When We Lose a Race Track, Everyone Loses

Sunset on the Auto Club Speedway was this NASCAR event in February 2023. Some said the 2.0-mile, 240-mph oval was too long, but its loss is still our loss. Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Los Angeles is a town with a well-earned reputation for a short attention span. You’re only as good as your last 90 minutes, goes the old saying in the movie business, and the hook is always waiting to yank off stage anything or anyone who isn’t killing it. That rule applies to race tracks, too. The Los Angeles Motordrome, a board track erected in 1910, lasted just three years, and Beverly Hills Speedway, which opened in 1920, only four years until the real estate developers got it. Riverside Raceway managed an unforgettable 32-year run before it was plowed under to make way for a shopping mall. Perhaps the ghost of Ken Miles still haunts the place; after years of decline, the mall boasts hundreds of thousands of vacant square feet.

Given the long odds, Auto Club Speedway, aka California Speedway, did pretty well—26 years from the day the 2.0-mile D-shaped banked oval opened to host 240-mph Indy-car laps to the day the wrecking ball arrived. Drone videos surfaced in November of chomping excavators tearing away at grandstands. In posterity, it joins the “Indianapolis of the West,” the short-lived Ontario Speedway (10 years, ending in 1980) which was just up the freeway. Its land now hosts a CarMax, a Benihana, and an El Torito, among its other pearls of suburban banality.

Auto Club’s demise leaves a metro area of nearly 13 million with only one circular track within its environs: Irwindale Speedway, a strictly amateur venue, which somehow has dodged decade-old plans to convert it into a mall. Likely because the mall business, thanks to Amazon, etc., is in even worse shape than the racing business. Vows by NASCAR to eventually replace Auto Club with a half-mile oval on what remains of acreage that has mostly been sold off to a developer intent on building logistics warehouses (for Amazon, etc.) have no firm timetable.

Laguna Seca Aerial Monterey CA State Gov
County of Monterey/T.M. Hill 2017

It’s a sad fact that in places, racing struggles to pay the bills for the increasingly expensive land that it occupies, and the forces of redevelopment never sleep. To the north, Monterey County, the deed holder of Laguna Seca, was in December sued by locals aiming to curtail or eliminate the famed track. You can shout until you are blue in the face that the circuit, opened in 1957, predates all of the surrounding McMansions. But those people don’t care who was first, they really don’t. They have money and lawyers and they are game to try their luck in court.

It’s a challenge that race tracks share with local municipal airports. The airport where I keep my Cessna is a former U.S. Army Air Corps training base built in 1939, now under attack from a small but vocal clique of residents who wish it gone. They have already tasted blood in nearby Santa Monica, where an airfield that opened in 1923 and supplied thousands of Douglas Aircraft during World War II is set to close in 2028 so that developers can dine on its bones.

Once upon a time, a bolder America accepted and even celebrated these facilities as proof that the world’s greatest economy produced vital and thrilling pursuits that enriched our lives and supplied a creative outlet to our energy and industry. Now, a more flaccid nation that prefers to sit at home streaming and shopping foreign-made junk online sees nothing in these venues but noise, pollution, and risk. They are unwittingly being stoked by gimlet-eyed developers who are salivating over the land and willing to fund legal teams and sympathetic council candidates. Replacing a track or an airport with warehouses or 20 to 30 high-density housing units per acre will line the pockets of the developers, but it won’t do much for noise and pollution in the community. Everyone is bound to be disappointed—except the developers of course.

But the relentless demand for more housing drives cities to flatten anything in their path that appeals only to a minority. And like it or not, we are a minority. Unless we fight, unless we write letters and go to council meetings and support candidates who believe there should be recreational room for everyone, we will end up like the misfits in medieval times, hounded out the city gates and banished to the countryside so that we can continue enjoying activities that were once popular in an earlier, more energetic age. At least, until the city inevitably sprawls in our direction.


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    I moved to the little city next to the Riverside Raceway, at that time called Sunnymead. The only reason was because of the raceway which I loved.but within 2 months it was being torn down for a ghost town of a mall . Now where I still live is all Amazon warehouses which causes pollution and Hugh freeway backups due to these rigs.

    That’s disturbing to hear about Laguna Seca. Farmers face the same issues as well. Someone plops down some houses in the country on land surrounded by working farms, then complains about the farming activities (noises, dust, and smells). Never mind that many of those farms have been around for well over a century.

    Today’s news here in UK is that a village of over 300 people has a church that has been ringing its bells for over 150 years, had a complaint from a new arrival that the bells were keeping him awake at night so he complained, and the Parish council shut down the bell ringing completely. The villagers then got together and eventually had the council overthrow the complainant so that the bells are ringing once more. Stand together and you might just win, but divided, you will fall to the fat cats!

    Yup – buy a house beside the train tracks or an airport. What, you somehow missed that before you moved in ?

    I fear only F1 may be the only racing survivor. A spectacle to see and cool to say you’ve been there for the young. My dragster was parked on my driveway as I was ready to load it into the trailer. A young father and his son walked by. Son asked “dad, what kind of car is that ? Dad answered…..I don’t know son” Sad indeed.

