California Dreaming

 by Frank Ryan
April 25, 2001

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Old Ontario Motor Speedway

Mario Andretti won the 1971 Europe vs. USA war at Ontario

It was a perfect Southern California day in the summer of 1981 when I visited Ontario Motor Speedway. I'll never forget nosing up to the fence with my father and sneaking a peak at the soon to be extinct 2.5 mile racing complex. My father explained how sky rocketing property values had made the land "too valuable" to remain a stop on the NASCAR circuit, as it was to be sold for a tidy $10 million dollars to the Chevron Oil Company. Looking out at the once proud facility, my father's words hung in the air, "the City has sold out the racing fans."

Built at a reported cost of $25.5 million in 1970, Ontario Motor Speedway hosted a variety of races for open wheel cars, including Indy car races from 1970 to 1980 and a F1/F5000 Europe vs. USA challenge in 1971 (won by Mario Andretti in a F1 Ferrari). The F1 event used a 3.194 mile road course while the Indy cars raced on the 2.5 mile oval track. Known as the California 500, Ontario hosted the first 500 mile Indy car race outside of the Indiana. In 1979, Rick Mears set the oval course record of 203.046 miles per hour. NASCAR visited the track from 1971 through 1980, with Cale Yarborough turning in the fastest qualifying speed of 156.190 miles per hour for the L.A. Times 500 in 1978. 

I took refuge in the fact that Riverside International Raceway was located just 20 miles away from Ontario, and we would still have NASCAR racing at our door. The 2.62 mile road course became like a second home, and watching Tim Richmond race door handle to door handle with Dale Earnhardt lap after lap gave me an unexpected appreciation of road course racing.

The very first NASCAR event held at Riverside International Raceway was held in 1958. Indy Car driver, and road racing specialist, Dan Gurney, won five straight races at Riverside in the 1960's driving for the Wood Brothers. He was untouchable.

Over the next 30 years Riverside would host a total of 47 NASCAR Winston Cup events. While two race events were usually the norm at the track, three events were held at the road course in 1981. Darrell Waltrip claimed the pole for all three of these events, but won only one of the three races. Many people local to the area thought the third race at the track was a "tribute" to the fans in the area who had just lost the Ontario race. But 1988 would see the last Winston Cup race at Riverside, as it too would fall prey to development and sprawl. A parking lot and mall now occupy that same area that Earnhardt and Richmond once traded paint on the track. 

Southern California, with all its majestic glory, had essentially eliminated NASCAR racing from the area. But sometimes if you're lucky, a phoenix rises from the ashes, and this time southern California was very lucky indeed. 

To see the original of this diagram, complete with clickable features, visit Frank Sheffield's Riverside International Raceway page.  Origins of the map can also be found at the North American Motorsports page.

In 1942 Fontana was selected as the site for the Kaiser Steel Mill. With materials drastically needed for World War II, the steel mill soon became a booming 22 story complex. The steel industry dominated the City of Fontana's economy for the next 30 years, but by the late 1970's production and staffing at the Kaiser Steel Mill was being reduced and by 1984 the steel mill had closed their doors permanently.

But instead of turning the property over to developers, a different approach was taken, and a new speedway was planned for the area in the mid 1990's. Once the plan was approved, California Speedway was built on 530 acres of what was once the Kaiser Steel Mill.

Located midway between Ontario and Riverside, California Speedway is located less than 15 miles from those two defunct racing venues. Hosting their first NASCAR Winston Cup event in 1997, the 2-mile D shaped oval seats more than 100,000 people and is a modern, state of the art racing facility.

This weekend California Speedway hosts the NAPA Auto Parts 500, as NASCAR Winston Cup tour returns to southern California for the fifth straight year of racing.

The author can be contacted at frankr@autoracing1.com

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