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RACING SCENE Column - (CSUN-Ascot Park Exhibit)

RACING SCENE Column - (CSUN-Ascot Park Exhibit)
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 “Kings of Speed – Ascot Park Raceway 1957-1990” was the title of a tribute to the long-gone, but not forgotten So Cal race track in Gardena. California State University, Northridge (CSUN) hosted the August 27 to October 13, 2018 tribute in the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communications. Located in the University Art Gallery section of the urban, mid-San Fernando Valley campus (with 40,000+ students), the unique display occupied four rooms--two for cars and two for motorcycles.

Gallery hours were Monday through Saturday from 12 to 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday and from and 12 to 8:00 pm on Thursdays. Admission was free. There were many college students touring the Ascot exhibit on October 11 when I visited. The CSUN Ascot exhibit was a positive way to acquaint more millennials with motor sports competition and history.

Ascot seated about 8,500 and operated 33 years. It was one of the best known and busiest speedways in the country with 80 races a year common. Ascot operated five nights a week during most months with a variety of two and four-wheel racing events. Sprint car and midget races used the half and quarter-mile ovals on Saturday and Wednesday nights. AMA motorcycles ran on Fridays. Stock car oval and Figure 8 races ran Sunday nights.

Off-road dune buggies raced through the infield. Motocross, ATVs, demolition derbies and special events. Ascot launched the career of Robert “Evel” Knievel whose motorcycle jumps were presented on ABC-TV Wide World of Sports and lured fans to the track about eight miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Ascot occupied 44 acres on Vermont Ave. between 182nd and 186rd Streets, in a strip of Los Angeles called the Harbor Gateway. It ran parallel to the Harbor Freeway from LA to the Port of Los Angeles. Ascot received its mail at the Gardena post office so it became Ascot in Gardena. Max Ziegler owned the property, which was a former landfill.

The original name of the track was Los Angeles Speedway under first lease holder Bill McKay. Al Gunter won the first motorcycle race on May 24, 1957. The first car race was in June 1957. In 1958 new management under Tom Haynes renamed the track New Ascot Stadium. The track was 60-yards short of a full half-mile in the racing groove and a half-mile at the crash-wall.

Early 1960s Ascot promoter was Harry Schooler, a horse racing man, had Sunday stock car races shown live on Sunday afternoons from 1963-65 with announcer Dick Lane on KTLA (Ch. 5). Schooler operated the track to 1975 when financial concerns shut the track near the end of the season. Then in 1976 legendary J. C. “Aggie” Agajanian, received a long-term lease from land owner Ziegler and became Ascot promoter officially instead of just a special events promoter, or race organizer as he preferred,

“Aggie” operated Ascot Park Raceway until his death on May 5, 1984. His three sons, Cary, Jay and Chris, continued presenting motor-sports as Agajanian Enterprises through November 22,1990 when the annual USAC Thanksgiving Night Midget GP had a record 107 midgets and more then 8,400 persons present for the final race. Property owner Ziegler's widow refused the Agajanian's request to renew the Ascot lease in favor of selling the site to a land developer. The planned project never happened. The race track was demolished in early 1991. The site is now an auto dismantling/salvage yard and wholesale used car auction site.

Agajanian Enterprises presented USAC and local ARA midgets, CRA and USAC National Series sprint cars, local stock car races, NASCAR stock cars, and AMA flat track and TT races through the infield and over a jump in front of the main grandstand. Speedway bike racing was a staple. Special events such as big rig truck races and a night of trophy dashes were run. ABC-TV Wide World of Sports made Ascot Park auto and motorcycle events part of many shows on that program.

Ascot was a setting in the 1970s for movies such as H. B. Halicki's “Gone in 60 Seconds” in 1974 and for the popular 1970s TV show “CHiPs”. It also attracted Hollywood movie and TV stars such as Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Dean, Dickie Smothers, Chuck Norris and others who later drove race cars in sanctioned events.

