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Fast Food, Fast Cars to Go

After steering burger company to Golden Arches' success, Williams is fueling the Irwindale Speedway

March 27, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

When Jim Williams was a young man, he built a better beef patty for Golden State Foods, sold it to McDonald's and when Ray Kroc took the golden arches worldwide, it made Williams a multimillionaire.

Then Williams decided to build a better racetrack for short-track motor racing fans, watched it grow into Irwindale Speedway, where, after five years, it is just beginning to show a profit.

"Everyone has to eat, but not everyone has to like motor racing," Williams, president and owner of the $12-million racing facility about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, said when asked about the difference in the success of his two passions.

The speedway opened its sixth season March 20 to a near-capacity crowd of about 6,000 fans for a program of NASCAR stock car racing. Tonight, a U.S. Auto Club open-wheel racing show will feature twin 25-lap midget car races.

"We've turned the corner," Williams said. "We proved to the city of Irwindale that we could deliver what we said we would, and we are building our own fan base. Our car count, our crowd count and our daily schedule are all moving ahead."

Convincing the city of Irwindale was critical after the city had become the butt of late-night talk-show jokes for giving Al Davis $10 million in a vain effort to land the NFL Raiders.

"Are we satisfied? Not really," Williams said. "I don't think anyone is ever where they think they ought to be, but we reached our goal in one respect -- to be the finest short-track property in the country."

NASCAR tacitly acknowledged that last year when it made Irwindale the site of its first national short-track championships, the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. And it reinforced the idea by scheduling the second one at Irwindale, Nov. 11-13.

"We lobbied for it," Williams said. "We wanted to show the guys on the East Coast what we had out there. Now we get calls from all over the country, asking us about the track, what we race here, when we're open, all sorts of things. The All-Star weekend created a high level of interest and so did its telecast."

During SpeedWeeks before the Daytona 500, Brian France, president and chief executive of NASCAR, presented Williams and General Manager Bob DeFazio a plaque for holding the "most outstanding specialized event of the year."

Who is this former hamburger salesman who owns and runs the track?

Jim Williams is 64, lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Toni, is an active board member of Golden State Foods after having retired as chairman and CEO of the company in 1999, maintains offices in Irvine and Irwindale and cherishes a close working and personal relationship with Roger Penske, motor racing's premier team owner.

He never raced, but he has been a race fan all his life, dating to the days when his father and uncle took him to speedway motorcycle races at Lincoln Park, near the old Luna Park Zoo and Ostrich Farm in Lincoln Heights, and to midget car races at Gilmore Stadium.

"My first trip to Indianapolis for the 500 was in 1957, as a high school graduation present, but when the school found out about it, I almost didn't graduate," he recalled. "The night of the senior prom was the day of the race, and the principal [of L.A. Marshall High] wasn't happy about me being in Indianapolis."

Williams has missed only a few 500s since, and from 1986 to 1992 was a sponsor to one of Penske's Indy cars, including 1987 when Al Unser won for his fourth time.

It was his relationship with Penske, which started when he leased trucks from one of Penske's companies, that led to his role in the building of Irwindale Speedway.

"I invested in Roger's rebuilding of the track in Nazareth [Pa.] and then got involved when he started California Speedway on the old [Kaiser] steel-mill site. All the time it was being built, Roger would fly out once a week for a drive around on the property, and I would go with him. I found out what to look for and what to look out for when I started building my own racetrack."

The plans for a track in Irwindale had already been drawn when Williams became part of the project in 1997. Ray Wilkings, who had operated Saugus Speedway with his father for many years, had put together a group of investors planning a track on the old swap-meet site at the intersection of the 605 Freeway and Live Oak Avenue.

"They came to me sometime in 1997, looking for an investment," Williams said. "I soon saw that their plans were not what I envisioned. They had in mind a dirt track inside a paved oval, and I didn't like that idea. Perris [Auto Speedway] had just opened, and it seemed silly to me to split the dirt-track crowd.

"The only way I would get involved was if I had control. That's the way I wanted it, and that's what has happened. I have bought most of the others out and now have 90% control."

Wilkings, the track's first chief operating officer, left during the first season to take over a family business in Cummings, Ga. Williams named DeFazio general manager and took over daily control of the track's operation.

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