Games People Play: Auto Racing at the Los Angeles Speedway, 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Auto racing has a long history in the Los Angeles region and one of the earliest venues for the sport was the Los Angeles Speedway, also known as the Beverly Hills Speedway, which was located in the southwest corner of Beverly Hills on 275 acres.

This photo appeared in the 27 February 1920 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the day before the inaugural race at the Los Angeles (Beverly Hills) Speedway.

The facility, completed in 1919 by the Beverly Hills Speedway Association on former bean fields, was bounded roughly by Wilshire Boulevard on the north Olympic Boulevard on the south, Lasky Drive on the west, and Beverly Drive on the east.  Film studio executives Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as Cliff Durant, the racing son of General Motors’ chairman, and William Danziger, a director of the Rodeo Land and Water Company were among its investors.

The track, one-and-a-quarter miles in length, was constructed of wood and was fifty feet in width with engineered banked turns that were considered state-of-the-art.  A safety zone of forty feet (touted as double the regulations of the period), a reinforced guard rail, and a heavy wire fence along the infield side, where parking was available for visitors, were also installed.

This snapshot from the Homestead’s collection shows cars speeding around the specially engineered wooden track at the speedway on 10 April 1921.

Jack Prince, who assisted Rodeo Land and Water’s civil engineer, Art Pillsbury, on the design for the track that aimed to be the fastest in the United States, said in a Los Angeles Times article that, “I built this track under contract that 110 miles an hour could be negotiated on it.”  The top speed eventually was just under 117 miles per hour in a 1924 contest.

A few of the folks in the grandstands on the south end of the speedway.  Note the thick grove of trees just off Wilshire Boulevard at the north end and a bit of the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance.

Pillsbury later stated that he got the track, which used a spiral easement system from railway engineering to create smooth turning, finished in five days and the entire facility within five weeks.  He also stated:

It was beautiful and we spared no expense. We had roofed grandstands with large boxes, each holding 10 hand-built chairs that were contoured for real comfort. Everything was deluxe and so was our clientele, which included the whole film colony and about everyone else of importance within reasonable travelling distance of Los Angeles.

The opening race was on 28 February 1920, with famed actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., presiding over the ceremonies marking the debut of the speedway.  The facility was a big success and a proven money-maker, but that actually proved to be its undoing.  Because greater Los Angeles was in a mammoth development boom in the early Twenties and attention was being paid increasingly to the area, land values skyrocketed.

Another view of the stands with handmade chairs created specially for the facility, the infield with parked visitor vehicles and the rows of trees and mountains in the background.

Though much attention was given to the speedway’s successes, it was also the scene of what were fairly common disastrous crashes.  The most notable was in late 1920, when renowned racer Gaston Chevrolet, the younger brother of Louis, founder of the famed car company, was killed in a collision with Eddie O’Donnell, who also perished, in the last race of the season.  He had enough points, however, to be posthumously declared the national champion of 1920.

Racers blow by the stands!

According to Pillsbury, his boss Danziger and the other investors paid $1,000 an acre, but the property sold for about $10,000 per acre.  In February 1924, the last race, which included that world record speed of 116.6 mph mentioned above, was run before 85,000 fans at the Los Angeles Speedway and a new facility was constructed in Culver City, near the MGM Studios.  Housing sprung up on the Beverly Hills site and corners of the property include Beverly Hills High School and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

The photos highlighted here are from the Homestead’s collection and were taken by a spectator at a race on 10 April 1921.  They show parts of the track with cars zooming by, the infield, a bit of the background towards Wilshire Boulevard and the Santa Monica Mountains, the press area and, of course, the “deluxe” grandstands.

Looking to the west, there was some development just outside the speedway complex, including a water tank and what looks like a factory or manufacturing plant.

Looking at some of these images, it is hard to believe that the wide open spaces shown in the area are densely packed urban spaces, but that is true of so much of the areas developed in greater Los Angeles during the boom years of the 1920s.

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