CAJON SPEEDWAY WILL BECOME HANGARS FOR GILLESPIE FIELD

ÿ

ÿ

“The infield’s green grass has turned to straw. The grandstands are rusted. Weeds reach for the lower benches. But it’s not hard to imagine what Cajon Speedway used to be.

ÿ

“In its heyday, thousands of racing fans flocked to the stands week after week, some staking out their seats hours before the first race cars rolled onto the track. The roar of engines echoed through the valley. Fans left hoarse, their ears ringing.

ÿ

“Although attendance waned in recent years, crowds still gathered at the oval near Gillespie Field every Saturday night.

ÿ

“But those days are gone now. Cajon Speedway staged its last race in October 2004, and the 50-year lease on the county-owned property expired last week. What once was known as “the fastest three-eighths-mile paved oval in the West” will be demolished, and bulldozers will clear the 70-acre parcel by May for airport hangars and other aviation-related buildings.

ÿ

“More than four decades after the flag waved on its first race, Cajon Speedway is officially history. Despite the growing popularity of NASCAR, short tracks throughout the state are closing. California real estate is at a premium and there is more money in building homes and businesses.

ÿ

“The Carlsbad Raceway, with its drag strip, motocross and superbike courses, closed last summer to make room for more houses. Bakersfield’s Mesa Marin Speedway is set to hold its last NASCAR race in October.

ÿ

“Southern California still has short tracks such as the Irwindale Speedway in Los Angeles and the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino. The only one left in San Diego County is the Barona Speedway, a quarter-mile dirt track located between Lakeside and Ramona.

ÿ

“Most people knew Cajon Speedway’s days were numbered as the county’s lease with the Brucker Family Trust, which operated the track, neared its Aug. 15 end. The family first started staging motorcycle races in 1957, then switched to car races four years later.

ÿ

“Struck with one personal misfortune after another and unable to secure an extended lease, the Brucker family announced in January that it would not hold a 2005 season. Steve Brucker, who helped run the speedway, was killed at his El Cajon home in April 2003 in a botched robbery. His brother, Kevin Brucker, took over the track but lost his wife, Doris Brucker, in March to brain cancer. She worked as the track comptroller.

ÿ

“Eleventh-hour attempts by others to extend the lease were unsuccessful. All that’s left are memories, and the sinking feeling that El Cajon and the county have lost something special.

ÿ

ÿ

“It was probably one of the best small-town racing surfaces in the Western United States,” said Chuck Turner, a fan and one-time racing official. Turner, 50, owns an automotive repair shop on Bradley Avenue, adjacent to the track. As a teenager, he worked in the pits wiping the dust from race cars. He was a board member of the now-defunct El Cajon Stock Car Racing Association.

ÿ

“From when I was 18 until I was 40ish, I was there every Saturday night,” Turner said. “I used to have dreams, nightmares that something kept me from the track.”

ÿ

“He witnessed the arguments, the camaraderie, the wrecks. But it was the love of racing, and the feeling he would get watching the cars circle the track at 100 miles per hour, just inches apart from one another, that kept him coming back.

ÿ

“Some probably thought the track was little more than a “big beer drinking and swear fest,” Turner said. “It wasn’t.”

ÿ

“The competition was merciless. More than 100 drivers would show up on Saturday nights to qualify for four races. Every driver was allowed to race, no matter how slow.ÿ Fans came early. They cheered for their favorites, and heckled the ones they labeled villains.

ÿ

“It was an event. It was a spectacle,” said Mark Norris, who started racing at the track in 1970 and once went 18 years without missing a race. “You can’t imagine what it was like.”

ÿ

“The rivalries played out over the entire season, making it “more of continuing soap opera than it was an individual race.” Norris, 55, was a three-time champ at the speedway in the 1980s. But he almost died there in 1992. He wrecked his car, and broke his ankle and his back in two places. His right foot was severed and had to be reattached. Norris was back nearly four years later. He won that night, “probably one of my best memories ever.”

