There are 67 acres of property at Irwindale Speedway.
Mike Atkinson knows them all better than just about anybody.
Atkinson began working at Irwindale, an asphalt twin half-mile and third-mile NASCAR-sanctioned track in Irwindale, California, when it opened in 1999, and he’s one of two track employees who has stayed there for the last 21 years. The longtime race fan began as a track official and has worked his way up to race director. Though that may be his official title, it doesn’t fully describe everything he does for the track on a day-to-day basis.
"During the week, whatever needs to be done, I try to go out there and paint it, stripe it, move the tires. Whatever needs to be done I’m not afraid to go out there and do it," Atkinson said.
Atkinson lives in an apartment on the Speedway’s grounds, so he’s even there to pick up deliveries at any time of the day.
"I don’t think there’s anything out here I haven’t done besides announce. And I wouldn’t want to do that," he said with a laugh.
"I don’t hesitate because just for the love of the sport. Doing what I do, to me it’s not even like a job. It’s so much fun and I get paid for it."
Doing whatever needs to be done to help the track is familiar to Atkinson. His father was a promoter for two NASCAR-sanctioned tracks and a series in Southern California when Atkinson was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s. In those days, Atkinson would run to the race tracks after school to help his dad with whatever needed to be done – from painting to maintenance on the grandstands and even selling programs during races.
It was from his dad where Atkinson learned the official side of racing. While he was a driver himself for a bit, he quickly learned the sport was too expensive to keep competing in, and he enjoyed the other side of it more. It was memories of things he learned from his dad that helped him pick up on being an official quick.
"I used to tell him what officials used to do wrong and he would explain to me what it was about, so I kind of just went to that side of it," Atkinson said. "He used to have officials meetings at our house when I was growing up. I had to sit on the outside of the curtain and listen to them. I didn’t know it was going to mean anything, but I think it did through the years."
Coming from a background of an official and a driver has helped Atkinson relate to the drivers at Irwindale. He can understand their point of view and he knows to let them vent their frustrations in the heat of the moment while really listening to their concerns.
And at the end of the day, he just wants to put on a good race. Not just for the fans and drivers, but seeing good races on the track is what keeps Atkinson coming back to the sport.
"You can’t beat a good side-by-side racer racing back and forth with someone and the talent that it takes to not run into each other and control your car. That’s what drives me. I get excited up there in the tower when I see stuff," he said.
Atkinson’s love of racing has brought other people into the sport. While he admits there are many in Southern California and on the west coast who don’t really understand the sport, he’s brought fans into the sport by inviting them to come watch and see what it’s about.
Two of those he shares his love of racing with are his daughters, who both now work at Irwindale with him as an official scorer and an assistant.
"Ever since they were little babies I used to take them to the races all the time and they happened to like it so they work here now," he said. "That’s made it a family deal for me. So even though I’m at the track every weekend they were here with me. That makes it a lot easier because they really enjoy the sport."
And after a long week of prepping the track for the show, there’s nothing better to Atkinson than seeing a full house.
"It’s always nice when we fill the stands up because there’s a lot of competition in Los Angeles for your recreational buck and we go up against a lot of stuff," he said.
"I love watching fans when they’re jumping up and down and hollering when they see something good. That’s kind of our motivation of, ‘O.K. that was a good show, we’ve got to remember what we had going on there or something.’"
Atkinson takes pride in what he and everyone at Irwindale has built. Whenever big name racers come through, he said they always have good things to say "which makes you feel good."
Whatever needs to be done to keep that going, Atkinson will be willing to do it.
"My motive now is to do whatever needs to be done to keep the track around and hopefully it’ll be around for the days when I’m gone and they’ll still be racing," he said. "It’s been a fun journey and I hope to keep it going."