Ontario Speedway: From Big O to Big Zer-0

California’s Ontario Motor Speedway known as the Big “O” is dozed back in 1981 to make way for city development.

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by Dain Gingerelli
A view from the backside shows the wrecking ball tearing down the enormous cement structure overlooking the front straight. It was as if Godzilla himself had taken a bite of the facility.

How and why, exactly, did Ontario Motor Speedway — aka The Big O — fail? Several factors contributed to its demise, but in the end the fickle finger of fate primarily points to the root of all evil — money. In particular it was real estate money that helped bury the Big O.

Ontario’s story originates after two similar attempts to put a state-of-the-art race track in Southern California failed. Undaunted, venture capitalist David Lockton organized his own consortium in the mid-1960s to finance and build what became OMS. His plan succeeded and the first race, the California 500 featuring Indy cars, was held September 6, 1970. That USAC-sanctioned race was earmarked as the “Indy 500 of the West.” Indeed, Lockton had it in mind to create a racing facility that would rival auto racing’s crown jewel, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

OMS was financed primarily through municipal bonds to the tune of $25.5 million. Reports indicate that the facility itself cost about $35 million, but the bulk of the money rested in those fragile municipal bonds. With attendance exceeding 170,000 spectators for the inaugural event, hopes rang high that The Big O was going to be a golden goose not only for bond holders who invested in the project, but for the automotive and motorcycle communities, too.

That was the plan, but television had yet to show interest in motorized racing, and social media wasn’t even a two-word phrase in 1971. And so management of perhaps the most sophisticated racing facility in the world relied on old-school marketing and advertising techniques to draw huge crowds that never materialized. The golden goose turned into, simply, a big goose egg — The Big Zer-O.

By 1976 promoters of the Champion Spark Plug Classic realized The Big O was perhaps too big for the bike crowd’s liking, so they took their show 350 miles north to Laguna Seca Raceway, a smaller and more intimate venue. The four-wheeler racers’ interest waned in OMS, too. Worse yet, by 1980 bond holders were putting pressure on track management to realize a return on their investment. Eventually the final professional race, NASCAR’s 500-miler, was run and won by Benny Parsons on November 15, 1980. A few months later OMS management filed for bankruptcy, and within a year Chevron Land Company, a division of Chevron Corporation, paid bond holders 30 cents on the dollar to acquire the property. It proved a wise investment, though; the bonds cost Chevron $10 million, but the land value easily exceeded $25 million.

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