A race car driver barrels down Ocean Avenue. During the early 1900s this sight was common as Santa Monica hosted annual automobile races. (photo by Photo Courtesy Santa Monica History Museum)

In 1909, Santa Monica had less than 8,000 residents and was in danger of being annexed by a hungry, nearby Los Angeles. Believing they needed to increase the city’s population and profile to survive, city leaders made the bold move to stage yearly automobile races that they hoped would promote Santa Monica as an exciting and attractive place to live.

The races were not going to be held on a track, but instead take place on the streets of Santa Monica. The initial 8.4-mile course began on Ocean Avenue at Montana Avenue. It then turned left on Nevada (now Wilshire Boulevard) and took the long straight-away down to where the Old Soldiers Home (now the Veterans Building) was located, where it would then take a sweeping left turn onto Federal. It then took a sharp left onto San Vicente and headed back toward the ocean where it would take another hard left back onto Ocean Avenue.

The first race was 24 laps and the winning driver attained an average speed of nearly 65 mph. Incredibly, the drivers would reach these speeds while driving on streets that consisted only of uneven dirt and gravel that had been sprayed with oil to increase stability. They wore no seatbelts or helmets and the cars were basically stripped-down convertibles with no windshields or doors. Clearly, the cars were built for speed, not safety.

In addition to the driver, each car also carried its own mechanic, because cars would be disqualified if anyone other than its own crew members worked on it if it were to break down. And these powerful machines could be temperamental, so your choice in mechanics was critical.

Grandstands were set up along Ocean Avenue and were packed with several thousand fans before race time. In fact, nearly 50,000 spectators lined the streets, screaming and waving their hats as the cars flew by. The first event was so successful that it immediately gained the attention of the national racing scene. In a few years, the Santa Monica venue was so popular that it would host top national events such as the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prix in 1914, where more than 100,000 raucous spectators crowded the streets as the cars roared by at top speeds of more than 75 mph.

The drivers were a rough and daring group, and were seen as modern-day cowboys, bouncing wildly around on their supercharged horses. They and their sponsors worked feverishly to tweak and improve their race car’s speed and performance. The team had only two goals: to win races and to break speed records. And, at Santa Monica, speed records were constantly being broken as it became one of the premier road race venues in the country. The top speed reached was an astonishing 91 mph.

Santa Monica lost the hosting rights to the Vanderbilt and Grand Prix to San Francisco in 1915, because the city promised it could make it an even more successful event. But it returned to Santa Monica the following year after races in San Francisco didn’t come close to matching the attendance and revenue at Santa Monica. As wild and unruly these events were, up until now there had been no serious accidents or deaths. It was a remarkable feat because, in addition to the obvious risks, the competitors also never knew when a dog, horse or cow might wander onto the track.

But that changed in 1916 when a driver spun out and killed three spectators, one a lemonade street vendor. The driver also lost his life as his car crumpled into one of the large oak trees that lined Nevada (Wilshire Boulevard). Incredibly, his mechanic was thrown from the car, but somehow walked away, with only scratches and a face full of dirt.

World War I forced the races to be suspended for two years — 1917 and 1918. Then, in 1919, the races returned and the course’s overall length was shortened by a mile when Ocean Avenue was replaced by the now less-populated Eighth Street, which ran eight blocks east of the original route. The winner’s average speed was an astounding 81.27 mph.

But 1919 would be the last year a race would ever be held in Santa Monica. The city had experienced incredible growth, both in its population and stature during the race’s 10-year run and was now safely free of Los Angeles’ clutches. And since residents had grown tired of this yearly mass “locust-like” invasion on their quiet beach town, city leaders met little resistance when they sent the race and its fans packing after the 1919 event.

Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. If you have any unique pictures of Santa Monica’s past, Tom would like to see them. He can be reached at tomviscount@yahoo.com.

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