Forty-Five Years of Speed: The Costa Mesa Speedway Comes of Age
Shawn “Mad Dog” McConnell
Photography: Rickett & Sones | Photo Assistant: Chris Doody | Pyrotechnics: Trick Concepts | Design: Dustin Ames
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.
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."
Duels were more common back then, he explains, because riders would race so much throughout Southern California—plus, they were still kids. "There might have been somebody who knocked someone off [their bike] one night, and [that] became a feud, and then it would turn to the next night, the next night, the next night, the next week, and then the next night, the next night—and it would carry on."
But for all the drama, the draw of Costa Mesa Speedway for racers has been the track itself, where young Americans came to cut their teeth in the sport before launching into wider fame in England, the sport's hotbed. "It's always been the premier track of the circuit we were on back then," Schwartz says. "When I started, we were racing five nights a week: Tuesday was Ventura, Wednesday night in San Bernardino, Thursday night at Irwindale, Friday nights in Costa Mesa, Saturday night in Bakersfield. We did that circuit for quite a while, and Costa Mesa was always the biggest."
Many tracks have come and gone in California, but Costa Mesa has remained. On Oct. 5, it will host its 1,000th event, the United States National Speedway Championship, the biggest speedway event of the season.
Riders attribute the Speedway's longevity to its always being family-owned and -operated. "[The Oxleys] treated [it] as a professional sport," Schwartz says. "It was that way from the beginning."
Harry Oxley's children Brad and Laurie inherited the family business as their parents aged. Now the reins are mostly held by Brad and his wife, Jaleen. "I'm just the janitor here, dude," Brad Oxley says humbly. He believes the key to keeping the Costa Mesa Speedway alive is maintaining a good relationship with the Orange County Fairgrounds. "We respect our neighbors, but it's mostly because I don't want to get a real job."
And the extended Oxley family continues the legacy. Brad's daughter Roxanne even married a legendary speedway racer, the "fastest mullet in the west," Mr. Flyin' Mike Faria. (Roxanne's name is proudly displayed on Faria's racing suit, with a heart for the "o.") Faria raced in the early days at Costa Mesa and continues to win at the track. "I have my own philosophy on racing," the 56-year-old Faria says. "We're not going to the moon or anything like that; we're just going in circles."
Faria began racing in 1970 in Northern California and was persuaded by Harry Oxley to come to Southern California because he could make more money here. "So in '82, I moved on down here and have just been loving it ever since," he says. Like so many other American racers, Faria was eventually picked up by an English team, following the money, the fans and the chance at winning big-time championships. "I went to England in '88 for the Belle Vue Aces, went from reserve rider all the way to the No. 1 rider."
He hopped back and forth across the pond for the next decade, earning honors on the Edinburgh and Scottish Monarchs teams in 1995 and 1996. Faria says he's always loved racing at Costa Mesa Speedway, where he thrice won the biggest event of the season, the United States National Championship, as well as took the prize at the Fair Derby, which takes place during the Orange County Fair, eight times. Faria credits his success over the past 43 years to the longtime support of his sponsors, such as Jack Mattson of Mattson Radiator, and, of course, Roxanne. "My wife really pushes me, too," he says. "Her and Jack are . . . kind of the same. They're poor losers. They don't know how to take me because I say, 'You know, I'll get 'em next week.'"
Faria concedes that the wins don't come as much as they used to, especially after he turned 50, but when they come, they feel good. "Well, when you win, you got all kinds of friends," Faria observes, smirking mirthfully. "They come out of the woodwork." And when he loses, he jokes, "I have no friends. Nobody likes a loser!"
He's being modest, though: In the 2013 season at Costa Mesa alone, Faria has taken home two first place wins and a fourth place.
And now, Faria's son Danny is following in his footsteps; he began racing speedway in 2007.
