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Five Traces of L.A.’s Bygone Racing Days

gilmore stadium

If you think L.A.’s freeways are littered with speed demons, and if you think that the daily commute is just a little too fast and a little too furious for your taste, imagine what it was like when the Southland wasn’t just obsessed with driving cars, but also with racing them.

Just driving everywhere wasn’t enough. And just any ol’ car wouldn’t do. So, both professionals and amateurs alike flocked to the many racetracks that used to cover the landscape of L.A. in the early- and mid-20th century, from Beverly Hills and Culver City to Exposition Park (then known as Agricultural Park).

And if they didn’t get behind the wheel themselves, they were more than happy to spectate and cheer on their favorite racecar or racecar driver. Most of those original raceways, speedways, and dirt tracks are long gone, their racing stripes faded and their checkered flags having blown off in the wind. But if you know where to look, you can find a few shadows of L.A’.s insatiable need for speed.

Here are the five best places to set off to the races in the greater Los Angeles area – including one racetrack that’s about to become a ghostly memory.

1. Gilmore Stadium, The Original Farmers Market

In 1880, A.F. Gilmore bought two dairy farms in the former Rancho La Brea (much of which ended up in the hands of Henry Hancock, of Hancock Park fame). His plot was so sprawling (extending as far as present-day Pan Pacific Park, CBS Television City, Whole Foods, and the "Gilmore Station" shopping center across the street, the site of the former "Gas-A-Teria") that it earned the nickname "Gilmore Island." While drilling for water in 1900, Gilmore struck oil, and how! He replaced his cows with oil derricks, and suddenly got into an entirely different kind of business — one that allowed him to take charge of paving L.A.'s dirt roads with the petroleum he'd extracted from his field.

But as the City of Los Angeles started moving west and surrounding the Gilmore property, city regulations changed, and the oil drilling had to stop in the 1920s. Then, that plot of land became home to a drive-in movie theater, Gilmore Bank (now Grandpoint), and Gilmore Field for the Hollywood Stars baseball team, as well as Gilmore Stadium for the L.A. Bulldogs football team and motorcycle and midget auto racing. You can see examples of those midget racers during the annual Gilmore Heritage Auto Show, held the first Saturday of every June at The Original Farmers Market, as well as at the private collection of Vic’s Garage at the Edelbrock headquarters in Torrance (whose collection contains the 1946 #27 Ford V8-60 Kurtis Kraft midget racer that won a Gilmore track championship).

gilmore stadium
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Paramount Racetrack -- Paramount Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

If the fact that "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" was shot at Paramount Ranch isn’t a big enough selling point for you to go visit there, perhaps you’d be more interested in its decommissioned raceway. The famed racetrack was only open for a few years, having been shut down in the late 1950s once fatalities on it had become too numerous. Turns out the figure-8 track provided a little too much of a thrill to those who braved its hairpin turns and dangerous conditions. Part of the historic track's original straightaway has been repaved and serves as an access road to the national park site; but, besides that, there's a surprising amount of asphalt that remains, though parts of it are clearly crumbling, with weeds and trees sprouting through. In one section, though, far from any traffic of any sort, the tarmac is barely interrupted by nature or weathering. You can even spot the original double yellow line painted down the middle.

As you follow the original path on foot (no motorized vehicles are currently allowed), you can imagine the adrenaline rush of racing those curves in a car. You can almost hear the revving of phantom racecar engines, too – that is, till you realize it's just the motorcycles roaring down the highway above. But if imagining just isn’t good enough, you can see the racetrack featured in the 1957 film "The Devil's Hairpin," whose nail-biting race scene was shot there. You can follow the remains of the track in person, however, between the Radio-Controlled Flyers area by Medea Creek and the Western Town Overlook at the Medea Creek Trail. There are other remnants across the creek and just beyond the Western Town, along Marco Polo Hill, as well.

paramount race track
Sandi Hemmerlein 

3. Legion Ascot Speedway, El Sereno

Some racetracks get famous for how fast people go on them. Others are the proving grounds for new technologies and customizations, from souped-up engines to memorable paint jobs. But the Ascot Motor Speedway, near the border of Lincoln Heights and El Sereno, will go down in infamy for its death toll. In just a dozen years – between 1924 and 1936 – two dozen men lost their lives to the treacherous track, whose banked curves proved to be too dangerous (and whose straightaways weren’t much better). One of those turns became known as the “King of the Grim Reapers.” The number of casualties was high enough for the American Legion to disassociate itself with Ascot, ultimately leading to its closure. But the final nail in the coffin for the speedway, however, was an act of arson – as quoted in a Los Angeles Times article, a former janitor burned the grandstand down so the track wouldn’t reopen and kill any more of his friends.