Rick and Roger Mears drove in mid-1970s dune buggy races at Ascot and later in CRA sprint car races at Ascot prior to becoming Indy 500 drivers. Many CRA sprint car drivers from the 1950s to 1980s became USAC Indy 500 and National Sprint/Midget Series drivers.

Formula One drivers and teams came to Ascot annually when they raced in the Long Beach GP each year from 1976-1983. Dan Gurney and Phil Hill spectated at times. Actor Paul Newman, who starred as an Indy Car driver in the 1969 racing movie “Winning”, not only spectated at Ascot. He rented the track one evening to try his hand at driving a sprint car and logged respectable lap times. Newman also was co-owner with Carl Haas of CART Indy Car championship teams.

Newman raced from 1972 to 2006 as P. L. Newman in SCCA sports cars and professionally in a Porsche 935 at Le Mans, France and Daytona 24-hour races. He won four SCCA class championships between 1979 and 1986. Newman also rented Perris Auto Speedway, which opened in 1996 near Riverside, and at age 70+ hot-lapped a 410 sprint car there with respectable times. He last raced at age 81 in 2006. He succumbed to cancer at age 83 in 2008.

ESPN televised many Thursday Night Thunder USAC Midget races from Ascot live nationally. Other networks, such as TNN, televised CRA sprint car races on the half-mile. Many of those TV races are still shown on the internet at YouTube.com. The CSUN-ASCOT EXHIBIT IS STILL AVAILABLE IN A 4:04 MINUTE VIDEO. Noted racing historian/book author Harold Osmer recorded and posted the exhibit video. It recorded key exhibits in all four exhibit rooms. His video may be viewed indefinitely on YouTube.com by typing CSUN-Ascot.

The CSUN Ascot exhibit had numerous historic objects, posters advertising race dates, 18 typical Ascot race programs under glass, helmets, jackets, leathers, photos, trophies, AMA metal number plates, motorcycles and race cars. Curator John Parker gave a talk about the Ascot exhibit on September 10. Self-guided tours of the four rooms had ample printed information about the significance of each item displayed. Wall-mounted video screens played a continuous loops of Ascot sprint car “Rolling Thunder” TNN video tapes from the 1980s narrated by Dave McClelland and Tom Malone.

Contributors who loaned Ascot-related items to the CSUN Ascot exhibit included: the Agajanian family, Dick Woodland's Warriors & Auto Display Museum in Paso Robles, Calif., Gary Schroeder, Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kan., and nine motorcycle owners. Other contributors included the Bill Cody, artist Tom Fritz (several 24” X 36” wall-mounted racing action paintings), five racing photographers, and CSUN art gallery officials.

A free 20-page printed program at the exhibit was arrayed to look like a typical Ascot printed program, including Ascot--a brief history, typical ads, meaning of flags, cost of snack bar food and other items, calendar of upcoming events, CRA track records, how points are earned, and top 15 driver and car owner points reproduced from a 1976 CRA program. It also had driver head-shots of Turkey Night Midget GP winners from 1957-72. and action photos.

The program also had a large aerial view of Ascot's quarter and half-miles, infield and the pit parking area. An Evel Knievel Ascot jump (mid-flight) over a line of cars was included. There were stories by curator Parker, CRA five-time champion Jimmy Oskie, AMA star Gene Romero, AMA racer Dennis Kanegae, AMA rider/midget and sprint car driver Sonny Nutter, and AMA champion Doug Chandler.

Oskie raced CRA sprint cars at Ascot for two decades starting in 1963. He called Ascot “one of the three best dirt tracks in America and people came from other countries just to say they had been there.”

Oskie, now 72, continued his Ascot memories in the program. “It was a place where many of my dreams came true, not to mention the excitement of it all. But more importantly, the experience provided great insight, awakening things in me I never knew existed, where I discovered that nothing is impossible if you want it bad enough and put your mind to it. Racing at Ascot taught me a great deal about patience, self-discipline, appreciation, disappointment, failure, success, and hope; it was much more than racing around a track in 18 or 19 seconds. Ascot holds a special place in my heart for providing the experience of a lifetime.”

