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Determined businessman fast-tracked the return of racing at Irwindale

Jim Cohan refused to allow the speedway to vanish after it was closed in early 2012 and got it going again six months ago. The effort is paying off.

October 02, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Irwindale Speedway shutdown in February of 2012, but thanks to Jim Cohan, the races are back on at the track now called Irwindale Event Center.
Irwindale Speedway shutdown in February of 2012, but thanks to Jim Cohan,… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

On Feb. 11, 2012, they let the air out of all the tires at Irwindale Speedway. On April 6, 2013, in front of an elbow-to-elbow crowd of 6,000, the rubber was inflated again and ready to hit the road.

What happened in between is an interesting story of entrepreneurial spirit and refreshing management style that has given Southland short-track racing, and its fans, new life.

In this age of big-time sports dominating television and massive fan bases, the closure of a racetrack that barely seats 6,000 and features drivers whom only their mothers have heard of is not big news. Fred Roggin and Jim Hill won't have it on the nightly news. They have 2 1/2 minutes and enough Dodgers, Lakers, Clippers, Angels, USC and UCLA to drown in.

When the lights turned out on short-track racing at the place just off the 605 Freeway, it registered a 1.2 on the area sports Richter scale.

The people running things, the lease holders, went bankrupt, backed up moving vans and headed into the great beyond. No, none of them were named Irsay.

They had declared a Chapter 7, which is general dissolution of assets. As one current track official explained, "It's grab your grandchildren's' photos and leave everything else."

One person refusing to accept what was taking place, without prior notice, was Jim Cohan. He liked those loading up the vans and sneaking away much like Baltimore, to this day, likes Bob Irsay.

And so, Cohan did something, although he wasn't all that clear until recently exactly what it was that he had done. He refused to close his driving school on the premises. He bargained with the landowners, Nu-Way Industries of Arcadia — who were equally caught off guard by the moving vans — and eventually took over operation of the speedway, now called Irwindale Event Center.

Cohan, a businessman from Valencia whose only interest in the place had been as a tenant with a driving school, went from losing a $25,000 rent deposit and nearly his main business to being the man in charge. The landowners gave him a temporary OK to run it, then gave him the official go-ahead last December.

Racetracks of this size and stature that close usually take years to recoup and return, if ever. Cohan rehired most of the previous management team, made veteran Bob Klein general manager, and had the place ready by the April 6 opener for fans and hundreds of vendors and part-time workers who had been stiffed.

He gave one last raised middle finger to the previous management by starting that evening with a song that blared over the public address system: "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead."

Irwindale Event Center is a niche operation with a niche, but highly loyal, audience. It races a variety of cars every other Saturday night and the stars are drivers and crew who are not famous, who work normal workweeks all over the Southland and who spend just about every spare moment and dollar on their cars.

This is the triple A of NASCAR. Ryan Newman has run there. Tony Stewart has run there, and never punched anybody out afterward. The current stars, if that word can be used, are Ryan Partridge and Rip Michels. Their goal is to be good enough to get to a place where Stewart could punch them out.

To this, Cohan, 45, brings a refreshing approach to managing things, especially in this era of corporate indifference toward employees.

He spends most of his time during an interview asking that others on his team get credit. He says things such as "We don't ask anybody here to do anything we won't." And, "Ego doesn't get you anywhere."

He talks with pride about finding one of his vice presidents picking up trash in the parking lot. He believes in the pay-it-forward approach and says that he and his family have a favorite Starbucks drive-through, where they always pay for the cup of coffee of the car behind them.

"It went back eight cars one time," he says, proudly.

He has no college degree. He walked out of a junior college class in 1987 when he realized his business professor was teaching principles for 1972.

"I have no safety net," he says. "Just street smarts, I hope."

The final race of the season will be Nov. 1. But the place will remain buzzing with amateur drag racing, popular drift racing (two cars maneuvering side by side, creating lots of smoke and quickly ruining sets of tires), Cohan's driving school and much more.

Cohan says the place is thriving and in the black. No moving vans waiting around the corner.

Saturday night will be City of Hope night, along with Dodgers Appreciation night . The guest of honor will be Tom Lasorda.

There will be no danger to public safety. Lasorda will not drive.

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