You won’t be able to see any carnage left behind at the area of El Sereno once known as the infamously deadly Legion Ascot Speedway – after all, the Multnomah Elementary School an a housing tract have been built on top of it. The closest you can get is where Hatfield Place meets Hicks Ave, a bend in the road that’s approximately where the most dangerous curve of the south raceway was. You can also hike up through Ascot Hills Park, look down at the former “killer track” locale, and get a great view of the L.A. City skyline.

ascot speedway remnants
Google Maps

4. Bonelli Ranch Stadium a.k.a. Saugus Speedway at Santa Clarita Swap Meet

The race car history along Soledad Canyon Road at Saugus Speedway may have ended in 1995 – when stockcar racing ceased because the grandstands were no longer stable enough to hold the crowds of spectators – but it started all the way back in the 1920s as the Baker Ranch Rodeo. In 1930, Hollywood cowboy Hoot Gibson bought the rodeo grounds, renamed them the Hoot Gibson Rodeo, and used them primarily as a film set. In the late 1930s, it was purchased by William and Mary Bonelli – who, in 1939, built a 1/4-mile dirt track for racing events featuring midgets, roadsters, and other “open-wheel” racers. Later, they expanded it to 1/3-mile and paved the track, allowing stockcar racing to become the primary event for the next several decades.

Now home to the Santa Clarita Swap Meet, which actually has been taking place at Saugus Speedway since 1963, the entire ranch and its operations are still run by several of the Bonelli grandchildren. It’s open for shopping every Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday, with frequent live musical performances occurring on weekends. The grandstands were removed in 2012, but you can still see miscellaneous buildings onsite as well as the track itself. If you’re looking for the historic Saugus Speedway scoreboard, though, you’ll have to head from the Santa Clarity Valley to Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley – because it’s been rescued by and added to the collection of the non-profit repository of pop culture artifacts, Valley Relics (whose reach has extended beyond its geographical location to salvage much of the southern California signage and ephemera that has become displaced).

saugus speedway
Hart Highschool Tomahawk yearbook

5. Irwindale Speedway, Irwindale Event Center

File this one under: soon to be lost. The Irwindale Speedway, a 6,500-seat twin track NASCAR motorsports stadium in the San Gabriel Valley, is going to be shut down at the end of January 2018 and eventually bulldozed (reportedly for an outlet mall). First opened in 1999 (nearly a decade after the last raceway of its kind in the L.A. area had closed), the Speedway has hosted everything from stock cars to midget cars on its “twin ovals” – one a banked half-mile track (home of the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown) and the other a 1/3-mile. Prior to becoming a racetrack, this plot of land by the 605 Freeway was a gravel and sand mine operated by Pacific Rock and, subsequently, a landfill.

Also home of a stock car driving school called LA Racing Experience, this has been a rare place where anybody of legal driving age could suit up, put on a helmet, and get behind the wheel of a stock car – and not just for a photo opp! Because they’re short, Irwindale has the perfect tracks to learn how to maneuver curves and build up your confidence in speeding through the straightaways. Haven’t had a chance to burn rubber on the asphalt here yet? You can still race your own vehicle on the 1/8-mile Irwindale Dragstrip, as the National Hot Rod Association weekly “Thursday Night Thunder” drag racing event will continue to run from now through January 25. On January 27, the Irwindale Speedway will go out with a final bang, though, with its NASCAR “Night of Destruction,” punctuated with a fireworks display.

irwindale speedway
D Ramey Logan/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Update 1/2/18: Irwindale Speedway is set to operate for at least two more years, according to Autoweek.

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