Racetrack Classics: The Vanished Speedways (and Film Locations) of Southern California

 

Photo: lapl.org

Los Angeles and its environs are a veritable graveyard of vanished racetracks. [One, which we’ll meet later, was very near and dear to my heart. –ed.] Author Harold L. Osmer counts more than 100 tracks from 1900-present, almost all gone now. Some highlights follow. In roughly chronological order, we begin with the Agricultural Park (later, Exposition Park) track adjacent to USC, near today’s Figueroa and Exposition Boulevards. Ag Park was first used for horse, dog, and even camel races, and from at least 1903, some of LA’s first cycling and automobile contests.

Photo: George Prince

Shown in 1913 is the start of Medium and Heavyweight car competition at the first Corona citywide auto road race. It was literally citywide, as the course was laid out on the main circular street that separated the town’s core from the surrounding citrus groves of the Orange (now Inland) Empire.

Photo: SpeedAge Magazine

The seminal Corona street races ran only in 1913, 1914, and 1916, with residents quickly tiring of the noise, traffic(!), and trash, and finally appalled at the death of “Wild Bob” Burman in the 1916 competition. Other, more permanent tracks soon took root in what were then the outskirts of a mid-sized city, often in semi-rural settings.

Photo: EnFilme.com

Charlie Chaplin first appeared on film as the “Little Tramp” in 1914 at the soapbox races (or Kid’s Races) in Venice. Note the seated racer behind the camera. Since Venice is essentially flat, contestants started from a tall wooden ramp.

Photo: George Prince

Ascot Speedway may be right at the top of most folks’ LA legends list, but that well-remembered track came much later than the one featured above, shown at the March 19, 1916 start of the 100-mile, $5000 Washington Sweepstakes. The racetrack in the photo is the Legion Ascot Speedway in El Sereno. Operated by the Glendale American Legion Post in its later years, the track sat along Soto Street, between Valley Boulevard and Multnomah Street. Again, orchards and fields bordered the grounds. Racing here ran from 1916 to 1936.

Photo: progcovers.com

Due to concerns about mounting fatalities, the American Legion dropped its sponsorship in 1935. On January 25, 1936, driver Al Gordon and riding mechanic Spider Matlock were both killed in a crash of their two-man Indy car. The track closed and later burned,”torched by a former employee who said he didn’t want to see any more of his friends killed”, [LA Times; Oct. 10, 1994]. The only remaining trace of the fearsome Legion Ascot Speedway is the curve in today’s Hatfield Place. It was the dangerous south curve of the old raceway; where so many lives were lost. Schools, homes, and parks (including Ascot Hills Park) now cover the site.

Photo: lapl.org

Opened in 1920, the Beverly Hills Speedway was an all-wood track. Note the packed stands and sheer number of spectators’ cars in the lot and infield, despite the sparse surrounding settlement. Races continued in the future 90210 Zip Code until 1924.

Photo: lapl.org

In 1924, the Culver City board track went up, but was gone by 1927, another victim of the 1920’s LA real estate boom. In 1932, a dirt track at Washington and West Adams Boulevards, also called Culver City Speedway, opened. It did not outlive the Depression.

Photo: TheOldMotor.com

Moving into the days of living memory, we see here another legend in sprints and midgets, Gilmore Stadium (1934-1952), which stood immediately adjacent to Gilmore Field, home of the minor-league Hollywood Stars baseball team. The tracks stood where the Original Farmers Market, The Grove mall, and CBS Television City stand today.


Photo: TheOldMotor.com

At Gilmore Stadium, Fred Offenhauser honed the finer points of his seemingly everlasting Offy motor.

Photo: USC Library

South of downtown LA, a succession of tracks, including Southern Ascot (in South Gate, 1937-42), and Gardena Speedway (1947-1957, above), eventually led to the hallowed Ascot Park, also in Gardena, located within a stone’s throw of another predecessor, Carrell Speedway (1940-1954), whose site is now occupied by the Gardena-Carson YMCA. The site stood vacant for many years as part of route preparations for the extension of the Artesia (91) Freeway into the South Bay, which never occurred.

 

Photo: J.C. Agajanian

Ascot Park was my hometown racetrack, as I grew up two boulevards over, in North Torrance. (My house would be just below the bottom of the shot showing the two tracks.-ed.) At night, I would leave my second-floor bedroom window open to hear the roar of the cars. During high school, my buddies and I sat in the stands outside turn one, where the single-speed, methanol-fueled, aluminum Donovan-powered sprint cars were most likely to fling dirt directly into our drinks. Noted promoter J.C. Agajanian, whose offices on Hobart Boulevard were about two blocks from our house, operated Carrell Speedway before opening Ascot, his flagship track, in 1957.

 

Image: Daily Breeze

Ascot finally closed in 1990, and remains, to my knowledge, the only closed metropolitan-area track not to be completely built over. It’s an insurance auction lot now. Maybe some wealthy racer could bring it back, but no doubt the NIMBYs wouldn’t have it, as the former Vermont Drive-In Theater that sat kitty-cornered is now all houses. (Closer, though, are the permanent residents of the Roosevelt Memorial Park, who probably wouldn’t complain too much. –ed.) Evel Knievel’s first televised jump took place here, as did parts of Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), and CHiPs (1979). Records show that 62 Indy 500 drivers, among them winners Troy Ruttman, Rodger Ward, and Johnnie Parsons raced at Ascot. [LA Times, Nov. 11, 1990]

It wasn’t all sprints, midgets, and beater stocks in SoCal, however. Two world-class venues would open; dedicated facilities with real pits, visitor amenities, TV links, and serious seating capacity.

