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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

In Car No. 9, She's 16 Trying to Go 70

Racing runs in her family, and the surface of choice is a dirt track. The Southland once boasted 15 of them, but now there are three.

October 18, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

PERRIS — Kristlyn Queener, a 16-year-old usually full of talk and smiles, sits quietly behind the wheel of a 1989 Nissan 240SX that her father has stripped down to basics. There's one seat, a safety harness to hold her in place, no glass anywhere and a big, white number 9 on the side near a small sticker that reads "Caution: Blonde Thinking."

In a few minutes Kristlyn, the youngest racer this season at Perris Auto Speedway, will be hitting nearly 70 mph on the bumpy half-mile dirt oval racetrack. The anticipation is tearing her up. While she is parked here in the pit, her shoulders are tense inside the red fire-resistant driver's suit, her lips are squeezed tight, and worry has crept into eyes that stare blankly into the dusty whirlwind kicked up by the preceding race.

"I hate this part," Kristlyn says softly to her father, Danny Queener, as he reaches around the window net to give her shoulder a quick, communicative rub. "I hate sitting here waiting."

Queener hates this moment too, as well as the excruciating mix of emotions that will churn when Kristlyn roars out onto the track. Unspoken is the fear of what can go wrong, and flashbacks to the two bad crashes this year that meant quick rebuilds of the car but no injuries for Kristlyn.

"I'm just a mess the whole time," says Queener, 48. "It's the longest 10 minutes in my life."

Queener himself is the son of a dirt track racer who moved from Iowa to Torrance in 1962 in part because he heard about the strange racing out here: cars speeding around a figure-eight track with an intersection in the middle, a format that is rarely used these days. Queener took up racing in the early 1970s, and for a time his wife, Dorine, 45, raced too.

Dorine dropped out first, then Queener reluctantly gave it up a few years back when his son, Jeremy, then in high school, was itching to race and there just wasn't enough cash or driveway space to run two cars. Jeremy, 20, now a mechanic at a Torrance auto dealership, raced for a couple of seasons before his grades began slipping and Queener sold the car to get rid of the distraction. But last year Jeremy was back, driving a car borrowed from a friend, and won Perris' "street stocks" championship. This year he's on another friend's pit crew and hopes to get his own car at some point.

Two years ago Kristlyn was ready to move up from go-karts at Route 66 Speedway's three-eighths-mile dirt track in Victorville, and the Queeners jumped back into serious racing. Now Kristlyn, a junior at Narbonne High School, is the family's designated racer, part of the third generation of Queeners to hurtle around dirt circles.

"When he [Jeremy] was old enough, it was his turn, and she got old enough, and now it's her turn," Queener says. "I'll keep her going through graduation, as long as her grades stay up."

A Roaring Pastime

Tracks like Perris' -- and families like the Queeners -- are what's left of Southern California dirt track racing, a pastime that once filled the night air with roars and exhaust fumes from Huntington Beach's Legion Stadium to the Riverside Oval, from Culver City Stadium to Bonelli Ranch in Santa Clarita.

No more. Suburban sprawl, the escalating cost of maintaining cars and sweeping shifts in demographics have pushed local dirt tracks to the brink of extinction. From a high of 15 dirt tracks in the 1950s, the Los Angeles area now has only three, all on the far reaches of exurbia: Ventura Speedway, celebrating its 30th anniversary; Route 66 in Victorville; and here in Perris beneath the Lake Perris dam.

"It takes a lot of property," says Motorsports Hall of Fame driver Parnelli Jones, who grew up in Torrance and raced the local circuit in the early years of a career that included winning the 1963 Indianapolis 500. "The only ones that seem to survive are the ones that race related to a fairgrounds, where it's some kind of public facility."

The collapse picked up speed in the 1990s, beginning with the closing of Gardena's legendary Ascot Park, where Jones once raced, built atop a former garbage dump off Vermont Avenue and 189th Street. Seven more tracks closed over the next few years, said Allan Brown, co-editor of the National Speedway Directory.

Nationwide, dirt track racing is holding steady with 1,054 tracks, about the same as 50 years ago, while the number of paved tracks has grown, Brown says. NASCAR, with its celebrity drivers, corporate sponsorships and television contracts, has supplanted the old rural roots of dirt tracks with their mud-caked, stripped-down cars kicking up clods of earth and the occasional car part.

"There's a down-homey kind of feel to dirt tracks," says Harold Osmer of Chatsworth, who has written three books about California's racing history. "Racing is a sensory experience. You get the sights and the sounds and feel the grandstand vibrate."

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