From Barney Oldfield to Parnelli Jones to John Force, from the board tracks of Beverly Hills and Culver City to the big ovals of Ontario and Fontana, from the streets of Santa Monica to those of Long Beach, Southern California has been on cutting edge of motor racing in the United States.

Historians pinpoint a race in 1885 from Chicago to Waukegan, Ill., and back as the first in this country. By 1903, Los Angeles was in the headlines when Oldfield, a cigar-chomping barnstormer, raced his Winton Bullett at a then-world record 65.6 mph--the first time a car had gone a mile a minute. The site was Agricultural Park, where the Coliseum now sits.

“Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?” became a stock question of someone driving too fast.


Hill climbs, designed to display the power of the automotive industry’s fledgling machinery, became the rage shortly after the turn of the century. A 1906 hill climb up deodar-lined Santa Rosa Avenue on the Pasadena-Altadena border was the first recorded in the Southland. When the deodars were grown, the street became famous as “Christmas Tree Lane.”

Thomas Hughes won that first race in a Thomas Flyer, averaging 12 mph.

Years later, when NASCAR founded its stock car series, the motto of factory teams was “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It was no different in the early years. Henry Ford said, “Winning a race or making a record was then the best kind of advertising.”

Looking back from today’s perspective, it seems ludicrous that races in the 1920s and 1930s were promoted to attract attention to our climate, hoping that publicity generated from races would bring Easterners to Southern California. At times, it seems they overdid it.

Road races on Wilshire Boulevard (then Nevada Avenue) and Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and the circular Grand Boulevard in Corona attracted as much attention at the time as the California 500 or Long Beach Grand Prix did this year. A Thanksgiving Day crowd estimated at 150,000 watched Eddie Pullen win a 300-mile race at Corona.

Fatalities--cars getting into spectators who crowded the course with minimal or no safety barriers--ended racing at Santa Monica and Corona.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909, the first purpose-built racing facility. It was paved with brick.


Brick was not easy to come by in Southern California, so racing promoters built tracks with lumber. The Los Angeles Motordrome, in Playa del Rey, was built in 1910 and was the first board track in the United States. Oldfield was there to dedicate it, increasing the rapidly increasing speed record to 99 mph on the high-banked board oval.

Southern California is still where records are set.

Mauricio Gugelmin ran 240.942 mph at California Speedway in 1997, the fastest open-wheel record anywhere.

The glamour track was in Beverly Hills, a 1.25-mile board track where motion picture stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were regulars, much as Kirk Douglas, James Garner and Paul Newman were 60 years later at Ontario Motor Speedway. And, like Ontario and nearby Riverside International Raceway, it succumbed to encroaching urban development. In other words, the property became too valuable for a racetrack.

The Beverly Wilshire hotel now stands where the track existed.

The Indianapolis 500 was becoming the world’s most famous automobile race, and much of its growing fame could be traced to a group of car and engine builders from greater Los Angeles, men such as Harry Miller, Frank Kurtis and A.J. Watson. They built cars in their backyard garages, towed them to Indianapolis and more often than not hired Southern Californians who had learned their trade in jalopies or midgets to drive them.

From 1935 to 1963, Indy 500 winners included Kelly Petillo of Huntington Park, Louie Meyer of Los Angeles, Johnnie Parsons of Van Nuys, Troy Ruttman of Ontario, Pat Flaherty of Glendale, Sam Hanks of Alhambra, Rodger Ward of Highland Park, Jim Rathmann of Los Angeles and Parnelli Jones of Torrance.

Another local driver, Phil Hill of Santa Monica, went to Europe and came home with the Formula One world championship, the only American-born driver to win the prestigious title.


From 1924 to 1936, most local racing action centered on Legion Ascot, located in the hills south of Alhambra. Drivers such as Rex Mays, Lester Spangler and Al Gordon defied death on a treacherous five-eighths-mile oval that became the centerpiece for William Randolph Hearst’s anti-racing campaign in the old Los Angeles Examiner.

The short tracks--a quarter-mile and smaller--where jalopies banged fenders and entertainment-starved fans screamed at midget races, were a popular diversion during the Great Depression. They sprung up all around--Gilmore Stadium, Atlantic Speedway, Culver City Speedway and Ascot Park.

When the sport got big enough, midget cars raced before 75,000 in the Coliseum and 45,000 in the Rose Bowl.

“By 1950, watching midget racing in Southern California was like going to the movies,” wrote Albert Bochroch in his “American Automobile Racing, an Illustrated History.”

About this same time, other Southern Californians with a flair for speed were testing their mechanical bent and their nerve on the dry lakes of the Mojave Desert. Straight-line racing on the lakes led to similar competition on the streets.

