Tracking Area's Racing Past Provides Osmer Write Stuff

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1995, when Harold Osmer of West Hills began working on his master's thesis for a geography degree from Cal State Northridge, he had no idea it would lead to a career in motor sports.

"I was in the geography department and interested in land use planning, and it happened to be the same time frame that they broke ground for California Speedway in Fontana," Osmer said. "I was three weeks into the graduate program, was a casual race fan and I heard they were going to build this new race track and I started wondering about the 15 other tracks in Southern California that had closed down."

Osmer, 40, began studying geography at Pierce College in 1991 after losing his job in the aerospace industry. He earned an associated in arts degree from Pierce, transferred to Northridge and earned his bachelor's.

Becoming an auto racing historian was not Osmer's plan.

But because of circumstances, his thesis, "Automobile Racing Venues in Los Angeles, 1900-1990,"--for which he received an A--became the definitive coffee-table book on Southern California's motor sports history. It has been retitled "Where They Raced, Automobile Racing Venues in Los Angeles, 1900-1990."

Osmer expects to publish a book about Saugus Speedway in July.

"I got the thesis done in a year and realized I had a passion for it and the racing history and the history of racing in Los Angeles," Osmer said.

Osmer, director of the Society of Automotive Historians, expected to find books on the racing history of the region when he began work on his thesis. He quickly learned otherwise and began his own research.

During his research, Osmer encountered many who wanted to obtain a copy of the thesis upon its completion.

"It turned out my list was about 35 people that I owed copies to," Osmer said. "It was less expensive at the local copy center to make 50 than 35. I had a couple of extra copies, so I sent them around to a couple of places I thought might be interested in them."

One of the addresses on Osmer's mailing list was the then-newly opened Perris Auto Speedway.

His package was opened by motor sports historian Doug Stokes, communications director of the track who now serves in the same capacity at Irwindale Speedway.

"[Stokes] called me up and said: 'Who are you, how come I've never heard of you, and its about time someone in an academic field paid attention to our sport,' " Osmer said.

Stokes suggested Osmer take a few copies of his thesis to the annual Gilmore Roars party, a reunion for people associated with defunct Gilmore Field in Hollywood, home to midget races for many years.

Osmer's thesis advisor had already suggested the topic might be of interest to a wider audience.

Osmer approached Sun Valley printer James Pettet and ordered 500 copies. Stokes invited Osmer to sell the book at the 1996 Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race at Perris.

Osmer, who describes himself as "this shy, introverted, academic type of guy wandering through the stands selling books," sold about 100 copies that night.

"You go to a local bookstore and you see books about Indy, Grand Prix, Le Mans, Daytona but don't see anything about Southern California," Osmer said. "Yet, more auto racing has taken place in Southern California than any area or region in the world, in terms of venue numbers."

Said Stokes: "He makes it readable so people can understand it and learn from it. I think people have learned more about racing and its history in the Southern California area from from Harold than from any other writer."

"Where They Raced" eventually sold 3,500 copies, and Osmer teamed with historian Phil Harms of Yorba Linda on a second book, "Real Road Racing," which tells the story of national auto racing events staged on the streets of Santa Monica from 1909-1919.

While selling the second book, Osmer kept running across people interested in "Where They Raced," so he decided to oblige with an expanded version, "Where They Raced, Lap 2."

While peddling his books at races, car shows and on the Internet, Osmer acquired more racing memorabilia, including large quantities relating to Saugus.

When he realized the amount of interest in the venerable track, which closed in 1995, he got busy.

Because Saugus hosted races for 50 years, Osmer decided to do two volumes. The first volume will cover 1979-1995 and will be in scrapbook form, broken down by class, including photos of top-10 results for every race.

"Most people already have their own stories about Saugus," Osmer said. "What possibly could I tell you about the speedway that you wouldn't already know? I didn't want to overwhelm the readers with that type of information."

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