“Just imagine going 90 miles an hour on dirt, three wide, trying to get to a corner. That's reeealllly insane right down Santa Monica Boulevard. When I think of it, it seems outside the realm of sanity."
Where They Raced
by Ziva Allen
When we think of Beverly Hills, we envision boutiques, high society folks shopping for their next Rolex, a Lamborghini or Rolls Royce strolling by, and the famous Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where you can expect to part with $635 for a one night stay. But what we don’t envision when we think of Beverly Hills is one of the largest board racetracks that inhabited America back in the 1920s running right though the middle of it! You read that right. As Harry Pallenberg, Director of the award winning documentary Where They Raced, says, “So many racetracks used to exist in Los Angeles and no one knows about it. Sure, people know about the orange groves and movie stars and smog and traffic. But there were literally over 200 tracks right here in the Los Angeles city limits in the early 1900s. I find that stunning.” There had been roughly 80,000 people in the stands at any one time, which in 1923 was about 20% of the population of Los Angeles. Many people are unaware that more auto racing has taken place in southern California than any other place in the world. From the first, in 1903, to the current time, southern California has had 174 officially sanctioned auto racing tracks. This does not include motorcycles, go-karts, Main Street, or “Uncle Bob’s back-40.”
Where They Raced is based on the book written by Harold Osmer who initially conceived of the topic for his Masters Thesis on land use, racetracks and the geographic shaping of Los Angeles. Says Osmer, “The original thesis looked at where a racetrack existed and its effect on future land use. Think of a gas station, for instance. If you take out the station, you have to deal with the underground tanks, etc. before building houses or anything else. In the case of a racetrack, the short answer on land use impact is none. The more fun answer is that auto racing grew and developed along with the city and produced a cultural activity that endures to today.”
There were three board tracks in Beverly Hills in the early 1920s (and several for motorcycles) all of which were constructed out of 2 x 4s. Osmer explains, “LA Motordrome was the first purpose-built auto racing board track in the world. It operated from 1910 until 1913. LA Motordrome was a one-mile circle with 17 degree banking and was located in the Playa del Rey area. Los Angeles Speedway was built in Beverly Hills at Wilshire and Beverly and operated from 1920 until 1924 and is generally regarded as the nicest facility of its time. This was a mile and a quarter board track with 35 degree banking which utilized a technique called the Searles Spiral Easement, adopted from railroad technology. The turns had changing radii throughout which allowed cars to transition from straightaways to the turns without the abrupt bump found in earlier tracks. This track was called Los Angeles Speedway because in 1920, no one knew where or what a Beverly Hills was. Culver City Speedway operated from 1924 until 1927 and boasted 45 degree banking. Many records were set there including endurance runs and overall speed over a variety of distances. So southern California had the first board track, the nicest, and the fastest!”
According to Pallenberg, “Amazingly, the cars were running about 15 miles per hour faster than at the Indy 500 during the same time period. I believe the tracks had 25 degree banking so you can imagine the speed attained. Running 15 miles an hour faster than at Indy! That was a pretty impressive feat.” Creating the tracks out of wood, which gave the surface a near perfectly smooth finish, caused the cars to be able to go incredibly fast, especially for the time period. “Of course the problem is that wood, gas and oil didn’t mix for a longstanding structure,” explains Pallenberg. “The board tracks had the potential to catch fire and burn to the ground, not from car crashes necessarily, but from vagrants, kids screwing around and lighting them on fire. So obviously oil soaked wood was not a recipe for longevity. And of course you have to imagine how many trees would need to be cut down in order to build a board track that was, like the Beverly Hills track, 1 ¼ mile around - I mean that must have taken a forest to build. Not exactly the eco-friendly nature of today’s world.”
“On any given day, probably hundreds of thousands of people drive on Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, Ocean Boulevard and yet, back between 1909 to 1919, that area was a major raceway,” says Pallenberg. “Today you can literally take a lap on the same roads that guys like Eddie Pullen raced on doing 100 miles an hour on the downhill straightaway. Of course nowadays you’re just going to be sitting in bumper to bumper traffic,” Pallenberg says with a laugh.” Even so, since some of the roads still exist, they are still drivable today. Some of the same banking and turns are still there and “I find that to be fascinating,” says Pallenberg.
