In the late sixties, when Indycar racing was at the height of its popularity, a group of businessmen endeavored to build a replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in California.
Construction began in an Ontario vineyard in September of 1968 and was completed in time to host the inaugural California 500, Labor Day Weekend less than two years later. The Ontario Motor Speedway was the most technically advanced racetrack of its day with computerized timing, scoring and display and a state-of-the-art sound system. It was the same length as Indianapolis (2½ miles) but an additional lane wider all the way around. Best of all, the infield was free of obstructions enabling the spectators to see the entire course from any seat in the house.
The OMS Board of Directors read like a celebrity Who’s Who: actors Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman, race team owners J.C. Agajanian, Parnelli Jones, Briggs Cunningham and Roger Penske. Even comedian turned racer Dick Smothers was involved up to his eye teeth. Two time Indy 500 winner Roger Ward was hired on as Public Relations Director.
180,000 attended the first race making it the largest crowd to witness a sporting event in California history. Among those in attendance were actors Glen Ford, Robert Stack, Werner Klemperer and James Garner. Senator Barry Goldwater was on hand as well as (then Governor) Ronald Reagan. President Richard Nixon did a fly over!
By all accounts, the race itself was a barn burner. Popular Texan Lloyd Ruby paced the thirty three car field but ’70 Indy winner Al Unser forged his way to the point on lap two. Unser was driving the iconic Johnny Lightening Special owned by Parnelli Jones which proved to be the dominate car that season. Unser and Ruby tussled for the opening ten laps before Unser secured the lead and led until the first round of pit stops. California racing legend Dan Gurney and New Yorker Peter Revson each led briefly but Unser was in command throughout most of the day. Then with fourteen laps remaining Unser’s turbocharger failed and he handed off the lead to Stock Car ace Leeroy Yarbrough. Yarbrough’s reign lasted only five rotations before he succumbed to a blown engine. That passed the baton to capable Oregonian Art Pollard who battled tooth and nail with Jim McElreath (in A.J. Foyt’s backup car) to the finish. Pollard revealed later that a slow leak in one of his tires allowed McElreath to best him in the final four laps and fewer than two seconds separated them at the flag. From a guaranteed purse of half a million, McElreath collected $146,850. – By far the biggest payday in his twenty five year racing career.
OMS hosted three other major events in 1970- the NHRA Super Nationals, a 500 mile NASCAR Stock Car race and a non-points event for Formula One cars. Though the attendance for each event was substantial, it was not what the promoters had projected. In 1971 the 250 mile Champion Spark Plug Motorcycle Classic and the California National Air Races were added to the schedule. Over the next decade major rock festivals were hosted by the speedway as well but nothing seemed to give them relief from the tremendous debt they had incurred in building the facility. OMS was built at a cost of $25.5 million and financed with interest bearing bonds. As time went on (and attendance at their promotions declined) the management was unable to meet the $2 million a year interest payments. By 1980 the speedway was upside-down but conversely the land on which it sat, had gone up in value expeditiously. Chevron Development Company wanted the land and got it by paying off the bondholders. First order of business was tearing down the ten year old “Taj Mahal” of racing facilities. Sadly, nothing remains of it forty years later.
Roger Ward predicted that whoever won the inaugural California 500 would achieve immortality- like Ray Harroun did in winning the first Indianapolis 500. Jim McElreath’s victory was hard fought and no fluke. Unfortunately it was achieved at a magnificent racetrack that is virtually forgotten today.