by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During the 1920s, there was tremendous growth in the professionalization of sports in greater Los Angeles, even if the city was too far west to have a major league baseball team or a franchise in the recently formed National Football League. Still, whether it was minor league baseball with two squads in the Pacific Coast League, a growing interest in boxing, new directions in wrestling, and in other areas of sport, change was definitely afoot.
Another arena of development was in professional car racing and tonight’s highlighted artifact represents one attempt to establish a presence for this sport in Los Angeles: a program for the “Los Angeles National Speed Classic,” held on 6 March 1927 at the speedway in Culver City.
The event was organized by the P.H. Halbriter Syndicate, Inc., led by Percy Harold “Puss” Halbriter, who was born in 1890 in Terre Haute, Indiana. While a baby, his family moved to Los Angeles and his father owned a saloon in the city, just removed from the ferment of the Boom of the 1880s and entering a decade of national economic depression and, for several years, regional drought.
Halbriter, who became a merchant tailor and a clothing store manager, turned out to be quite a sports fanatic, though this didn’t stop him, when he registered for the draft during World War I to claim an exemption from the draft on grounds that were “Probable [sic] physical.”
For quite a few years, he promoted a wide range of sports activities, including martial arts, boxing, and the loose assembling of local football players comprising the “Los Angeles Tigers” for a 1926 exhibition game at the Coliseum against the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
One source, without stating why, stated that Halbriter was shady when it came to the martial arts promotion, but, given the histories of boxing and wrestling, in particular, shadiness could very well have applied to him, too.
The Los Angeles National Speed Classic was a sanctioned event, the first of the year, by the American Automobile Association, so it had that as a significant promotional tool. His syndicate leased the Culver City track, which was located at Culver Boulevard and Overland Avenue and completed in 1924 after its operators closed a predecessor facility in Beverly Hills which had opened four years prior.
Art Pillsbury, who designed the Beverly Hills Speedway, utilized the “Searles Spiral Easement Curve” with 45 degree banked corners on its wooden track which provided for faster speeds and smoother negotiation of the surface. The Beverly Hills track held its final event on 24 February 1924 and the first race at the Culver City facility was on 14 December.
The Culver City Speedway, however, also had a short life. There were AAA-sanctioned races in 1925, but only one race the following year. Then came the National Speed Classic, which turned out to be the last contest held at the facility. In August, the city council passed a resolution that turned over the site for housing and a public park.
The announcement for the race came on 1 February 1927 as the news of the AAA permit to Halbriter was hailed for the 250-mile race with a total purse of $25,000, which was expected to draw “every driver of consequence in the racing world.” Moreover, the track at Culver City was “universally acknowledged the fastest speedway in the world.” Despite the fact that it had not been used since the prior March, the facility was deemed to be “in splendid condition” and ready for qualifying.
One of the racers who was spotlighted in the run-up to the race was 23-year old Frank Lockhart, who was “unknown, unhonored [?] and unsung among the famous pilots of the roaring road” when he won the 1926 edition of Indianapolis 500, becoming only the fourth rookie to date to do so. He finished second for that AAA season, winning four more events, and was an entrant in the Los Angeles race, qualifying with a record speed of 144 mph.
The AAA champion for 1926 was Harry Hartz, another of the drivers in the Los Angeles classic, while the third place holder was Italian Peter DePaolo, who won the AAA title in 1925. Because of their respective season finishes, these were the three top cars in placement at Culver City.
In all, there were 21 drivers who submitted entry forms, including Bennett Hill, who won the 1926 race at the track, 1923 champion Eddie Hearne, and French star Leon Duray. In addition to Hartz, who hailed from Pomona and Lockhart, who was from Los Angeles, the third local driver was Harlan Fengler, a resident of Hollywood.
In qualifying, however, there was a maximum of 18 drivers allowed by AAA rules. Duray was considered one of the favorites to win the race, with the Los Angeles Times observing that “of all the famous drivers entered . . . Leon Duray is probably attracting the most attention at this time.” This was partially because, at a practice run a couple of weeks before, he hit a top speed of 138 mph, “a world’s record for this or any other track.” That is, until Lockhart bested that by a full six miles per hour in qualifying for this race.
Notably, all but four of the cars were of the “Miller Special” class, developed by Harry Miller of Los Angeles. Two were Duesenbergs, while there was one Boyle Valve and one Junior Eight entry, as well. In the end, however, only ten drivers finished the race, with Duray taking the checkered flag. Hartz took second, followed by DePaolo and Lockhart, with Fengler finishing fifth. There was only one major accident, in which Cliff Woodbury blew a tire on the 83rd lap, at which point he had a two-lap lead over Duray, spun out and crashed against a wall, but sustained only a deep cut to his thigh.
For winning the race, Duray collected a $10,000 check, with Hartz pocketing half of that, and DePaolo earning $2,500. The victory was considered the first major one for Duray, who was a star on French dirt tracks, but he had not previously performed well on wooden ones. It was stated that he avoided the temptation to start out too fast which invariably led him to fade out at the end of the long race and maintained a more balanced approach to the contest.
The race was deemed a success for Halbreiter and his syndicate with an estimated 50,000 spectators jamming the speedway’s seating area and lines were so long on Washington Boulevard approaching the facility that the race was delayed by a half-hour to accommodate late arriving fans.
Still, as noted above, the track closed after this race, though auto racing continued in various locales throughout the region and are still held at such places as Fairplex in Pomona and in Fontana.
As for the program, it not only has content about the race, including the official entry list, a scorecard, a band concert program, and photos of the drivers, but there also a number of interesting ads, many related to racing and automobiles. It is pretty rough condition, but it is a rare piece dealing with early Los Angles-area auto racing history.