Forty-Five Years of Speed: The Costa Mesa Speedway Comes of Age

Forty-Five Years of Speed: The Costa Mesa Speedway Comes of Age
Photography: Rickett & Sones | Photo Assistant: Chris Doody | Pyrotechnics: Trick Concepts | Design: Dustin Ames
Shawn “Mad Dog” McConnell

Somewhere inside the chaos of a speedway motorcycle racetrack, between the war cries from fans on the grandstand and riders controlling bikes without brakes while careening in circles at 60 mph, overwhelmed by the desire to cross the finish line first—somewhere hidden within all that—there is a calmness.

"Speedway is more of a zen thing," explains Brad Oxley, the promoter and inheritor of the Costa Mesa Speedway at the Orange County Fairgrounds, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. "You have to get in the right mindset. You have to control your breathing, your heart rate. You have to have fortitude—I call it fortitude, but you know I mean balls, right?"

For all the fast-paced, tire-to-tire, make-one-wrong-move-and-everyone's-going-down, done-in-60-seconds action, the calmest place you can find at a speedway race is underneath a racer's helmet. "Once I put my helmet on, I'm a different person," says Shawn "Mad Dog" McConnell, whose helmet fittingly has black, floppy dog ears hanging from the top.

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That's the only thing the award-winning speedway vet of 38 years does to mentally prepare for a race. After that, he rolls up to the starting line with three or four other racers and zones in on what every other racer wants: a spot in the inside turn. If you take off out of that gate and hug the corner of your first turn, your chances of winning skyrocket. After that, you just have to focus on not falling.

Outside of that helmet, though, it's a different story. According to longtime announcer Terry "Ike" Clanton, "Speedway is a party interrupted every two minutes by a race."

Shrapnel from the granite clay track flies off the ground at high speeds, mercilessly pelting close viewers (read: anyone sitting closer than the 10th row), but hey, that's part of the fun. Fans will pick clumps of clay out of their hair, pockets and purses for days after, and those who indulge in the $12 beers are likely to be drinking dirt at least once during the night.

Approximately 5,000 fans roar on those nights when a racer crosses the finish line to a checkered flag after a close race, scream when a racer (or three) crash, and occasionally jeer when the referee makes their favorite racer start from behind the penalty line.

Clanton has been the carnival barker for the show and voice of the Costa Mesa Speedway since 1997. You may also know him from the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach; he has announced there for 32 years in a row. His charm comes from a mix of off-the-cuff remarks and a pocketful of staple statements (not unlike the great Chick Hearn's sayings, including "This game's in the refrigerator; the door is closed, the lights are out, the eggs are cooling, the butter's getting hard, and the Jell-O's jigglin'!"). A crowd favorite is the quip "His bike's smoking more than a crack house in Lake Elsinore!" Or when a bike sparks fire, he'll announce, "It's a speedway barbecue, folks!"

The smallest professional speedway track in the world has served as a cradle of champions since 1968, hallowed ground in a sport more popular in Europe than in the United States. Many of the guys who dominate the track today, touring the world as professional speedway racers, began their successful careers here. And yet, as many of its fans and workers attest, precious few Orange County residents know about the biggest little race course around.

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Costa Mesa Speedway's history began in 1937, when Pasadena boy Jack Milne won the Speedway World Championship at what is now known as Wembley Stadium in London. He was the first American to do so in a European-dominated sport. Then, World War II broke out, and the sport hit the crash walls. The racing celebrity returned to Pasadena and opened a bicycle shop with his fellow racer brother, Cordy.

Flash forward to 1967. A down-on-his-luck father, returning to Southern California from a failed venture as a cycle-shop owner, went to work for Milne. In just one year, Harry Oxley worked his way up to manager of the Milne brothers' shop, then became business partners with Jack.

Oxley wanted to open his own speedway track, and who better to work with than his boss and mentor? They scouted the bull ring at the Orange County Fairgrounds and set up shop with Milne's financial support. The rebirth of American speedway had begun.

The first season of Costa Mesa Speedway launched on Friday the 13th in June 1968; 1,500 spectators showed up to the initial event. Crowds of 6,000 were common by 1970, the wild-west days of American speedway. According to racing legend Bobby "Boogaloo" Schwartz, now 57, feuds between racers were prevalent and fistfights in the grandstands weren't unheard of.

Schwartz, a decorated racer, carries the rare honor of becoming a World Team Cup Champion in 1982, World Best Pairs Champion in 1981 and the following year, and a U.S. National Champion in 1986 and 1989, the Babe Ruth of the speedway scene of the 1980s. "There were more personalities in the sport because it was raw, it was new," he remembers. "There were a lot of people who had a different view of life, it seems, because we were younger and it was a different time."

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