ÿ

“I’ll never be able to walk straight, I’m in pain 24 hours a day because of that racetrack and I still love it,” Norris said.

ÿ

THE COUNTY’S PLANS

ÿ

“Aiming for something more upscale, the county plans to build hangars for 284 airplanes and transform the property for other aviation-related uses by 2015. It will accommodate an additional 100 aircraft on tie-down ramps. All of the infrastructure and some of the hangars will be completed by 2008.

ÿ

“This airport and this development is a direct economic engine to the East County and has a tremendous impact on the type of businesses that locate to this area,” said Peter Drinkwater, the county’s airports director.

ÿ

“This time, we’re going to get .ÿ.ÿ. premier businesses.”

ÿ

“Whatever replaces the speedway likely will be more lucrative than the Brucker lease. In each of the last two fiscal years, the county generated an average of $50,000 annually. With new tenants, the county would receive $35,000 a month just in rent at current rates, which will go up after the property is appraised.ÿ The revenue is used to support the eight airports run by the county, Drinkwater said. “We have to balance our revenue-makers with our revenue-takers,” he said.

ÿ

“A request for proposals for the project is expected to go out in February 2007. The development has been dubbed Cajon Air Center and already is generating a buzz. Drinkwater said he has a waiting list of 60 people interested in making aviation-related proposals. “We’re pretty proud of where we’re headed with this,” he said.

ÿ

In the 1980s, the county considered adding industrial uses to the property after the Brucker lease expired, but the Federal Aviation Administration nixed the plan. The FAA threatened to withhold grant money if the county didn’t stick just to aviation.

ÿ

THANKING THE FANS

ÿ

“For those who spent their lives at the track, these are sad days. “It’s been my life for a long, long, long time,” said Ed Hale, who raced stockcars for 44 years and was one of the most popular drivers. “It kind of hurts to see it close.”

ÿ

“Hale, 67, and his wife own an automotive repair shop in Lakeside. He had always vowed to retire from the sport at 70, but back injuries have sidelined him for a while.

ÿ

“I just enjoy it,” said Hale, known as “Smilin’ Ed.” “I tried to stop one year .ÿ.ÿ. and I sold everything. But by the end of the season I’d bought everything back and was racing again.”

ÿ

“For Earle Brucker Jr., son of the speedway’s founder and father to Steve and Kevin, the saddest part is saying goodbye to friends and fans. “I would like to thank the fans because as far as we’re concerned they are the best,” Earle Brucker said. “We’ve seen a lot of people in agony as they look at the racetrack.”

ÿ

“But at 80 years old, Brucker said, “I’m not playing racetrack anymore.”

Attendance dropped off toward the end, said Bob Gardner, the speedway’s longtime publicist. Races drew an average crowd of 2,200 the last couple of years, compared with as many as 4,600 in the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s.

ÿ

“Saturday-night programs stretched longer than they used to. The wood bleachers were hard and uncomfortable, the nights could be chilly and more people may have chosen to get their racing fix at home, watching the bigger events on TV. But many say the end of Cajon Speedway is a loss for kids, for fans, and for businesses that catered to drivers.

ÿ

“Some wonder why the county didn’t do more to help.

ÿ

“I think they probably should have done something about possibly helping find another area for a racetrack rather than just saying, ‘See you later,’ÿ” said Norris, who with Bo Lemler, another stockcar driver, tried and failed to work a deal with the county. Supervisor Dianne Jacob called the speedway an East County institution, but said the government’s hands were tied.

ÿ

“Change is always difficult, but the future of this property has been well known and laid out by the Federal Aviation Administration,” Jacob said. “It’s time to move on. As I’ve said before, I’m ready, willing and able to work with the racing community to see if we can come up with some alternative sites.”

ÿ

“Norris doubts another track can be built in the county. Too many regulations, not enough land. It’s a shame for fans, he said. “We can race somewhere else a lot easier than they can watch somewhere else,” Norris said.

You might also like