    Next time, invite the kid to come sit in it. Explain how it works. You might get another kid hooked on racing! We do this at all vintage races…sit the kids in our ’72 Alfa…buckle them into the harness, teach them how to shift, take their picture behind the wheel…smiles from one side to the other from the kid and the parents!!

    I miss Riverside. Saw a bunch of races there. Took a driving class there (in Forumula Fords). And I was fortunate to have an opportunituy to race at Irwindale- on my bicycle. There was a yearly race there as part of annual SoCal bike racing schedule. I raced with the old men (55 plus). And as in cars, it was all about drafting; and then slingshotting on the last lap. I finished mid-pack. No sprints for me.

    Unfortunately attendance is down at most any racetrack, just look at the lead photo. The cost to attend a race on a regular basis is getting out of reach for many. I attended the recent NHRA race in Gainesville, 300 miles from home. Between travel, a weekend ticket, a hotel for 2 nights, some meals, etc, I spent approx $600, just for myself. Were I to bring a spouse or family, the cost could approach $800-900. Not many family’s have that amount in their budget for entertainment on a monthly basis. It goes for any track from NASCAR to your local dirt oval. Then factor in the ever rising cost’s racetracks face; taxes, insurance, maintenance, etc and it’s no wonder many are just giving up and selling out. If you add in the NIMBY’s it just becomes too much of a headache for the track operators. They are already operating on a thin profit margin and just don’t have the money to pay the lawyers cost’s.

    Yes it sucks, and I don’t know what the solution is.

    I couldn’t agree more! We seem to be more “light duty” than ever. A 98-year old friend, who went on the Normandy beaches on D-day, just died and was still as mentally and physically tough as he was in 1944. There aren’t many guys like that these days.
    Separately, the Rockford, Illinois speedway just fell to the wrecking ball to be replaced by a bunch of Red Lobsters and Chick Fil-A’s for the flaccid… Sad

    People who complain about something that existed before they moved in (or maybe were even born) are a special breed. Tracks are disappearing bit by bit. It’s sad.

    You failed to mention Perris Speedway in Perris, Ca, and Ventura Raceway in Ventura, CA. Also, all the very famous dragstrips in the LA area that were the birthplace of drag racing. Sad…..

    Regarding Auto Club Speedway. This was also a roval. Part of the oval was used along with the infield. This was 2.88 mile road course. You could carry a lot of speed on the oval before turning down into the infield road course at turn 3. PCA ,SCCA, SVRA, NASA and VARA were some of the clubs who used this track for some there events.

    Yes, getting pressed into your seat going through NASCAR turn 1 followed by the hard braking into Turn 3 passing folks (or being passed) on the brakes was always a rush. The infield was pretty chewed up from years of transports being parked there for major ROVAL events, but we kind of called that “character”. You just learned where the bumps and ever-widening cracks and broken seams were and tried to avoid them. It was always a great venue place to be at, with the best garage facilities in California and other amenities that we club racers (SCCA in my case) couldn’t find at many other places. It is missed.

    Don’t know about California. Our local dirt track packs them in on summer Saturday nights. No real drag strips left though. Kentucky Speedway didn’t figure out the traffic patterns and paid a price for it.

    We lost our local race track Heidelberg Raceway in 1973. The shopping center they built there is called Raceway Plaza

    I lived close to Heibelberg with my parents as a teenager. Could hear them at night in bed when the windows would be open. Loved it, and even went there on date nights when I got older. My parents never complained about it. They knew it was there before buying the home. Need less to say, I ended up
    belonging to SCCA, and my story is to long to tell here. Shopping malls will one day be gone, and then maybe the race tracks can come back again.

    Growing up in the Los Angeles area in the 60’s and early 70’s the question wasn’t if we were going to the drag strip that Sunday, but which Drag strip would we go to this time! Now, there is only one option, Pomona, for full quarter mile racing. I was around for the opening and the eventual closing of the Ontario raceway and Riverside Raceway being involved with a friend who was an SCCA race car drive. I have taken lessons at Irwindale but the last time was for my 70th birthday almost 10 years ago and hope to do it again for my 80th birthday if it is still around. Yes the city wants to tear it down to get an increase on property tax revenue as all these things are driven by the almighty dollar. Wonder how long it will be before street racing becomes a big problem!

    At my age I understand suburban sprawl,I get the need for more housing or land fill sites where old established race track and small airports now stand
    I think that this is to be expected in own ever expanding population base
    But I also believe that racetracks play a very important role in a community ,from an entertainment and financial aspect
    So what I would like to see is a new track built before the old ones are plowed in subdivisions and malls
    So once the new track is operational by all means remove the old one
    Aren’t dreams wonderful,don’t you wish sometimes they’d come true?

    The problem, simply put, is: ” Racetracks Don’t Vote “.

    Now more than ever, track operators need local business and resident support to stay viable, even while most of their fans, customers and participants travel long distances to get there.

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