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CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

Back in the Running

California Speedway Is Only the Latest Chapter in a Southern California Racing Story That Spans Nearly 100 Years

June 18, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost as soon as the internal-combustion engine began to replace the horse, Southern California became an important address in the world of motor racing.

To showcase the sport, there have been a succession of facilities, notably Ontario Motor Speedway and Riverside International Raceway in recent years, but before they were built--and torn down--there were board tracks, dirt ovals, road courses and hill climbs.

So California Speedway, a $110-million facility that opens Friday with practice and qualifying for Sunday's California 500 NASCAR Winston Cup, has a great heritage.

Racing historians generally agree that the first automobile race in the United States took place in 1895. It was a 91-mile run from Chicago to Waukegan, Ill., and back, won by Oscar Mueller in a Mueller-Benz at a terrifying 9.7 mph.

Eight years later, cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield put Los Angeles on the horseless carriage map when he wheeled his Winton Bullet to a world record for a mile oval on the horse-racing track at Agricultural Park--now the site of the Coliseum.

Oldfield lapped the dusty track in 54.8 seconds, averaging 65.6 mph, bettering the record he set six months earlier in Yonkers, N.Y. For the next two years, Oldfield frequented a rapidly growing circuit of local tracks, including Association Park in San Bernardino, the Fairgrounds in Fresno, Lakeside Inn Speedway in San Diego and a hill-climb course up Santa Rosa Avenue--now Christmas Tree Lane--in Altadena.

Not everyone was impressed. After a run in San Diego, the local paper noted: "The races were good, though there is not the excitement in the automobile that there seems to be in the horse."

After the Oldfield era, road racing became the craze. A favorite was the Los Angeles-to-Phoenix run. The first race in that series started Nov. 7, 1908, from the Hollenbeck Hotel at the corner of Second and Spring streets, where the Los Angeles Times-Mirror building now stands. This was three years before the first Indianapolis 500.

The 445-mile race, called the Cactus Derby, ran close to the site of today's California Speedway in Fontana before heading east through San Bernardino, Banning, Indio, Blythe, Quartzite and Buckeye on the way to Phoenix. There were four starters, and amazingly, all four finished.

The winner was a White Steamer driven by Capt. H.D. Ryus, who completed the run in 30 hours 28 minutes.

In the years before Indianapolis attained its stature as racing's mecca, the Vanderbilt Cup races were considered to be America's No. 1 competition. The Vanderbilt Cup competition, which originally was located on Long Island, was moved to Santa Monica in 1914 and produced one of the most dramatic races ever seen on the Pacific Coast.

The 8.4-mile Santa Monica course ran along Ocean Avenue to "Death Curve," a 90-degree left turn that led to what is now Wilshire Boulevard. A long straightaway was followed by another left turn at Soldiers' Home (now the Veterans' Administration complex) and a run down San Vicente Avenue back to Ocean.

The two biggest names in racing were there, Oldfield in a new Mercer against Ralph DePalma, in an old Mercedes. They had been teammates for Mercer, but shortly before the race, DePalma left the team and hauled his old No. 12 Mercedes out from Indianapolis, where it had broken down the previous year.

For lap after lap they traded the lead, first Oldfield breaking away, only to have trouble with his tires. Two laps from the checkered flag, DePalma signaled his pit that he planned to come in for a tire change. He had gone the entire distance without a stop.

Oldfield, thinking his rival was coming in, decided to make another precautionary tire change himself. He was ahead and believed if they both pitted, he would still have the lead.

So he dipped into the pits, only to see DePalma speed by in the blue Mercedes, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Oldfield, seething with rage at the trick, nearly flipped his Mercer in a futile attempt to catch DePalma.

During that same era, board tracks were built, first in Playa del Rey, then Beverly Hills and Culver City.

The Los Angeles Motordrome, built on flat marshlands near Ballona Lagoon, opened in April 1910, with a one-mile speed trial in which Oldfield ran 99 mph and a week later with a 50-mile race won by DePalma in a Fiat at 75.1 mph.

The Beverly Hills track, called Los Angeles Speedway, was located where the Beverly Wilshire Hotel now stands. It was lavish, an early version of today's California Speedway with tree-lined entryways, flowers and luxury boxes. Crowds estimated at 100,000 watched drivers such as Indy 500 winners Jimmy Murphy, Tommy Milton and DePalma win major championships before it shut down in 1924.

Corona used a race around its Grand Boulevard, a three-mile street laid out in a perfect circle that gave the Inland Empire community its name, Circle City. Earl Cooper won a highly successful race in 1913, but when three people were killed during the 1916 race, it was discontinued.

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