Ontario Motor Speedway remembered
As the Sprint Cup circuit heads to Auto Club Speedway for the running of the Auto Club 500, the crew of the Wood Brothers #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion will be back in North Carolina preparing for their next race, the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 7. But that won’t keep the Woods and their long-time fans from doing a little California dreaming about the days when Cup races in the Los Angeles area were held just around the corner from the current track, at the old Ontario Motor Speedway.
When it was first built in 1970, the track was an ultra-modern replica of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with a little more banking in the turns and the nicest facilities in motorsports. Competitors were awestruck upon getting their first glimpse of the speedway, as Leonard Wood, the Wood Brothers’ long-time crew chief recently recalled. “I remember we went up in the tower and looked down on the track,” he said. “It was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, with the winner’s circle and the way the garage was laid out. “I remember thinking, ‘It sure would be nice to win the first race here.’”
Wood saw that wish come true, along with a pole win, thanks to a well-prepared Mercury and the driving skills of the legendary A.J. Foyt, who was as good as they came at Indianapolis and a lot of other tracks. But A.J. also liked to pocket dollars, and that tendency gave the Woods some anxious moments during the inaugural NASCAR 500-miler at Ontario on Feb. 28, 1971. “It was the first time NASCAR paid $150 per lap for leading,” Wood said. “That’s what Indianapolis paid, and it was big lap money for the time.”
While leading the race, Foyt radioed to the crew that he had a tire vibration and would have to come down pit road for a tire change. Or so the Woods thought. “A caution came out,” Wood said. “It was the perfect time to pit, but A.J. didn’t come in.” Somewhat perplexed, Wood radioed to Foyt for an explanation. “He said that when he got to thinking about picking up $150 a lap it didn’t feel too bad,” Wood said. “He didn’t come in, and he went on to win the race.” He took the lead for good from Buddy Baker with 14 laps to go and went on to take the win by 8.5 seconds over Baker, Richard Petty and Bobby Isaac.
The next year, fresh off a win in the Daytona 500, the Woods and Foyt returned to Ontario, again winning the pole and again taking the lead from Baker in the closing laps. Baker, who finally won at Ontario in 1975 while driving Bud Moore’s Ford, wasn’t surprised to be beaten by Foyt and the Woods in the first two Ontario races. “The 21 car was a bullet anyhow, especially in the state of California,” Baker said. “It’s just like at Riverside, when they’d bring the 121 out there with Dan Gurney, it was a given. That car was going to win.
“At that time, the Wood Brothers could just about name who was going to drive their car, and A.J. was certainly one of the best in the world.” And Ontario was perfectly suited for a driver who eventually became a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “Let’s face it,” Baker said. “That track was just like Indianapolis. And who better at Indianapolis than A.J. Foyt.”
The Woods did find another driver who was able to master the Indianapolis of the West. In 1976, David Pearson and the Woods capped a 10-win season (despite running only 22 of the 30 races on the schedule) with a runaway victory, plus the pole, in the season-ending Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario. Pearson took the lead on Lap 79 of 200 and never looked back, finishing a lap ahead of runner-up Lennie Pond.
The NASCAR-at-Ontario story ended in 1980, with the track finally succumbing to financial difficulties as the real estate it occupied became increasingly valuable for commercial development. The final NASCAR race there was run on Nov. 15. Bennie Parsons came home the winner, while Neil Bonnett steered the Wood Brothers Ford to a runner-up finish.
Even though the track is long gone, Leonard Wood says he still has fond memories of standing on pit road, watching his car and driver performing at their peaks. “If you were on pit road, watching them coming off the fourth corner, if they were coming off the corner so fast that it looked like they were going to wreck, you knew you were really running,” he said. “If it looked like it was safe coming off there, you weren’t that fast.
“I loved that track.”