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SOUTHLAND SNAPSHOTS

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1900-1909

Barney Oldfield, pictured, America’s most famous race driver of the era, became the first to drive a mile-a-minute on a one-mile dirt track when he took his Winton Bullet around Agricultural Park-- now Exposition Park and the Coliseum site--in 54.6 seconds on Nov. 22, 1903.

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1910-1919

The first board track in the country was built at Playa del Rey and opened April 8, 1910. It was a perfect circle, which gave it the name, “the Pie Pan.” When the grandstands burned down in 1913, Hearst columnist Damon Runyon wrote, “Playa del Rey burned down last night, with a great savings of lives.”

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1920-29

Beverly Hills Speedway, built at a cost of $500,000 in 1920, ranked next to Indianapolis Motor Speedway as racing’s finest. It seated 70,000 and when Jimmy Murphy won the inaugural 250-mile race Feb. 28, Hollywood celebrities Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks were there. After four years, it was dismantled to make room for homes and later the Beverly Wilshire hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

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1930-39

Racing, as speeds increased, became increasingly dangerous. Legion Ascot Speedway, a five-eighths-mile track in the foothills near Alhambra, became known as the “Killer Track.” When Al Gordon and his riding mechanic, Spider Matlock, were killed in the final race, before 35,000 fans, on Jan. 25, 1936, it was the end of big-car racing for many years. During its eight years, 21 people were killed in Ascot races.

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1940-49

Although racing was suspended during World War II, before and after, an epidemic of small tracks cropped up to showcase the newest racer class--midget cars, scaled-down versions of Indy cars. It was possible to find a race on tracks no more than a quarter-mile around nearly every night of the week. Gilmore, Atlantic, Culver City, Saugus and Loyola were regulars.

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1950-59

It was the sports car era. With European cars such as Porsche, BMW and Ferrari becoming available, road racing became the rage. One of the earliest was at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica mountains, where Sam Hanks was a winner in 1956. Riverside International Raceway opened Sept. 22, 1957, with Richie Ginther winning in a Ferrari. Soon, Riverside winners included Carroll Shelby in a Maserati, Chuck Daigh in a Scarab and Phil Hill in a Ferrari.

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1960-69

Dan Gurney, who had been driving in Formula One, made Riverside an international racing name by coming home to win the Motor Trend 500, a NASCAR race, in 1963-64-65-66 and 1968. ... Phil Hill, who had learned his trade on Southland road courses, went to Europe and became the only American-born driver to win a Formula One world championship.

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1970-79

Ontario Motor Speedway came and went. The Taj Mahal of racing opened Sept. 6, 1970, with Jim McElreath winning an Indy car race before 175,000, and it closed shortly after Benny Parsons won the final race, the Los Angeles Times 500 for Winston Cup cars, in 1980.

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1980-89

It was a sad decade for Southland fans as Ontario, Riverside, Ascot Park and Saugus Speedway all shut down. Only the Long Beach Grand Prix, flourishing under Chris Pook’s leadership, and the twice-a-year NHRA drag races at Pomona gave fans something to see.

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1990-99

California Speedway, a two-mile tri-oval built by Roger Penske, opened on the old Kaiser steel-mill site in Fontana on June 22, 1997. A turnaway crowd of more than 90,000 watched Jeff Gordon win the inaugural Winston Cup race. Three months later, Mauricio Gugelmin scorched the new track with an all-time qualifying record of 240.942 mph for the Marlboro 500 champ car race.

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