Ontario Motor Speedway - California (1970 - 1980)
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Ontario Motor Speedway
Ontario Motor Speedway

Ontario Motor Speedway

 1970 - 1980
Ontario Motor Speedway Circuit Map

The Most Comprehensive Racing Complex Ever

Ontario Motor Speedway was situated in California, 40 miles east of Los Angeles near the airport in the city of Ontario. Work on the project began amid huge publicity on 9th July 1968. The 697-acre site was acquired for $5.8 million and it was planned to run the first race just over two years later in September 1970. Plans comprised a 2½-mile banked-turn super speedway, similar to Indianapolis but faster, a 3.194-mile road-racing circuit using part of the speedway plus an infield section and, lastly, a drag racing strip.

Intended to be the most comprehensive racing complex ever, the specification included a seating capacity of 140,000 (95,000 permanent grandstand seats plus 45,000 portable seats), permanent rest rooms, garages, service buildings, a club house, restaurant, hospitality suites, parking for more than 50,000 vehicles, electronic scoreboard, two-level air-conditioned press room and much more.

The Ontario Motor Speedway Corporation

In order to finance the project $25.5 million was raised by the Ontario Motor Speedway Corporation, a non-profit-making body which issued tax-free bonds offering 7½% interest. The bonds, which were held by around 970 individuals, were to mature on 1st February 1998, when the track would be assigned to the city of Ontario - although the city would not be liable for any debt should the Speedway run into financial problems meantime. In turn, the corporation leased the speedway to Ontario Motor Speedway Inc, a profit-orientated company capitalised with $500,000 in cash plus letters of credit totalling $1.5 million.

The Ontario Motor Speedway Inc had to pay an annual rent of $2 million to the corporation to cover the interest payments to bondholders. It was planned to organise four major events a year, an Indianapolis-style 500-mile race for USAC Championship cars, a 500-mile race for stock cars, a road racing event (for Formula One or Can-Am-type cars) and a national drag race meeting. Weekly drag race meetings, possibly professional sports car races and track-testing were envisaged, but amateur events were ruled out for 'the world's finest racing plant.'

Lloyd Ruby's Mongoose-Offenhauser

There was 'big thinking' all the way, the economic feasibility of the project costing out such items as expected attendance figures for the major promotions, television rights ($82,500 was anticipated for the first year, rising to $348,000 for the fifth), revenue from accessory firms and sponsors, and so on. The grand opening date was set for 6th September 1970, the date of the California 500, a USAC National Championship date for Indianapolis-type machines. The race did resemble the Indy 500, 33 starters qualifying to start the 200-lap event on the banked oval. Fastest qualifier in the four-lap timed runs was veteran Lloyd Ruby, the 42-year-old Texan averaging 177.567 mph in his Mongoose-Offenhauser.

Slowest of all, at a 'mere' 169.101 mph, was the front-engined Mallard-Offenhauser of Jim Hurtubise. The race was watched by 180,223 fans - which was at the time a record sports crowd in California - who groaned when Al Unser's seemingly invincible Colt-Ford succumbed to engine problems with 14 laps to go. Lee Roy Yarborough (Brabham BT32-Offenhauser) took control of the race, but he lost power and Art Pollard, whose Scorpion-Ford had started at the back of the grid, took the lead. With six laps to go Pollard had a puncture - he ran over the wreckage of A. J. Foyt's Coyote-Ford, which had crashed into a wall - and on the last lap was caught and passed by Jim McElreath's Coyote-Ford.

McElreath, a 42-year-old Texan, became the first person to drive his car into Ontario Motor Speedway's Victory Circle (paved with bricks from Indianapolis); he averaged 160.606 mph for the 500 miles and collected $150,000. On 28 March 1971, the next major promotion was run. This was the Questor Grand Prix, an event over two 102-mile heats on the combined road/track circuit for European Formula One and American Formula 5000 cars. Although the European Grand Prix machinery triumphed (after a courageous effort by Mark Donohue's Penske-entered F5000 Lola T192-Chevrolet failed), victory did go to an American driver, Mario Andretti. Mario won both heats in his works Ferrari 312B-1/71, winning $39,400 and beating Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell 001-Ford) and Denny Hulme (McLaren M19A-Ford) on aggregate.

