BOARD TRACKS : Before Indianapolis, L.A.'s Toothpick Ovals Were King
Tucked away on the bottom of a page in the sports section of The Times on April 8, 1910, was this item:
“Indianapolis is to have automobile races May 27-28 and 30 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fast cars and leading drivers are to appear.”
Auto racing was nothing new to Angelenos, though. Los Angeles, in fact, was the center of automobile racing when Indianapolis was just getting into the game.
On the day that item appeared, all the fast cars and leading drivers in the country were gathered here for the opening of the Los Angeles Motordrome, the world’s first board track built for race cars. It was in Playa del Rey, about 500 yards from the beach, north of Del Rey Lagoon. It was where the big red cars stopped at the end of the L.A. Electric line, midway between La Ballona Creek and Culver Boulevard.
The track, a circular mile with 15-degree banking, was called the pie pan because of its appearance.
Barney Oldfield, the greatest name in racing, was there for the opening with his big Blitzen Benz that had broken all speed records three weeks earlier at Ormond Beach, Fla. So was his bitter rival, Ralph DePalma, with his 200-horsepower Fiat.
Ray Harroun was there with the Marmon Wasp that would win the first Indianapolis 500 a year later. And there was Caleb Bragg, a young millionaire from Pasadena with a passion for fast Fiats.
Los Angeles had been speed-crazy since the day in 1903 that Oldfield, his cigar clenched between his teeth, stormed a Winton Bullet around a mile-long dirt oval at Agricultural Park--later to become Exposition Park and the site of the Coliseum--in a world-record 55 seconds. Dirt clods flew and dust clouds rose 40 feet in the wake of the big machine.
The spectacle captivated the populace. And the press. The front page of The Times read:
“Barney Oldfield’s attempt to commit suicide at Agricultural Park yesterday only resulted in a compound fracture of the world’s automobile record.
“It would seem simpler and easier for him to hire some one to brain him with an ax than suffer this lingering destruction.”
Races were also held regularly at the original Ascot Park, at the intersection of Slauson and Central avenues, considered the premier dirt track on the West Coast. On Dec. 26, 1909, only four months before the Motordrome’s opening, Oldfield had lapped Ascot at 120 m.p.h. in the Benz.
Cross-country races also were popular, most starting at the Hollenbeck Hotel at 2nd and Spring streets--now the site of The Times--in downtown Los Angeles and racing to Redlands, Fresno, Phoenix or San Diego.
So, when promoters Fred Moskovics and Walter Hemple decided to build a board track, Los Angeles was the logical site. Moskovics was a Hungarian-born engineer who had worked for the Daimler works in Germany and later became president of Stutz.
They hired Jack Prince, who had a reputation as the finest builder of bicycle velodromes in the world, to design and construct the Motordrome.
The track, built of 16-foot 2 x 4s with the two-inch face up, existed for two years before it burned.
Although it would be eight years before another board track was built in Los Angeles, the idea had caught on. Starting in 1913, there were 20 board ovals, commonly called toothpick tracks, built in the United States, six of them in California. Most measured 1 miles and were banked severely, some as high as 52 degrees.
The Beverly Hills Speedway, with its northeast turn at approximately the site of the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, was built along Wilshire Boulevard in 1920. The straightaway today would run through the showrooms of I Magnin, Saks Fifth Ave. and Nieman-Marcus. When rising Beverly Hills real estate values forced the track to be torn down four years later, the owners built a replacement in Culver City, just across Culver Boulevard, south of the MGM (now Lorimar) Studios.
Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park, at Braddock and Motor, occupies what was once the north end of the Culver City track. Residential streets south of the park still curve as they did when the track was there between 1924 and 1927.
Lumber and labor were cheap, so board tracks were inexpensive to construct and became popular because there were no dust clouds to obscure the drivers, as on dirt tracks.
The L.A. Motordrome, the prototype, was built in 16 days.
The wooden planking was 45 feet wide, enough for four cars side by side, with a 15% grade all the way around. The top of the track was 12 feet from the ground, which enabled spectators inside the circuit to see any car on the track. Passenger cars were permitted to park in a circle, 120 feet from the edge of the track, where their owners could sit and watch.
“Half the population of Los Angeles (319,198 in 1910) could see without anybody having to lose sight of the cars,” one reporter observed.
Three hundred miles of 2 x 4s were used, enough to make a double wooden railroad track from Los Angeles to San Diego. According to Prince, there were 247,000 square feet of surface planking and more than 2 million square feet of lumber, including the superstructure of 2 x 6 beams. It was held together by 30 tons of 16-penny nails.
A 1,000-foot grandstand and five rows of bleachers seated 12,000 spectators, but many favored watching from inside the pie pan. Opening day was cold, cloudy and windy, but hundreds of cars were lined up near the finish line 30 minutes before the first race. L.A. Electric put on special cars and round trips from downtown to the Motordrome ran every half-hour.
There was concern that the smooth surface and the banking might be more than the drivers and cars could handle, especially after a squad of men with tubs of water and scrub brushes had worked most of the night cleaning the surface.