How did Pallenberg and author Osmer hook up for the Where They Raced project? Pallenberg had worked for a PBS television show called California Gold, which featured segments providing various historical subjects on the history of California. Back in 2002, one of the segments featured Osmer’s book. And in that segment says Pallenberg, “We brought a couple of old 1913 Mercers and Nationals to a course in Corona and took a lap. It turned out to be a very popular episode. So over the years I would call Harold to let him know that his episode was going to re-air. And he, in turn, would inform me, ‘We keep losing so much history. Someone else just passed away. More racetracks have closed down.’ Finally I said to Harry, ‘let’s just start filming before everyone’s gone.’ You know how it is. People die and they don’t tend to care what grandpa had up in the attic and they’ll throw away a box of amazing 16 millimeter films. So we felt that we just needed to do it.” Pallenberg and Osmer knew they were racing against the clock and proceeded to get as many interviews in the can as possible. Says Pallenberg, “For many years, it was very much a nights and weekends project, with months passing at times without even opening a file.” The two had very little or no funding. But Osmer had the words and Pallenberg the technical skills and the camera gear and it turned out that was all they needed.
Osmer describes their taping technique like this: “In the video, you don’t see or hear Harry or I asking questions. We were typically behind the camera and letting the particular person tell their own story. Harry had a list of questions he wanted answered, then I would chime in with some odd point or another, then we’d let them talk and talk for as long as they wished and in this way we were able to get a lot of interesting off-the-record material.” Where They Raced is based upon auto racetrack locations more so than auto racing as a sport. “It’s all geography,” says Osmer. “Tracks typically appeared on some outlying property, operated for a number of years, then were developed as the city grew. With so much space available, it’s no wonder there were so many racetracks.”
One of the more time consuming aspects of making the film was having to wait for someone who had the car they wanted to feature to be at a particular track and available for the shoot. Almost everyone the two contacted were enthusiastic and excited to participate. As Pallenberg says, “Largely because they were happy to show off their cars - you know car guys! And we could tell the guy, ‘hey your car used to run at the Legion Ascot Speedway in the 20s and we’d like you to come back and take a lap. We would explain that turns three and four still exist because the current road was built right on top of where turns three and four were. These guys would get so excited, they couldn’t believe it.” Many of the car owners are descendants of the original owners and they were often amazed by the fact that they had watched the cars run on old home movies and they had read books about their cars, but then to be given an opportunity to trailer the car to where one of these old time tracks had been and take a lap, “Well, they were definitely excited to do that,” says Pallenberg.
In addition to street racing footage, the documentary includes footage of the area where Gilmore Stadium once stood. Gilmore Stadium was built in 1934 but before it was torn down to make way for CBS Television City, it held 18,000 spectators who enjoyed racing events as well as NFL football games. Hank Hilty, Earl Gilmore’s grandson, and Vic Edelbrock, Jr. are filmed on the grounds where the stadium once stood. Vic Edelbrock, Jr. brought his dad’s car which had been raced by Roger Ward. “The area where we filmed is now a CBS parking lot but back then, it was the straightaway at Gilmore Stadium,” says Pallenberg. Micky Thompson’s son, Danny, is seen in the film walking on the old Lions Drag Strip which is now a shipping container yard. Wally Parks’ son, Richard, is seen in the film walking along the Pomona Drag Strip. Pallenberg says, “these descendents were generous enough to open up their personal archives and share their photos with us.” Pallenberg recalls filming Rick Rawlins where the old Legion Ascot Speedway had been, who brought Ed Winfield’s Ford with him. “This vehicle was apparently the fastest Model T ever. It got up to I believe 144 miles an hour. And imagine the history! That car had not been back to that track in over 85 years. I have to say - Rick was really fired up about it and he was just so passionate. And for me, it was just so exciting to hear that old car roar to life and to watch it come peeling around the corner. But you also have to realize, these cars are incredibly loud. So I will never forget the neighbors all coming out of their houses as we were filming. Let’s just say, we got mixed reactions. It ran the gamut from, ‘aaaawww my grandfather told me we used to have a racetrack here,’ to the lady who got really mad and threatened to call the cops if we didn’t cease filming. But most of the people were pretty excited to watch the filming. After all, it’s pretty awesome to see a 90 year old racecar taking a lap around your neighborhood! Just imagine going 90 miles an hour on dirt, three wide, trying to get to a corner. That’s reeealllly insane right down Santa Monica Boulevard. When I think of it, it seems outside the realm of sanity.”
