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45 years later, Cocopah Speedway still the ideal place to race
Frank Golden's dream lives on, surpassing his wildest dreams
On a warm day in the spring of 1967, Frank Golden walked through deep desert sand to take a position on the edge of the Yuma Mesa south of Yuma. There, he gazed out over the pristine Yuma Valley that lay before him, green with vegetable fields ready to be harvested.
He turned to the friends who accompanied him on this trek, and with one hand on his hip and the other pointing to the valley below he announced, "To me, this is the ideal place in the world for a race track."
With that thought in mind, and the ideal location selected, he built Yuma Speedway.
That was 46 years ago.
The original Yuma Speedway, a bull-ring of a quarter-mile oval, opened its doors for the first time on March 24, 1968. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and a crowd estimated at 2,500 turned out to watch Yuma’s Orvis Fugate start dead last in a 16-car, 20-lap feature race and win it all.
Second place that day went to Brawley’s Bill Pistole and third place to another Yuma driver, Phil Moravec.
Jimmy Love won the trophy dash and got a kiss from the trophy queen, Charlotte Peach.
Fast forward to today. Although the name has been changed to Cocopah Speedway, the location is still the same and the breathtaking view of the Yuma Valley from the grandstand is still, well, breathtaking.
But make no mistake about it, this is not the Yuma Speedway that Frank Golden built and opened in 1968. It may be the Yuma Speedway that Golden envisioned, but any similarity between the present-day facility and the original are purely coincidental.
Frank Golden arrives
As a youth growing up in Pauls Valley, Okla., Golden said he would collect Coke bottles to earn enough money to pay for a ticket into the local race track.
When he arrived in Yuma in 1933 he worked the produce industry.
Later he was one of the drivers to try their luck at the newly built California Arizona Racing Association dirt track in Winterhaven in 1965.
"That experience," said Dick Rautenberg, who raced against Golden on the Winterhaven track 48 years ago, "is what inspired Frank Golden to build Yuma Speedway.
"When (the Winterhaven) track closed, Frank decided to build his own track," said Rautenberg.
The track in Winterhaven was open for less than a year, said Rautenberg.
Three years later, at the conclusion of the first season at Yuma Speedway in 1968, Golden and the Yuma Speedway Stock Car Racing Association hosted an awards dinner at the Yuma Jaycees Clubhouse. There, Yuma’s Dan Westbrook received one of the four Rollover Trophies; the late Rocky Jones, also from Yuma, was named Rookie of the Year; and Rautenberg was crowned the track’s first driving champion. Rautenberg also received the Sportsmanship Trophy.
For the next 10 years Golden, with his wife Flo at this side, operated the track, dealing with one obstacle after another, never seeing the facility fully live up to his expectations.
Finally, in late September 1978, Golden, suffering from failing health, announced he was selling the track to a California man, Charles Dix. In an interview in The Yuma Daily Sun, Golden said, "If I were 20 years younger, I’d never have sold it.
"If I were 20 years younger, I’d build a three-eighths track, bring in six to eight events a year – using Late Model cars – and institute motorcycle racing."
Golden died in April 1981, having not seen a race car on his track since the 1978 season finale.
Near the middle of that 1978 season it became clear the drivers were becoming disgruntled with the operation of races at Yuma Speedway and they broke away, forming Yuma County Automobile Racing Association (YCARA). YCARA then worked out a deal to lease the track from Golden, staging the last six races of the 1978 season.
The formation of YCARA also led to the end of the Yuma Speedway Stock Car Racing Association.
After the 1978 season was over the YCARA president and vice president met with Golden to discuss a lease for 1979 but could not come to an agreement. The last meeting involved YCARA president Dick Biddix and Moravec, the association’s vice president, along with Golden and Jim Pittillo, a California businessman who Golden said had purchased the track. The meeting in the track parking lot ended in a heated exchange of accusations and with both parties going their separate ways, YCARA drivers later voting to boycott the track, and Pittillo stating he would not talk with the drivers for at least six months.
The two sides never met again, however, and the unfortunate chain of events led to the drivers opening their own track in 1980. Ironically, it was the same track in Winterhaven where Golden had driven in 1965, where he had been inspired to build Yuma Speedway.
With the local drivers gone, Yuma Speedway fell on hard times.
The black cloud
Pittillo, in a Feb. 21, 1979 story in The Yuma Daily Sun, stated, "I believe there is a gold mine just sitting out there." He apparently saw what Golden had seen, but he too could not bring that vision to fruition. He announced he was planning a 24-race schedule, running open competition races every other weekend. The first was supposed to feature super stocks, super modifieds and sprint cars. Only two entrants showed up.
"I don’t know what it is," said Pittillo, standing outside the timing tower on what was supposed to be race day, looking down on the empty track below. "There is just a black could over this place."
Pittillo then dropped off the radar and a new promoter, Don Yancey, from Phoenix, arrived in November 1979. Yancey stated he would promote motorcycle races.
Yancey was followed by a string of other promoters and owners who also announced big plans for the track, all of which never became reality, and the facility slowly slipped into a wind-swept, overgrown state of disrepair.
New owner, new life
The YCARA drivers operated their track in Winterhaven until 1988 when word got out that a Yuma heavy construction contractor, Jerry Thomas, was purchasing Yuma Speedway, and had grand plans for the facility.
Thomas actually became the fourth owner of the track when the deal was finalized. He had been preceded by others who had tried – and failed – to entice big-time racing back to the Yuma Valley.
However, by the time Thomas came onto the scene, Yuma Speedway had been reduced to nothing more than a run-down, dilapidated, dust bowl.
