Games People Play: The Glendale Road Race of 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Driving through the southern section of busy downtown Glendale today, it would be hard to imagine that there was a American Automobile Association sanctioned (Number 791) auto race held there in early 1915. The highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection for this post is a program and entry form for what was touted as the Jewel City’s first such event.

It was intended to have the race take place on 30 January 1915, a Saturday and when it was likely that the contest would draw the largest crowds. Unfortunately, for the organizers, there was heavy rain at that time, so the event was postponed until four days later and, being a weekday, the turnout of 5,000 was, apparently, about a fifth of what was hoped for.

Los Angeles Times, 28 January 1915.

A pre-race reference is from the 24 January edition of the Los Angeles Times, which reported that there were four entrants by that date for the race, which was sponsored by the local Elks lodge, which hoped for “a real race,” even though “they will be greatly handicapped on account of so many of the drivers already having gone to San Francisco to prepare for the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prix races.

The entrants included George Hill (1886-1967), who captured the flag at a San Diego contest two years prior and was associated with the famed racer Barney Oldfield. Driving a Chevrolet, Hill was said to be “one of the best drivers in the game” and his participation “has added class to the race.” Gaston Morris (1880-1940) was a race for about four years between 1911-1915 and helmed a Renault, while Arthur A. Cadwell (1882-1937), racing with a Marmon, was a cinematographer, who worked for a few small film companies on at least 30 motion pictures between 1913 and 1922. The last confirmed driver was Huntley Gordon (1883-1967), son of a well-connected Minneapolis lawyer and driver of his own Gordon Special, whose best finish in his short career was a fifth place showing in November 1914 at Corona. Gordon, whose grandson was off-road racer “Baja Bob” Gordon and whose great-grandchildren are NASCAR and CART racer Robby Gordon and off-road racer Beccy Gordon, went on to be a dairy farmer in Artesia and owned a large ranch in what is now the Gordon Ranch neighborhood of the city of Chino Hills.

Times, 28 January 1915.

On the 27th, the Times‘ Al G. Waddell noted the following day, that the race was to be sanctioned by the A.A.A., as reported by Standish Mitchell, the secretary of the Automobile Club of Southern California and the local official of the national association’s contest board. Notably, the paper stated that “the Glendale race has been a muchly [?] balled up affair” in that the Elks were “in the hands of hanger-on promoters . . . who had only their own interests at heart in their work on the race.”

Moreover, it was stated that “there was an effort made to hold it open only to a few drivers” and then the entry list was closed “cutting out the fast and dangerous competitors.” Other drivers came forward for the speed trial and announced that they “wished a chance at the money . . . or that there would be no race.” While A.A.A. rules stipulated that organizers could keep out a driver if he was too slow or if he or the car was unsafe, any sanctioned race had to be open to any qualifier.

Los Angeles Express, 2 February 1915.

Referring to an “alleged frame-up,” the Times indicated that limiting drivers would allow all of them to get some share of the prize money and “it was claimed that the drivers were to sign away all claim to first or second money, leaving the larger cut in the treasury.” Moreover, they were to have the $200 entry fee waived, as well as a guaranteed amount for being at the race.

When Tom Alley (1889-1953). who drove a Dusenberg and was a five-time entrant at the Indianapolis 500 between 1915 and 1922 (with a fifth-place showing in 1919), looked to get in the race, “the freeze out was applied, but to no avail,” and he was soon joined by fellow Dusenberg drivers Eddie O’Donnel (1887-1920), who was a mechanic for Eddie Rickenbacker, later flying ace in World War One and who was killed, along with Gaston Chevrolet, brother of the car company founder, in a race at Beverly Hills on Thanksgiving Day 1920, and Jack Callaghan, whose short career looks to have ended at Glendale.

Express, 3 February 1915.

The addition of these two drivers meant that “there was a howl sent up from the original entrants” and it was reported that the race manager quickly signed guarantees for them. How much of the shenanigans were directly from the Elks was unclear, but Oldfield, a member of that order and who was slated to be the referee, according to the Times, was said to be unaware of the machinations.

