Wonder about Willow? See where Jay drives

Ever see a car commercial or TV show on the sleek cars are racing around a track in the desert? With mountains in the background and a track that zig-zags on the foothills, they’re probably at Willow Springs International Raceway.

One of my favorite shows, Jay Leno’s Garage, is back with new episodes and Wednesday’s edition saw Jay driving a Dodge Omni GLHS around Willow Springs. A couple of years back, he ran around Willow with actor Patrick Dempsey in a Porsche 911.

In October 2016, I was fortunate to be able to drive on the tracks at Willow and write about it for my San Diego Union-Tribune column. Well, while I did drive on the track, my column was about the roads around Willow Springs. Oh, and I went driving in a pre-production ’17 Lexus IS 450 F Sport.

Here’s a bonus reprint of that column.


On the track at Willow Springs. On the track at Willow Springs.

The Buttes of Willow

Beautiful drive surrounds legendary Southern California track

Willow Springs International Raceway might not sound familiar, but it probably looks familiar.

A shiny new car on a twisting, desert racetrack? That’s Willow Springs. The UK “Top Gear” blokes trying to avoid fighter planes in exotic sports cars? Willow Springs. “Jay Leno’s Garage” episodes with Jay in a race car on a twisting, turning, up-and-down race track? It’s Willow.

Car brands trade off using it as a backdrop for their latest, sporty models. The camera sees it as a wide-open, beautiful road; very effective in selling sedans to people who spend most of their time in the car sitting in traffic.

There are eight—yes, eight—tracks at Willow Springs. Opened in 1953, it’s a survivor that today hosts public events, club track days, auto-industry testing and racing schools. Check the track’s website for an event that might fit your schedule: willowspringsraceway.com.

Its tracks go around and over the Willow Springs Butte, one of several buttes that give a unique look to this southern edge of Kern County. And who knew we had buttes in Southern California? Picture a sea with islands (the buttes) and that’s what this area looks like.

Off the track, the roads are mostly straight lines. That’s fine on the flat, desert floor, but when a road and a butte meet, things get interesting.

Enjoy the twisting roads.Enjoy the twisting roads.

This loop on public roads around Willow Springs gives drivers some of the experiences of the Willow Springs tracks, with ups, downs and curves, but at speed limits. Back in October, I drove a pre-production 2017 Lexus IS 350 F Sport, the brand’s entry in the highly competitive sport sedan category that includes the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS and Mercedes C-Class. The 2017 IS 350 F Sport is now on sale.

From the track, head west along Rosamond Boulevard, then north on 90th Street West, and a left at Truman Road (before the first hill) to visit the namesake of Willow Springs. Still standing is a small farm and outbuildings built more than a century ago by early settler Ezra Hamilton; the stagecoach once stopped here. Today, the area’s still farmed and there are families living there. The road goes right through the middle of the compound, so don’t speed.

Heading north, Tehachapi Willow Springs Road runs through hay fields and other farms, with vistas to the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains. High-voltage power lines are on one side of the road, leading to wind-generation farm to the north. If you’re there when the fields are green, it’s a beautiful sight, providing you look away from the power lines.

Turn right at Backus Road and the real fun begins. It might seem like a pretty straight line where drivers can pick up speed (the speed limit is 55) but it goes around one of those buttes. That’s the Cactus Queen Mine you’ll see on the left, but I couldn’t find a name of the butte.

Farm country around Willow Springs.
Farm country around Willow Springs.

Backus Road rises and falls as much as 30 feet in perhaps a quarter of a linear mile; that means if you don’t watch things, there are spots here where you can “get some air.” Fly the car. Go “Dukes of Hazard.” While that might seem fun, it’s not what your car, truck or SUV was designed to do, plus even experienced drivers aren’t used to driving airborne. Be safe, watch your speed and keep all four wheels on the pavement.

The IS 350 F Sport was a lot of fun on this road. When cruising, it is Lexus smooth and quiet, with a very comfortable and classy interior. On twists and turns, crisp handling and decent cornering create enjoyable driving, although not to the level of one of its competitors, the BMW 3 series.

Sporting freshened styling inside and out (the most since its 2014 debut), the as-tested $46,250 IS 450 F Sport adds suspension upgrades, a “rousing intake sound” and special trim to the 3.5-liter V6 that produces 306 hp and 277 lb.-ft. of peak torque. Estimated fuel economy on the two-wheel drive version tested is 19 city, 28 highway and 22 combined.

The southbound stretch of this loop gave the IS 350 its happiest time, over what at the track is known as a chicane; to the rest of us, it’s just a narrow, curving road. Mojave-Tropico Road twists and turns around Tropico Hill (another butte) on the eastern edge of the track. Watch for the hard left curve just after rounding the hill. Having tested cars on Mojave-Tropico for several years, I can say that if a car makes me enjoy this stretch of road, then it passes my test. And the Lexus did.

Lexus on the road.
Lexus on the road.

This is one backroad that the guys on “American Pickers” might enjoy. The hardscrabble homes scattered here and there have some great old cars parked outside; look for a ’56 Plymouth along Mojave-Tropico Road.

It’s about four hours from San Diego, maybe worth the drive if you’re a racing fan and always wanted to visit. There’s also Edwards Air Force Base nearby, which once a month has public tours. A bit farther north is Mojave Spaceport, a renown aircraft graveyard.

For me, it’s just great to visit another part of California, a track well off the beaten track.

Take the Trip

Distance: A 27-mile loop from CA-14 in Rosamond, Calif., which is about four hours from central San Diego.

Difficulty: Moderate. Be careful you don’t fly the car on Backus Road or fly off of Mojave-Tropico Road.

Directions
Google Map: https://goo.gl/6ccQxm

  • Rosamond, Calif., is off of state Route 14, about four hours from San Diego. Take Interstate 5 north to SR-14 north; alternate is Interstate 15 to SR-138 (north of San Bernardino) to SR-14 north.
  • SR-14 exit at Rosamond Boulevard. Bear left at intersection. Willow Springs International Raceway is 6 miles west of SR-14.
  • Right at 90th Street West.
  • Left at Truman Road.
  • Right at Manley Road.
  • Right at Hamilton Road.
  • Left at Tehachapi Willow Springs Road.
  • Right at Backus Road.
  • Right at Mojave-Tropico Road.
  • Left at Rosamond Boulevard, to SR-14.

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