Dave Eshleman, Fontana’s Racing Mayor, Gone At 74

David Eshleman, the hard-driving grandson of German immigrants to Fontana who grew up in the steel town and came to embody its blue collar spirit as much as anyone and then served two terms as its top political leader, has passed into eternity.
The palette from which Eshleman’s 74 years of life was painted was a variegated one, and while each of the multiple labels he wore are apt definitions – entrepreneur, builder, landowner, developer, grappler, meatmarketer, father, husband, race car driver, race team owner, activist and politician – no single description suffices in capturing his essence.
A Fontana native, Eshleman was born on February 20, 1947, one of seven of Albert “Whitey” Eshleman and Dorothy Eshleman’s children. Eshleman’s maternal grandparents were Ross and Violet Gesler, who after immigrating to America had settled in Fontana. They were horticulturalists and in their greenhouses on Arrow Highway they crossbred flowers, the most notable creation of which was the Ross Gesler orchid.
Eshleman grew up on the family ranch property in South Fontana with brothers Albert, Jim, Bill and Richard and sisters Sally and Donna.
What started as one of Whitey Eshleman’s secondary or even tertiary pursuits was the provision of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to the local populace, and it was on this turkey farm that young David Eshleman was instilled with much of his work ethic and an understanding of the rudiments of a consolidated business operation.
At Fontana High School, Eshleman was a member of the wrestling team, competing within the 115, 123 and 130 pound weight classes.
Fontana, the home of the Kaiser Steel Mill, was also the birthplace of the Hells Angels, and in the early to mid-1960s, Fontana was host to a drag racing strip, referred to variously as Mickey Thompson’s Fontana International Dragway or as Fontana Drag City. The Fontana Drag Strip was a venue in the National Hot Road Association circuit. In addition, there were several remote and more obscure streets in Fontana that served as a venue of unlicensed and illicit street racing. While Eshleman did not participate in those races, he was an occasional spectator.
Upon graduating from high school, Eshleman worked a series of jobs for about a year, and thereafter enrolled at Chaffey College, pursuing his diploma in general education. Eshleman wrestled on the Chaffey College Team, in the 138 pound weight class.
While at Chaffey’s Alta Loma campus, he took a few courses in automotive technology.
One of the automotive technology instructors at Chaffey was Sam Contino. Contino and the students in his orbit at that point were picking up enthusiasm for the advent of the California Motor Speedway in Ontario, which shortly after its completion in 1969 would host the inaugural California 500. Contino successfully prevailed upon the Chaffey College administration to go along with the creation of a racecar technology program within the automotive technology department. Eshleman was among those students caught up in the frenzy. He began racing in 1968.
A major project undertaken by the Racecar Technology Program at Chaffey College was the modification of a factory Ford Mustang, which was destined for a Sports Car Club of America competition at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1971. The Ford Motor Company was so impressed with what the Chaffey team had accomplished with the Mustang that it sponsored the team’s further efforts. While driving the Mustang, Eshleman set the world speed record for a modified street car, reaching 185 miles per hour.
On a relatively consistent basis, over the next 13 years, Eshleman raced at Riverside Speedway and other venues, chalking up a sting of regional championships in both the sports car and Formula A classes.
Involved in the racing world, Eshleman found employment with Hooker Headers, an Ontario-based company that specialized in the production of air-pushing exhaust systems intended for high performance vehicles that were designed to eliminate backpressure and increase horsepower.
While Dave Eshleman was at Chaffey College, embarking on his own professional career and starting a family, at the Eshleman Ranch, Whitey Eshleman’s turkey farm grew in popularity year after year, necessitating that he obtain a provisional slaughtering and dressing license to package turkeys, which were then sold out the door to local buyers and moved to market. In 1973, Whitey was electrocuted in a mishap at the packing house. His widow, Dorothy, pressed on. Operations at the ranch were overseen by Dave. A few years later, Eshleman bought the ranch from his mother, who moved to Oak Hills.
In 1983, the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the San Bernardino County Department of Health gave Eshleman a permit and license to operate the slaughterhouse on a permanent basis. Thereafter, his operation became a primary outlet for beef brought in from the Chino Agricultural Preserve.
With his center of operations now at the ranch, which technically lay just south of the Fontana City Limits in the unincorporated county area that was considered to be part of Fontana’s sphere of influence north of the Riverside County boundary, Eshleman began buying property nearby, picking up a parcel here and a parcel there, becoming one of the primary landowners in the unincorporated county area as well as south Fontana.
