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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

October 19, 1992|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

World War I was over. Hollywood was a booming film capital. And the movie crowd known as the Beverly Hills Speedway Syndicate decided to put up the money to build an auto racetrack in 1919.

The racing oval was set behind a row of eucalyptus trees on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, between Beverly Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard. Its northeastern turn was approximately at the site of today's Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Its back straightaway today would run through the I. Magnin, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus showrooms.

The syndicate picked up the land for $1,000 an acre. But there was one provision--construction could not begin before the owner harvested his lima bean crop.

Jack Prince, reputedly the best bicycle track builder in the world, was hired for the project. The syndicate also brought in Arthur C. Pillsbury, a structural engineer who later served on the American Automobile Assn.'s Board of Directors, the sanctioning body for auto racing.

In keeping with movie kingdom's opulence, the track was built with a covered grandstand with private seating and handcrafted chairs for Hollywood royalty.

Commonly called a "toothpick track" because it was made of 2-by-4s, the one-mile oval was banked at 37 degrees in the turns.

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

The only complaint about the construction came from a reporter who wrote: "When a great stadium is being erected, the promoters always employ high-class architects. But in building a press stand, they don't consult newspapermen--they call in a coal miner to consult with. The only defect of the press box is that you can't see anything."

About 50,000 fans turned out on opening day, Feb. 28, 1920. Eighteen of the world's best drivers, including Joe Boyer, Ralph Mulford, Roscoe Sarles and Ralph de Palma, competed for the $25,000 purse. Future-great Jim Murphy, a Vernon native, made his driving debut and won with an average speed of 103.2 m.p.h. over 250 laps.

Speed king Barney Oldfield, who promoted the idea that "the speedway and not the highway is the place for fast driving," was not in the field. He had been suspended earlier for racing with Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson, who was black, was turned down when he applied for an AAA racing license, presumably because of his race.

One of the worst accidents up to that time in American racing occurred at the track on Thanksgiving Day in 1920. Gaston Chevrolet, who had won the Indianapolis 500 earlier that year, was in close quarters with Eddie O'Donnell as they swept into the east turn.

Chevrolet tried to pass and his Frontenac locked wheels with O'Donnell's Duesenberg. Both cars crashed into the upper guardrail, burst into flames and slid to the bottom of the track.

Chevrolet, who, with his brothers, developed the car that became a General Motors mainstay, was killed instantly. O'Donnell and his riding mechanic, Lyle Joles, died the next day.

The track was torn down in 1924 because the property had become so valuable. In the final race, on Feb. 24, the largest racing crowd in West Coast history at the time--85,000--watched Harlan Fengler break the world record by winning the 250-mile main event while averaging 116.6 m.p.h.

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