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BOARD TRACKS : Before Indianapolis, L.A.'s Toothpick Ovals Were King

October 14, 1987|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Tucked away on the bottom of a page in the sports section of The Times on April 8, 1910, was this item:

"Indianapolis is to have automobile races May 27-28 and 30 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fast cars and leading drivers are to appear."

Auto racing was nothing new to Angelenos, though. Los Angeles, in fact, was the center of automobile racing when Indianapolis was just getting into the game.

On the day that item appeared, all the fast cars and leading drivers in the country were gathered here for the opening of the Los Angeles Motordrome, the world's first board track built for race cars. It was in Playa del Rey, about 500 yards from the beach, north of Del Rey Lagoon. It was where the big red cars stopped at the end of the L.A. Electric line, midway between La Ballona Creek and Culver Boulevard.

The track, a circular mile with 15-degree banking, was called the pie pan because of its appearance.

Barney Oldfield, the greatest name in racing, was there for the opening with his big Blitzen Benz that had broken all speed records three weeks earlier at Ormond Beach, Fla. So was his bitter rival, Ralph DePalma, with his 200-horsepower Fiat.

Ray Harroun was there with the Marmon Wasp that would win the first Indianapolis 500 a year later. And there was Caleb Bragg, a young millionaire from Pasadena with a passion for fast Fiats.

Los Angeles had been speed-crazy since the day in 1903 that Oldfield, his cigar clenched between his teeth, stormed a Winton Bullet around a mile-long dirt oval at Agricultural Park--later to become Exposition Park and the site of the Coliseum--in a world-record 55 seconds. Dirt clods flew and dust clouds rose 40 feet in the wake of the big machine.

The spectacle captivated the populace. And the press. The front page of The Times read:

"Barney Oldfield's attempt to commit suicide at Agricultural Park yesterday only resulted in a compound fracture of the world's automobile record.

"It would seem simpler and easier for him to hire some one to brain him with an ax than suffer this lingering destruction."

Races were also held regularly at the original Ascot Park, at the intersection of Slauson and Central avenues, considered the premier dirt track on the West Coast. On Dec. 26, 1909, only four months before the Motordrome's opening, Oldfield had lapped Ascot at 120 m.p.h. in the Benz.

Cross-country races also were popular, most starting at the Hollenbeck Hotel at 2nd and Spring streets--now the site of The Times--in downtown Los Angeles and racing to Redlands, Fresno, Phoenix or San Diego.

So, when promoters Fred Moskovics and Walter Hemple decided to build a board track, Los Angeles was the logical site. Moskovics was a Hungarian-born engineer who had worked for the Daimler works in Germany and later became president of Stutz.

They hired Jack Prince, who had a reputation as the finest builder of bicycle velodromes in the world, to design and construct the Motordrome.

The track, built of 16-foot 2 x 4s with the two-inch face up, existed for two years before it burned.

Although it would be eight years before another board track was built in Los Angeles, the idea had caught on. Starting in 1913, there were 20 board ovals, commonly called toothpick tracks, built in the United States, six of them in California. Most measured 1 miles and were banked severely, some as high as 52 degrees.

The Beverly Hills Speedway, with its northeast turn at approximately the site of the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, was built along Wilshire Boulevard in 1920. The straightaway today would run through the showrooms of I Magnin, Saks Fifth Ave. and Nieman-Marcus. When rising Beverly Hills real estate values forced the track to be torn down four years later, the owners built a replacement in Culver City, just across Culver Boulevard, south of the MGM (now Lorimar) Studios.

Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park, at Braddock and Motor, occupies what was once the north end of the Culver City track. Residential streets south of the park still curve as they did when the track was there between 1924 and 1927.

Lumber and labor were cheap, so board tracks were inexpensive to construct and became popular because there were no dust clouds to obscure the drivers, as on dirt tracks.

The L.A. Motordrome, the prototype, was built in 16 days.

The wooden planking was 45 feet wide, enough for four cars side by side, with a 15% grade all the way around. The top of the track was 12 feet from the ground, which enabled spectators inside the circuit to see any car on the track. Passenger cars were permitted to park in a circle, 120 feet from the edge of the track, where their owners could sit and watch.

"Half the population of Los Angeles (319,198 in 1910) could see without anybody having to lose sight of the cars," one reporter observed.

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