As famed NASCAR driver Richard “The King” Petty has said, “If the fans don’t show passion, we’re doing something wrong.”
If twice a year isn’t enough NASCAR — or if Fontana sounds like a little too much — there’s always the Irwindale Speedway, at the intersection of the 210 and 605 freeways, where Los Angeles ends and America begins. From March until November, Irwindale provides both the rabid and novice race fan a weekly stock-car fix.
Even though the track was built in the late 1990s, Irwindale is what NASCAR was like when Bill France Sr. started the sport back in the 1940s. The track, the fans, even some of the cars, are throwbacks to a less-commercial time. The action here, on the half-mile oval, ranges from low-end Super Stockers and old-timey Legend Cars to NASCAR Training, Grand National West Super Late Models. An occasional Demolition Derby or Figure 8 race is thrown in for good measure.
Walking around Irwindale’s sprawling garage area, you get a sense of the love of racing. Some teams may have $65,000 rides that look like they just rolled off the lot, and others look like, well, kind of like Pick Your Part had a fire sale — but each and every driver and owner is pumped to be there. Like minor-league baseball players, some of the drivers do have aspirations of hitting the bigtime circuit, but for most of them, just getting behind the wheel of a car — any car — is good enough.
“Barefoot” Billy Ziemann, a Figure 8 legend since 1980, is one of those guys. True to his nickname, he owns one pair of shoes (“my driving shoes”), and told me, “In Figure 8, when you are playing a big old game of chicken at 85 mph and there are no stop signs or red lights, it’s all just crashing and banging.” Which is, of course, part of the appeal; most of the crowd stays through all of the stock-car races just to catch the final heat of the Figure 8 race.
Sitting in the grandstands overlooking the track, drinking a Coke and eating a corn dog on a balmy evening, you get a real sense of family here. The fans all seem to know each other, and — unlike in the big leagues — everyone roots for everyone else’s favorite driver. For the price of a movie, you can watch a full evening of stock-car action. For a lot of people — and I count myself among them — there is no better way to while away the summertime blues than watching people race for love, not for the money but simply for the sport.