Jim McElreath Wins Big In Ontario Motor Speedway Debut
Jim McElreath scored the biggest victory of his 25-year racing career on Sept. 6, 1970, by winning the California 500, the first major race at the magnificent $25.5 million Ontario Motor Speedway.
The debut of the lavish sports facility attracted an overflow crowd of 180,000, which filled every seat and contributed to a whopping $727,500 purse for the USAC National Championship race.
NSSN editor Chris Economaki was on hand for the grand opening of the 2.5-mile rectangular track and wrote the following for his column that appeared in the Sept. 9 issue:
“Auto racing took its place alongside the sport of kings here Sunday as the lavish Ontario Motor Speedway offered the California 500. Whatever criticisms those in attendance may have about the facility, they are overwhelmed by the many pluses built into the plant.
“Every comfort factor is present. Elevators eliminate stair climbing. Mini-skirted usherettes show one to his aisle and cute waitresses bring drinks to your seat. An air-conditioned dining room commands a view of the entire track and closed-circuit television is piped into the refreshment areas of the main stand and the private suites.”
The allure of the Golden State’s first major auto-racing facility attracted stars such as Glen Ford, Robert Stack, John Wayne, Werner Klemperer and Jim Garner. Senator Barry Goldwater was on hand as was Governor Ronald Reagan while President Richard Nixon personally phoned his apologies, but flew over the track during the race.
McElreath, driving A.J. Foyt’s back-up car, started 18th in the 33-car field and became a contender after a turbocharger failure erased Al Unser’s two-lap advantage and Cale Yarborough’s engine blew while leading with just 10 laps remaining.
McElreath battled Art Pollard during the final five laps of the 200-lap race with McElreath eventually claiming the victory by fewer than two seconds. He averaged 160.106 mph and earned $146,850. Pollard took home $73,000 for second.
Dick Simon finished third with Gordon Johncock and Peter Revson rounded out the top-five as only eight cars were still running when the checkered flag was waved.
In addition to the 2.5-mile track patterned after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Ontario Motor Speedway complex included a quarter-mile drag strip and a 3.19-mile road course. It was located adjacent to Interstate 10, 40 miles west of Los Angeles.
Despite initially attracting large crowds, the facility struggled financially and officials were never able to erase the tremendous debt incurred during construction. The track finally closed in December 1980 and was eventually torn down.