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A night at Costa Mesa Speedway offers not only a chance to watch living legends in action, but also showcases what put the track on the map in the first place: rising talent. Division Two riders learn the tricks of the trade on the same night Division One masters race. There are even a few Youth rounds in which elementary-school-age kids haul ass on mini bikes and the bigger kids ride on 150cc and 250cc motorcycles. The mud may not fly as fast or hard into the crowd when the Division Two guys race, but they are usually younger than the Division One guys, so they take bigger risks, which either pay off for a win or send them crashing into one another.
One of the more boisterous characters of the second division is Damon "Don't Look Back" Barry. He doesn't always win, but he says he enjoys putting on a show anyway, whether it's popping wheelies or rocking pink and zebra print on his suit and bike like no other man can. "If you gotta go down, you gotta look good going down," he muses, adding that speedway is essentially a rock & roll show.
He didn't start when he was a teenager, as did many of the other racers; instead, Barry was captured near middle age after a night at the track. Barry's wife, Sherine, recalls, "One day, he backed his truck up with a speedway bike in the bed. I was on the phone, and I said, 'Hold on, I gotta go kill Damon.'"
It has been eight years since that day. Barry, a carpenter by day, is looking forward to many more years of racing. "The adrenalin I get, the bitchen camaraderie I have with my fellow riders . . . the rush you get when you pull up to the tape. I almost throw up in my helmet," he says. "It's kinda like my birthday every day."
Clanton always points out the rising talent to the crowd. One such racer isn't even in Division Two yet. The girl in the eye-catching white suit with hot pink accents is Courtney Crone. Only 12 years old, with long blond hair and braces, she rides the hell out of her 150cc bike, usually leaving the boys in the Youth division in the dust. On Sept. 14, she became the track champion of her division at Costa Mesa and has taken home three first-place wins there since debuting in early 2012.
Another kid Clanton is quick to highlight is "Mad" Max Ruml. The Huntington Beach 16-year-old landed a spot in Division One in just four years. He was in the Youth division last year, and now he's smoking past the older legends. This year, he won the American Motorcyclist Association Under 21 Championship—an unlikely honor for such a young racer. Since 2011, he has taken home three first-place wins at Costa Mesa.
While respectful of the young talent, older riders such as Schwartz can't help but feel nostalgia for their own, long-ago exploits. "I like being around the younger guys," he says, adding that it makes it all the harder for him to ignore his age. "I still won a few times this year, but I don't take some of the chances I used to."
When he sees teenagers rocking Division One as he did when he began at age 17, it makes him think back to his days as a young World Champion—a rare title for an American rider. "I wish I was young again, and I could do it again," Schwartz concludes. "But really, I had my day. I'm proud of the days I had."
And while Ruml will likely leave for Europe, he'll eventually come back home, just as Schwartz, Faria and countless others did, just as sure as the swallows return to Capistrano. And when they do, they'll be welcomed home warmly. "It's not just a sport; it's a family," says longtime speedway photographer Jim "J.T." Thorn.
"It's this club from here to New York to England—it's a brotherhood," Barry adds. "You're in a club whether you like it or not."
Costa Mesa Speedway invites fans to be part of the family as well. After the race, the gates of the crash walls and the pit open to allow the crowd to walk on the track or go behind the grandstands and meet their favorite racers behind-the-scenes. Sometimes, a half-dozen or so fans will circle around a particular racer in the pit. Most of the riders say they're more than happy to take pictures, sign autographs and chat with the audience.
"A lot of people get hooked, and they come for life," McConnell says.
Faria says he's meeting old fans' grandkids now.
"It's really a niche sport, but it has an über-hardcore following," adds Oxley. "No other event can draw 5,000 paying fans with the longevity we have."
Forty-five years might sound like a long time, but to those who've never left the speedway, the rush of time seems just as fast as the frenzied, danger-filled, so-loud-you-can't-scream-for-help minute it takes to circle the track four times in a high-stakes race.
Oxley leans over the crash wall, looking out at the freshly laid dirt that's about to be ravaged by a dozen screeching tires. "The '70s aren't over," he says of both his youth and the sport's heyday. "They're just behind us."
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