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L.A. Scene The City Then and Now

Life--and Death--in Fast Lane at Ascot

October 10, 1994|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

From the day it opened--Thanksgiving, 1924--until the day it burned down in 1936, torched by a former employee who said he didn't want to see any more of his friends killed, the Legion Ascot Speedway was profitable and deadly.

For more than 80 thrilling years, speed-mad Angelenos had watched such greats as "Speed King" Barney Oldfield and his bitter rival, Ralph De Palma, "Blond Terror" Ernie Triplett and sensational Rex Mays as they raced in dashing scarves and driving goggles around Ascot Speedway's four sites, moving from South-Central to the Eastside to South Gate and finally Gardena.

The first (1907-1919) began as a one-mile dirt oval at Central and Florence avenues. Promoters named it Ascot to capitalize on the reputation of England's Ascot horse track.

Later came the smaller Ascot Motor Speedway (1924-1936), a five-eighths-mile dirt oval in Lincoln Heights at Soto Street and Valley Boulevard--the one that became notorious as Legion Ascot.

After that closed, Southern Ascot (1937-1942) boasted a half-mile dirt raceway in South Gate. The last Ascot (1957-1990) opened on an old dump site at 182nd Street and Vermont Avenue in Gardena.

The deadliest of all those sites was the second. It was called the "killer track" because in 13 years its treacherous straightaways and dangerously banked turns claimed the lives of 24 drivers--more deaths than at any other track in the nation during that same period.

In 1924, racing impresario George R. Bentel and his talented publicist, Bill Pickens, who had opened the first Ascot track, built the second on several thousand acres of leased land.

It opened with a Thanksgiving crowd of 25,000 watching drivers risk their necks at speeds above 80 m.p.h. on a dirt track made fast by steady applications of crude oil. Indianapolis 500 victor De Palma won the main race.

That day, the spectators saw Jimmy Craft crash his Frontenac into the guardrail on a curve. Craft, hurled onto the track, began to stand up, waving to show the crowd he was all right. As he did, driver Norris Shears crashed into him. Both men were killed instantly. That curve, where many would die, came to be known as "King of the Grim Reapers."

Ascot provided a hearty welcome for those seeking hair-raising action and big-money prizes, drawing drivers from across the nation: national AAA champion Bob Carey, "Midwest Cyclone" Bryon Saulspaugh, "Bald Eagle" Francis Quinn, and happy-go-lucky and hell-for-leather driver Al Gordon. Indianapolis 500 winners Fred Frame, George Souders, Frank Lockhart, Louie Schneider, Wilbur Shaw and the colorful "Wild Bill" Cummings also came west to race at Legion Ascot.

In 1926, drivers Bill Bundy and Jack Peticord locked wheels on a turn and their cars skidded into the pits, fatally crushing a waiting driver, Nick Guglielmi, and a Los Angeles policeman standing nearby.

Two years later, American Legion Post 127 of Glendale assumed management of the track from Bentel, giving the track the name by which everyone came to know it. Legionnaires worked as ushers and ticket takers, and entertained fans with their marching band.

Movie stars such as Bing Crosby, Andy Devine, Loretta Young, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clara Bow and Carole Lombard also entertained, just by showing up to watch. Sometimes, the actresses presented victory crowns to winners.

But repeated violent deaths at Ascot would bring its downfall.

As the Great Depression gripped the country in 1933, six deaths in one year caused a wave of indignation. Newspaper headlines such as "Legalized Murder," "Widow Weeps as Mate Dies," "Is It Worth It?" and "What a Price to Pay" reflected the controversy.

Still, racing continued, and Ascot's crowds were bigger than ever.

But so great was the furor that in 1934, after another death, the American Legion, fearing more tragedies and controversy, bowed out.

Legion Ascot's last race was on Jan. 25, 1936. In the day's feature race, Al Gordon, one of Ascot's most popular drivers, was killed in his two-seater, along with his mechanic, Spider Matlock.

The track was padlocked. Four months later, fire destroyed the grandstands.

Seven years after that, Linden Emerson, a former janitor at the track, turned himself in, confessing, "I saw Al Gordon and Spider Matlock killed out there and when the track was closed, I thought maybe they might reopen it and kill some more of my friends. So, I decided to burn the grandstand down."

Today, the only trace of the great Legion Ascot Speedway is the curve in Hatfield Place. It was the dangerous south curve of the old raceway, where so many lives were lost.

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