Ontario: The Indianapolis Of The West

Ontario Motor Speedway was once a hot bed of motorsports, but closed in 1980 after only 10 years. (NASCAR Photo)

For decades, upscale shopping centers, banks and movie theaters thrived on Haven and Millikan Avenues in Ontario, Calif. Four-lane highways lined with trees and greenery are commonplace amid gentle California breezes.

Unknown by many local residents, a great superspeedway occupied the space from 1970 to 1980. The 2.5-mile rectangular track closely resembled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, prompting fans and the media to nickname the track “Indy of the west.”

It was the most opulent of speedways with glitz and glamour that outweighed reality and doomed the project from the very start.

Built for $30 million, which was an astronomical amount in 1970, china and silverware sat upon linen in three-story corporate suites. A three-mile road course,  a drag strip and two infield lakes contributed to it being deemed the very best speedway ever built. Spacious garage facilities, wide comfortable seating and a state-of-the-art computerized, real-time scoring system were just a few of the amenities the track had to offer.

It came to fruition thanks to a complex financial prospectus financed through bonds issued by the city of Ontario. David Lockton, an Indian­apolis attorney, was named president and spent nearly a year working through land purchases and contractors. Ground was broken on Sept. 24, 1968, and construction took nearly two years to complete.
In a 1992 article written by legendary Los Angeles times scribe Shav Glick for American Racing Classics, projected annual revenue was placed at $6.4 million, with expenditures of $2.4 million, leaving plenty to pay the annual $2 million rent.

Projected attendance for Indy car, NASCAR, Formula One and NHRA events was set at 690,000. In actuality, Ontario Motor Speedway drew only 372,081 in its first season.

H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, remembers OMS as a fabulous superspeedway that experienced difficulties from the beginning.

“Ontario Motor Speedway was a marvelous facility,” Wheeler said. “Everything was first class. It should have been built as a high-banked, three-quarter-mile race track that would have had a lot of action. It ended up being a one-groove track and that was the problem with it. Everyone could see early on there was nowhere to pass.

“It was unusual because it was the first race track financed by bonds, which was almost impossible. They had to service the bonds and guaranteed a certain percentage. So that came up and they had to pay that off.

“The track was in the right place. However, you could see the beginnings of the deterioration of the love of automobiles in Southern California even then,” Wheeler continued. “If it had come in the 1940s,’50s or early ’60s, there was this tremendous passion for cars there. But then California kept putting regulations on cars and they became something young people shied away from. I think that had as much to do with it as anything.”