The Indy car race in 1949 was on dirt, around the mile oval where such thoroughbreds as Your Host, Texas Sandman and Olhaverry had pounded down the stretch of Bing Crosby's horse racing track.
Sunday's Camel Grand Prix of Southern California is for exotic sports cars and it will be run on a temporary 1.6-mile asphalt circuit around fairgrounds buildings and through the parking lot, but the return of automobile racing to Del Mar can't help but stir memories of the great Rex Mays.
It was at Del Mar, on Nov. 6, 1949, that Mays, one of the most popular and most gifted drivers in Southern California history, was killed.
No one ever drove as well as he at the Indianapolis 500--without winning. Mays, a handsome 6-footer who was born and raised in Riverside and spent most of his adult years in Glendale, ran 12 times at Indy, started from the front row 7 times, led in 9 races and was fastest qualifier 4 times.
But the best he could do at the finish was a pair of seconds, to Wilbur Shaw in 1940 and to the Floyd Davis-Mauri Rose combination in 1941. Both were frustrating experiences.
In 1940, Mays was preparing to pass Shaw when rain on the 150th lap brought out the caution flag. For the remaining 125 miles, Mays was forced to parade around behind Shaw, the yellow flag staying out until the end.
In 1941, Mays' Novi was 7 m.p.h. faster than the winning car in qualifying, but Mays had to make three pit stops to only one for the winner and the time lost was too much to make up.
In both 1940 and 1941, Mays won the American Automobile Assn. national championship in the Bowes Seal Fast Special. In both seasons, he won every championship car race except the Indy 500.
Before he joined the national circuit, Mays had become something of a cult hero at Legion Ascot Speedway during the '30s. Those were the days when Ascot's 5/8-mile track, which was located just off Soto Street near Lincoln Park, was known as the killer track. Twenty-three drivers died there between 1924 and 1936.
Mays began racing at Legion Ascot in 1931, when he was 18, and was an immediate sensation. Racing against such Indy veterans as Floyd Roberts, Babe Stapp, Wild Bill Cummings, Ernie Triplett and Les Spangler, the young daredevil won the Pacific Southwest championship in 1934 and 1935.
The last race ever held at Ascot was Jan. 25, 1936, for two-seater Indy cars. Mays and his riding mechanic, Takio Harishima, won in the Gilmore Special, but the track was doomed when Al Gordon, one of the track's most popular drivers, was killed, along with his mechanic, Spider Matlock. Eight months later, the grandstands burned down.
World War II cut four years out of Mays' career when it was at its peak. As the reigning national champion, Mays joined the Army Air Force in 1942 as a lieutenant with the Air Transport Command, in which he ferried war planes from the factory to the fighting front. After his discharge in 1946, Mays continued flying and competed in the Bendix air races.
In 1947, at Wisconsin State Fair Park near Milwaukee, Mays emerged as a heroic figure when he deliberately drove his car into a concrete wall to avoid hitting Duke Dinsmore, who had been thrown from his car in the south turn, directly in the path of Mays' car. Mays had been challenging for the lead at the time. He was not hurt, but his car was damaged too badly to continue. A plaque on the wall marks the spot today.
Mays was 36 when Stapp, having switched from driving to promoting, announced that the final AAA championship race of 1949 would be at Del Mar, 100 miles on the horse track. It was to be the first Indy car race in Southern California since 1934, when Kelly Petillo won a 200-mile race at Mines Field, now the site of Los Angeles International Airport.
Jimmy Davies, a jalopy driver from Newhall driving the Pat Clancy Special, led the morning qualifying with a lap at 95.82 m.p.h. Clancy's car had been a six-wheeler at Indianapolis, where it finished 22nd, but it was a conventional four-wheeler at Del Mar.
Mays was alongside Davies in the front row with a qualifying lap of 95.54 m.p.h. Tony Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons, who had already clinched the national championship, were in the second row, just ahead of Troy Ruttman and Johnny Mantz.
Eighteen cars took the green flag from starter Dominic Distarce as a crowd of 14,000 looked on. Davies immediately jumped into a lead that he would maintain throughout the 100 miles. Mays tucked in behind and was running in Davies' dust through the early laps.
On the 13th lap, Mays' Wolfe Special hit a rut in the track, veered into the inside rail, flipped upside down and wiped out a furlong pole before ending up on all fours. Mays, who steadfastly refused to wear a seat belt, had been thrown out, onto the middle of the track.
Eyewitnesses said that several cars hit Mays while he was lying prone on the ground, but physicians attributed his death to a broken neck, apparently caused when he hit the ground head first.
Newspaper reports identified George Connors and Paul Russo as drivers whose cars hit Mays, but both said they had missed him.
Mays had refused to wear a safety belt, claiming that not having one on had saved his life in an accident earlier that year in Dayton, Ohio. His car had flipped, careened over the fence and bounded down the other side of the high banking. The car was destroyed but Mays, who had been thrown clear, was not seriously injured.
Ironically, Mays had been part of the inspection team at Del Mar--along with Chief Steward Gordon Betz and fellow Indy driver Duke Nalon--that toured the track in the pace car between qualifying and the race.
Questioned about the inside horse railings, Mays told Jack Curnow of The Times: "They won't bother us any. If anyone should happen to slide into the infield, they'll just snap off the posts like match sticks."
Mays was asked where the drivers might get into trouble.
"On the east turn, probably," he said. "The first turn always takes a beating and usually digs up a little. But I'm more worried about the west turn where it narrows down a little."
The trouble occurred, as Mays had predicted, on the east turn, where it had been dug up a little.
The opening AAA race of the 1950 season was scheduled for Del Mar, but it was canceled after Mays' death. It was 17 years before Indy cars ran again in Southern California, in the 1967 Rex Mays 300 at Riverside International Raceway. Appropriately, it was won by a driver from Mays' hometown, Riverside's Dan Gurney.