FONTANA, Calif. - The first time Roger Penske flew over the future site of the California Speedway in a helicopter, it was too foggy to see anything.
Had the skies been clear, Penske would have seen the kinds of things that had scared off others interested in turning the land into a major auto racing track for Southern California.
The shuttered Kaiser Steel mill property - an industrial wasteland littered with thousands of tires and idled blast furnaces - was a pock on the landscape of this steel town 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
"I think people were afraid to come to California," Penske said. "To be able to accumulate 600 acres and have it zoned for a racetrack was a monumental job. That probably had most people thinking it couldn't be done.
"We had the experience. Our timing was just right."
The project was made more daunting by the necessary environmental reclamation. Kaiser officials agreed to contribute the land and clean it up to state specifications in exchange for equity in Penske's company.
After he and partner Les Richter ruined a Cadillac driving around the property, Penske envisioned a state-of-the-art track with amenities rarely seen in auto racing.
His dream becomes a $110 million reality this weekend, when the NASCAR circuit arrives for Sunday's inaugural California 500 at the lushly landscaped, palm-dotted track near the San Bernardino Mountains.
"This is the right thing at the right time for here," he said.
Penske was already a force along his self-described beat of Interstate 10. His auto dealerships are strung out from El Monte to Covina to Ontario, and now the speedway extends his territory farther east.
The 2-mile asphalt oval will host three major weekends this year. After the California 500, CART takes over for the Marlboro 500 on Sept. 28, and NASCAR returns Oct. 19 for the Kenwood 300.
Penske isn't rushing to acquire more dates, although he said by 1999 or 2000 the track could be busier.
"We want to have the big-event concept here," he said. "We wouldn't have gone forward with the speedway if we didn't think the economics worked for those three events. The number of events will accrue out of the success we have."
Clearly, Penske expects to prosper. Grandstand seating of 71,000 was sold out for the California 500, and another 10,000 were expected to crowd the grassy infield. Also sold out were 71 luxury suites (at $120,000 each) behind pit row.
"Everything that we expected to sell, we've sold," he said. "We have people waiting in line. We could have sold 100,000."
So why didn't Penske live large and build bigger?
"I was a lot more conservative on this one than maybe I'm known to be," he said. "We were concerned, could we sell all the seats? What we didn't want to have happen is what happened at Ontario."
Five miles west, also hard by Interstate 10, Ontario Motor Speedway opened with great promise, only to fail by 1980. It was the site of the last NASCAR Winston Cup race on an oval track in Southern California.
"They might have just been a little bit before their time," Penske said. "They were highly leveraged. There were a lot of bonds involved. There was not the equity in that particular track that we have here."
Riverside International Raceway closed after Rusty Wallace won the Budweiser 400 in June 1988, leaving the CART race in Long Beach as the region's only event.
Back then, auto racing wasn't as big. Now there are more events, bigger prize money, increased television exposure, higher-profile drivers and greater fan interest.
"Auto racing in the '60s, '70s and early '80s wasn't really too romantic as far as drawing people," said Richter, the speedway's executive vice president. "The difference is today, the interest in the people that buy the tickets and go to the races is at an all-time high."
Penske was cautious because he was spending his own money. An initial public offering of stock in Penske Motorsports Inc., in 1996 generated $80 million, which he lavished on the Fontana track.
"We probably increased the budget at that point by about $35 million," he said.
Metal buildings became block structures, parking lots were paved, more restrooms went up in areas usually ignored, and Cherry Avenue, off the track's main gate, went from two lanes to six.
Fueled by fan anticipation, Penske is already planning to expand the track, which is modeled after his Michigan International Speedway.
"We can put over 250,000 seats around this track," he said. "Just based on the fan interest today, we'll expect to increase to over 100,000 for 1999."
Penske has borrowed a few ideas implemented by rival Bruton Smith at the new Texas Motor Speedway.
Parking at California Speedway is free to save time getting in and out. Personal seat licenses, which go for $1,200, were allotted for 12,000 grandstand seats. Purchasers have first right to buy seats at each event for 20 years.
The money Penske loses from free parking could be made up if all the PSLs are sold, which would give him a $14.4 million profit.
Other innovations include:
Fans aren't the only people Penske wants to please. The drivers have to want to tear around at top speed or no one will want to watch.
Paul Tracy, who drives Indy cars for Penske, was first on the track earlier this year and hit a surprising top speed of 217 mph in a shakedown designed to check out the track's surface.
NASCAR drivers also tested, and gave favorable reviews.
"Everything about this place is just awesome," Wallace said. "Very smooth, real driver friendly and come late June, you'll see drivers going side by side in the turns and putting on a great show."
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