Golden had the vision; Thomas had the means; Cocopah Tribe has the reins
43 years later, ideal location now has the ideal race track
By Randy Hoeft
“To me, Yuma is the ideal place in the world for a race track,” said Frank Golden. And with that thought in mind, he picked out what he felt was the ideal location, and built Yuma Speedway. That was 43 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 was built by Frank Golden 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.
Golden came to Yuma from Oklahoma in 1933 and worked the produce industry. As a youth growing up in Pauls Valley, Okla., he said he would collect Coke bottles to earn his admission into the local race track. And when he got to Yuma, he was one of the drivers to try their luck at the California Arizona Racing Association track in Winterhaven in 1965. “That experience,” said Dick Rautenberg, who raced against Golden on the Winterhaven track 46 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.
At the conclusion of that 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 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. 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. A disagreement over operation of the track between Golden and a fledgling group of drivers, who called themselves the Yuma County Automobile Racing Association, led to the drivers opening their own track. Ironically, it was the same track in Winterhaven where Golden had driven in 1965, where he had been inspired to build Yuma Speedway. The 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 racing facility. Thomas actually became the fourth owner of the track when the deal was finalized. He had been preceded by two others who had tried – and failed – to entice big-time racing back to the Yuma Valley. And by the time Thomas came onto the scene, Yuma Speedway had been reduced to nothing more than a run-down, dilapidated, dust bowl of a racing facility. But the rumors about Thomas were true. He spent nearly $1 million in renovations and created one of the most talked about, three-eighths-mile 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 the regular local show, which included the introduction of IMCA Modifieds to the Yuma area. There were also Sportsman Division cars, Factory Stocks and Mini Stocks. Soon after, however, 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 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 unsuccessfully 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 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 drivers 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 re-intdroduced sprint car racing to the area with the winged, 410 cars of the Sprint Car Owners of Arizona Empire Cup series. Moore then announced in the fall of 1999 that he had purchased the facility from Thomas, and at the season’s end closed it. Moore said he could no longer afford to operate the facility, locked the gates and put it up for sale. In June 2005 the Cocopah Indian Tribe purchased the facility fromMoore.
Unfortunately, in the years the track was inactive, it fell victim to the weather and extensive vandalism, including the theft of all of the facility’s copper wiring. Then, 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. “The tribe is hopeful that the renovations will take place in a timely manner.” 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. He 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 along 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.” Today, the track is beginning a new chapter in its colorful and storied history, starting with the introduction of a full-time director of racing operations, Greg Burgess, from Washington. In the months since Burgess came on board, improvements to the facility have been an ongoing theme, with one of the largest being 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. “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.”