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Ascot Park is an oval half-mile dirt racetrack with a motorcycle course meandering through its infield, and where there aren't any billboards the wooden fence is painted what they call Richard Petty blue. The track is located in Gardena, Calif. on top of an old municipal dump, almost at the conjunction of the San Diego and Harbor freeways. It is the fourth track in the Los Angeles area to bear that name over the past 65 years, which gives the place a pretty good pedigree. Ascot is known nationally as the most famous motorcycle track on the West Coast, and for midget racers its Thanksgiving Day Grand Prix is the key prestige event on the United States Auto Club calendar. Still, at first—maybe even third—glance this is an unlikely setting for a man whose race cars have won two Indianapolis 500s and seized the pole position three times, a man who may well be the single most influential person in USAC championship car racing today.
But then J.C. Agajanian, the 59-year-old president, pooh-bah and sartorial wonder of Ascot, is a rather unlikely sort himself. The most significant thing about the current part owner of the Agajanian-Leader Card Special is that he is the self-made Number One son of a self-made Armenian immigrant, a fact that over the years has dictated not only his personal life-style but his choice of professions. Except for the circumstances of his birth, Agajanian today might be an ex-race driver—or more likely a dead one, considering his long-standing indifference toward the American motor car.
Once on the Los Angeles freeways Agajanian literally drove Kelly Petillo, the 1935 Indy 500 winner, to distraction with his uneven stop-and-go driving. And when Petillo, who was more romantic about such things, sought to admonish him, Aggie retorted, "Look, I don't care what happens to this car. If I drive it into the guardrail I can always get another one." Petillo slumped down in the passenger seat and said sadly, "'Aggie, don't ever talk about a car like that."
But Aggie was saved from himself because in certain clannish societies, notably the Armenian, the oldest son is not only expected to enter the family business but to carry on the family name. Since a prerequisite for the latter is living long enough to propagate, Aggie's career as a professional driver ended in 1932, roughly 24 hours after he had bought his first race car.
First he got the use of his father's street car, a Studebaker President 8, on the pretext of having it washed every Saturday afternoon. Instead, Aggie used it to gain a reputation as a street racer along Alameda, or "Truck Boulevard," as it was then known. According to Aggie, "There were a couple of S turns that were kinda hairy if you didn't get them done right," and his friends thought that he negotiated them well enough to consider a racing career.
Finally, one Friday afternoon when his father was out of town, Aggie secretly borrowed $1,500 and bought a sprint car. The next day his father came home, saw Aggie working on the car, and an Armenian drama ensued:
Father: What is that?
Aggie: My racer.
Father: You're not gonna drive.
Aggie: Yes, I am.