The Saga Of Irwindale Speedway: One Of Last Places To Race In LA

IRWINDALE

Street racing is an ongoing issue in Los Angeles. People aren’t just getting injured or killed at the races, but as a result of trying to evade arrest as well. Impromptu automotive competition has been around since the first two motorized buggies pulled up to the same stop sign, and putting an end to illegal racing on the street altogether is likely an unobtainable goal, but there are obvious ways to curtail it.

One of those ways is to provide enthusiasts and racers with a place to compete in a safe, organized environment – one which doesn’t put bystanders at risk and minimizes the safety issues for those who want to get involved. That need has facilitated the development of race tracks across the world for decades.

Every Thursday night through the end of 2016, Irwindale Speedway will be hosting NHRA Thursday Night Thunder, where anyone with a car that can pass basic tech inspection can race all night (from 5-10 p.m.) on the strip for $20 dollars. We saw everything from showroom stock Acura sedans to Pro Street racecars in the mix at the most recent event, and everyone was clearly having a blast. Perhaps even more importantly, they were racing legally and safely rather than out on public streets.

But even in an area like Los Angeles, where car culture is prevalent and facilities like these are clearly needed, race tracks have become an endangered species on the brink of extinction. The reasons behind the reduction of tracks in and around L.A. over the decades are numerous, but at the forefront of the issue is a cocktail of profitability and urban expansion, which has seen real estate development move into the otherwise sparsely populated areas where race tracks are typically built and muscling them out in favor of quieter, more lucrative ventures.

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Most motorsport communities are a tight-knit group, and Irwindale’s is no different in that regard. Bob Beck, the track’s announcer, seems to know just about every car that comes out to run whether they’re newcomers or track regulars, and has a way of making them all feel like family. Stokes tells us that although the track has an outlet in the fence that would send racers back to staging before passing by the bleachers, they purposely set up the outlet to pass by the crowd so that spectators can interact with the racers after their runs and get a better look at their cars.

For obvious reasons, this action caused great concern not only for racers but for the LAPD as well. “There’s always that concern as to what could happen if there’s no option or alternative available,” Sgt. George Zendejas of the Irwindale Police Department told ABC 7 in an interview when news of the outlet mall broke.

Irwindale Speedway is poised to become the next victim of the trend. The property, which houses a multi-use oval track and an eighth-mile drag strip, was sold to a real estate firm with plans to demolish the track to make way for an outlet mall, a move which was supported by the Irwindale City Council.

But in order to really understand the situation we have to look back at how Irwindale Speedway came to be and what this unique facility offers, which goes well beyond just a night at the drag races.

A Multi-Purpose Facility

For more than a decade and a half, Irwindale Speedway has offered an alternative to illegal motorsport exhibition on the street. Purchased in 1999, the site where the track was built was formerly a landfill, and a rock quarry before that.

Located in the San Gabriel valley and about a twenty-minute drive from downtown L.A., Irwindale is by far the closest legal place for racers in central Los Angeles to compete at. Beyond the drag strip, the Speedway offers twin paved oval race tracks (banked 1/2 and 1/3-mile) and seating for 6,000 spectators.

Irwindale's oval track hosts everything from NASCAR Late Model races to exhibition runs by jet-powered drag trucks like Inferno. They also have a monthly series dubbed the Night of Destruction during the warmer months, which includes events like auto soccer, demolition derby, trailer racing, and other crowd pleasers.

Along with drag racing, which is available every Thursday to anyone with a car that will pass the basic tech inspection (i.e. the car doesn’t leak fluids, has seat belts, and the battery is tied down), the facility hosts Stock Cars, Sprint Cars, Midgets, Supermodifieds, Legends, Trucks, and numerous other series throughout the year, along with drift competitions and their Night of Destruction events; the latter of which have been known to fill the Speedway to capacity, as they did this July.

“The drag strip is profitable,” says Doug Stokes, spokesman for the Irwindale Speedway. “Every Thursday night we allow in a maximum of 250 cars – everything from bone stock minivans to purpose-built Pro Street race cars – and we hit that cap just about every week.”

Stokes explained that they could allow more cars in, but they want to make sure each racer can get at least three runs in throughout the evening. “This track is run by a crew of experts in the field – we have tech guys who are flown around the country to assist the NHRA who are also helping out here at Irwindale, and everyone involved is here because they care deeply about racing, the racing community, and the experience that both racers and spectators will have here.”

