Tim Whyte | Roarin’ Oren, Wrong-Way and The End

Tim Whyte

It was sometime in the mid-1970s when I fell in love with stock car racing. I don’t remember the exact year — I was in elementary school — but I remember the moment

My folks had taken me to Saugus Speedway for the first time, not long after we moved to the Santa Clarita Valley from the “other” valley.

It was nicknamed “The Super Track.”

On that first visit to the track, Mike Fortier, a driver in the sportsman division, was haulin’ the mail SO HARD in turns 3 and 4, his left front tire lifted about 6 inches off the asphalt. 

Of course, he wasn’t the only one pushing it that hard, but he was the first one I saw. I can still remember that blue No. 6 Camaro (all the coolest cars were Camaros…), with the fat racing tires, laying down the horsepower and rumbling through the turns of that unconventional, flat, one-third-mile short track.

I was hooked.

Soon I would cajole my dad into taking me to the “big-time” races at places like Ontario Motor Speedway (now gone) and Riverside International Raceway (now also gone). 

We became regulars at Saugus Speedway, usually staking out our seats early, at the top of the turn 4 grandstands. The PA announcer was Joe Vollkommer, who, at the start of each race, would remind the crowd to “watch that charge into the first turn!” We’d eat gooey nachos and hot dogs, and wait for that moment each summer Saturday night, seemingly always during a break between races, when a particular owl would always fly over the track. They called it “Joe’s owl.”

Many of the drivers back then were as colorful as the cars they drove, often with nicknames to match, like “Roarin’” Oren Prosser, “Wrong Way” Willard, Rodney “The Rodent” Peacher, and Vernon “Gabby” Garrison, an older driver who at one point drove a convertible — with a roll bar, of course. This was back when stock cars were actual production cars converted for racing, as opposed to most “stock” cars now, which are built from the ground up as race cars.

Gabby “unretired” in 1987 when he was a 70-year-old great-grandfather, telling the L.A. Times, “Racing is hard to quit.”

Hard to quit as a fan, too, once you get hooked.

There were sportsman and modified cars, and jalopies called “street stocks,” which squealed their skinny tires around the oval and, for the most daring of them, the figure 8. On some nights, there’d be a destruction derby after the final race, leaving steaming piles of wreckage on the track that looked like they’d take days to haul away.

We saw big names, too, including some NASCAR stars who came to Saugus for a one-off race — Michael Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Davey Allison, Willy T. Ribbs — and some who were track regulars, like Jim Robinson, Tru Cheek, Jim Thirkettle, Jimmy Insolo, Dan Press and Ron Hornaday Jr., a Palmdale native who later went on to a career in NASCAR’s national circuits and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his storied exploits in the Craftsman Truck Series.

It was small-town Saturday night at its best.

And in July 1995, two months before our first child was born, it all crashed to an end.

Citing the deteriorating condition of the old wooden grandstands — which dated back to the speedway’s early days as a rodeo arena before it became a race track in the 1930s — the Bonelli family, which owned the property, announced the final checkered flag had waved at Saugus Speedway.

No more charges into the first turn. No more captive audiences for Joe’s owl.

It was like a bad breakup. The new Irwindale Speedway, 50 miles away, was in the planning pipeline, and you could read the tea leaves. Once Irwindale opened, about four years after Saugus closed, it was one more nail in the Super Track’s coffin.

I knew I’d never get to share that small-town Saturday night short-track experience with my kids, at least not at Saugus. Now, we get out to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana once a year for the big NASCAR race there. That’s about it.

Saugus Speedway had long hosted a swap meet on Sundays, the morning after the races. That continued, even as the racing didn’t, and over the past nearly 30 years the swap meet has gone on each week and that historic former rodeo arena with its creaky grandstands has remained as part of the Santa Clarita Valley’s landscape.

Soon, no more.

I’d always clung to some glimmer of hope that, someday, someone would come in and buy the property and restore Saugus Speedway to its former glory — even though, of course, there are new residential neighbors who would undoubtedly scream bloody murder about the noise from the race track that had already been there for many decades before they bought their newly constructed homes. It would be a political hurdle, if nothing else. Heck, those new neighbors drove out a pre-existing SOCCER center after they moved in, griping about the noise.

Still, these past 28 years have been kind of like wondering, even after that bad breakup, “Is there a chance we’ll eventually get back together?” 

Can Saugus make a comeback?

No. This week, we found out another, likely final, nail is being pounded into the coffin: A developer is moving a proposal through City Hall, and it seems to be gathering steam, to demolish what’s left of Saugus Speedway and build a commercial project including a movie studio, and some more new homes, too.

In my head, I get it. I’m a defender of a property owner’s rights, and a project like that will probably be good for the local economy. But it comes at a price, a loss of a piece of our community’s unique history, and a loss of hope that we’ll ever have that small-town Saturday night experience here again.

It’s like the final divorce papers are in the mail. And it makes me sad.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.

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