50 Years of nascar racing ~ Ontario: The Best Laid Plans... (Post 51)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
The developers of the beautiful Ontario Motor Speedway must have wondered why no one had beat them to the idea. It seemed such a perfect idea that someone should build a new superspeedway to cater to auto racing fans in the densely populated and car crazy environs of Los Angeles, where near perfect weather was almost guaranteed . And they did not just build a race track; they built a virtual palace of speed, the widest, fan friendliest race track ever conceived, the Granddaddy of tracks like Texas and Las Vegas today. The track was even patterned after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which had been making money for all those decades. It seemed a sure bet and all they would have to do was wait for the money to start rolling in after making their shrewd investment.
The inaugural Miller 500 at Ontario was unique for a lot of reasons. For one thing it was the 1000th race ever run in NASCAR's top division. These days, that fact alone would be reason enough to celebrate with truck loads of die casts and T shirts, and a black tie ceremony. That day it went all but unnoticed. It was also the richest race ever run in NASCAR history to that point, with posted awards of $207,650 dollars. The start was also unique in the Winston Cup era, with the cars lining up three wide just as the open wheel cars did at Indianapolis. Despite all the hoopla, while the crowd was decent, 78,810 fans, the massive speedway was only about 60% filled to capacity. At least part of the problem had to do with bad timing that was beyond anything the Ontario developers could have foreseen. 1971 was a difficult transition year between the era of the factory involvement in NASCAR and the Winston Cup era. Ford had quit the sport all together and Chrysler was backing only two cars out of the Petty stables. Some drivers couldn't find rides and some teams were talking about quitting rather than going broke racing. Holman and Moody had decided despite the big purse and their driver's great record on big tracks, it was not worth the money and effort to build a new car for fan favorite David Pearson to drive at Ontario.
Those fans on hand were treated to a memorable race. Indy car star AJ Foyt was entered, driving for the Wood Brothers, and he dominated the race. But the newly un-retired Fred Lorenzen gave him a run for his money and led three times before engine failure and a resultant fire sidelined him. That left it to Petty Enterprise teammates, the King and Buddy Baker, to uphold the NASCAR regulars honors and they made a show if it. Petty uncharacteristically made a mistake, skidding right past his pit stall, and the time he lost backing in cost him his shot at the trophy. Buddy Baker took the point briefly but spun himself out. He was closing on AJ again when he ran out of laps and Foyt took the win by a tick over eight seconds.
The size of the crowd was down to 68,500 in 1972 despite near perfect weather. While a lot of drivers had switched rides, the man to beat remained the same. AJ Foyt was once again a favorite in the Wood Brothers' Mercury, fresh off an impressive victory with the same team at the Daytona 500. While Foyt's car was undeniably fast, he had more problems working traffic than the NASCAR regulars. There was a frightening wreck early in the going when Bobby Isaac and Mark Donohue got together. Isaac emerged from his car, staggered a few feet and collapsed. Fortunately, his injuries were mainly bruises and having the breath knocked out of him. There were 51 lead changes amongst 7 drivers, though Foyt led the most laps handily. He finally managed to get a handle on traffic, bypass Baker for the lead, and hold off a determined last ditch charge by Bobby Allison to win the race.
There was no Ontario race in 1973 owing to a business shake up, but the track was given the prestigious season-ending event of the 1974 schedule. The race was held over a month after the second to last event in Rockingham. Richard Petty was comfortably in command of the points hunt for that season by the time the race was held, which cut down on the hoped for drama. Perhaps that explains why the attendance was down to a dismal 43,250 folks. The purse was also down dramatically with a mere $15,125 to that year's winner, as opposed to almost $52,000 to Foyt for his win in the inaugural event. Once again AJ Foyt was a favorite and he led much of the race, right into the final stages. Finally Bobby Allison was able to power by him in an ungainly AMC Matador and take the lead for good with thirty laps to go. Late in the event, AJ had an engine go sour and had to coast to the finish, winding up fifth. David Pearson inherited the runner up honors. After the race, an inspection found a roller cam, which was blatantly illegal, in the AMC engine of Allison's car. The win was very much in doubt. Finally NASCAR decided to let the win stand, though they fined Allison $9,100 of that paltry $15,000 check. Richard Petty blew an engine late in the going, but still won the Winston Cup championship.
Attendance rebounded slightly for the 1975 race, which was again the season finale. Once again Richard Petty had a comfortable points lead over number two man, Dave Marcis. The event did have a surprise winner in that, that driver was surprised to be there. Buddy Baker was driving for Bud Moore, who had decided not to race at Ontario. Baker left on a fishing vacation and afterwards Moore signed Norris Industries as a sponsor. The new sponsor wanted the car to run at Ontario, so a panicked phone call was made to Baker, who cut short his vacation and headed to California as his car was hastily prepared and shipped. Baker went on to win the race, and as expected, Petty won the championship. That race could have been called the Soda Pop 500, because "So-da-mn many engines popped. Of the 40 starters, 21 were listed as being out of the race with engine related problems, including Petty, Parsons, and Foyt,
The finish of the 1976 race at Ontario was not a particularly good one. There were only three leaders that day, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson, who took the point on lap 80 and never relinquished it. The results were not all that surprising in that it was the tenth big track win Pearson racked up in 1976, in only 22 starts. Once again the Winston Cup championship was all but a foregone conclusion by the time the tour reached Ontario. Despite losing a clutch and finishing 23rd, Cale Yarborough won the title handily over Richard Petty.