But the rumors about Thomas’ plans were true. He invested nearly $1 million in renovations and created one of the most talked about dirt tracks this side of the Mississippi River. For his efforts, Thomas received a national promoters award for his creation, or rather his re-creation.
"It’s turned out a lot better than I thought, but that’s only because it was worse than I thought," said Thomas on the eve of his track’s re-opening in September 1989. "Things were so bad that we wound up doing more than we expected."
Thomas was passionate about the track and proceeded full-speed ahead with a list of events that are still talked about today. In his first year, Thomas, acting as the promoter as well as being the owner, brought in USAC Midgets, the World of Outlaws, the California Racing Association non-winged sprint cars and the Snowbird Classic for Late Model stock cars, along with a regular local show, which included the introduction of IMCA Modifieds to the Yuma area.
And the list goes on
Thomas turned over operation of the track in 1991 to Steve Brucker and Andy Therkildsen, who were major players in the operation of Cajon Speedway, a paved track in El Cajon, Calif. A year later Therkildsen, who was once a racer at Cajon Speedway, bought out Brucker and promoted Yuma Speedway on his own, offering much the same program that Thomas did in his first year.
Therkildsen also tried to entice the Slick 50 Sprint Car World Series to make Yuma Speedway its home for the winter, but lost out to Canyon Speedway.
Following Therkildsen, Yuma’s Kent Rautenberg, who had become a racing champion at Yuma Speedway in the mid-1970s and with YCARA, decided to try race track promoting in 1994 after stepping away from race cars as a driver. Rautenberg experienced some success, but left the position before the season was over.
He was succeeded by another California-grown promoter, Mark Norris, who, like Therkildsen, had a storied racing career at Cajon Speedway.
During Norris’ tenure, from 1995 to 1997, he introduced Yuma fans to the Ego Challenge, in which spectators could bring their cars in off the street and try their hand at setting the fast time around the oval. The event proved to be popular.
Thomas then turned operation of the track over to Dome Valley farmer Ronnie Moore in December 1997. Moore operated the track, which he renamed Yuma Speedway Park, for two years, during which he tried to cultivate a more fan-friendly, park-like atmosphere. He also re-introduced sprint car racing to the area with the winged, 410 cars of the Sprint Car Owners of Arizona Empire Cup series, and constructed a new sand drag facility south of the main parking lot.
Up for sale
Moore announced in the fall of 1999 that he had purchased the facility from Thomas. And after the 1999 season was over, despite assuring drivers that there would be a 2000 season, Moore locked the gates. Moore said he could no longer afford to operate the facility and put it up for sale.
Local drivers once again banded together, approached Moore and offered to lease the track, but he declined their offer. Instead he kept the circle track closed and leased the sand drag facility he had constructed in 1998 to outside organizations to stage a number of events.
In June 2005 the Cocopah Indian Tribe purchased the facility from Moore for $1 million, according to documents from the Yuma County Recorder’s Office. A tribal official said at the time that the tribe had no immediate plans for the facility.
In January 2010, the Cocopah Indian Tribe announced it was ready to get into the race track business and unveiled an extensive renovation project.
"The goal of the tribe is to revitalize the race track, along with seating and concessions, in order to provide another family-oriented entertainment venue for the community to enjoy," said a spokesperson for the Cocopah Indian Tribe.
Unfortunately, in the years the track was inactive it again fell victim to the weather along with extensive vandalism, including the theft of all of the facility’s copper wiring.
Eight months and thousands of man hours later, along with a hefty investment by the Cocopah Indian Tribe, the track was ready to re-open in September 2010 as Cocopah Speedway.
"I’m excited," said David White, who began talking with a tribal spokesperson early in 2009 about the possibility of re-opening the facility.
"I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited to see how it progresses after we get things going."
White, from Yuma, who is a stock car racer himself and cut his racing teeth at this same track, was the primary individual behind Cocopah Speedway’s re-opening, overseeing the refurbishing of the facility. Once open, he also served as interim racing director.
"I think we are pretty much back to where we were the last time we raced here," said White prior to the 2010 re-opening. "It’s been a long haul, and it’s not just me that’s made this happen. It’s taken a lot of work and a real commitment from the tribe and several volunteers and businesses to make this happen."
After the track re-opened, White, who wanted to get back behind the wheel of a race car, gave notice that he would no longer serve as racing director after the 2010-2011 season. The tribe then set out to find a full-time racing director.
Today, the track has begun a new chapter in its colorful and storied history, starting with the introduction of full-time director of racing operations, Greg Burgess, from Washington.
In the period since Burgess has been on board, improvements to the facility have been an ongoing theme, with the largest being the demolition of the 44-year-old wooden grandstand and the construction of a larger, safer, concrete grandstand.
Also, Burgess oversaw the removal of the steel retaining fence around the racing surface, and the construction of a concrete wall in its place.
No stranger to racing and familiar with some of the best facilities in the country, Burgess said he would rank Cocopah Speedway with the top five dirt tracks anywhere.
"This is every bit on scale or can be with Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo., supposedly the best there is and absolutely beautiful; Dodge City Raceway Park, in Dodge City, Kan., also a beautiful facility; Grays Harbor Raceway, in Elma, Wash., which has been said over and over that it is in the top five in the nation; and Knoxville, Iowa. I believe this track can compare with all of those," said Burgess.
"I was told the foundation is here to do some amazing things, and I’m certainly going to do everything I can to make those things happen."
In 2013, the track will play host to no less than seven national events, some of them with television coverage, along with a full local racing series schedule.
Wherever he is, Frank Golden is no doubt listening and certainly must have a smile on his face.