Smithology: In praise of a profoundly old place

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Sam Smith

Bill Huth painted the thing onto the side of a mountain. Up in the Mojave, near Edwards Air Force Base, where test pilots like Chuck Yeager used to work in the sky every day and occasionally fall back out of it. Paddock signs say Established November 22, 1953 and FASTEST ROAD IN THE WEST. Huth is gone now, dead in 2015 at 91, but the memorial billboard at the gates of the track he founded keeps his image on the grounds of Willow Springs Raceway, forever smiling. The black-and-white photo of him up there is literally larger than life, the man astride an old motorcycle and grinning as if he knows something you don’t.

Willow doesn’t change much. The track layout is pure 1950s, i.e., big and ballsy and not much else. That pavement is renewed maybe every third blue moon, bright and black for a few months before the high desert bakes it back to a uniform gray. The oxidized water tanks clinging to the side of the mountain look older than the land itself. A small collection of other tracks are tucked into the property—two ovals and a pair of tight little road courses, mostly used for testing and drifting. But the big track is the draw. Big Willow. Nine corners and 2.5 miles. In aerial images, it looks like a pistol aimed at L.A., 80 miles to the south.

Willow Springs Raceway aerial map
Sam Smith

We come back to these places because of what they are and what they mean, but also because they stay the same while the world shifts. In some cases, we return simply because a very old race track in the desert is the closest road course to the Los Angeles city limits. Buttonwillow Raceway Park is newer and more useful for testing, but it’s also another two hours up California’s arid central valley. Chuckwalla Valley Raceway is 80 miles outside Palm Springs, which leaves it almost 200 miles from downtown L.A. In a city that can measure a ten-mile commute in hours, distance counts.

Working for a car magazine means you end up in Los Angeles a lot. Which means you meet Willow a lot. I know people who complain about this. The weather is often either chokingly hot or miserably cold. The fat aggregate in the track’s broad pavement hates tires. Afternoon winds send EZ-Ups careening across the paddock and can hit a car’s nose like a brick wall, robbing whole seconds per lap. Testing there is often a time-consuming tail-chase. My friend David Wyckoff, a former Sprite racer, jokingly calls it the Worst Place on Earth.

He’s wrong, of course. But that’s the joke.

Willow Springs Raceway valley view
Sam Smith

Turns 8 and 9 make the place. A long, fast right-hander where most modern performance cars see healthy triple digits, and then a tighter, slower right with a dip in the middle that flings you onto the front straight. Each is bumpier than ideal but the bumps are part of the draw. The wind gusts that burst through there can toss you sideways or jack the nose and put so much air under the front bumper that the steering goes dead.

Wyckoff told me a story once, of when Boris Said came to visit. The Trans-Am and sports-car legend was coaching a few people. Someone asked how you put a car through Willow’s last two turns in a way that felt right, or at least better than awful.

“You don’t,” he laughed. “It always sucks!” And it does, but you still love it. Or at least I do. Another friend and I rented the kart track once, on a freelance gig for Motorcyclist. We had co-reported a story on the impact of marijuana intoxication while riding—a dozen interviews, stacks of research. How else to cap such a piece, our editor decided, than with participatory journalism? When we needed somewhere to put 50-cc dirt bikes through timed laps while ingesting buckets of a controlled substance, Willow was the obvious answer. You feel blessedly alone up there, even when you’re not.

Willow Springs Raceway vintage boundary signage
Sam Smith

Private shops are scattered around the property. Dead cars sit in the weeds next to water trucks older than my father. The few signs not weathered to peeling were painted a few years ago, during the filming of Ford v Ferrari, when Hollywood set dressers made the track look more as it did almost 60 years backThey didn’t have to do much.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale played Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles there; Shelby and Miles actually raced there in period; Tom Cruise once flew a helicopter over the infield for a Red Bull PR stunt; I have flung through Turn 1 in a way that would impress none of those people but was still good enough to win an amateur sedan race and lodge the day in A-list memory. Morning sunlight tints the dirt orange. When the wind and temperature inversions are right, sunset sends a wall of fog blooming across the valley. A vapor billow hundreds of feet high pours onto the flats like water into a tub, then disappears into the dark. No Milky Way—too much light pollution for that—but the stars are bright, and the occasional Air Force fighter will pop overhead, running into Edwards on low approach. To the south, past the Angeles Forest, the city glows like a halo on the hills.

Willow Springs Raceway kart track sign
Sam Smith

I have been going to Willow Springs on and off my whole career. The first time I took a flag there, in a club race, a journalist friend asked what I thought. I tried to be polite.

“It’s fun, but I kind of wish there was more going on? It feels like two long drag strips and a couple of high-speed skidpads.”

“Oh, come on,” he said. “It’s more than that.”

I wasn’t wrong, but then, neither was he.

Willow Springs Raceway yellow flowers through fencelink
Sam Smith

As L.A. expands, California shrinks. The track’s interstate exit was once little more than a gas station and a road to the air base; it is now a small suburb with a new Starbucks. A race track in the boonies with encroaching NIMBYs is nothing new, but this hits different. An assumed immunity gifted by distance and history but not actually real, I guess.

We don’t have a lot of old places in America, partly because the country was built by people with a tendency to do dramatic and reinventive things like sail across an ocean for a better idea. As for our motorsport relics, there is too often a strange habit of neglect. Witness the run-down paddock buildings at Mid-Ohio, or the fact that it took decades to make the main bathrooms at Laguna Seca something more than a dirty rest stop. What if Willow had showers for camping visitors instead of cinderblock toilets? If the place was more of a tourist attraction? I don’t know if I’d like it as much.

ND Miata interior at Willow Springs Raceway
Sam Smith

And now there is news. The grapevine tells me the whole property is for sale. I do not live in California or its social loops and so only heard this last week, when I drove up from L.A. to test a friend’s race car. I had picked up a press-fleet Miata at LAX the night before, leaving the parking garage with Lucinda Williams on the stereo and the top down in the dark. Rolling into the track the next morning, the sun threw a gradient over the horizon, one of those memories you want to dip in amber so you can call it up later and roll around in the colors like a dog on a rug.

ND Miata Recaro seats at Willow Springs Raceway
Sam Smith

Road courses don’t sell every day. I don’t need my own track and couldn’t afford one if I did. That’s the thing about Willow, though, or any landmark of lore and warmth. When you meet the place, your mind rifles through possibilities: What if? The answer never matters so much as simply asking the question.

Bill Huth knew that. The smile in that photo says so. I drive through those gates, and I wonder if we are ever meant to feel anything else.

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