Al and Bobby Unser

Original plans called for the race to be given World Championship status in 1972 as the United States' second championship qualifier, but Questor withdrew their backing at the end of June when the Formula One Association demanded a massive purse of $300,000. The second California 500, Iike the first, provided a surprise 'under-dog' winner. Run once more on Labor Day-Sunday, the 5th September - it saw the favorites fail. Mark Donohue, whose Penske-entered McLaren M16A-Offenhauser had claimed pole position in qualifying with 185.04 mph, ran out of fuel, leaving the Unser brothers to fight for the lead. Bobby Unser's works Eagle-Offenhauser crashed into the wall, then Al Unser's Colt-Ford broke its gearbox.

This left Joe Leonard to snatch victory in his Colt-Ford from Art Pollard's Brawner-Ford. Leonard won $ 132,039. The 1972 race made history with Bobby Unser's works Eagle-Offenhauser setting a world closed-circuit speed record in qualifying: he averaged 201.374 mph, his best single lap being 201.965 mph. In the race A. J. Foyt's Coyote-Ford jumped into the lead, but succumbed to transmission failure. With both works McLarens and the three Parnellis failing, it was left to Mike Mosley (Eagle-Offenhauser) and Roger McCluskey (McLaren M16A-Offenhauser) to battle it out. Mosley's car suffered engine problems only five laps from the end, leaving McCluskey with a comfortable win; in so doing McCluskey - who had already won at Pocono - became the first man to win two 500-mile USAC races in a year.

Reine Wisell leads Emerson Fittipaldi, both in Gold Leaf Team Lotus 72's, around Ontario in the 1971 Questor Grand Prix
Reine Wisell leads Emerson Fittipaldi, both in Gold Leaf Team Lotus 72's, around Ontario in the 1971 Questor Grand Prix non-Championship race.

Conrad Sprenger and William Gillette's Western Racing Associates

But all was not going to plan at Ontario Motor Speedway. On 29 November 1972, the circuit was closed down. OMS Inc found it almost impossible to pay the $2 million annual rent (this represented almost 60% of the annual gross revenue) and defaulted on a payment. They hoped to propose to the OMS Corporation (the bondholders) that the rental should be made on a percentage of profits rather than a set sum. In this way OMS Inc envisaged the circuit could continue to operate and bondholders would still get a return on their investment, although not the full 7½%. But Nuveen & Co of Chicago, the principle underwriter of the bonds, refused to send OMS Inc's proposal to the bondholders and the circuit had to be dosed down.

There were three avenues open: a new company could be found to operate the circuit at the agreed terms; another proposal could be considered by the bondholders; or the circuit could be sold. On 9 January 1973, the track was apparently back in business. Western Racing Associates agreed to lease the Speedway from the City of Ontario for 12 months. The company, headed by Conrad Sprenger, the head of a local radio station, and financed by William Gillette, a member of the razor family, eventually backed out on the day the deal was due to be signed. In April another agreement was reached, this time with racing driver/constructor Pamelli Jones and Indianapolis president Tony Hulman. The pair agreed to rent the Speedway for a year and had an option for a long-term lease.

It was to transpire that at the end of 1973 Jones and Hulman bargained hard before they would sign the first five-year option on a 50-year agreement to manage the track. Originally, Jones' and Hulman's company - the Ontario Motor Speedway Operating Company - was scheduled to pay the bondholders $500,000 a year plus 50% of the profits to a maximum total of $950,000. Jones offered a yearly guarantee of $100,000 plus 50% of the profits with no ceiling. So as to avoid another track closure, a compromise was reached whereby OMSOC were to pay $150,000 the first year, $200,000 the second, $250,000 the third, $400,000 the fourth and $512,000 the fifth in addition to 50% of the profits. In fact, Nuveen & Co, representing the bondholders, gave the OMSOC a much better deal than that originally sought by the OMS Inc.

