Just west of Bakersfield a modern shrine to pavement racing will open later this year but north of town the grand dame of California racetracks — Bakersfield Speedway — is spruced up and ready to roll into its 68th consecutive season of racing.
That happens on Saturday night as the first of 31 weekends of racing takes place on the third-mile clay oval.
The track, located north of James Road just off the Chester Avenue Extension, opened in May 1946, and is the oldest continuously running track in the state.
That, in itself, is a feat.
There’s been some tummy tucks and a few face lifts along the way and even some CPR, such as when the track was almost left for dead shortly after Mesa Marin Raceway opened in 1977.
Figuring that the aging quarter-mile pavement track was not going to be able to compete with the new fancy half-mile paved oval in east Bakersfield, the late Spud Simkins took over the operation in 1979 with one goal — to rip up the pavement and take the track back to its roots: dirt.
In 1980 Bakersfield Speedway was reborn as a dirt track and an alternative to pavement racing. That move probably saved the track from extinction and not only has the aging lady survived, she’s even thrived.
The same can’t be said of Mesa Marin, which was sold for land development and ran its last race in 2005.
So, while the new Kern County Raceway Park will certainly attract a lot of attention and perhaps siphon off some fans and racers, Bakersfield Speedway owner Scott Schweitzer, entering his 11th season in that role, said all he can focus on is what he can control.
“I just concertante on my own business and providing the fans with the best entertainment I can,” Schweitzer said. “There was another racetrack in town when I bought this track ... you have asphalt fans and you have dirt fans.
“I’m just worried about my deal. My schedule, my racers and my Saturday nights. I’m really looking foward to this Saturday night.”
And to that end, Schweitzer is sticking with a formula that has paid dividends for several years: A strong “house division” providing the bulk of the action spiced up with monthly Late Model stock car shows as well as a handful of open-wheel divisions.
All told, well over a dozen different types of cars will hit the track this season with the American Stocks, Hobby Stocks, IMCA Modifieds and the Sport Modifieds coming for 65 races.
“We like to stick with what works for us and what we have a good feel for,” Schweitzer said. “Our bread and butter is our house shows. The Hobby Stocks have been real competitive for years and the Sport Mods have really taken off.”
Late Models take to the track six times during the regular season while Street Stocks run seven times. The USAC West Coast 360 Sprint Cars Series will compete three times, one more that last season, while USAC Midgets race twice.
As for the facility, Schweitzer said with one exception, it’s pretty much the same.
“We paint and fix stuff and try to make it as nice as we can,” he said.
The exception — a new scoreboard — will be a nice addition to a finicky, aging one where light bulbs seemed to go out all the time. But the new scoreboard will not be shipped until next week so it will likely be the third week of the season before it is up and operational.
“It’s a little bigger that the one we have and will be intergrated with timing and scoring equipment I bought last year so all of that is done automatically,” Schweitzer said. “It’s all LED lighting and will look really good.”
Racing starts at 6 p.m. and takes place every Saturday night through the end of September, with exception of July 6, when the track will be closed.
As usual, the season concludes with the annual Budweiser Nationals on Oct. 11-12.