By Tim Whyte
The first time my parents took me to Saugus Speedway in 1975, I was hooked. It amazed me how fast and loud the cars were, and how man and machine tested each other’s limits.
I was 9 years old.
It struck me, that very first night of racing, that every time No. 6, Mike Fortier, dove into turn 3 of the one-third-mile flat oval, his left front tire lifted clear off the ground. That’s how hard he was pushing those corners.
It was bad-ass.
We became regulars in the white wooden Saugus Speedway grandstands, and our favorite place to sit was the top row of turn 4. There were lots of wrecks in turn 4 and it was a good vantage point to see the whole track.
Ten-year-old me had a favorite driver, Jim Robinson, and after he won the track championship I was thrilled to go to the pits post-race and get him to autograph a picture of his No. 78 Camaro taking the checkered flag.
On the summer nights when we didn’t go to the track, I could hear the cars’ roar from our home several miles away, and I’d wish I was there.
Turns out, Saugus Speedway was the gateway drug. I became a fan of racing in general and stock car racing — the NASCAR variety — in particular.
My folks indulged it, and soon my dad and I were taking day trips to the big tracks in Ontario and Riverside whenever NASCAR or the Indy cars came to Southern California. There, we’d see some of the SoCal stars we’d seen at Saugus Speedway — names like Jimmy Insolo and Herschel Walker — testing their racing chops against the national superstars like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt.
But Southern California changed in the 1980s. Soon, property values soared, and pressure for new residential and commercial growth sent the Ontario and Riverside tracks to the big junkyard in the sky. But for a while, we still had those small-town Saturday nights at Saugus — until our hometown track bit the dust, too.
Just two months before my wife and I welcomed our first-born child into the world, Saugus Speedway abruptly closed down in July 1995, in the middle of a summer racing season. I felt like a part of our community died.
I was resigned to getting my racing fix by watching on TV or visiting Mesa Marin, a terrific half-mile oval in Bakersfield that would meet its own demise a decade later.
Not long after Saugus closed, I saw a media report that the legendary Roger Penske was building California Speedway, a new 2-mile superspeedway on the grounds of the former Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, just a few miles away from the defunct Ontario Motor Speedway I had visited as a kid.
I cajoled my dad into getting us tickets. We drove down for the very first race in 1997 at what’s now called Auto Club Speedway, and saw the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin racing at 200 mph.
I was hooked again. We decided the experience was worth more than a day trip, so the next year we got hotel rooms and made a weekend of it.
Around year two or three at Fontana, we noticed how much fun people seemed to be having in the infield.
We like to camp, we thought. We should try camping in the infield.
So we got sites in the infield. At first it was my dad in his RV, and me, my wife and our toddler son in our travel trailer. I’m fuzzy on the exact timeline, but a year or two later my sister and my brother-in-law joined us with a third site, creating a family “compound” with my dad, my sister and me bringing our RVs, spouses and kids and “circling the wagons” for a NASCARstyle camping party on every race weekend.
Somewhere along the way, my dad and our infield next-door neighbor got to chatting. He was a good dude, a Navy veteran named Mark who was fiercely loyal to drivers who competed in Fords.
I lean toward Chevy, but I liked Mark anyway.
Next thing you know, we were inviting Mark and his buddies — usually including his brother Jason, an Albuquerque native who would fly in to the Ontario airport for race weekends — to join us for barbecue and campfire. It got to the point where we were spending so much of the race weekend together that we invited Mark into “the compound.”
We wouldn’t have even known him if it weren’t for the NASCAR infield. Soon, we were “circling the wagons” with four RV sites, creating a center common area for campfires and barbecues.
In those early days, shenanigans in the infield were plentiful. On a warm weekend a NASCAR infield can have a Mardi Gras vibe to it. Some fans bring in DJs or even live bands to entertain their camping neighbors. Young ladies strut around in cutoffs and cowboy boots, with beads around their necks, leaving one to imagine how those beads were earned.
Some affectionately say Fontana turns into “Fontucky” for the weekend. It can be rowdy.
It was our infield friend Mark who, one year, asked my not-yet-21-year-old son how old he’d been when he had his first beer. Luc grinned but didn’t answer, and I was stunned because I had naively assumed Luc was waiting to have his first beer with me. #SadDad.
I embraced the rowdy for the first 15 years or so of the NASCAR adventure but I confess that, now, I’m content to enjoy the campfire with my family and my “infield family” that includes Mark, the Navy vet.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m somewhat awful at keeping in touch with friends — so Mark and I have kind of a “same time next year” bromance. We pretty much only see each other on racing weekends, so there’s a lot of catching up to do, often until the wee hours of the morning, around the campfire, in hushed tones after the rest of our crew has called it a night.
Just as it did when Ontario, Riverside, Saugus and Mesa Marin each closed down, time continues to march on. As far as I know, Auto Club Speedway isn’t meeting the fate of those tracks just yet, although I’m sure all of motorsports will be in jeopardy once the Democrats outlaw the internal combustion engine.
Anyway. The adventure is changing.
Those kids who were preschoolers when we started camping in the infield are now in college. Their younger siblings are graduating from high school this spring and they’ll soon be off to college, too. My dad has retired from the infield, as he’s had his fill of the “git ’er done” version of Mardi Gras.
Two weeks ago we were out at the NASCAR races and, as has happened over the past few years, the makeup of the group evolved depending on who’s available. It was the first time my dad skipped the infield. My son and his oldest cousin were both away, tied up with college obligations. The younger cousins were there, and my sister brought in some friends to use my dad’s site and circle the wagons with us.
Our 17-year-old daughter brought two pals, and the trio looked like absolute trouble every time they ventured out of the compound to explore the infield.
Where are those potato sacks when you need them?
Before the big race on Sunday, we got pit passes and took the girls to the start-finish line, Sharpies in hand, so they could sign a piece of the track. One wrote that Jimmie Johnson (No. 48) was her first crush, and another wrote of her affection for Joey Logano (No. 22).
A few hours later, when veteran driver Kyle Busch celebrated his historic 200th NASCAR touring series win, he dipped his left rear tire right onto the part of the track my daughter and friends had signed, and commenced his burnout, spinning his tires and sending a cloud of tire smoke and Sharpie ink into the Fontucky air.
When we started going to Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch was 12 years old.
A lot has changed since I marveled at Mike Fortier lifting his left front tire off the asphalt at Saugus in 1975. But racing has given me so many fond memories of family, friends and new friends, even with the inevitable changes that the passage of time brings.
I’m grateful for it all.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.