The TACH Report: California Speedway/Marlboro 500 - A Roaring Success with Fans, Teams, Drivers, and Sponsors

1 October 1997

As Terry Callahan so eloquently outlined in his race report on Sunday's California 500 at Roger Penske's palace of speed in Fontana, the event was a barn-burner. A good time was had by all involved or spectating.

TACH had a ball at the race, and we stayed long after the 500 miles was in the history books.

The race was announced as a sellout weeks before the green flag dropped, but this looked very unlikely, as the Saturday's crowd (as opposed to the June NASCAR race) was extremely sparse. It WAS hot. Minutes before the start on Sunday the grandstands were 2/3 full. Then after Alfonso Ribeiro (of Prince of BelAir TV fame) sang the anthem, the crowds left the shade of the stadium hallways and went to their seats . . . 83,000 in the main straight and 10,000 in the infield.

The event got off to a shaky start as Juan Fangio popped his Toyota motor on lap two and the yellow flew for 9 very slow laps as the oil dry went down. People remarked that if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we find a way to scrape up oil spots in less than 20 minutes . . . the crowd became restless. When the track turned green, however, and the cars passed the grandstands every 30 seconds, it was big time fast track Indy car racing at its best. And the crowd loved it. Next incident was the Paul Tracy spin and another caution period. Then Luyendyck came in for a splash and the methanol spilled on his gas man and he was jumping and burning but his crew and Max Papis crew doused him with water and luckily he was Nomex clad from head to foot and came away only with bloodshot eyes.Then came the Arned Meir/Luyendyck smash up, which was very hairy.

As the old saying goes, the race doesn_t always go to fastest but to the "lastest" . . . you gotta finish. Big Mo Gugelmin had the fastest car, but he need a splash and dash a few laps from the end and ended up fourth, after setting the fastest lap (practice) ever recorded on a closed course of 242.923 mph and had the pole at 240 mph.

THE EXPERIENCE

At the California Speedway you are not a customer or fan, you are a "guest," and this is just how the folks who work the track make you feel . . . welcomed.

There were literally hundreds of orange vested workers, security people, guides working the track and everything was smiles and "thanks for coming, sir." The concession and trinket (jackets, caps, etc) prices were fair, and the restrooms were real restrooms. The press center and lounge are spacious and information is doled out quickly. After the checker flew we left the hospitality suite of Mission Foods (Tacos)--whose racing involvement includes sponsorship of Richie Hearn's Ralph's/Food For Less Swift and an off shore raceboat, plus a blown alcohol Hydro drag boat--and headed for the media center five minutes away. When we arrived the official results of the race from CART timing and scoring across the track were arriving by fax. Efficient operation.

There were 80 hospitality suites, and it seems that everybody in any form of motorsports sponsorship was entertaining customers. Some of the BIG kids, like Marlboro and Goodyear, had huge entertainment areas/tents in the infield.

A CART race is a happening, and after Sunday's dramatic finish with Blundel over Vasser by 0.847 secs, you can be certain that every event at the Fontana--including NASCAR trucks October 18--will be THE E-ticket for race fans.

TRAFFIC

Though the Penke-ites met with city officials in Ontario and Fontana, CA a zillion times prior to the June NASCAR race, they failed to solve the problem of 100,000 people converging on their speedway with but two entrances, and June was a mess. A one hour drive to the track from L.A. became a 3-4 hour ordeal as you tried to get in the place. Don't know what they did yesterday, but the problem of traffic no longer exists and we breezed into the track in under one hour from Newport Beach. Parking was a snap, and, as mentioned previously, all the track workers went out of their way to be of help. Even security guys who had to inform some people that they had the wrong credential for a certain area such as the garage or pits did so with utmost courtesy.

INFORMATION/ANNOUNCING

The two-mile track has 13 message boards and two huge Diamond Vision screens to keep everyone informed as to laps, speed, pit action, yellow flags, etc. The track announcer Joe Benson has got to be about the best in the biz, as he really knows his open wheel racing and the drivers. Each hospitality suite has closed circuit TV, and the outside viewing areas for the suits all have audio speakers to keep everyone up to date.

PRE-RACE ACTIVITY PLEASED EVERYONE

One hour before CART driver introductions, Victory Lane Magazine produced a "Parade of Legends" wherein 15 old Indy cars toured the track and had the crowd cheering. The vintage racers were in pristine condition and included: 1929 Ford Gilmore, 1933 Shafer 8 Buick special, 1941 Miller Offy, 1961 Cooper Climax, 1962 Watson Offy Roadster, 1970 Gurney Eagle and a 1986 March 86C once driven by Emerson Fittipaldi.

After that exhibition motorcycle race ace Paul Prowlett blasted a Honda two-wheeler down the main straight doing a wheel stand the full length of the grandstand . . . then he did it standing on the pedals.

Saturday's Firestone Indy Lights race was a dramatic precursor of things to come on Sunday, as Clint Mears won the event after starting from the pole, falling back and then regaining the position to head off Chris Simmons by 0.712 secs. The Buick engined racers were running 10 cars under-a-blanket at the start at 186 mph. It looked scripted. No one in the sparse crowd sat down. "These guys on the track must be crazy," we all thought, "heck they're all in the 20s and don't know about tire wear." The lead changed twice per lap--good, good high speed racin'.

So, Roger Penske has given Southern California one classy race plant. If he could have the same kind of luck with his Marlboro/Mercedes race team, he would have it all. Will Paul be back next year? Will Little Al return to race for the Captain ? Stay tuned.

Bill Maloney -- The Auto Channel

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