With splendid disdain for other types of racing, the United States Auto Club refers to its big-car circuit as the "Championship Trail." There is indeed much to support the haughty exclusivity of that title. For more than half a century, the big cars have epitomized American automobile racing. The oval tracks they run on—at places like Milwaukee, Langhorne, Trenton and Indianapolis—are shrines to the American worship of speed and danger. Their drivers, from Oldfield and Shaw through Vukovich and Bettenhausen to Foyt and Andretti, have always been heroes in the best American tough-guy tradition—hard, scarred and fearless. Over the Labor Day weekend, USAC extended its Championship Trail to Southern California, where "speed" is understood to be a whitish powder used for shooting up, and where "tough" is like "cool" or "boss," as in "Those are tough love beads, man." Still, for all the potentially disastrous failures in cultural communication, the first California 500 was a success. All that was needed to make it a grand success was tradition.
Certainly the setting was a success. The brand-new, $25.5 million Ontario Motor Speedway may be the handsomest autodrome in the world and, by the time its palm trees, floral shrubs and dichondra lawns come into their full glory, it will rival even such hotspots as Santa Anita and Belmont Park in racing grace. Since nature is adamant in its refusal to meet California's instant deadlines, the OMS management had to spray the grass around Victory Circle with green paint the day before the race. "No one will notice, and anyway it's prettier than the real thing," said David B. Lockton, the track's 33-year-old, hyperenthusiastic president. An Indianapolis lawyer who only recently arrived in Southern California, Lockton is still in the star-struck phase, and the grounds were crawling with more movie and television faces than the Warner lot's lunchroom. Lockton's own looks and manner were vaguely starry-eyed. As he galloped around on the eve of race day, ordering and countermanding orders in the same breath, one driver said: "Hey, I didn't realize Jerry Lewis was running this show."
The speedway's main attraction, of course, is the four-cornered, 2½-mile oval track, unashamedly patterned on the Indy Brickyard (indeed, a stretch of bricks from the original Indy course forms the center of the big blue 0 in Victory Circle). But the track differs from Indianapolis by being one lane wider and banked a bit differently: the short straights between the nine-degree-banked turns are not dead level, as at Indy, but are banked at four degrees. This permits drivers to take the linked corners faster than at Indianapolis—the 33-car field for the California 500 averaged 172.540 mph vs. 167.139 for this year's Indy 500—but it poses some dangers as well. "Everyone says it's a carbon copy of Indy," said A. J. Foyt after qualifying at 174.343 mph. "Well, it's not; it's something very much else. We're all going to have to learn it from scratch."
In addition to the big-car oval (which can also be used for stock-car races), OMS contains a 3.2-mile road course that winds its 22 corners through the infield, plus a quarter-mile drag strip that doubles as part of Pit Row. Lockton and his partner, Wall Street Broker Dan Lufkin, would like to gain FIA approval for a second U.S. Grand Prix Formula I race at Ontario, and others in the organization are interested in a Sebring-style endurance run. One of the few flaws in the speedway's design, however, is the inaccessibility of the road course to good spectator viewing. Many stretches of the road circuit are sunken, and tall fences prevent access to the most exciting corners. The oval track, though, can be viewed from anywhere in the 140,000-seat stands: the back straightaway is 30 feet higher than the front straight, and even a man in the lowest row, itself 30 feet above track level, can see every part of the big oval. He would miss much of the action on the road course.
Most automobile racecourses in both Europe and America are sadly lacking in decent restaurants, lounges and hospitality suites. Not Ontario. The five-story, red-and-gray Central Activities Building, which bears a striking resemblance to Oakland Coliseum (no doubt because the Bay Area contracting firm of Stolte, Inc. built both), is a stately pleasure dome compared to Indy, Watkins Glen or even the Daytona International Speedway. The key to the complex is the Victory Circle Club, a restaurant and bar featuring coffee royal for race-day breakfast and a slightly hazy view of every part of the course throughout the day. The food is a cut above California average and the drinks cost no more than a dollar. Membership in the Victory Circle Club is $250 a season, which currently numbers only four races but soon should include more.
On the floor above, Lockton, Lufkin & Co. lease a dozen hospitality suites to business biggies—Firestone, Marlboro, Sears, etc.—for $30,000 a year. The suites are posh: Directional furniture, muted bar fittings, a superior buffet, lie-down carpeting and perfect visibility.
