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October 2013 Column - Racing Built Los Angeles

Ezekiel Wheeler
Oct 10, 2013 SHARE

Anybody who has visited the City of Angels knows its obsession with the automobile. There isn't another place in the United States (or the world, for that matter) where this invention is the basis for all commerce within its borders. Yet few people would guess that racing was at the heart of it all.

It's been said that as soon as the second car was created, racing was born. So it should come as no surprise that since 1903 Southern California has seen more than 100 racetracks in its history.

Yes, you're reading that correctly: more than 100 racetracks that accommodated everything from Grand Prix and Indycar to hillclimb, board track and drag racing, to name just a few.

Pasadena's rise to fame was thanks to a hillclimb. A single race in 1906 drew around 30,000 spectators, with various local and national dealers attempting to smash the record of 2min up the 1.4-mile course.

The car that did it was car # 55, an Apperson Jackrabbit, completing the ascent in 1:24.0 at a breakneck speed of 53mph. Sadly because of "foolish spectators" lining the root, Pasadena Police shut down the race after the following year.

Another arena that helped put a city on the map was the LA Motodrome in Playa Del Rey, CA. This was a near-perfect one-mile circle course. In some parts the board track racecourse off Jefferson Avenue and Culver Boulevard was banked at 45?.

The track was the most advanced during its lifetime (1909-1913), but also one of the most dangerous. It played host not only to the popular board track motorcycles, but automobiles as well - like Barney Oldfeild's famous 210hp "Blitzen" Benz and Ralph De Palma's 200hp "Mephistopheles" Fiat.

In 1913 the track was badly damaged by nomads, who would sleep and smoke under the track at night. Sadly, no evidence of this track remains, with Mother Nature soon reclaiming the land.

Aside from being one of the busiest ports in North America, Long Beach gained recognition as a tourist destination thanks to its long history as the "Monaco of America". Every year since 1975, the Long Beach Grand Prix has attracted the best drivers to test their skills on the tight and technical street course.

Racetracks still exist in Southern California, including Willow Springs, Buttonwillow, California Speedway and Irwindale. There's even an annual race on the streets of Pomona to relive the glory days. But increased pressure on expensive land, and the incursion of neighborhoods into previously unoccupied land has created many problems.

Currently, LA has no full-time dragstrip, and other facilities are facing closure. The oval course and eighth-mile dragstrip at Irwindale Speedway nearly had to close its doors for good. However, enthusiasts and businesses across the state and nation mobilized to spread the word about its impending closure. The track has since re-opened and is embarking on a series of new activities thanks to new management.

Without the automobile, California would be a dismal place to live. Admittedly, the car creates its own problems but it's also stimulated the economy and helped maintain it.

Think about what Southern California would be without racing. Sure, we have beautiful beaches and great weather, but so does Cuba.

Where They Raced

The importance of motor racing in a city as energetic as Los Angeles inspired a book entitled Where They Raced: Lap 2 Auto Racing Venues in Southern California 1900-2000. Written by Harold L Osmer, it's accompanied by a new Vimeo web series -- Where They Raced.

The Episodes cover the introduction of racing to Los Angeles and examines several vehicles that have been restored and are now raced along the routes and courses of a bygone era. It also includes plenty of interviews of living legends who share historical moments as they really happened.

For more information visit wheretheyraced.com

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By Ezekiel Wheeler
255 Articles

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