FAN FAVORITE: The Mt. SAC Relays enjoyed a return to glory during its second event in the new Hilmer Lodge Stadium in Walnut, California. (James Zoltak/Staff)

SoCal Track Event Regains Momentum In Rebuilt Stadium

WALNUT, California — Hilmer Lodge Stadium at Mt. San Antonio College staged the second edition of the famed Mt. SAC Relays last weekend following a $100 million reconstruction.

The April 12-15 event heralded a return to some of the event’s past glory after a seven-year hiatus during construction, lawsuit-driven delays and the outright cancellation of the event in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, said Brian Yokoyama, the facility’s director of special events.

The stadium, which is expandable to a capacity of 21,000, is named for Hilmer Lodge, who founded the Mt. SAC Relays in 1959 and was the college’s first track and field and cross country coach, from 1948-1963.

Lodge, who was as an official of the IAAF, now World Athletics, and manager of the U. S. Olympic track and field team in 1968, drowned in his pool at age 63 in 1977. A bronze statue of Lodge sits just outside the stadium’s main entrance.

Originally opened in 1948 at a cost of $100,000, Mt. SAC Stadium as it was first known, was dedicated by then U.S. Rep. Richard Nixon. It also serves at the Mt. San Antonio College football stadium.

While it was undergoing the rebuild, which was paid for through local bond measures and completed on time in 2018, the Mt. SAC Relays took place at other Los Angeles County locations, including Cerritos College in Norwalk, California, and El Camino College in Torrance, California, which itself opened a new venue, Murdock Stadium and Featherstone Field, in 2016, the relays’ second year away from Walnut.

Hilmer Lodge Stadium has been one of the country’s premier track and field locations, having hosted the Mt. SAC Relays and multiple U.S. championships and the women’s Olympic trials. It was slated to host the 2020 Olympic Trials, but the U.S. governing body moved the event to the new Hayward Field at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

“Sometimes we are in the shadow of the stadium up in Oregon,” said Yokoyama. “But our history stands for itself.”

Lost momentum from the seven-year displacement of the relays has been regained. British Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, was on hand. Plus, decorated Olympian Carl Lewis was at the meet, as was sprinter and former NFL receiver Willie Gault. Top collegiate and pro athletes Michael Norman, Isaiah Jewett and Rai Benjamin competed.

“They all love coming back because they love Mt. SAC,” Yokoyama said.

The specifications of the fully ADA-compliant stadium, designed by HMC Architects of Ontario, California, and built by Tilden Coil Constructors of Riverside, California, are impressive, from its nine-lane, 400-meter Beynon track; the nine-lane, 400 meter track with an Olympic turn radius; a 300-meter warm-up track and turf field; and a natural turf field with the ability to accommodate multiple field event facilities.

In addition, there’s a new Daktronics video screen, plus a new weight training facility and athletic training and medical space. The Heritage Hall museum provides meeting space. The upgrades extend to telecommunications hardware and services; a VIP area; and a new press box.

“Beynon produced a track like no other,” Yokoyama said. “They were able to accommodate what we thought was best for us. They did Eugene too.”

HILMER LODGE STADIUM: The rebuilt southern California track hosted its second Mt. SAC Relays since 2015. (James Zoltak/Staff)

Yokoyama said the number of women’s restrooms was increased 12 times above former capacity in response to long lines in the old facility and the ability to handle broadcast trucks is eased by permanent cabling and parking atop a new structure adjacent to the venue.

A separate building houses Sodexo Live!’s concessions stand. The concessionaire has the campus-wide contract. A local food truck serving organic fare as set up this year as Yokoyama seeks to improve food service and increase per caps.

Merchandise is run in-house supplied by event sponsor Nike, with multiple items selling out, Yokoyama said.

This year’s relays T-shirt, priced at $30, featured an image of the late Don Ruh, another long-time Mt. SAC track coach and booster of the event, who died in January at age 90. Another popular item was a gray Dri-Fit quarter-zip long sleeve bearing the Mt. SAC Relays logo for $70.

“We sell 5,000 T-shirts a year easily,” Yokoyama said of the relays and the annual Mt. SAC Cross Country Invite.

The Invite is another big event at Mt. SAC, a public community college adjacent to the Cal Poly Pomona campus. Construction of the Hilmer Lodge Stadium practice track was kept at 300 meters instead of 400 so as not to mess with the cross country course, Yokoyama said.

“Those sales are due to the popularity of the cartoon caricature artwork of political cartoonist Mark Gutierrez.  Mark is a former student-athlete at Mt. SAC, whose work has become synonymous with our athletic special events, much like (sponsor) In-N-Out Burger.”

During construction, surplus funds allowed for a larger Daktronics board than originally planned and all LED lighting was installed, Yokoyama said.

With the Mt. SAC Relays home again, the new stadium is now a showcase following the improvements, Yokoyama. The youth aspect of the relays, with thousands of high schoolers competing for medals, reportedly impressed Coe. The stadium gives meet organizers maximum flexibility with the ability to host two simultaneous flights of virtually all field events.

“We want the three-ring circus,” Yokoyama said of staging a race on the track and multiple field events simultaneously. “When we came back we had to rewrite how we operate because the new stadium does give us a lot of flexibility. We can run more pole vaults and triple jumps. Now, it comes down to staffing.”

For example, a video producer is needed to program the new board, he said. But overall costs for production crews will be reduced because the stadium is broadcast ready.

“We are on the upswing,” Yokoyama said after the 2023 relays. “We are going to keep it going.”

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated.)