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Saugus swap meet turns 50

Posted: April 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

The thunderous roar and squeal that made the Saugus Speedway a local fixture in California for more than half a century has given way to the muffled sounds of bargain-hunters shuffling booth to booth at a swap meet that marked local legacy.

On Sunday morning, The Santa Clarita Swap Meet on Soledad Canyon Road celebrated its 50th anniversary in the Santa Clarita Valley — but not until its property owners had a chance to reflect on the nosier legacy of the Saugus Speedway.

Doug Bonelli and his cousin Blake were on hand for a ribbon-cutting that marked the close of the swap meet’s first half-century in business.

“This was our grandpa’s ranch,” Doug Bonelli said.

“And, what I remember of my grandpa, was visiting him and remembering that he made really sweet hot chocolate,” he said, recalling a time when he was just 8 years old.

But, he also remembers cars — noisy cars.

Uncle Bill

William Bonelli purchased Hoot Gibson’s Ranch in 1937 on the swap meet site and built a quarter-mile dirt track.
Two years later, Santa Clarita Valley heard the scream of hot rods and roadsters tearing up a dirt track. It was the motorized sound of a community being defined.

“We visited Uncle Bill then,” Doug Bonelli said with a smile.

“He lived in a house over there,” he said pointing over the heads of thousands of Swap Meet customers. “My cousin lived over there.”

With a rev of its engines and a squeal from the starting line, the Saugus Speedway put the Santa Clarita Valley on the state map. It was a sound that would remain familiar to the Bonellis — and for locals — for 56 years.

“They rejuvenated it right after the war in ‘45,” said Doug Bonelli. “They paved the track. They unpaved the track. They re-paved the track.”

The challenge for the Bonelli family was maintaining a structure much older than a half-century.

“I remember coming here and going to the races,” Doug Bonelli said.

What races?

“Noisy races,” he said.

Doug’s cousin, Blake, had the answer: “Modified stock cars.”

By the 1950’s, racing at the Saugus Speedway was — in a word — wild, he said.

Twenty years later, it was still wild, said Blake Bonelli.

“I worked here for a whole summer in the 70s,” he said. “I was driving a ‘67 VW Bug (non-competitively).”

The cars seen — and heard — screaming around the Saugus Speedway track in those days, however, were modified stock cars.

“I was working the concession stands, and we had the swap meet on Sunday but the races the night before,”

Blake Bonelli said. “So, we’d have to clean up the track and get it ready for the swap meet.”

Big struggle

In November, the Bonellis ripped up the old grandstands — not out of disrespect for history, but out of respect for safety.

“The grandstands have a history longer than our history with the property,” Doug Bonelli said.

The stands were built in the 1920’s and additional stands were brought in “used” during the ‘40s.

“Some had concrete footings, and if you look out now, you can still see the rotten wood,” he said.

“Our family kept the stands around for 15 years with the racing, and we maintained them for a while,” he said. “But, the stands were imploding.

”The stands were actually falling in on the center of the electrical system. So, we had to rebuild the electrical system around imploding stands.

“It was a big struggle,” Doug Bonelli said.

“All the wiring dates back to the ‘30s and ‘40s. Just this year we finished the last rewiring,” he said.

How do the Bonelli’s see their property developing over the next half-century?

“Run a good swap meet,” he said.

“You can still see ‘Saugus Speedway’ written on the crash wall, and the old score board is still up,” he said.

Asked about preserving the old score board, Doug Bonelli said, “We want to run a good swap meet.”

If the thousands who filled the swap meet Sunday are any indication, the Bonellis are well on their way to meeting their goal.

As for the Saugus Speedway — that went silent in 1995, when organizers halted racing, declaring the grandstands unsafe.

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