The first thing to catch the eyes of visitors upon entering the Ascot exhibit was the No. 98 Vel's Ford of Torrance cage-less midget that Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indy 500 winner and two-time USAC Thanksgiving Night Midget GP winner, raced successfully. Don Edmunds Autoresearch in Anaheim built the car in 1966 for Parnelli.

The 98 midget had a 110 cu. in. Offenhauser engine and cross-torsion bar suspension. It was the Edmunds prototype midget. Later, Edmunds built hundreds of copies of the car and they raced throughout the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Parnelli raced the 98 midget throughout the 1966 season. It won 70% of all the races it entered that year, including the TNGP at Ascot.

Later Indianapolis 500 winners Bobby and Al Unser, Sr., and Mario Andretti raced the 98 midget. Indy 500 vet George Snider also raced it in USAC. Today Dick Woodland owns the car and it is displayed at his museum in Paso Robles. Three large photos of Parnelli Jones and the 98 midget adorned the wall behind the 98 midget.

The 1975 Edmunds-built white/orange/black No. 4 Alex Morales-owned “Tamale Wagon” CRA sprint car with a roll-cage was the central attraction in another room. It contained a Moser DOHC Chevy. The car had four-bar, cross-torsion bar suspension, used methanol fuel, used a four-camshaft 302 cu. in. Chevy, V-8 fuel-injected engine. An enlarged cover of a 1970s Hot Rod magazine with the Moser DOHC featured on the cover was on the wall.

The No. 4 “Tamale Wagon” raced in CRA and its home track, Ascot, from 1975 to 1980 and was the fourth Morales “Tamale Wagon”. Other drivers of this car were: Johnny Parsons, Jr., Bobby Olivero, Buster Venard, Rich Vogler, Steve Howard, and Rick Goudy. It had 15 fast qualifying times, won 23 trophy dashes, 33 heat races, ten semi-mains and 21 main events. Goudy won the 1978 CRA championship driving it. A mannequin near the No. 4 Morales sprinter wore Rick Goudy's white/red driving uniform and white, close-face helmet.

The majority of time this car raced with a traditional Chevy V-8 engine. The Moser DOHC engine had limited use for paved tracks or special events. Moser DOHC engines were built prior to computerized CNC machining. Only eight Moser four-cam Chevy engines were built. The No. 4 Moser DOHC car on display is believed to be one of only four such engines in existence today according to a sign posted near the car.

The original plan was to build 20 more sets of the Moser heads but that plan failed to materialize because of the high cost of production. Buz Shoemaker restored this No. 4 car and sold it to current owner Dick Woodland, a former CRA sprint car driver and car owner. It is on display at his free admission museum in Paso Robles. A large color photo of this car in Ascot's fourth turn of the quarter-mile was on the wall with car owner Morales and driver Goudy posed near the car.

There were helmets worn by drivers Gary Schroeder, Kenny Van Blargen, and George Snider under glass. Also under glass was a gray helmet with white brim and leather mask worn by two-time CRA champion Bob Hogle in his first Ascot races. That was loaned by Woodland's museum. A 27” X 41” Tom Fritz painting on a wall depicted Eddie Wirth in his CRA No.77 RC Performance sprint car at speed. A trademark Stetson hat worn by “Aggie” was displayed under glass courtesy of the Agajanian family.

Nearby was an enlarged Marv Keller photo taken at Ascot on May 27, 1984 of Duane Feduska in mid-air during his two end-over-end flips. His No. 82 Cleveland Chevy sprint car landed nose-up on the dirt embankment entangled on the chain-link fence protecting spectators in the infamous turn one known for some funny-smelling smoke at times. He was uninjured, but it took almost half an hour to remove the car.

Schroeder also had an all silver CRA Offenhauser sprint car and a May 1988 Ascot first place trophy on display. Schroeder also loaned his 1940s midget, the No. 48 Spike Jones Spl., named for the sponsor, a popular post-WW II bandleader. It had a Sampson engine--”lighter and more powerful than the Offy midget engine of that era” according to the accompanying sign.