Cale Yarborough had clinched his second consecutive Cup title at Rockingham, two races before the tour reached Ontario in 1977. Despite that, the '77 event was arguably the best race ever held at Ontario. The normal group of drivers that fans expected to run up front, Petty, Allison, Yarborough, Pearson and Waltrip all took their turns at the front, but there were some surprises. Janet Guthrie became the first female driver to lead a race in NASCAR's top rank, leading under caution from lap 43 to 47. More importantly, Neil Bonnett, who had only one win on his career, and that on a short track, was also among the contenders that afternoon, in a Dodge owned by JD Stacy. Bonnett took the lead from David Pearson on lap 172, but Petty was hot on his tail. Petty actually managed to get around Bonnett on lap 195, but Neil retook the advantage the next lap and thwarted every trick in the King's not inconsiderable repertoire to reach the checkers two car lengths ahead of the King. Besides the win asserting Bonnett as a legitimate contender, the win is also important in retrospect in that it was the last win in NASCAR's top league for a Chrysler product, despite the way Dodge Chargers had dominated the series during the 70's.
The 1978 Los Angeles 500 at Ontario was a shoot out between the two drivers who had battled all year for the points title, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. The battle was for bragging rights only, as once again Cale had clinched his title two races before at Rockingham, scoring his record third Winston Cup Championship in a row. Cale almost missed the event when his car cut out on the warm up laps before the race, but Cecil Gordon pushed Cale back to the attention of Junior Johnson's crew in the pits, and hasty repairs were made to the ignition system. Richard Petty, who was winless for the first time in his career, thrilled his many fans by leading early, but the bad luck that had plagued him all year struck again as the King lost an engine. Late in the event, Yarborough and Allison (who won 15 of 30 events that year between them) fought it out, with Allison taking the lead on lap 187 and fighting to keep Cale out of his draft before Yarborough could perform his patented last lap slingshot trick. Allison prevailed by two car lengths, winning the battle, though he had already lost the war.
1979 was the first time that the season finale at Ontario was to decide the Winston Cup championship. Darrell Waltrip entered the event with a mere two point edge, so it was probable whichever driver finished ahead of the other would be crowned champion. That part of the drama was settled early, with Waltrip looping his car and going a lap down. Richard Petty was a true racer and rather than employing a conservative strategy to clinch the title like some drivers have since, (no names here) Petty diced for the win with four other drivers, Bobby, Cale, Buddy and Benny, throughout the event. While he was courting disaster with the strategy, that's why Richard remains the King. In the end, Petty finished 5th, while Benny Parsons grabbed the lead from Bobby Allison with five laps to go and held on to beat the leader of the Alabama Gang by .42 seconds. Richard Petty received his seventh and final championship, just one year after having been shut out of the win column. And perhaps it's fitting a young man from Kannapolis, North Carolina, Dale Earnhardt, was crowned Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. Most likely because of the tight points battle, the track attracted 56,000-plus spectators that day, still dismal, but better than it had been for years.
The points title was on the line once again when the Cup regulars came calling on Ontario for the season finale in 1980, though that year it was not as close. It was Earnhardt's title to lose, and Cale would have needed some bad luck on Dale's part to take his fourth championship in his final ride with Junior Johnson's team. Perhaps it's understandable that Dale's Rod Osterlund-owned team experienced jitters as first-time title contenders, as did their driver. Keep in mind, the teams crew chief, Doug Richert, was all of 20 years old and had been thrust into the spotlight when Suitcase Jake Elder quit the team without warning after the World 600 in May. Earnhardt pitted before the pits were opened early in the event and was penalized a lap. At the same time, Cale Yarborough was doing what he needed to do, dicing it out for the lead with Darrell Waltrip, who was his heir apparent in Junior's car for the next season. Earnhardt gamely struggled back, and a well-timed caution flag put him back on the lead lap. But the foul luck and jitters were still going to make things interesting. There was a miscommunication between the crew and Dale on the final pit stop with just 17 laps to go. Earnhardt thought it was a gas and go stop, while the crew thought they were going to do right side tires. Dale roared out of the pits with just two lug nuts holding on the right rear tire, and was promptly black flagged. Speedy work by the pit crew managed to keep Dale from losing a lap, but he was out of the hunt for the win and Cale was still right up front. With Cale's habit of passing for the win on the last lap, a lot of fingers were crossed. Bobby Allison had a nice lead going when he blew a tire and gave the point to Benny Parsons. That moved Cale up another spot, but Allison beat Earnhardt coming out of the pits, returning to the action in fourth, with Yarborough third and Dale fifth. Cale advanced no more positions, and Benny beat Neil Bonnett handily. Dale Earnhardt won the title by a mere 19 points. Despite all the excitement, the race was a disaster for the track's owners, with less than 15,000 paying fans in the stands that day, about 1/8 the number who had shown up to see the Daytona 500 earlier that year. Faced with financial ruin, they threw in the towel and the track was sold to Chevron oil. The magnificent speedway was leveled in favor of a refinery, and thus ended the sad history of the Ontario Motor Speedway.
Racing continued in Southern California at the Riverside road course until that track failed as well, and fell into the hands of real estate developers who built a subdivision there. While NASCAR continued visiting California, it was up North in Sonoma, outside of San Francisco. Racing did not return to Southern California until 1997, with the opening of Roger Penske's new track, which is similar in spirit to the old Ontario Speedway. Let us hope in the end it does not share the same sad fate.
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