“The question of what will happen to the cars at sustained speeds of 65 to 70 miles an hour is one which has been argued repeatedly in the repair pits,” wrote one Los Angeles reporter.
Curiously, records set at the three tracks reflect the changing interests of the racing enthusiasts.
In 1910, the emphasis was on short-distance speed records in match races. Cars were still a novelty, and it hadn’t been long since Oldfield had made his first mile-a-minute ride.
Oldfield, as was the case nearly any time the crusty old campaigner showed up, didn’t disappoint. Two days before the opening, the big boys couldn’t wait. Oldfield ran a mile at 99 m.p.h. in the Benz. DePalma answered the challenge by breaking Oldfield’s five-mile mark with a 92.10 m.p.h. average.
The seven-day meeting, which was patterned after horse racing with a series of sprints each day, was climaxed by a match race between Oldfield, in the Benz, and young Bragg, in his Fiat 90, which had been given him upon graduation from Yale a short time earlier. Promoters had been plugging Oldfield vs. DePalma for the two-mile match race but each time it was scheduled, DePalma withdrew his car. Finally, Bragg was named to replace DePalma.
The smaller Fiat proved more adaptable to the sharp cornering on the slick surface and when Oldfield skidded up the track on the second lap, Bragg darted through the opening and crossed the finish line 5/100ths of a second ahead, about the length of the Fiat’s hood.
Bragg’s society friends from Pasadena carried him around the track on their shoulders as the 10,000 spectators roared their approval.
“I only had the throttle half open,” Oldfield said. After congratulating his young rival, Oldfield said that henceforth he would limit the Benz’s appearances to straightaway tracks.
The only distance races were two 100-mile free-for-alls on opening and closing day. Harroun and his Marmon won them both, the first in 1 hour 25 minutes 22 seconds. Much was made of the fact that Harroun’s time was seven minutes better than Louis Strang had done in the debut of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the previous year. A week later, Harroun lowered the time to 1:16.21 for an average of 78.8 m.p.h.
Before it burned, the Motordrome felt the sting of competition.
Abbott Kinney, promoting his new Venice of America, complete with canals and gondoliers, offered free concerts every Sunday that lured many would-be spectators from the race track.
Scheduling conflicts hurt, too. For instance, the season opening of the Motordrome in 1912 was scheduled the day after the Santa Monica road race, which featured DePalma and Tommy Tetzlaff. Only a few leading drivers appeared and not many spectators.
By 1920, World War I was over and Hollywood was booming as a film capital when the motion picture crowd decided to finance construction of another board track in Beverly Hills.
Prince, a seat-of-the-pants builder, was joined by A. C. Pillsbury, an engineer who later served on the American Automobile Assn.'s board of directors.
The track was set back behind a row of eucalyptus trees on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, between Beverly Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard. In keeping with the opulence of the movie kingdom, the track featured a covered grandstand with private seating areas for the film colony that featured hand-crafted contoured chairs.
Unlike the shallow, circular Playa del Rey track, Beverly Hills was a high-banked oval, 37 degrees in the turns and 1 miles around.
Land for the track was bought for $1,000 an acre, with one proviso: Construction could not begin before the owner harvested his bean crop.
Opening day was Feb. 28, 1920, and an estimated 50,000 fans were there. The field read like the Indianapolis 500’s. Only Oldfield was missing, having been suspended for appearing in a match race with Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson had allegedly applied for an AAA license--the auto club sanctioned races in those days--and was rejected, presumably because of racial reasons. That angered Oldfield, who was continually feuding with the racing body, and he sought Johnson out as a riding partner.
Jimmy Murphy, who grew up in Vernon after having been orphaned by the San Francisco earthquake, made his driving debut in the Beverly Hills inaugural. He had been a riding mechanic in Eddie O’Donnell’s Duesenberg and got the ride when O’Donnell injured an arm. Murphy made the most of it, winning the pole at 115 m.p.h. and going wire to wire for 250 miles at a 103.2-m.p.h. average.
Later that year, Murphy won the board track inaugural in Fresno, and his career, which included victories in the Indy 500 and the French Grand Prix, was launched. Eight 250-mile races were run at Beverly Hills and Murphy won three of them.
Peter DePaolo, another future Indy winner, was in the first race as a riding mechanic for his uncle, Ralph DePalma. In his autobiography, “Wall Smacker,” DePaolo recalled:
“My greatest thrill while riding with Uncle Ralph was the opening of the Beverly Hills Speedway. As we would enter the turns, I would take a deep breath, just to have time to exhale as we tore down the back stretch, then take another gasping breath as we would go into the next turn.”
Pete also delighted in telling friends, before his death in 1980, of the first time he drove a race car. He had never as much as sat in the race car when his uncle asked him to tow the car to the Indianapolis track. Pete obliged, then couldn’t resist the urge to take a few laps on the big saucer with his brother Johnny riding along. Egged on by his brother, Pete got up to racing speed before taking the car to its spot in the garage.
