Short track racing as we know today is dying a very slow death, and with that it’s not hard to look around and see how many of them have closed their gates in the last five to 10 years. At one time they were the backbone, as well as the places where some of NASCAR’s top name drivers built their racing careers on.
On any given weekend it wasn’t uncommon to walk through the turnstiles and if you weren’t there early enough, finding a few empty seats together was about as hard as driving the speed limit here in Los Angeles before and after work.
The foundations that were built at each one these racing facilities quickly became part of the motorsports culture, as fans from around the country flocked to see these courageous men race their family vehicle. Stock car racing as it was known, rapidly grew as track owners began buying vacant parcels of land to build their own facilities while utilizing surface’s such as dirt, clay or paved with asphalt for the drivers to race on.
As the sport grew, so did the technology that went into building some America’s most famous tracks throughout the country, which included automatic scoring, smoother racing surfaces, and a more safer environment for the drivers as well as the fans just to name a few. It wasn’t long before an up-and-down economy along with a fan base that began to lose interest, that’s about the time we started to see some of our favorite racing facilities close their gates in favor of land prices that far exceeded the operating costs.
With most of the tracks being built down south and in the Eastern part of the region, it wasn’t long before the racing bug caught fire to their neighbors west of the Mississippi, and tracks began sprawling up in just about every state. Even though NASCAR’s roots were founded in the south, California quickly became a hot bed for the sport when tracks were built to accommodate those drivers who were looking for a place to race their souped up hot rods. Nestled between the rock quarries in a city with a population of less than 1500 people, lies one of NASCAR’s finest state of the art short track racing facilities.
Irwindale Speedway as it was known when the facility first opened its gates back in March of 1999, became the first privately owned short track to pick-up a major sponsor when Toyota acquired the naming rights to the track in 2008. “Bringing a major sponsor to the track was a dream of mine. Track owner Jim Williams, and myself felt that an automotive company would be a good fit,” said general manager Bob DeFazio when asked how Toyota became the track’s major sponsor.
DeFazio also added that, “With Toyota being Southern California based and just getting into the racing business it was a natural to get involved. It also gave Toyota a chance to showcase their vehicles.” Toyota Speedway at Irwindale as it is known today is asphalt paved, progressively banked half mile track with a third mile track snuggled on the infield. TS@I is known around the NASCAR faithful as one the premier short tracks in the Nation, and has hosted the Toyota All-Star Showdown since 2003 which is dubbed, “The Daytona 500 of short track racing.”
The showdown brings together drivers from both the K&N Pro Series West and East divisions to battle for bragging rights, given that it’s a non-points event. The speedway also plays host to NASCAR’s Whelan All-American Series, which is designed to reward excellence at local tracks, comparing performance against drivers of each region, and ultimately against drivers across the United States. Through a formula known as the Competition Performance Index (CPI), eventually a State as well as a National points champion will be crowned based on finishes for the best 18 races ending September 30.
Along with the Whelan Series, the track also runs various other divisions on both the half and third mile, along with demo derby’s and figure eight racing. When you think about the cost of entertainment which does not come cheap these days, especially with Los Angeles being considered the entertainment capitol of the world, TS@I has kept the price of admission the same since they first opened the track 12 years ago. “We knew we were in the entertainment capitol of the world when we built this place. We have a lot of competition and knew that coming in and they set the standard and we have to be good to compete with them,” said DeFazio.
DeFazio also added that, “We set a standard that if we give people a good value and a good price, and that came from Mr. Williams when he worked at McDonalds.” In 2002, TS@I added a 1/8 mile drag strip on the south-east corner on the parking lot where people of all ages can come out and watch, as well as race their street-legal vehicles in a safe and controlled atmosphere on Thursday nights.
“The drags are great and it has become a happening. We get anywhere from 150 to 300 cars during the summer to race for time slips. We get about 1000 spectators every Thursday night,” said DeFazio. DeFazio finished with, “It’s a different group of people and they are out here to have a good time. It’s something easy for them to do on a Thursday night.” TS@I is a family oriented NASCAR sanctioned track that has something to offer for people of all ages whether you are a seasoned racing veteran, a novice fan looking to learn more about the sport, or just looking for a place to hang out on a Saturday night with some friends.
TS@I is just one of many of NASCAR’s hidden treasures where some of motorsport’s best racing is usually found, and you never know when the next big star will emerge from one of these short tracks. Take the time to support your local track, because one day they may become a distant memory like as so many of them have already have.