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Lost California Race Tracks Part 2: Ontario Motor Speedway

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In part one of this series, we took a look at the now defunct Riverside International Raceway. However, Riverside is not the only iconic Southern California race track that is now gone. Ontario Motor Speedway, just outside of Los Angeles, was one of the most important race tracks in the country during its’ short existence, and it hosted one of NASCAR’s biggest record breaking moments.

The Early Days

Ontario Motor Speedway was built in 1970, and it was billed as “The Indianapolis of the West”. The oval track was identical to Indianapolis in that it was 2.5 miles long with nine degrees of banking, however one thing made it unique, and that was the infield road course.

The track was meant from the very beginning to host big events as in 1970 it hosted the California 500 IndyCar race. With the addition of Pocono in 1971, IndyCar for the first time had its’ 500 mile Triple Crown with 500 mile races at Indianapolis, Ontario, and Pocono.

During this time, NASCAR began to eye the race track the nations newest super speedway. It’s worth noting that at this time, NASCAR was working towards a big shift as in 1972, all tracks under 0.5 miles in length were cut from the schedule. NASCAR was beginning to shift from the short tracks and dirt ovals of the Southeast to more super speedways.

Ontario was a track in a market that already embraced NASCAR. Riverside was a succesful race, so NASCAR jumped on the opportunity to go to the new superspeedway in California. In 1971 and 1972, NASCAR hosted its’ first two races there, each 500 mile events.

According to Racing Reference, 51 cars started each of those first two races, and they were both exciting with 28 and 36 lead changes respectively. A.J. Foyt won those first two races. While NASCAR did not host a race there in 1973, it returned in 1974 as the season finale.

The Glory Days

Throughout the 1970s, Ontario Motor Speedway hosted two of the biggest events in American Motorsports. Not only did it have the California 500 in IndyCar, but it also had the season finale for NASCAR as well.

The NASCAR races continued to deliver with Racing Reference reporting 30 or more lead changes four times in seven races between 1974 and 1980. During those times, NASCAR had two incredible championship battles that came down to races at Ontario.

In 1979, Darrell Waltrip’s seemingly insurmountable points lead dropped to a measly two points over Richard Petty heading into the final race of the season at Ontario. Petty was going for championship number seven, but Waltrip was going for his first career championship.

Both drivers started near the front, but Waltrip would fall one lap behind while Petty stayed on the lead lap. Petty finished fifth while Waltrip finished eighth, giving Petty his seventh championship by only eleven points setting the mark for most championships in a career.

In 1980, it was another NASCAR great who began his string of dominance. Dale Earnhardt, in only his second full-time season, was being hounded by Cale Yarborough. Earnhardt led by only 29 points heading into the final race over Yarborough.

Yarborough started on the pole leading 65 laps and finishing third, but it was Earnhardt who ran just well enough to win the championship. Earnhardt finished fifth for its’ first of seven championships.

The Ending

Unfortunately, that 1980 race was the final Cup Series race hosted at Ontario Motor Speedway. According to Racing Reference, the crowd was only 15,000 for that last race.

The California 500 that IndyCar used to run was replaced by the Michigan 500 at Michigan International Speedway. The NASCAR date was moved to Riverside for the 1981 season. Riverside would keep the season finale until 1986.

The track was on shaky financial ground for a few years, but in 1980, it was officially closed for real estate development. Similar to Riverside, the track was overtaken by real estate development, and it is no longer in existence.

Ontario Motor Speedway may not have the same pedigree as other classic race tracks, but it has a very important place in motorsports history. It was the second leg of the Triple Crown of 500 mile IndyCar races, and was the host of Richard Petty’s record seventh championship. It has its’ place in history, and it is a chapter in California racing history.

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Joshua Lipowski

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