Another big drawback to most auto racecourses is communications. With cars roaring past at every other instant, and with the Doppler effect playing yoyo sound games on the spectators' eardrums, it is usually impossible to make even fractional sense of any track's public-address system. There is a psychedelic quality to the news: "Andretti is trying to paooourooom...Foyt just spraangaroout of number threeooow!" Even if one could hear the announcers, it would hardly be worth the listening since they customarily know more about hyping up crowds than about racing. Ontario's announcer for the premier event, one Dean Webber, was no exception. At many points late in the race he confused the leads by more than a lap, and once mixed up the lap count (110) with the average speed (164). Until auto racing entrepreneurs decide to let calm-voiced, racewise men tell the crowd what's happening, the only way to follow a race's development has to be visual. To that end, Ontario has three electronic scoring pylons, topped by the lap number and followed by a moment-by-moment listing of the top nine leaders. Every 20th lap the average speed is displayed atop the pylon. The figures are as accurate as unofficial tallies can be: a trackside computer sends them up from information relayed by tiny radio transmitters mounted on each car.
Clearly, Lockton and Lufkin did their homework on racecourse building. They visited tracks from Monza to Mexico City, decided what was lacking in everything from toilet facilities to information, and tried their best to eliminate those deficiencies from Ontario's design. The ultimate test, however, could only be a major race, and that came early last week.
All through the two weeks of trials and qualifying, a shroud of acrid smog had hung over the speedway's environs. At times during qualifying, the cars seemed to evaporate into Turn Two and then reconstitute themselves about a third of the way down the back straight. There is nothing a track owner in Southern California can do about smog—Lockton frequently denied it was even there, squinting into a questioner's eyes as if smog were a nonsense syllable—but he can pray for wind to blow the smog away. Lockton's prayers were answered. The San Gabriel Mountains, which stand to the north of Ontario like a pine-topped wall, recently had been invisible. With dawn on race day, they stood clean and harsh and clear, a splendid backdrop for violent automotive movement. One hangup was unhung.
The next big question mark was traffic. Ontario Motor Speedway is set just to the north of the San Bernardino Freeway, and provides 58,000 free parking spaces for crowds which Lockton hopes will someday reach 200,000 per race. Getting those cars into and out of those parking spaces could prove a headache, if not an unmitigated disaster. Yet, as the traffic poured in from Los Angeles, 40 miles to the west, there was a minimum of jamming. The Ontario gesticulators were sensible, polite and—wonder of wonders!—even helpful. Carloads of fans from points as distant as Playa del Rey reached the parking lots in less than two hours' time, a marvel in freeway logistics. "I've had a harder fight getting into Dodger Stadium for a middle-of-the-week day game," said one amazed Angeleno. End Hangup No. 2.
With the fans in their seats (or swilling coffee royal in the Victory Circle Club), the next problem was one of orchestration. Not only must the cars get off on time (11 a.m. in this instance), but the fans must simultaneously be brought to a fever pitch so that, when the green flags do their crazy, crosswise dance for the start, the crowd is ready to swear that nothing could be more exciting. It happens every year at Indy, but could it happen here?
Well, not quite. But the lack of Indy-style excitement was due more to the naiveté of the crowd and the lack of an Ontario tradition—a deficiency easily remedied through time—than to any failing of the management. Indeed, the pre-race show was a three-ring circus, in the style of Le Mans, which Lockton and Lufkin had studied. There was a quasi-military parade of firefighting equipment—a battalion of Dodge trucks with firehose gun mounts and helmeted firemen straight out of Fahrenheit 451, led by a weird beast known as the Ansul X-2, a 130-mph crash tank capable of squirting 70 feet of foam or water on any wreck anywhere this side of San Berdoo. There was an impressive display of stunt flying by "Skip Wolf and his Chipmunk." There was an abortive parawing flight, in which the towrope broke on liftoff and the flier did a miraculous full gainer to land precisely on his takeoff spot. There were flags, flags, flags—until even the hardest of the resident hardhats grew a bit bored with red, white and blue. And then there was the wind—25 knots out of the northwest—which played the only dirty trick of the day on Ontario. It worked its way under the checkered tarps holding down 50,000 particolored balloons, which were to be released just before the start, and sent them leaking out toward San Diego in a gaudy swirl. On the other hand, the wind lifted many a miniskirt and scaled away many a cowboy hat, much to the delight of the crowd.