Wally Dallenbach and Johnny Rutherford

The 1973 California 500 saw a change of format with two 100-mile qualifying races a week prior to the major race. Winners were Wally Dallenbach (STP Eagle-Offenhauser) and Johnny Rutherford (works McLaren MI6C-Offenhauser). By dint of driving more slowly than the pacemakers and thus making three fewer fuel stops, 36-year-old Dallenbach moved in front in the last 50 miles of the race to beat Mario Andretti's fast-closing Parnelli-Offenhauser by five seconds. In 1974 the race was moved to March and, despite the energy crisis, attracted 150,000 spectators. A. J. Foyt (Coyote-Ford) and Johnny Rutherford (McLaren M16C(D-Offenhauser) won the heats, while the 500-miler itself featured a titanic duel between the Unsers. Finally elder brother Bobby in his works Eagle-Offenhauser conquered Al by less than half-a-second to make it the closest finish in USAC history.

After two years of perseverance with his own development of the Ford engine A. J. Foyt, in his Coyote, outpaced Bobby Unser's Eagle from flag to flag in winning the 1975 race. The Unsers were soon back on top; Bobby won in 1976 and Al took the honours in 1977, in front of the largest crowd to watch the California 500 for five years. Although Ontario Motor Speedway has never quite achieved its intended pre-eminence amongst the world's circuits it had, for the time, survived. But there were more than just financial problems - the local weather, a mixture of humid smog - and unpredictable west winds which played havoc with racing car behaviour, was less than co-operative.

California Jam

The Ontario Motor Speedway was chosen as the venue for the California Jam, which was held on 6th April, 1974. This rock festival concert drew a crowd of 300-400,000, the largest paid attendance for a rock concert. Portions of the concert were televised live on ABC. The performers included (in order of appearance) Rare Earth, Earth, Wind & Fire, Eagles, Seals and Crofts, Black Oak Arkansas, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The second Cal Jam II was held on 18th March, 1978. The second event drew a crowd of almost 300,000 paid attendance. Performers included Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Santana, Dave Mason, Foreigner, Heart, Bob Welch, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood, Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush and Rubicon.

The Chevron Land Company

The Ontario Motor Speedway would struggle on for a few years more, but by 1980 the bonds were selling at approximately $0.30 on the dollar. Generally unknown and unrealized by the bond holding public, the 800 acres (3.2 km2) of land originally purchased at an average price of $7,500 per acre, had now risen to a value of $150,000 per acre. Chevron Land Company, a division of Chevron Oil recognized the opportunity to acquire the bonds and effectively foreclosed on the real estate. For approximately $10 million, Chevron acquired land which had a commercial real estate development value of $120 million, without regard to the historic significance or future potential of the speedway.

The property remained vacant for several years until the mid-1980s when a Hilton Hotel was built on turn 4 of the old speedway site. It was the first multiple story building of its kind in the City of Ontario. As of the mid 2000s, development on the property has increased. Over half of the old speedway property, adjacent to Interstate 10, has been developed commercially. However, a minor tribute to the racing heritage of the property can be seen in the street names of the developed area (ex: Duesenburg Drive, Ferrari Lane, and others), in much the same way that the developed area that was formerly Riverside reflects the same heritage, with roads named after famous drivers.

In 2007, much of the remainder of the property became Piemonte, a mixed-use development with condominiums, business offices, and some retail stores, including the Mathis Brothers furniture store. In the fall of 2008, the centerpiece of Piemonte opened: the Citizens Business Bank Arena, a 11,000-seat sports and entertainment venue. The arena is home to the ECHL Ontario Reign, and is built in the general area of Turn 3 of the old Ontario track. The Ontario Mills is located to the east, across the street from the former site of the Ontario Motor Speedway.
A fueler burns out prior to an actual run on the Ontario Motor Speedway's drag-race strip
A fueler burns out prior to an actual run on the Ontario Motor Speedway's drag-race strip - circa 1974.
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