By 1985, both the Ontario Motor Speedway and the Riverside Speedway had been shuttered. With legal venues for racing locally limited, Eshleman, at the age of 38, was unwilling to participate in illegal street races at his age. Focused more on raising his family and his business interests, Eshleman pretty much stopped racing at that point.
In the 1980s, the City of Fontana was on the ropes structurally and financially. The Kaiser Steel Mill, which had been the major financial engine of the city for some time but which had been an ecological bane because of the pollutants that belched from its smokestacks and coke ovens, closed in 1983. Jack Ratelle, who had begun as Fontana city manager in 1973, aided and abetted by several self-serving and corrupt members of the city council over the years, had engaged in a series of depredations by which developmental interests had been given a free rein to build both residential and commercial and sometimes industrial subdivisions without providing corresponding infrastructure improvements. In return for being allowed to skip out on providing that infrastructure to accommodate that building, the developers plied Ratelle with bribes and kickbacks. Sales tax and property tax springbacks to developers and the political cronies of the city council and the mayor had nearly bankrupted the city treasury, and the city was bound by commitments that hamstrung the city financially, indeed to the point of City Hall being crippled altogether. In 1987, the city council, members of which were yet beholden to Ratelle, were nevertheless forced by the events overtaking the city to fire the incorrigibly corrupt city manager, at which point the reformist team of John O’Sullivan. Ratelle’s replacement as city manager, and Finance Manager Jim Grissom were brought in to stabilize the situation, stem the giveaways and stanch the hemorrhaging of red ink into the city’s books.
Then-Mayor Nat Simon, whose first run on the Fontana City Council had ended in scandal in 1968 but who made a political comeback by defeating Frank Horzen in the 1982 Fontana mayoral election, had come to an accommodation with Ratelle during his latter two terms as mayor in the 1980s. In his final two years in office, Simon looked on in dismay as O’Sullivan and Grissom were dismantling the graft-encrusted arrangements that had enabled Simon’s cronies and the business interests who had been paying off Ratelle for years in their exploitation of the city.
Though many assumed, because of his entrepreneurial orientation, that Eshleman was a Republican, he was in fact a Democrat, and a serious Democrat at that. In 1989, while in contact with the Democratic Party, Eshleman began making preparations to run for the Fontana City Council the following year. In close consultation with Simon, a Democrat, and aided by Democratic political consultants Richard Rodriquez and Bill Greenberg, Eshleman emerged victorious in the November 1990 election. In the same election, however, Simon was ousted by Bill Kragness, an incumbent member of the city council.
At that stage, Fontana was yet seeking to come to terms with the legacy of Ratelle’s 14 years as city manager. One of those burdens was the way in which Ratelle had cleared the way for the Ten Ninety Corporation to proceed with its development of the 9,100-unit Southridge Project in the early 1980s without that company having to pay for the infrastructure at that massive subdivision. Ratelle had set up for himself a credit line at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas. The Ten Ninety Corporation then endowed that credit line with periodic payments. Ratelle made weekly or bimonthly trips to Las Vegas, checking into the MGM Grand, where he would collect the most recent installment of money put into his credit line, then make himself visible in MGM Casino, generally at the roulette and dice tables. Back in Fontana on weekdays, he would regale those throughout City Hall with tales of how he had won so much money or had lost so much money over the weekend. In tandem with Neil Stone, then the city’s redevelopment agency director, Ratelle arranged for the redevelopment agency to underwrite the full cost of infrastructure at the Southridge project, which ran to a $120 million price tag in 1982 dollars. This entailed the redevelopment agency securing $55 million in loans from the Glaziers Union and $65 million in bond financing in the form of “certificates of participation” not approved in a vote of Fontana citizens but rather through a vote of the city council. Prior to that vote, Ratelle, either by having the city hire the inveterately unemployed son-in-law of one councilman or ensuring that the welding business owned by another councilman was given plenty of work or by spreading around some of the money he brought back from Las Vegas to Mayor Simon or another councilmember, Ratelle ensured that the council voted to approve having the redevelopment agency pay for the streets, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, sewers, strormdrains, culverts, streetlights and other improvements needed for the Southridge project to be built. To service this indebtedness to the Glaziers’ Union and the holders of the certificates of participation, the city of Fontana was committed for 30 years – until 2013 – to make $3.12 million in bond payments every quarter, that is $1.04 million per month or $12.48 million per year. This deal and others like it made O’Sullivan’s task extremely difficult, and in three years on the job he encountered a depth of challenges most city managers do not see in a decade. By the time Eshleman was sworn in, O’Sullivan was a shambles of a man.
