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.