Pallenberg wanted to team with Osmer because he feels this is a forgotten time in America, is a lost piece of history and he has specifically always been enamored with the history of California. “The PBS show that I worked on was about the history, culture and natural wonders of the state of California and I’ve always known there’s so much here between the oceans and the mountains and the deserts. But racetracks through Beverly Hills? Well that just seemed like a weird little hiccup that few people are aware of,” says Pallenberg. But why California? Why was the L.A. area such a hotbed for racing and building racetracks? Pallenberg believes that the combination of inviting weather, the explosion of the car industry at that time and the movie industry all blended to produce an atmosphere potent for car racing. “They definitely hit at the right moment together,” says Pallenberg. “Also, Los Angeles was so broad and spread out that it demanded roads versus somewhere like New York City where you were able to have public transportation or you could even walk 40 blocks and get wherever you needed to go. Weather is also one of the major factors. In other cities you have to put your car away for four or five months out of the year whereas here you could race all year around with no need to stop. Also we had dry lake beds which are only about an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert and the dry lake bed racing led directly to drag racing and is at the roots of the NHRA, which is just another lucky coincidence of the geography of the area. Between the weather, the geography and the movie industry, the west coast, especially at that time, symbolized freedom and the car was at the center of it all.”
But why did all the tracks disappear? “Racetracks, especially the numerous small ovals, were designed as temporary affairs,” says Osmer. “A land owner with property on the outskirts would lease the site to a track operator for a set number of years and let the guy have his fun. Once the lease was up, the city would have grown to where the land could now be sold at a profit. Most tracks were simply carved onto the dirt, had a simple wooden grandstand, basic lighting, and a fence. It was an easy transition from racetrack to any other use to fulfill zoning requirements. This overall exercise is known as ‘land banking’.”
Pallenberg adds that the exploding property values in the area had a lot to do with the decline in racing. “For example in Beverly Hills, the land value exploded. And once that happened, a parcel of land could be subdivided into 800 parcels and each make thousands of dollars. Literally Rodeo Drive would have gone through the middle of the infield.” In the early 1900s tracks were being built on the outskirts of the main city because that’s where the land was cheap. But for the same token, because the land was cheap, people began to build homes in the same area. Eventually enough houses were built and there were enough homeowners to have a voice. The homeowners didn’t like the noise, the smoke and the oil and so overtime they succeeded in getting the area racetracks shut down. And with each track gone, making way for parking lots and retail stores, part of the charm of old L.A. is now gone too.
Keep your eyes out for one of Pallenberg’s next projects, wherein he captures the adventures of a 15 year old girl who is making a documentary film about land speed women on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Young Kaylin Stewart will attempt to become the youngest ever and only the 24th woman to get into the 200MPH Club. More info at www.chasing200.com
And you can find Osmer calling all times for the annual Speed Weeks and World Finals at the Bonneville Salt Flats as he is the announcer for Southern California timing Association. Tune in August 9th through the 15th when they will be broadcastinng live online!
As Pallenberg concludes, “Part of making a documentary film is that sometimes you know the outcome because it all played out over 100 years ago and sometimes you don’t know what will happen. And that’s part of the adventure of making a documentary film. Where They Raced is what I call a ‘passion project’ that came out of a journey of discovery about this weird history that has been largely unknown.”
The DVD or the downstream can be purchased from the website www.wheretheyraced.com.