When I was a kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1980s, Friday or Saturday night meant one thing only: kicking it with my friends in the parking lot of Bob’s Big Boy on the corner of Tampa and Ventura boulevards, deep in the heart of Tarzana. Girls with big hair and neon clothing; roughneck Valley boys in pegged jeans, burnouts and the occasional fistfight, like a Jewish version of an S.E. Hinton novel. If I could remake the Eames film Powers of Ten, the camera would pull back from the parking lot up, up, up into the universe and then return, ending on the oversize rim of a 1983 Mazda RX-7 or, better yet, a tricked-out Toyota mini-truck.
These mini-trucks were the shit. Imagine a small Toyota truck in pearlescent colors, with beds that twisted and turned with the flip of a hydraulic switch, chrome 17-inch rims pushing out of the wheel wells, L.A. Dream Team or N.W.A blasting from the cab, the bass so loud your spleen hurt.
If, in the scheme of Los Angeles car culture, the first Ford Deuce Coupes appeared in the Paleocene Epoch and today’s carbon-fiber festooned import tuner cars in the Holocene Epoch, then the 1980s mini-truck scene would exist somewhere in the middle, where plate tectonics are still active, continents are forming and modern mammals are slowly dominating the planet. Like the earth as we know it, sort of. These mini-trucks were the instigators of the new ultramodern scene, setting the stage for the $30-billion-plus car-customizing industry. And they started — like neo-con politics and the “Me Generation” — in Southern California. But today, most of the joy of parking-lot hanging out in Los Angeles is lost to the parts bin of history, done in by over-zealous politicians and a thin blue line that gets thinner by the day.
The car world owes a debt of gratitude to local auto freaks, who put in, as George W. likes to say, the hard work. Our region has its hand in the “Donk” scene of the Dirty South, the low-rider scene in Chicago, the import-tuner scene in the red states, and even those 20-inch rims on your cousin’s car in Podunk, USA. A planet without the imagination of SoCal’s auto masters would be like Western culture without the Enlightenment.
In fact, from 1920 to 1924, auto racing prevailed in the heart of the 90210 at the Los Angeles Motor Speedway, where the Beverly Wilshire Hotel now stands. In the ’40s, The Grove’s location was home to Gilmore Stadium and midget-car racing. The Gilmore family made its money in black gold, so what better way to turn the public on to the joys of the combustion engine than auto racing?
Even as late as 20 years ago, L.A. County was lousy with the smell of leaded fuel and burnt rubber: You could race the Saugus Speedway by day and cruise Van Nuys Boulevard by night. But Gilmore was torn down in 1950, Saugus is now a swap meet, and Van Nuys curtailed cruising in the 1980s. For shame.
The mini-truck moment may have passed, along with Long Beach’s Lyons Drag Strip (shuttered in the late 1970s), Gardena’s Ascot Park (1990) and the Riverside International Raceway (1986), but it’s not like car racing has vanished — look around, it’s local.
If you like the competition true-blue, the Winternationals at Pomona is a good place to start. You can watch racing or even enter at places like the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale (6850 E. Avenue T, 661-533-2224), or the Irwindale Speedway(500 Speedway Dr., 626-358-1100). Fontana’s California Speedway (9300 Cherry Ave., 800-944-RACE) holds two NASCAR races a year, along with Indy, Grand Am, drag and Craftsman-truck racing. Up the coast, make a weekend of winetasting in Paso Robles and small-time auto racing at the Ventura Raceway(Seaside Park,805-985-5433). Hell, check out the Rim of the World Rally race held every year in the Angeles National Forest for some of the best technical rally driving you’ve ever seen up close and personal.
Simplest of all, there’s no better way to connect with the spirit of the culture than a drive up Highway 1. The views of the waves crashing on the beach as you speed up to catch the last rays of the sun so you can eat another helping of fried clams at Neptune’s Net in Malibu make everything else fade away. All that’s left is the road and a sore ass from so much time spent behind the wheel. Really, a small price to pay for perfection.