During his first term in elected office, Eshleman found himself isolated on the city council, as Kragness led the panel, and another incumbent, Gary Boyles, was part of the bulwark that had been part of the move to shed Ratelle. This had put Boyles in direct conflict with Simon, and Boyles’ enmity toward Simon carried over toward Eshleman, who was being advised by Simon throughout much of his first term on the council. Eshleman, a newcomer to political office, was unaware of the degree to which Ratelle had looted the city coffers during his tenure as city manager, and he did not appreciate the degree to which Kragness and Boyles at that point had come to recognize that Ratelle had duped them while they were relying on his guidance of the city. Nor was Eshleman aware of Simon’s connivance with Ratelle during the first five years of Simon’s last eight years as mayor. This put Eshleman at severe odds with his council colleagues at that time, and his difficulty in this regard deepened when John Roberts, who worked with Boyles as a county firefighter in Fontana, was elected to the city council 1992.
An important development during Eshleman’s first term in elected office was the hiring of Greg Devereaux as redevelopment agency and housing director in 1991.
Ultimately, O’Sullivan was forced out by the city council majority, including Eshleman, which pleased Simon. O’Sullivan was succeeded by Russ Carlsen, who endeavored to come to terms with the city’s intractable financial issues, but was as overwhelmed by them as was his predecessor. Carlsen lasted for only a brief span. In turn, he was replaced by Jay Corey, who likewise had a short tenure in the city manager’s post. Thereafter, in 1993, the council elevated Devereaux to the city manager’s post.
In 1994, Eshleman successfully vied for mayor. That same year, Devereaux’s utter brilliance in managing a large organization was in evidence. By a stroke of timing, luck and his initiative and drive which made him Fontana’s mayor at that point in the city’s history, Eshleman was the political beneficiary of Fontana’s promotion of Devereaux, who at that point clued Eshleman into the degree to which Ratelle and Simon had damaged the city. In 1997, the City of Ontario lured Devereaux away from Fontana with an even more lucrative offer for him to be city manager there. Nevertheless, for the first two-and-a-half years of Eshleman’s first term as Fontana mayor, his political leadership of Fontana came to be seen as synonymous with Devereaux’s managerial and administrative leadership of Fontana. Devereaux, and by extension Eshleman, grappled with, and simultaneously exhibited command and confidence in facing, the seeming insurmountable financial problems that had put Fontana at the bottom of a pit. From 1994 until 1997, the Eshleman/Devereaux Team not only succeeded in lifting Fontana out of the abyss, but managed to put the city on firm financial footing that would persist for more than two decades – to the present. With its current 217,237 residents, Fontana is the second largest city in terms of population in San Bernardino County with the third-largest budget of the county’s 24 municipalities and the fifth most dynamic economic engine countywide.
In 1998, Eshleman was handily reelected mayor, garnering 67.2 percent of the vote.
As Fontana’s mayor, Eshleman was Fontana’s representative to the San Bernardino Association of Governments, which served as the county’s transportation agency, and the Southern California Association of Governments, a regional planning authority.
In his mayoral capacity, Eshleman exhibited the same attitude toward action and results as he did in his daily personal and professional life. Whatever one might say about Eshleman, lazy he was not. At the Eshleman Ranch and at the slaughterhouse, he would typically be seen among his employees and crews working on various jobs and projects, and was identifiable as the most energetic among them. Over the years, tractor-excavators and small bulldozers were among the pieces of equipment at the Eshleman ranch. As often as not, Eshleman was at the helm of these. So it was when Eshleman was mayor. He would abide by making a contemplative consideration of an issue, but once the discussion was over, he called for action. He was not indulgent of procrastination.
Well prior to his election to the city council, city officials had been looking at how the former Kaiser Steel Mill property was to be reclaimed and redeveloped. At one point, there was discussion of converting some of the land to a sports stadium where the Raiders NFL Team, which originated in Oakland, later moved to Los Angeles in 1982, moved back to Oakland in 1995 and in 2020 moved to Las Vegas, would relocate. That never materialized. But that discussion enlivened Eshleman, who had by that point drifted back to competitive racing, including Sports Car Club of America events at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale and Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino. He pivoted from the concept of an athletic stadium in Fontana and alighted, based on his enthusiasm for racing and the loss more than a decade earlier of the Ontario Motor Speedway, to a proposal to create a racing venue at the north end of the steel mill property. He opened up a dialogue with motorsports mogul Roger Penske, and that led to an arrangement with Penske’s company to develop the California Speedway. Known for sponsorship reasons as the Auto Club Speedway, the track was completed in 1997 and exists as the landmark by which Fontana is now best known to the rest of the world.
