There are hundreds of racetracks across North America. Many of them have been around for a lot of years. However, numerous tracks go through promoters like Del Taco goes through combo burritos. One track that managed to buck that trend is California’s Ventura Raceway.
Affectionately known as “The Best Little Dirt Track in America,” Jim Naylor has promoted the track for 41 consecutive years. That is longer than any current promoter in the state, but that is not the whole story. In addition to the promoter’s hat, he also wears the announcer and the track man’s, hats as well. Believe it or not, he does them all every race night.
Naylor got into racing driving Quarter-Midgets owned by his father, Jim. That ultimately led to him wheeling a Three-Quarter Midget also owned by his dad. Fortunately for California racing fans, those bonding years with his “Pops” also led him into the promotional world. With no prior experience, Naylor and his father just wanted to keep racing on the Ventura Fairgrounds alive. At the time, it was known as “Seaside Park,” and there was not really a track there. Just a couple of light poles inside a tiny rodeo arena.
Destined To Be A Racer
One thing for certain is that Naylor, who was in his early-30’s at the time, had no plans on promoting. His father talked the then-promoter of the track into running TQ Midgets. While his father was away on vacation in 1978, the promoter went broke, and Naylor jumped in.
“I didn’t even know how to spell promoter, that is how stupid I was,” Naylor deadpanned. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was married at the time and we took my life savings and bought the rights to run the races. I called my dad, and he comes flying home from vacation. I figured he would write me a check for half of it and be a partner like he was in our other business. But, he told me he did not want to promote races. He just wanted to race. I drove one more race, and that was it. My dad hired another driver, and I was the new promoter.”
Sadly, Naylor’s father passed away a year and a half later. With his dying breath, he asked the young promoter never to sell the racetrack. For 41 years, his son has lived up to his father’s request.
The menu back in the day consisted of Speedway Motorcycle racing on Tuesday nights and Three-Quarter Midgets on Sunday. The TQ’s later switched to Fridays, and they turned into a huge deal. Crowds of 2,000 were not uncommon – neither were fields of 28 to 35 TQ’s. Perhaps one of the reasons for the sizeable attendance was the cars themselves. They were not the old school Crosley’s with tiny wheels that were a staple for years. Naylor’s dad enlisted Bob Meli to build cars that looked similar to Stanton Midgets. Naylor, who was a car painter, painted many of the vehicles himself and they were spectacular.
I did a lot of things because that’s how I thought they should be. No business reason. – Jim Naylor
“Probably at one time, I painted 65-percent of the cars, and they were candies,” Naylor boasted. “I would do them cheap because I wanted all of the cars to be pretty. I did a lot of things because that’s how I thought they should be. No business reason. I just wanted things to look good and the racing to be good.”
ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder
In the early years, the track located adjacent to the beach in Ventura, earned the moniker of “The commotion by the Ocean.” It was still a well-kept secret known only by the locals. That is, it was a well-kept secret until ESPN’s “Thursday Night Thunder” came to town with the USAC Midgets after Ascot closed in 1990. That show put the beautiful little racetrack on the map.
“When Ascot closed, Cary Agajanian suggested to ESPN that they do “Thursday Night Thunder” at Ventura,” the now 72-year-old promoter said. “That, and sprint car racing, changed everything about the raceway.”
The sprint car racing came about on November 13, 1993. Up until then, everybody opined that Ventura was too little for sprint cars. But, a meeting with the newly formed Sprint Car Racing Association ended up with Naylor hosting the series’ first-ever race on that date. It couldn’t have gone any better. Rip Williams won the main event that went green to checkers without a yellow or red flag.
“Oh my God was that a good race,” Naylor gushed. “My biggest crowds ever were for SCRA. It was unbelievable racing. Glen Howard used to say that if he was looking for a sponsor, he was bringing them here because he knew every night it was going to be great. We had k-rail down the back chute before I put in the concrete blocks we have now. We used to have Mike Kirby and Richard Griffin literally drive up on the walls. It was amazing stuff.”
Under Naylor’s watch, the track went from an obscure rodeo ring to a track on a lot of race fan’s bucket lists. Due to the thrilling action and its beautiful location on the beach, it is known from coast to coast. Still, it has not always been a bowl of cherries. Over a decade ago, there was an effort to shut the place down. It had to do with a combination of the noise from the cars and the weather.
At times, the thick marine layer traps the sound of the racecars and they can be heard all the way over on the other side of town. Fortunately, Naylor and the racing community were able to quell the threats and racing continued.