Wally Parks, one of America’s great pioneer racing figures, formed a group he called the National Hot Rod Assn. and formalized drag racing was born. The first official race was at the Santa Ana airport runways in 1950, but soon strips were cropping up all around Southern California--Lions in Wilmington, Orange County in Irvine, San Fernando, Fontana, San Gabriel and Irwindale.


Most suffered the same fate as the big stadiums in Beverly Hills and Ontario and the road course in Riverside. They were forced to close because of increased land values and need for more housing.

Another popular motor sport, Supercross, was founded by Mike Goodwin in the Coliseum in 1972 by capsulizing the European outdoor sport of motocross into a city stadium. Superstars, such as Bob Hannah, Rick Johnson and Jeremy McGrath grew with the sport, which attracted crowds of more than 65,000 to the Coliseum, Anaheim Stadium and the Rose Bowl.

After seeing Goodwin’s first Supercross, the late Mickey Thompson extended the idea into stadium off-road racing. Rick Mears won the first one, held in the Coliseum.

Riverside International Raceway probably did more to focus attention on the Southland than any other racing facility. It brought NASCAR to the West Coast, helping erase stock car racing’s image of being only a Southeastern regional sport, and it brought worldwide focus for its sports car races, many sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, where great European drivers such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren raced with American icons such as Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue.

Gurney, who was competing on the Formula One Grand Prix circuit at the time, came home to Riverside and won five Winston Cup races--four in a row--in the 1960s, a feat that put Riverside on the map as much as it enhanced Gurney’s reputation. His performances also helped create a “Gurney for President” boom among his fans.

Gurney later turned his talents to building cars and in 1967 drove an Eagle built in Santa Ana to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix. Later, his Eagles dominated the Indy 500, winning in 1968, 1973 and 1975. In 1973, 21 of the 33 starters at Indy were built in his All American Racers shop.


The winner of the 1962 Times Grand Prix for Sports Cars was a young Lehigh graduate driving a Zerex Special he put together himself--Roger Penske. It was his last year of racing before building his financial empire. Thirty-five years later he returned to Southern California to build the California Speedway on the dilapidated grounds of the old Kaiser steel mill in Fontana.

Ontario Motor Speedway, called the Taj Mahal of Racing when it emerged from the vineyards of Rancho Cucamonga in 1970, had a brief and tumultuous history during its 10 years. Its first race, the California 500 won by 42-year-old Jim McElreath on Labor Day weekend, attracted a record 170,000. President Richard Nixon, flying over the speedway that day, was so impressed that he held a reception for auto racing personalities at the White House--the first time racing was so honored.

Among the most memorable races at the huge facility was the 1974 California 500, when the Unser brothers, Bobby and Al, staged a family feud perhaps never seen before in racing. From the 23rd lap of the 200-lap race, Bobby and Al traded the lead 16 times before Bobby’s Olsonite Eagle forged in front 33 miles from the finish.

It was also at Ontario that Shirley Muldowney burst on the drag- racing scene by winning the Winston Finals in 1976, a prelude to her winning three NHRA championships--the only woman to win even one.

When Ontario was padlocked in 1980 and the site sold to Chevron, it was the start of a drought for Southland racing fans. Shortly afterward, Riverside Raceway was razed to make way for a shopping mall, then Ascot Park and Saugus Speedway shut down.

The only places left for racing were temporary, the Indy-car street race in Long Beach and the twice-a- year drag races at Pomona.


The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the dream of a travel agent from England, Chris Pook, struggled through its formative years in 1976-77 as a Formula One race before becoming the crown jewel of CART’s Indy car and later champ car seasons. When Mario Andretti won the race in 1977 and the world championship the next year, success of the race was assured.

For more than 10 years, from the closing of Ontario and Riverside, until California Speedway became a reality, the air was full of rumors about new tracks from Palm Springs to Palmdale, from Corona to Simi Valley. Nothing came of any of them until Penske hit upon the Kaiser steel mill site.

Using no public funds, Penske built a two-mile oval track for $110 million. More than 300,000 tons of asphalt were laid throughout the site--enough to pave a single lane from California Speedway to Las Vegas.

Race-starved fans responded by making the inaugural race, June 22, 1997, a sellout. Jeff Gordon became the track’s first Winston Cup winner. Two months later, CART teams raced there before another full house and Gugelmin dazzled spectators with his 240.942-mph lap.

Short-track racing returned at about the same time. Perris Auto Speedway filled the need for a half-mile dirt track in the tradition of Ascot Park, and Irwindale Speedway did the same for pavement racing fans. Included in Irwindale’s schedule is the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix, a holiday staple for fans since 1934 when Bob Swanson won the first one at Gilmore Stadium.