 

Photo: drivingline.com

Beginning in 1957, Riverside International Raceway began hosting events and, of course, being semi-close to Hollywood, film shoots. At the outset, there were three track configurations: the long course (about 3.25 miles), the short course (about 2.5 miles), and the NASCAR course (a bit over 2.5 miles). As years passed, up to seven different layouts were used for different events. NASCAR contests at Riverside were notorious for their rough, doorhandle-to-doorhandle action. Movies filmed at RIR include On the Beach (1959), RoadRacers (1959), Grand Prix (1966), and The Love Bug (1968). Car-heavy TV shows like The Rockford FilesCHiPs, Simon and Simon, and Knight Rider also shot episodes there. The track closed in 1989, to be replaced by houses and the Moreno Valley Mall. Some local place names still reflect those of famous drivers, i.e.: Penske and Andretti Streets.

Photo: Pinterest.com

Looming large in memory, but lasting a mere ten years (1970-1980) was the Ontario Motor Speedway, an ambitious four-sport (USAC, NASCAR, NHRA, and FIA) track that also hosted the 70’s-fabulous California Jam rock concerts. It’s builders, including Citi Securities and Filmways corporations, touted it as “The Indianapolis of the West”.

Photo: Jim Glines

Cal Jam, in 1974, claims the record for largest-ever outdoor concert, with 300,000-400,000 paying fans in attendance [donbranker.com]. Cal Jam 2, in 1978, counted only slightly fewer. Note the timing tower (above).

Image: ABC Entertainment

Movies, TV, concerts, four kinds of racing…none of it could save OMS. The speedway met the fate of each of the preceding tracks, being supplanted by yet more houses and businesses. Modern roadways in the area also bear names like Concours Street, Ferrari Lane, and Porsche Way. Which leaves us with the dragstrips. Lions, for one.

Photo: pinterest.com

Opening in 1955 with Mickey Thompson as track manager and sole employee, Lions (sponsored by a coalition of local Lions Clubs) stands above all others in the memories of local hot-rodders. I clearly recall a trip there with my dad and uncle during the strip’s final days. They wanted my cousin, brothers, and I to be able to say we’d been there. The track’s motto was “Drive the Highways — Race at Lions.”

Photo: munsterkoach.com

Remember Grandpa Munster’s Barris-crafted Drag-u-la? Most of the Munsters episode “Hot Rod Herman,” (aired May 27, 1965) was filmed at Lions, rebranded as Mockingbird Heights Drag Strip. I believe the red, white, and blue bunting shown above is covering the actual sign. Spare no expense, Mr. Director!

Photo: flickr.com/TWE42

Couldn’t resist one more shot showing A/FX action at this classic strip!

Image: hotrodhotline.com

Orange County International Raceway certainly attracted every top name in drag racing in its day (1967-1983). Over time, OCIR gained a partially-deserved reputation for wild Friday night meets, and frequently ruffled the feathers of retirees at nearby Leisure World (now Laguna Woods). Located on prime Irvine Company land, adjacent to the San Diego Freeway, it is perhaps a wonder that the strip lasted as long as it did. In its last season, OCIR hosted the best-attended World Finals ever, and promoted back-to-back 32-Funny Car shows on consecutive Saturday evenings [Drag Racing magazine, Nov. 1984]. At OCIR’s opening, spectator tickets cost $2, pit passes $1. Commercial development now covers the site.

Photo: hotrodcraft.com

Of course, fans did often leave OCIR feeling a little, well, Altered! Other tracks like San Fernando, Santa Ana, Palmdale, Brotherhood/Terminal Island, and a raft of many short-lived strips basically stayed one step ahead of the houses, office parks, and container terminals until they met their demise.

Photo: racingjunk.com

Still, some remain and thrive…like Pomona, which has hosted the NHRA’s Winternationals and World Finals each year for decades. (Also remaining, and seemingly always in its last season, is Irwindale.)

Image: Southern California Timing Association

Others further afield, but less than a few hours away, are Famoso, known for its nostalgia drag meets; El Mirage dry lake, hosting SCTA land-speed cars since 1948, and scene of countless out-on-the-playa location shoots (as well as a sailplane base); Costa Mesa Speedway, featuring flat-track bikes; and Barona, a compact 1/8 mile dragstrip and dirt oval near San Diego. There still tracks for sprint cars and midgets in Perris and at the San Bernardino Orange Show.

Photo: Mark Dipolloni

For race-lovers of all stripes, Auto Club Speedway is still open in Fontana on the site of the WWII-era Kaiser Steel plant (since 1997), performing something of a reverse on the usual pattern. Attendance has fallen in recent years, however, with seating slashed from 92,000 to about 68,000 in 2010. [LA Times, Mar. 25, 2017]

Photo: hookedondriving.com

Finally, continuing since 1953 is the 2.5-mile Willow Springs Raceway, patterned after classic European road courses. Located well out into the desert, near Edwards AFB, Willow Springs is not only in no danger of closing; it has added a street course, clay oval, dragstrip, and kart track. It’s also been the site of many film shoots, including The Love Bug (1969), Top Gear (2013), and numberless magazine, commercial, and YouTube shoots.