To Southern California motorists, Santa Monica these days means clogged freeways and slow surface streets. But it wasn’t always that way. Improbable as it may seem now, the seaside city once was a place people went to drive fast.
Long before bumper-to-bumper beach traffic and weekend streams of Valley expatriates on their way to the Promenade, Santa Monica was known for its annual road race--an event that took place from 1909 through 1919 (with a 1917-18 hiatus because of America’s involvement in World War I), as Harold L. Osmer and Phil Harms report in their affectionate, anecdotal history, “Real Road Racing: The Santa Monica Road Races.”
The first winner did the 8.4-mile course at an average speed of 55 miles an hour--that’s three times faster than today’s traffic conditions permit on a normal weekday. Of course, the 1909 racers didn’t have to deal with 24 stop signals, a dozen pedestrians and joggers and a couple of construction sites.
“When I started looking into where the old racetracks used to be, I realized there had been over 100 of them in the greater Los Angeles area,” says Osmer, a West Hills resident who turned his research into a graduate thesis and later into a self-published book, “Where They Raced.”
At the start of the Auto Age, almost every race was a road race because few tracks existed, Osmer says. “But the Santa Monica event was unique because it ran for 10 years, as opposed to holding one or two events and being done with it.”
The Santa Monica race was established by a consortium of Southern California auto dealers who wanted to stimulate interest in cars--buying them as well as racing them--at a time when automobiles were relatively rare in Los Angeles.
The course began at Ocean and Montana avenues and drivers went south on Ocean to Nevada Avenue (later renamed Wilshire Boulevard), then headed east to San Vicente Boulevard, which they followed back to Ocean Avenue for a total distance of 8.417 miles.
The sharp turn from Ocean onto Nevada was particularly difficult to navigate and was the site of numerous wrecks. Although no one was ever killed there, it was dubbed “Dead Man’s Curve” years before Jan and Dean used the descriptive name for a song title.
An estimated 50,000 people turned out July 10, 1909, to watch two dozen entrants run the two heats of the inaugural race: one for light autos (under-250-cubic-inch piston displacement engines) and one for heavyweights of more than 250 cubic inches).
A driver named Harris Hanshue won the heavy-car division in an Apperson Jackrabbit, completing 24 laps in 3 hours, 8 minutes and 3 seconds--202 miles at an average speed of 64.44 mph. The lightweight division was won by driver Bert Dingley in a Chalmers-Detroit 40. His time was 3 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds for an average speed of 55.32 mph.
For the final race in 1919, the start and finish was shifted from a now heavily developed Ocean Avenue to the more pastoral 8th Street (later renamed Lincoln Boulevard), a move that shortened the course to 7.36 miles per lap. Organizers boosted the total distance to 250 miles though and dropped the two classes in favor of a single race for cars with engine displacements of 161 to 230 cubic inches. The winner was millionaire sportsman Rickliffe “Cliff” Durant--general manager of Chevrolet’s Western operations--driving a Chevrolet Special: He completed 34 laps in 3 hours, 4 minutes and 45 seconds for an average speed of 81.27 mph.
For accounts of the individual races, Osmer and Harris consulted the specialized magazines that covered auto racing in its early days: Motor Age, Horseless Age, Horseless Carriage and the Automobile, plus back issues of the Santa Monica Daily Outlook and the Los Angeles Times. Most of the archival photos in the book were taken from Harms’ extensive collection.
The authors conclude that the Road Race, now passed into memory, was a key in stimulating the growth of Santa Monica and helped the city remain independent.
“Had it not been for the Road Race and other enterprises that brought attention to the area, Santa Monica might well have been swallowed up by the city of Los Angeles, which was annexing pretty much everything around it,” Osmer says.
“Santa Monica was a very small town then--it just petered out a few blocks from the ocean. The eastern part of the racecourse ran through what was primarily farmland, except for the Soldier’s Home,” Harms says.
“Real Road Racing: The Santa Monica Road Races” ($29.95; paperback original, 132 pages, illustrated) is available from Harold L. Osmer Publishing, P.O. Box 4741, Chatsworth, CA 91313, or online at https://www.laracing.zoomie.com, and through Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com.
Charles Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.