The No. 48 car also had front brakes and open-tube rear end designed by Gary's father Gordon Schroeder, the car owner when it ran at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles, the LA Memorial Coliseum, and Pasadena Rose Bowl. Drivers included Sam Hanks, Lyle Dickey, Johnny Parsons, Sr. and Bill Cantrell. The car was featured in the 1949 movie “The Big Wheel” starring Mickey Rooney.

Two rooms of motorcycle exhibits contained important motorcycles. They included the No. No. 8E Shell Yamaha of Ascot track champion Wayne Rainey (a three-time world champion), the No. 1 Indian 750cc, John Hateley's No. 98 Harley, Keith Mashburn No 19, Mike Konle's No. 89 Jawa speedway bike, and the No. 25 orange/black Harley that raced at Ascot in 1968-69. The 1962 Ascot amateur final trophy won by Elliott Schultz was displayed.

The No. 10 Doug Chandler 1984 Honda RS750cc, air-cooled, two-cylinder, overhead cam, four-valves per cylinder, 100 horsepower bike occupied a prominent position. Only nine of them were built. This bike raced half and mile dirt tracks. Chandler rode it to 1986 AMA National victories at the San Jose mile and Ascot half-mile.

A motorcycle room also had mannequins adorned in their full-face helmets, leathers and metal racing shoes. Leathers hung on the walls for AMA multi-time national champions Jay Springsteen, Scott Parker and Chris Carr, plus local AMA expert rider Tom Rockwood, son of AMA Ascot motorcycle announcer Roxy Rockwood. Black numbered AMA metal number plates (white for experts and yellow for juniors) on the wall included: Nos. 1, 2, 4, 9, 24, 42, 49R, 77x, 98, and 173R.

Aggie is the first person to present ex-motorcycle racer Evel Knievel as a motorcycle stunt jumper of ABC Wide World of Sports in March 1967 when he jumped 16-cars on Ascot's front straight. A special section of the CSUN exhibit motorcycle room was devoted to Knievel and had a continuous video of his many jumps playing on a wall-mounted screen. One of his Harley-Davidson 750cc motorcycles (used in his 1973 LA Coliseum jump) was part of the exhibit, as was a figure wearing Evel's colorful leathers.

There was a large wall map near the exhibit entrance of Los Angeles and surrounding cities. It showed locations of all four Ascot auto racing tracks. The name ASCOT derived from the famous Ascot thoroughbred horse racing track in Ascot, Berkshire, England. It got its name in 1711 from its founder--Queen Anne. An early So Cal racer thought that name would fit a car racing track in So Cal.

So Cal auto racing tracks named Ascot (with the dates of operation) in order were:

  1. 1904-1919 – a one-mile dirt track called Ascot Park on Slauson Ave. in central Los Angeles.

  2. 1924-1936 – a five-eighths mile dirt track on Valley Blvd & Soto St. in Alhambra. It became known as Legion Ascot Speedway after the American Legion, Post 127, of Glendale, assumed control and operated the track. It was the site where 24 competitors lost their lives.

  3. 1937-1942 – a half-mile dirt track known as Southern Ascot at Tweedy Blvd and Atlantic Ave. in South Gate. It closed because of WW II and never reopened.

  4. 1957-1990 – half and inner quarter-mile clay tracks on Vermont Ave. between 182nd and 186rth Streets near Gardena. It opened in May, 1957 with a motorcycle race and closed on Thanksgiving evening, November 22, 1990 when a record 107 midgets competed on the half-mile in front of 8,468 spectators. Stan Fox won the 30-car, 100-lap feature over P. J. Jones, son of Parnelli. Ascot's lease expired in December and the widow of the land owner declined to renew it in favor of selling the property for commercial development. The Perris half-mile clay track in Riverside County at a county fairgrounds opened in 1996. It has operated continuously since then as the Ascot replacement track for racers and fans.