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Skid Plates are done in the same cars that compete in the Enduro events. In Skid Plate races, the rear wheels are replaced by bare rims with flat metal plates welded to the bottom. With the drive wheels up front, the effect is like FWD ice racing as the drivers fight to maintain control during near-constant drifts as showers of sparks trailed behind them.

Diversity is also a part of the speedway in more ways than one. “We have enthusiasts of different ages, different walks of life, and with all sorts of different cars all converging here to have a great time in a safe environment,” Stokes points out. “You walk through the staging area on a drag night and it’s like a car show and a get-together rolled into one, with different groups of enthusiasts mingling together and showing off what they’re running.”

Irwindale also offers racers who are looking to expand their horizons the option to do so. “It was costing me more to run in autocross than it does to run in these events,” says Kevin Zanit of KZ Racing, who runs in the Enduro and Skid Plate events, which are held on road courses of various configurations on the oval track and its infield. “The rumor is that if Irwindale shuts down, other tracks might pick up these events, but they are all FAR away.”

Figure 8 Enduro races put the competition into cross traffic mayhem that's perfectly in step with the tone of the Night of Destruction events. The finale on those nights is Trailer Racing, and once you've seen the aftermath of a trailer race, it's pretty clear why it's the last event of the night.

“You forget about everything, any problems, bills, and all of that,” drag racer Refugio Villaviciencio told ABC News. “Here you can just forget it for a little while.”

Stokes says that the speedway also gladly provides the facility to first responders. The Los Angeles Fire Department conducts tiller rig training in the track’s parking lot, while the LAPD also runs some of its training exercises there, as well. “The regular presence of these folks helps keep the area safe,” he points out.

While drag racers mix up on the eighth-mile strip during the NHRA Thursday Night Thunder events, the oval is converted into an exhibition drift course. Like the drag strip, this event is open to anyone with a car that will pass tech inspection, and the cars we saw participating ranged from stock daily drivers to purpose-built drift machines.

All of this makes the Irwindale Event Center a unique presence in Los Angeles. It caters to automotive enthusiasts on many different levels and takes the dangerous elements of those interests off the streets of LA and into a safe, purpose-built environment. But the whether or not the track will continue operations into 2017 and beyond is essentially anyone’s guess right now.

An Uncertain Future

Organizers at Irwindale Speedway have promised to continue operating the track as planned until further notice. But in the months following the sale of the facility, information about the future of Irwindale Speedway has been scarce. “The track was sold more than two years ago,” says Stokes. “Since then we’ve heard no shortage of speculation and rumor as to what might be going on, but we honestly don’t know much more about the situation than anyone else does.”

One of the theories making the rounds says that the loan to break ground on the outlet mall has stalled while more backers are sought, but the figures surrounding the story are dubious. “The track was sold for $22 million a few years ago,” Stokes explains. “The firm that bought it offered to sell it back for two or three times the purchase price more recently. But this $500,000,000 figure used in the story – I don’t think anyone could possibly value the property at that figure unless they had struck gold here.”

Power Automedia's own Harrison Noble was out at the track doing baseline testing last night. Irwindale's ease of access and location make this a great place to test and tune - if this track were to go away, it would make gather this kind of data significantly more difficult.

Power Automedia’s own Harrison Noble was out at the track doing baseline testing in his Mustang on this night. Irwindale’s ease of access and location make this a great place to test and tune – if this track were to go away, it would make gathering this kind of data significantly more difficult. Irwindale Speedway is also the only track in the area that offers evening test and tune events like this one. Once the lights go on and the temperatures come down, these events offer a more casual and fun atmosphere than you might find on a hot weekend day at the track.

Any way you slice it, the facility does seem to be operating on borrowed time at this point. But how long that will last still remains a mystery. “We hope to have some information before the end of the season,” Stokes reports. He also points out that even under a worst case scenario in which Irwindale Speedway does shut down after this year, they have a turn-key crew on hand to help organize another track elsewhere in the area.

“We’ve offered to help any community or private organization in the southland to design, set-up, and operate an eighth-mile NHRA Street Legal dragstrip, knowing full well that the area and the cause could benefit greatly from strips like ours in places the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, South Bay, and Long Beach areas.”

In the meantime, if you live in L.A., we’d suggest you get your racing in while you can still legally do so.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
Read My Articles

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