The High-Octane History Of SoCal's Ascot Park, Where 'The Fastest Of The Fast' Raced
Back in the day, Southern California was a hotbed of motor racing. And one of the best places to watch drivers and motorcyclists tear up the track was Ascot Park in Gardena.
One of those racers was self-described "mad man" John Parker, who sped around Ascot's dirt oval at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour and is now curating an exhibit about the raceway at Cal State Northridge called "Kings of Speed."
So-called sprint cars were getting around the track in just 18 seconds. And the motorcycles were just moments behind, getting to the checkered flag in a death-defying 21 seconds. The cars with the biggest motors were hitting speeds of 120 miles per hour.
"This was the fastest half mile in the United States," Parker told KPCC's Take Two. "The fastest of the fast came west and the saying is if you could win at Ascot, you could win anywhere in the world."
And they did. Household names were born at Ascot, including Indy 500 racers like Mario Andretti and motorcycle superstars Kenny Roberts and Wayne Rainey. Legend has it that Evel Knievel first came to Ascot to race, but just wasn't fast enough. So he turned to stunts.
His first televised jump took place at the raceway in 1967 and was broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
An Evel Knievel motorcycle is among the 15 vehicles on display at the Curb Gallery, which also includes rare sprint and midget cars that raced the Ascot dirt. There are also programs, posters, trophies and helmets from the 5,000 main event races that took place there. And lots and lots of photos - much of it on loan from the Agajanian family, which owned the track.
"This was a kind of psychological experiment with people," Parker said. "You had movie stars. James Garner, Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman were regulars at Ascot. You had all these different rock stars hanging out there, but you had blue collar guys. The car owners were mostly wealthy people. It was Southern California at its most dynamic self.
"What they all came to worship were these kings of speed," he added. "Gods were made on Friday and Saturday night at Ascot."
The Ascot raceway that's the subject of CSUN's "Kings of Speed exhibit" is actually the fourth in Los Angeles. The first dates back to the early 1900s at the corner of Florence and Central at the site of the former Goodyear Tire factory. The next one, in the 1930s, was in Alhambra.
Gardena's racetrack was at 183rd Street and Vermont Avenue. It was open from 1957 to 1990 and often drew sell-out crowds, who packed into the bleachers to see cars struggle to keep their shiny sides up and motorcycles slide sideways through the turns.
Ascot raceway takes its name from a famous horse track in England because it aspired to make motorsports in the U.S. more prestigious. And it worked — putting drivers, and the track they raced, on a global stage.
"The sad thing is that this history is just not readily available and being handed down, so here is 50 years history of racing in Los Angeles that reverberated around the world."
Until, like so many other race tracks in Southern California, it ended. Ascot Park's last race was in 1990. But its history lives on, and is on display at CSUN through October 13.
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