The documentary “Where They Raced” has made its debut on Hulu this week, and it’s worth a look.
The feature-length film is a compelling chronicle of the history of car racing in Southern California, a racetrack-by-racetrack look at how early auto racing helped build Los Angeles, and how car culture helped define the city’s shape and size.
“More auto racing has taken place in Southern California than any other place in the world,” said Harold Osmer, author of the book on which the film is based, and narrator of the film itself. “And auto racing, in the early part of the last century, was the biggest spectator sport in history.”
Indeed, the footage in “Where They Raced” includes newspaper and newsreel accounts of 80,000 to 120,000 racing enthusiasts turning out to cheer on Barney Oldfield and Eddie Pullen as they battled in their Mercer and Stutz roadsters at dirt tracks and board tracks in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City and other huge sporting arenas -- all now lost to time.
The resulting movie is an ingenious blend of then and now, with old footage folded into new footage to bring back to life 100-year-old events like the Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb or the action at the Los Angeles Motordrome, peppered with appearances by legendary auto racing promoters like A.F. Gilmore, J.C. Agajanian, Wally Parker and Mickey Thompson.
In making the movie, the filmmakers were even able to find owners of 100-year-old race cars, now restored, and bring them back to run down the paved streets that were once dirt race tracks, some of them for the first time in a century.
The film, more than a decade in the making, began life as a master’s thesis, when Osmer was going for an advanced degree in geography at Cal State Northridge. He was interested in old race tracks, and what happened to them, and decided to find out.
The thesis became a self-published book, which caught the attention of the late KCET TV travelogue host Huell Howser, and producer Harry Pallenberg. A well-received episode on Howser’s show begat the feature-length project, which Osmer and Pallenberg began preparing in 2002 and began shooting in 2009.
The two men assembled a collection of old maps, newspaper stories, news reel footage, photographs and racing promotional materials, which they wove together with interviews with auto historians, retired auto racers, and other experts.
Their story begins in the early 1900s at the 8.5 mile, open-wheel races in Santa Monica, and ends in the 1960s and ‘70s with the invention of dragsters and drag racing on such tracks as Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington. In between are amazing scenes of everything from board track racing to sprint car racing to midget car racing.
Pallenberg has been at the LA Auto Show this week, promoting the movie. Osmer will be headed Thanksgiving Day to Perris Auto Speedway, where he’s helping promote the 2014 Turkey Night Grand Prix, a Los Angeles-born annual event that is, after the Indy 500, the longest-running racing event in America.