Friday, March 28, 2008
California 500 at Onatrio Motor Speedway
Turn four of the inaugural California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway is where A. J. Foyt hit the wall. I took this photo from the infield after his car was rolled off the track onto the grass. The date was September 6, 1970, Labor Day weekend, and this was my first car race. The summer of 1970 was a memorable one for me. I had traveled across country with my Grandfather to Dayton Ohio and had flown home on a Flying Tiger plane without my parents. When I got home I found an electric guitar waiting on my bed. And now an Indy car race to finish off this wonderful summer.
We made a last minute decision to go to the race and had to buy infield passes which were $5 each. We brought a cooler, sat on the grass eating drinking and listening to the awesome roar of these exotic race cars.
Every Memorial day I would sit at the radio with my dad listening to the Indianapolis 500. He would cut out the driver rooster from the paper and we would scratch them off as they dropped out of the race. Perhaps two weeks later we would see the race on ABC's Wide World of Sports. In those days they did not broadcast the race live. Nor did they broadcast Championship boxing matches live. I remember listening to Floyd Patterson fight Muhammad Ali. I rooted for Patterson as I held my little transistor radio to my ear. Anyway I digress. All this was wonderful theater for the mind but nothing compares to being front row center at a sporting event such as this.
My dad always rooted for Dan Gurney. For some reason he did not like A. J. Foyt. Being his kid I agreed with him and also rooted for Dan Gurney. Gurney was a fine multi-talented racer who carried himself with the quiet dignity of Gary Cooper on the silver screen. However the race was won by an older journeyman racer named Jim McElreath. Even I, a seasoned racing expert of 15 years said "Who?"
The next year we bought seats up in the stands but nothing compared to that first race. The popularity of the race quickly dropped off until it was torn down in 1981, the year my dad passed away. In March of 1971 the Formula One Grand Prix cars came to Ontario to race on the interior road track in the Questor Grand Prix. This time I could not get to the race and had to listen, again, on my trusty transistor radio. My all time favorite driver, Scotland's Jackie Stewart came in second behind Mario Andretti. Turns out there was a problem with Stewart's Driving suit and he was slowly being boiled in it. That he managed to finish second was a testament to his determination.
The last time I visited the track was for the California Jam Rock Festival on April 6, 1974. I went with my girlfriend Patty and it was so crowded that we had to sit on the race track. Over 200,000 people had come to hear a variety of groups including The Eagles, Deep Purple and Emerson Lake and Palmer. The last of the original rock festivals was probably the last hurrah for the Ontario Motor Speedway. The music has faded but I bet you can still hear the distant echo of a Ford or Offy engine racing through a hot Ontario Labor Day.