-lap announcing patter.

Naylor explodes into excitement at every turn, narrating a race the way a breathless survivor might recall a train wreck. The look-at-'em-go exclamations are the same whether the race involves midget cars or the 800-horsepower sprint cars that look like Darth Vader's boyhood toys.

"I shouldn't be an announcer," Naylor said. "I'm dyslexic. But I was unhappy with the announcers I had, and about 15 years ago, I couldn't afford another one."

His most grueling work, though, happens before and after each race night as he climbs atop his tractor and other heavy equipment. He loves currying the track and clearing the parking area the way other men love watching football. Saying he has donated a small fortune in free services to the fairgrounds, he grows animated when he reminisces about past storms and the mountains of mud they forced him to move in the middle of the night.

But the raceway has never provided Naylor a living. He also runs JN Designs, a high-tech sign shop in Oxnard, where, among other things, he "Naylorizes" cars with a rogue's gallery of racing graphics.

"He'd put twice as many stripes on the car as necessary," said racer Charlie Utts, 41, of Camarillo. "You'd go, 'Oh my God, what's he doing, what's he doing?' "

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