Remembering A Labor Day Tradition
This past weekend marked an anniversary of one of the more interesting experiments in IndyCar history. Labor Day weekend marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the first IndyCar race at Ontario Motor Speedway located in Ontario, California. What started out as a grand design has now ended up being a trivial footnote in IndyCar history.
For those that don’t know (or too young to remember), Ontario Motor Speedway was essentially a clone of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There were some slight variations. The short chutes were slightly banked and the track was wider; both of which contributed to it being a slightly faster track than IMS. In a demonstration of having the blessing of IMS, Tony Hulman even arranged for some of the original bricks from the Speedway to be laid into victory lane at Ontario.
There was also a road course built into the infield, which IMS did not have. There had also been a drag strip constructed inside the track for NHRA events. The grandstand configuration was completely different from Indy as well. Ontario Motor Speedway – or the “Big O” as it was nicknamed – was quite a showcase. Unlike the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was showing its sixty years of age – OMS was a state of the art racing facility.
The first race was called the California 500. Since the Indianapolis 500 was run on Memorial Day, OMS decided to run their race on Labor Day to start their new tradition. The race was the third leg in the newly devised IndyCar racing Triple Crown, a set of three 500-mile races in the USAC schedule that was to be sponsored by Marlboro. Indy was the first leg, Pocono was the second and Ontario was the third. The inaugural race took place on September 6, 1970; and was won by Jim McElreath driving a Coyote owned by AJ Foyt. It was a huge success and was heavily attended; including many of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day.
Subsequent Labor Day races were won by Joe Leonard driving for Parnelli Jones in 1971, Roger McCluskey driving for Lindsey Hopkins in 1972 and Wally Dallenbach in a Pat Patrick Eagle in 1973. For two years, the race became a spring race run in early March. Bobby Unser won in 1974 while AJ Foyt won the next spring race in 1975. The second half of the decade saw the race moved back to Labor Day. From that point on, the event became the domain of the Unser family. Bobby won again in 1976, then in 1979 and 1980. His brother, Al Unser, won in 1977 and 1978.
Of course, NASCAR had to nose its way into the picture. More than likely, they claimed the facility was built exclusively for them. To the chagrin of NASCAR loyalists, the first two NASCAR events at OMS were won By AJ Foyt in 1971 and 1972. NASCAR did not run at the IMS look-alike in 1973, but returned in 1974.
Drivers enjoyed racing at the track and it looked surprisingly similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It offered many of the challenges of Indy without the mounting pressure. However, cracks soon began to surface in the financial structure of the facility. The financing was shaky from the start. One group owned the land, while another group owned the track. The majority of the funding came from bonds secured by the City of Ontario. Even with a sold out facility, there was not enough revenue to service the debt. The facility was doomed before it even started. The track eventually collapsed under the weight of its own debt.
Seemingly, as soon as the grand racing facility had appeared – it was gone. Ontario Motor Speedway closed following the 1980 season and was quickly demolished for development in 1981. A Hilton Hotel sprung up atop the old turn-four location. Most of the site has now been developed as a business park.
I never got to see Ontario Motor Speedway. I do recall the hoopla when it was under construction. I remember seeing articles in the 1970 Indy program about the first race that would be happening that fall. Even as an eleven year-old, I thought it was pretty neat that they could reconstruct something as massive as IMS a couple of thousand miles away. I recall watching clips of the inaugural race on Wide World of Sports. There are various clips available on You Tube. I was in college when the track met its financial demise and had already forgotten about it. There was no internet and the track had already drifted into obscurity by then. I didn’t realize it was gone until about ten years later.
To see the explosion of racetrack construction that took place about ten years ago makes me recall how quickly the fate turned at OMS. One has to wonder about some of the new football and baseball facilities that have opened up this year that cost well over a billion dollars. Could they suffer the same fate as OMS – especially considering their financing was secured long before the current economic downturn took place? I have heard Curt Cavin estimate that it would cost well over a billion dollars to re-construct IMS in today’s environment. I don’t think he is very far off.
It’s sad to think about all the money, effort and dreams that went into creating a modernized version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and how it all went down the tubes in ten short years. But I did think about it yesterday – on Labor day, the thirty-ninth anniversary of Jim McElreath rolling his orange Coyote onto those transplanted bricks in victory lane at Ontario Motor Speedway.