In 1999, Eshleman created his own racing team, Eshleman Racing, which included his “Spirit of Fontana” car. In 2001, at the age of 54, he competed in the Winston West race. The team attracted a number of up-and-coming drivers, including Ryan Partridge, Ryan Vargas, Charles Price, Linny White, David Gilliand, and his granddaughters McKenzie and Kayla Eschleman.
On September 11, 2001, Eshleman was among a convocation of the nation’s mayors in Washington, D.C. when four planes were commandeered by terrorists carrying out suicide missions. Two of the planes crashed into both of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. A third flew into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane did not make it to its intended target when its passengers stormed the cabin, forcing the plane into a crash into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, one that was fatal to all aboard. The mayoral convention was abruptly interrupted, as all of those in attendance were rushed to a safe place.
In 2002, Fontana Councilman Mark Nuami, funded by a consortium of developers, moved to challenge Eshleman as mayor. Preparatory toward the race, Nuami embarked on a number of attacks against the incumbent mayor. One of those consisted of questioning the 2000 appointment of Eshleman’s wife, Pamela Anderson Eshleman, to the Fontana Planning Commission. In response, she simply resigned from the panel.
Another political sortie Nuami made against the mayor was to question why Eshleman had not sought to annex some 30 acres of property he owned in the unincorporated county area south of the Fontana City Limits that fell within Fontana’s sphere of influence into the city. In response, Eshleman noted that as mayor, his taking any action with regard to his property would constitute a conflict of interest.
Nuami’s strategy of insinuating conflicts of interest against Eshleman were curious, given the consideration that he had a glaring conflict of interest of his own, which consisted of the company Nuami worked for, Iteris, having a multi-million dollar contract with the City of Fontana.
Ultimately in the 2002 Fontana mayoral election, which featured Eshleman, Nuami and a third candidate, Scott Larson, Nuami edged Eshleman 47.4 percent of the vote to Eshleman’s 41.6 percent, with Larson capturing 10.8 percent.
Liberated after 12 years in politics, Eshleman involved himself deeper into racing. In 2003, he ranked high enough to get invited to the inaugural Showdown Series at Irwindale. In 2004, he made his first and last Busch Series start, at the Fontana track, driving for Ware Racing Enterprises. Starting at 41st in the field, he was black flagged early. He made it to 40th by the end of the race.
He continued to race in the K&N Pro Series until his retirement from racing, at the age of 61, in 2008. At that point, his three sons, Matthew, then 17, Michael, then 37, and Jeff, then 36, were driving for Eshleman Racing.
Eshleman was involved as an owner or operator of Bright Minds Unlimited, the Eshleman Meat Company, Eshleman Enterprises, Revenge Mortorsports, Inc. and Eshleman Racing, for all of which he was listed in state documents as president. He was also listed as an officer with Eshleman Cardenas LLC in California. At different times, he made a foray into the publishing world in one capacity or another, first with Fortunado Publications’ The Mirror-Dispatch and Daily Planet Publishing’s Inland Empire Business Journal.
In recent years, despite health challenges, he remained active.
Eshleman died in an accident/rollover at the Eshleman Ranch while driving a tractor.
Jeff Eshleman said, “My dad was the hardest working person I’ve ever known in my life. It didn’t matter if he had to wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning and keep going until 12 midnight, he just did whatever he had to do to get the job done. I learned how to do a whole lot of things from him, how to do all sorts of household repairs, fix broken water pipes, dig out to fix a cracked foundation, work on an automobile in the garage. I think he was happiest when he was out working on the family farm, disking a field or leveling out ground with a tractor. He taught us all to just be honest and put in a hard day’s work so you can live, so you can survive.”
Matthew Eshleman concurred.
“My dad did not want to go on vacation or take time off,” Matthew said. “He enjoyed his work and he led by example. I learned from him that when you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not really work. He was happiest when he was working, when he was out plowing a field.”
Jeff told the Sentinel, “What sticks out for me about his role as an elected official is the pride he had for the City of Fontana. He was home grown, and he really saw that there are a whole lot of good things about this place. He had an idea of what was a good direction for the city, and even though he didn’t always get his way when he was on the council and was mayor, some of the time he was able to move the city forward, toward the goals he had in mind, the direction he thought it should go. He took a lot of pride in that. I think it was nice on his heart to be involved in that way. You could see it in his eyes when we would drive around the city.”
For him personally, Matthew Eshleman said, he holds his father’s political involvement less dear than the time he spent with him far removed from civic activities.
“What I remember most fondly is watching my dad at the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino and racing with my brothers.”
Asked how his father should be remembered, Jeff Eshleman said, “To put it in a nutshell, for the people who didn’t know my dad, I think the easiest thing to say is he was the racing mayor of Southern California.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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