Could Tracks Like ‘The Big O’ Still Disappear Today?

The Ontario Motor Speedway, located east of Los Angeles, CA, was a 2.5 mile super speedway that hosted NASCAR and IndyCar events. It was considered the sister track to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 3/3/12

Georgia racing historian Mike Bell has been doing a lot of research into a couple of stories that have connections to the old Atlanta Motordrome, which was located just south of Atlanta.

The track, constructed in 1908-09, was a massive 2 mile oval that drew some of the finest drivers of the day.  It had amenities that no other track had ever dreamed of, and, had it survived, it surely would have rivaled the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway in racing history.

But it didn’t survive.  Despite all of the money behind it, having been built by Coca-Cola magnate Asa Chandler, the track only saw action for two years.  Eventually, it would be buried under what is now the busiest airport in the country, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

Reasons for why the track failed have been discussed for years, and we plan to bring that story to you at a later date.  When you see pictures of the massive Atlanta Motordrome, it’s easy to believe that a loss of such a grand facility wouldn’t be possible today.

If you’re one of those that believes that idea, you only have to look at one California super speedway to see that, not only is it possible, but has happened in recent years.

The Ontario Motor Speedway, located 40 miles east of Los Angeles, CA, was built in 1970 at a reported cost of about $25.5 million. The track was intended to be an all-purpose facility.

The most recognizable section of the track was its 2.5-mile oval course. The track was modeled after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but featured a wider racing surface, as well as slightly banked short-chutes between the first and second, and third and fourth turns. This made lap times at the track faster than its eastern cousin.

A 20-turn road course was built into the infield of the facility. The wide pit road was also used as a drag strip, and hosted the first ever 250 mile and hour run by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in 1975.

The icing on the cake was the circle of bricks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that made up Ontario’s victory lane, in the shape of a big “O.”

The first event at the magnificent new track was held on Labor Day of 1970. It was a 500-mile USAC Indy car race, won by Jim McElreath in a Ford powered Coyote.

The next year, Ontario brought in the big NASCAR stock cars, but there was still an Indy connection in the event. A.J. Foyt won the first NASCAR Cup event at the track, and would win the event again in 1972. A.J. would also find success at the track in his Indy car, winning in March of 1975.

After leaving the track in 1973, NASCAR would return in 1974, and would hold its season finale at the Southern California track for the next seven years. Drivers such as Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, and Benny Parsons would all find victory lane. The racing was phenomenal, with cars often stacking three and four wide down the long straightaways.

For the Indy Cars, the list of winners read like an Indy 500 champions who’s who. Bobby Unser was a four-time winner, while his brother Al Unser would twice visit victory lane. Other winners included USAC Camp Joe Leonard, Roger McCluskey and Wally Dallenbach, Sr.

There was a lot of history written there. Cale Yarborough was crowned Cup champion three times there. Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip fought over the 1979 championship on the Ontario oval, with Petty taking his seventh title by a mere 11 points. And one year later, a kid named Dale Earnhardt would win the first of his seven titles at the track.

But despite quality racing, Ontario was in trouble. Financial plans had been made based on hopelessly over-ambitious attendance numbers. After a huge turnout for the track’s inaugural events, attendance numbers began dropping. The writing was on the wall.

The final Indy car event at the track was held in August of 1980, won by Bobby Unser. The final Cup event was held in November, with Benny Parsons winning.

The track went bankrupt, and the Ontario Motor Speedway deemed a failure. The city sold the track to Chevron Land Management for $10 million. In 1981, it was demolished, wiped off the face of the earth at a cost of $3 million.

Nothing remains of the track today. In the mid 1980s, a hotel was built on the fourth turn of the old track. Developments run down its front stretch. A hockey arena is currently being built on the site of the third turn.

If the track could have survived a few more years and entered into the television era of racing, it’s very possible it would still be there, and be one of the biggest show places in motor sports.

Instead, we’re left to wonder what might have been.

Brandon Reed is the editor and publisher of Georgia Racing

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