“Uncle Ralph might never have known,” Pete used to say with a gleam in his eye, “but Charley, the gate man, knew something was up when I headed straight for the bricks instead of parking the car. He didn’t know who I was but he told Uncle Ralph that someone had been running his car around the track about 90 m.p.h.
“Well, Uncle Ralph didn’t know what to say. He acted real mad, but I could tell he was pretty proud of how fast I’d run. Howie Wilcox had won Indy the year before around 88 m.p.h.”
DePaolo drove in his first race March 5, 1922 at Beverly Hills, a 250-miler won by Tommy Milton, the Indy 500 champion. He didn’t finish but showed enough promise to earn a ride later in the month at Indianapolis.
One of the worst accidents in American racing annals occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1920, and the ensuing outcry over the carnage threatened to close the Beverly Hills track.
Gaston Chevrolet, who had won the Indy 500 earlier that year, was in close quarters with O’Donnell and Joe Thomas as they swept into the east turn. Chevrolet tried to pass and his Frontenac locked wheels with O’Donnell’s Duesenberg. Both cars were flung into the upper guardrail, burst into flames and slid to the bottom of the track.
Chevrolet was killed instantly and O’Donnell and his riding mechanic, Lyle Joles, died the next day.
The track was sold in 1924 to make room for a subdivision as Beverly Hills expanded westward. In the final race on Feb. 24, 85,000 fans, the largest racing crowd in West Coast history at the time, watched Harlan Fengler win the 250-mile main event as the first five finishers all bettered the world record. Fengler, who later became chief steward of the Indy 500, averaged 116.6 m.p.h.
It was a popular win for the Hollywood colony, since Fengler was engaged to Shirley Mason, a movie star. She had asked Fengler to quit racing and his answer was to wire his love before each race, then afterward to let her know he was fine. Hollywood press agents loved it.
Flushed with the success of the Beverly Hills track, promoters started work almost immediately on the nearby Culver City Speedway. It, too, was 1 miles, but had an even higher banking of 45 degrees. Lumber and labor costs were rising, though, and the track reportedly cost $1 million to build.
The community known as Brooklyn West had changed its name to Culver City in 1914 and its founder, Harry Culver, wanted to do something big to attract attention to the growing area so he talked DePalma into coming out of retirement for the Thanksgiving Day opener in 1924.
Sixteen cars were entered for the 250-mile feature, which was to pay $10,000 to the winner from a $25,000 purse. It was the final race of the AAA season and the national championship was at stake.
Jimmy Murphy, who had dominated at Beverly Hills, had been killed in a race at Syracuse, N.Y., on Sept. 15, but he held a commanding lead in the AAA standings. Only Earl Cooper, who had been runner-up in the Indy 500, could catch Murphy and he had to win to do it.
The high banking proved so tricky for the drivers during practice that they talked officials into delaying the race until 10 days later, Dec. 7. It also gave promoter A. M. Young more time to publicize the big event, although the cars were attracting up to 25,000 fans during weekend practice.
After the first of the preliminary races, though, so much oil had been dumped on the already slick boards that starter Fred Wagner interrupted the program and had the surface scrubbed down. When that didn’t help, it was decided to postpone the opening program another week, to Dec. 14.
Splinters also became such a problem that cars were equipped with splinter ejectors on the radiator.
When the twice postponed race day finally arrived, it was a smashing success. Seventy-thousand fans filled the grandstands and the infield, and Benny Hill, a graduate of Columbia University, drove nonstop to the fastest win in racing history, 126.78 m.p.h. Paul Lowry, writing for The Times, was so impressed that he wrote, “Hill’s record may stand for all time.”
Alas, three months later in the opening race of 1925, Tommy Milton bettered it, driving 250 miles at 126.88 m.p.h. Frank Lockhart, who left a mechanic’s job at the Hillcrest Garage on Wilshire Boulevard for a meteoric career that led to winning the 1926 Indy 500 as a rookie, set Culver City’s all-time record of 144.1 m.p.h. during qualifying for the final 250-mile race on the boards on March 6, 1927. Lockhart was killed a year later in a land-speed record attempt at Daytona Beach.
The racing fraternity’s emphasis on sheer speed, however, was being blunted by record runs at Pendine, England, and at Daytona Beach by Sir Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave, so the board tracks turned to setting endurance records.
A series of 1,000-mile record runs filled the schedule at Culver City in early 1925 and in 1927, national champion Harry Hartz led a 5,000-mile team effort in a Studebaker. They spun around the boards for 81 hours 42 minutes at a 61.12-m.p.h. pace.
Fittingly, perhaps, the final major performance on the board track was by the legendary Oldfield, who went 1,000 miles in a Hudson at 76.4 m.p.h. in May 1927. The track closed shortly after.
Constant exposure to the elements made it difficult to maintain the boards, and pounding from the heavy cars often shredded the wood. At times, gaps appeared in the planking, presenting a more serious hazard than chuck holes in a dirt track.
The development of asphalt as a road cover in the 1920s brought an end to the board track era, but for 15 years, the toothpick tracks made Los Angeles the home of major league automobile racing.