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Up to Speed

Short tracks in the Southland offer racing at its finest

August 20, 2003|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Rickie Gaunt snaked around the half-mile clay oval at Perris Auto Speedway, moving all the way up from 17th place, took the checkered flag, then jumped out of his sprint car and revealed his Superman-inspired driving suit.

"Super Rickie," as he is known, grabbed a microphone and proudly proclaimed over the track's public-address system, "She ran like a monkey with its [tail] on fire!"

Not exactly what an Indy 500 or Grand Prix of Long Beach winner might say -- at least publicly -- but certainly colorful. And that's what local short-track racing on Saturday nights is mostly about.

Jeff Gordon, Paul Tracy and Gil de Ferran have their ardent followings, but so do Rip Michels, Richard "the Gasman" Griffin and Bobby "Boogaloo" Schwartz.

More than 380,000 fans watched Saturday night races last year from grandstands in Irwindale, Perris and Costa Mesa. That's about 40,000 more than the attendance at the most recent NASCAR, CART and IRL races at California Speedway combined.

There are more than 1,100 short tracks across America, and the ones in the Southland are considered among the best and the most colorful.

Irwindale Speedway is routinely referred to as "the best short track in America." Perris Auto Speedway has been called "sprint car heaven." And tradition makes Costa Mesa Speedway to motorcycle racing in the U.S. what Yankee Stadium is to baseball.

These hidden jewels in Southern California's entertainment vault have an annual economic impact of, by one expert's conservative estimate, more than $10 million.

"We're competing with everything that sells a ticket," said Jim Williams, Irwindale Speedway's president and majority owner. "The Dodgers, Disneyland, everything."

To do it, the tracks offer souvenirs and collectibles, catchy music and games aplenty. Smells run the gamut, from methanol to Polish sausage. On any given Saturday, mascots, autograph sessions, dance contests, giveaways and barbecues add to an atmosphere that borders on sensory overload.

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Irwindale

Cars of seemingly every color form a rainbow caravan as they circle "L.A.'s half-mile super speedway," the marketing slogan of the $15-million orchid that bursts from a gravel pit near the intersection of the 210 and 605 freeways.

A clown paints children's faces under the grandstand, and mascot Lug Nut fires T-shirts into the stands. Beyond Turn 1, there's a made-to-order sunset. Across the way, crisscrossing conveyer belts at a gravel crusher make an unusual, yet somehow appropriate, working-class backdrop.

There are palm trees around the pristine grounds and a buzz in the air that make for palpable atmosphere.

The star of the show is the track itself. From "Malcolm in the Middle" to "Fear Factor," the venue has been featured so often in Tinseltown ventures it should have its own SAG card.

Says Winston West driver Steve Portenga, who has raced about 30 times in five classes at Irwindale, "It's class all the way down to the ketchup dispenser."

The only things missing, it seems, are garages and seating to hold more than 6,200 fans.

"When you talk short track, you talk Bristol, Martinsville or Richmond," said Brendan Gaughan, a Craftsman Truck Series driver who scored his first NASCAR victory in a late model race on an Irwindale opening night. "All Irwindale is missing is the seating capacity for a major event. It is one of the nicest short tracks in the country. It's awesome from the top of the grandstand to the restroom facilities in the pits."

Irwindale, which also has a one-third-mile track inside its half-mile oval, opened in 1999, the city's sixth venue dating to the San Gabriel Valley Dragstrip in 1956. It grew from a need when Ascot Park in Gardena closed its half-mile dirt oval in 1990, and Saugus Speedway shut down its third-mile paved oval in 1995.

"Ascot Park had been around for eons [since 1957]," said Ryan Arciero, an Ultra Wheels Super Truck driver whose grandfather Frank is trying to build a third-mile track north of Sacramento. "All the old racers, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, had driven there. It's a shame a place like that was no longer around."

Irwindale, though, is filling the void. It also has company.

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Perris

The most picturesque of Southern California's "Little Three," Perris was designed in the image of Ascot Park and built at a cost of $6 million in 1996.

Like Irwindale, it is a state-of-the-art facility. Circle Track magazine once called it "sprint car heaven."

Built in only 43 days after groundbreaking, Perris bills itself as "America's premier clay oval" -- bowing to track Vice President Dan Kazarian, who says it might appear "a little pretentious to say you're the best."

The track is near the Lake Perris Dam on the Lake Perris Fairgrounds, with foothills beyond the backstretch forming a postcard backdrop at dusk.

The environs offer a country fair feel, but that ends once the racing starts.

Imagine driving 90 mph, separated from a rival by inches, then power-sliding through a turn while trying to avoid a concrete wall.

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