The start itself was ragged. Lockton had imported Indy's Tony Hulman to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" but the Indy magic doesn't travel well. In that bright California sun, and with the Ontario theme song, The Impossible Dream, still cloying the eardrums, Hulman's words rang hollow and flat. Lloyd Ruby and his "Silent Majority Special" sat on the pole, having qualified at 177.567 mph, and that, too, added a note of incredibility to the proceedings. Ruby is a notorious non-finisher. A lot of affection was directed toward Dan Gurney, the No. 2 qualifier, since Southern California is Dan's turf and his dark blue Eagle-Offy was, as usual, meticulously well-prepared. Indy Winner Al Unser, in the second row, and the dangerous duo of Foyt and Andretti in Row Three also drew oohs and ahs from the crowd: they knew those names. Some of the smart money was betting that young Swede Savage, in the Gurney-pre-pared Eagle-Ford, the only stock-block car in the race, would be the winner. Ontario's high speeds and higher heat (up to 100° during the afternoon) rendered the turbocharged Fords and Offenhausers suspect. It would be a race of attrition, everyone agreed. It was.
The field took the green flag after two warmup laps—and the start was on time. That's important. Almost immediately, the dropouts started dropping. Roger McCluskey pitted on the first lap. On lap two, Jim (Iron Hercules) Hurtubise slammed the wall in Turn Three with his red Genesee Special, the only front-engined car in the race. Here suffered a mild concussion and the sentimentalists in the crowd a mild heartache. (How dreamy if an old-timey roadster could win just one more big race, but it was not in the cards.) Johnny Rutherford, the No. 3 qualifier and always a threat, as they say, blew his engine on the sixth lap, and some cynics began muttering: "This race will be over in 20 minutes." It durn near was: Mark Donohue, usually a laster if not a winner, popped a piston and was out within 20 miles. Ruby went a short time later. Gurney creamed the wall on lap 99 just a few yards ahead of Hurtubise's impact point and was finished. "I hit it hard enough to knock the wheels off and give me a bit of a headache," lamented Dan later. He gave his fans a bit of a fright, too.
With Al Unser comfortably in the lead, the race was truly an Indy copy, and now a dull one at that. One by one, the only contenders for the lead dropped out. Joe Leonard with a spinout; Mario Andretti with a broken gearbox. Peter Revson, into the pits in his McLaren-Offy for an "insurance" refueling under a yellow flag, burned out a coil and lost 11 laps to Unser, only to come out later and finish fifth. Then Big Al himself went—with a blown engine on the 187th lap. Suddenly, what had been a dull, flat afternoon became anyman's race—and perhaps the first root of tradition at the Ontario end of the Championship Trail.
There, in the lead, sat Lee Roy Yarbrough, a stock-car driver, of all things. And right behind him Art Pollard of Medford, Ore., who had started second from last in the field. Down in Victory Circle, California's Governor Ronald Reagan asked Dave Lockton: "Who is this guy Yarbrough? I ought to know about him if I have to give him the Governor's Trophy." Just as Lockston started to explain, Lee Roy's engine blew with a gout of blue smoke in the main straightaway. "Well," continued Reagan as the groans died away, "then who is this guy Pollard."
He need not have asked. As Announcer Dean Webber so aptly described the final confusion: "That's what a 500 is all about. You can be fast as the dickens for 499 laps—check that, I mean 199 laps, I mean 499 miles.... " With the 200th and final lap just around the corner, Texan Jim McElreath passed Pollard and took the checkered flag, along with $155,884 in prize money. The winner's speed was 160.106 mph, a new record for a USAC 500-mile race. There had been only five yellow caution flags, for a mere 21½ minutes, indicating that while Ontario may be hell on engines and tires, what with its high speeds and heat, it is a safe course. There were but four spinouts, and no injuries beyond Hurtubise's concussion and Gurney's headache. All in all, a good show.
Except for Governor Reagan. As McElreath's car was backed into Victory Circle for the customary honors, Ontario's uptight, crowd-controlling security failed and a bunch of eager photographers scrunched the Guv against the Coyote-Ford's still-sizzling tailpipes. "It ruined the Governor's beautiful white jacket there," said Dave Lockton later. "I know that breaks you all up. But I'm damn well satisfied, and I know we'll do much better next year."
If they do, then the Championship Trail will have a happy ending.