Adding To The Local Economy
“We have been here 41 years and have brought a lot of money into the city,” Naylor said. “Especially now on Turkey Night. We had 72 Midgets and 45 Sprint Cars at the last Turkey Night. Many of those teams are coming from other parts of the country. That definitely helps the economy of Ventura.”
Dating back to 1934, the Turkey Night Grand Prix is the second longest-running race in the nation behind only the Indianapolis 500. It was a Thanksgiving night staple at Ascot from 1960 until the track closed 30-years later. For the first few years after the famous oval located in Gardena shut down, the race bounced around before settling into the Irwindale Speedway in 1999. It stayed there until the track closed for a year in 2012. It then relocated to Perris Auto Speedway where it initially thrived. But, the car count steadily decreased over four years at Perris due to the large size of the track. In 2015, only 22 cars entered.
Turkey Night Grand Prix Revival
The Agajanian family knew something had to be done to save the race. They contracted Naylor and Ventura for the 2016 edition. The race did an immediate 180 as Naylor turned it into a two-night spectacular featuring both sprint cars and midgets.
One of the things people talk about at Ventura is watching Naylor himself on race night. He is literally everywhere. He can be seen rushing around the pits, then he is on the grader, and then the water truck working on the track. Moments later, he is on the microphone announcing the races. It is back and forth like that all night. If they would let him, he would probably flip burgers, too.
Even though I was not the right person for the job, I decided I could do that, and I took it over. – Jim Naylor
“I am broke,” Naylor burst out with a laugh when asked why he does everything. “I did the on-track announcing [interviews] at first because I didn’t have a second announcer. The announcers I had, once the racing got exciting, would put the microphone down and wait until the end of the race to announce who finished First, Second, and Third.
“They didn’t do play by play. Even though I was not the right person for the job, I decided I could do that, and I took it over. Same with working on the track – the guy I had running the motor grader didn’t know how to build a track. So, I had to learn that. You do what you have to do. I have to build the website, I create the souvenir program every week, and I do the trophies.”
To the surprise of many, he does have some help. Racing Director Cliff Morgan has been with Naylor for 25 years. Tami Velasquez runs the business side of the operation, and Morris Knotts helps maintain the track.
“Cliff is the most loyal person I have ever met,” Naylor enthused. “Tami is the hardest worker I have ever had. She never stops, and she does everything including handling the infield mic duties. Morris has been helping me with the track forever. I am lucky to have them.”
Naylor starts doing work for the track at 5:00 A.M. every day. He takes care of that first and then opens the doors to his sign and custom embroidery business.
A lot of the veteran promoter’s time is taken up making trophies that are literally works of art. Since the Turkey Night Grand Prix came back to the track in 2016, he has handmade sensational 1/6-scale trophies. They take ten months to build. Each features J.C. Agajanian Sr. behind the wheel of a famous race car, and there is a story behind that.
Naylor And The Agajanian Family
“The Agajanian’s have been very kind to me. The Turkey Night Trophy is very special for me to build,” Naylor exclaimed. “They told me a story about Aggie [J.C. Sr.] when he was a kid coming home and towing a midget behind his car. When he got home, his dad asked him, ‘what are you doing with that?’ J.C. told his father he was going to race it. His father told him he would have to do two things. One was to kiss his mom good-bye, and the other was pack your bags because no Agajanian is going to drive a race car.”
“That changed racing,” Naylor continued. “Instead he became a promoter and changed racing on the west coast, and in a lot of other places. He had resources and was very wealthy. He was dapper in his dress and very outgoing. He was the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey of racing.”
For the Turkey Night trophies, Naylor literally puts Aggie in a famous race car. He places a “Ken” doll in the car and dresses it like Aggie with his mustache, tidy suit, and his trademark Stetson Hat. Kyle Larsen won the trophy in 2016. One year later, Christopher Bell won the race and posted on his Facebook page, “I want another one of those trophies.” Naylor said that was the best compliment he ever received about one of his prized designs.
Unlike what countless people foolishly believe, short track promoters are not making millions of dollars. When asked if it was a labor of love, Naylor took longer than usual to respond.
I feel like if I stop now, I am going to let a lot of people down. – Jim Naylor
“Yeah, it is,” he slowly responded. “I do not know if it is love anymore, as much as it is stubbornness. I feel like if I stop now, I am going to let a lot of people down. There are a lot of people in this industry that have been very good to me. I do it because I think I can do it well. How long I do it probably depends on how healthy I stay, and a few other things.”
How long will he do it? About 25-years ago, he told a driver that he was going to stop when he turned 55. He celebrates birthday number 73 in November. He still has a lot of laps to go!