General Motors and Chrysler must today turn-in their homework, uh, their “viability plans,” to Congress. Watch tonight’s TV news to see how they were scored.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough bad news to last awhile. So, let’s have some fun and talk local motor racing history. And there’s a lot of it, too.
Santa Monica and the Westside have figured strongly in racing since the sport’s inception. During pre-WWII winters, our weather drew racers from around the country as sure as college football came to the Rose Bowl, all used as a promotion to bring people west to buy real estate and homes and establish families and businesses.
Before and after WWII, local companies like Douglas Aircraft, at what was then called Clover Field (Oh! So that’s where that boulevard gets its name!), meant a growing population in this area of skilled machinists, engine-builders and parts fabricators. Designing and building race cars and all kinds of high-performance parts and engines were just a natural outgrowth of their work.
Pre-WWII, races including the Santa Monica Road Race and the Venice Grand Prix were both run on local city streets. The Santa Monica event drew massive crowds, well over 100,000, and world-famous drivers like American Barney Oldfield, France’s Louis Chevrolet and Ralph DePalma from Italy.
The race used Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards as long straights with shorter roads connecting them to form what was essentially a big oval dirt track. Speeds of over 120 miles per hour were common, even then.
Imagine them driving on those tall and skinny tires mounted on wood wheels, with their mechanic as a passenger hand-pumping gasoline and oil, both wearing shirts and jeans, maybe coveralls, with leather “Snoopy” caps and glass goggles for protection. It’s amazing any of them lived to see their grandchildren, though many didn’t.
Between 1903 and 1997, according to Harold Osmer’s book, “Where They Raced,” over 100 different race tracks, including ovals, street courses and drag strips, were located in Southern California.
In our part of the world, between Culver City, the I-10 and Century Boulevard, there were race tracks including the Los Angeles Motordome, Culver City Veterans Stadium, Mines Field (which today is Los Angeles International Airport), Loyola High School Stadium, Culver City Speedway and Ascot Speedway when it was located in Venice (that name had incarnations at many local tracks over the years).
In the early 20th century, motorcycles were often raced on wickedly fast and dangerous high-banked ovals built of wood. The first “board track” in the country, the aforementioned Los Angeles Motordome, was located in what is now an open field just a few feet south of Fiji Way in Marina Del Rey. Local pilots take note; from above, the indented outline of the track can still be seen.
From the 1960s, the most-recent Ascot Park and its world-famous dirt oval and motocross and TT tracks, called Gardena home. Promoted by the legendary J.C. Agajanian, a two-time Indy 500-winning car owner, the track closed in 1990, replaced, to some extent, by the modern Irwindale Raceway.
And if you know what a TT race is, then you’re as old or older than me. You probably remember the Catalina Hare and Hounds and AMA District 37 desert racing, too.
Santa Monica has also been called home by many important racing figures, including the late first American Formula 1 champion Phil Hill, and SPEED TV host Tommy Kendall, who held the SCCA Trans-Am Series title a record four times in the 1990s.
Race drivers are superstitious and irreverent. You may have seen or heard Tommy Kendall’s clucking Chicken Car, with its giant roof-mounted rooster, cruising Santa Monica streets. Now if you see it, you’ll know who’s driving.
Steve Parker has covered the world’s auto industry for over 35 years. He’s a two-time Emmy Award-winner who reported on cars for almost a decade at both KTLA/TV5 and KCBS/TV2. He is a consultant to the NBC-TV show Whipnotic and the show’s companion website, www.Whipnotic.com. He created, writes and moderates the only all-automotive blog on The Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-parker. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues Web site at www.SteveParker.com.