In order to secure the sanctioning from the national association, Mitchell had to investigate the situation and “the vacuum cleaner” was brought out to clean up the mess, leaving half of the gate receipts to the lodge for expenses and its fund and the rest to the drivers on the graduated percentage from first down to sixth place. The A.A.A. wanted an auditor to look at the receipts and ensure fairness to the entrants before agreeing to sanction the contest.

Times, 4 February 1915.

Practice was held on the morning of the 27th and the Los Angeles Express stated that drivers “gave promise of exceptionally fast time,” while “the ‘railbirds’ who turned out to watch the speedy cars tune up were given several thrillers at the curves.” It was added that Oldfield’s prediction that a 75-mph pace would be “safe and sane” was a reasonable one “from the speed shown this morning.” Two days later the paper expressed the view that the race would be a success unless rain put a damper on the event and it noted that a dozen cars were entered, with Alley’s being particularly fast.

On the 30th, however, with close to 3,000 people lining the course, officials inspecting the route after rain determined that “there were some parts which would be dangerous” and postponed the contest for a few days. The bright side, said the Times, was that “with the extra days for practice which are now before the drivers it is expected that the race will be far more thrilling that had been promised as increased familiarity with the course will add to the speed of the driving.” The Elks hoped that a crowd of 3,000 on a “sloppy day” would be greatly magnified when the conditions were far superior.

The Express‘ edition of the 1st reported that the Elks were preparing for 25,000 spectators to watch what was then eleven entrants on a 1.9 mile course with “four sharp turns [that] . . . insure a race full of thrills,” though the drivers insisted that “a high average for the 100 mile free-for-all event will be maintained.” Additional racers included Marmon driver Guy Ball (1890-1974), whose A.A.A. races were from 1914-1916; Harry Reynolds, whose appearance in an Isotta Fraschini was his only sanctioned race; Billy Taylor, who took second in a Santa Monica race in 1913 in his Alco; and Ford driver Jack Elliott.

The day of the contest, the paper stated “with thousands of speed enthusiasts expectantly lining the course, 11 of the fastest racing machines in the Southland lined up at the tape at Glendale this afternoon to compete in the Elks’ 103-mile contest for the biggest end of the $3000 purse.” The course was deemed to be “in sterling condition, scraped to a shiny smoothness and almost perfect at the curves,” indicating that “records are expected to be smashed.”

As for the route, the paper recorded that “the course starts from in front of a grandstand at Brand boulevard and Sixth street [now Colorado Street] and extends east on Sixth street to Glendale avenue, north to Second street [today’s California Avenue], west to Brand boulevard and south to Sixth street again.” The 1.9 mile circuit was to be completed 53 times for the 100-mile length. Ball was “at the pole” and to be followed by Alley, Morris, Gordon, Reynolds, Taylor, Callaghan, Cadwell, Elliott, O’Donnel and Hill.

As for the program, an essay by Bert C. Smith seemed designed to counter the suspicions raised by the Times on the 27th, as he right away repeated the 50-50 split on gate receipts and then added “everything has been open and above board” as “the contract was signed in my office . . . and I was a witness to the transaction.” He, furthermore, acknowledged that “an effort was made to arrange a ‘frame-up’ whereby certain drivers would share equally in the purse” and observed that the six-man race committee “refused to stand for any plan which would mean an unsanctioned race.” This led to the scotching of the set entrant list “and as fast a quota of cars as ever was secured in a limited time was slated.”

Additionally, Smith went on, Mitchell “refused to stand for anything but a square deal to all” and secured the A.A.A.’s sanction. After noting that the Elks were providing “the course, the grandstand, the city, the atmosphere; in fact, everything that the beautiful Jewel City of Glendale can provide,” he went on to lay out the prize money arrangement for the racers, noting that there was no press agent paid to promote the contest. The winner was to get 20%, with 16% for the runner-up, 14% to the third-place finisher, 10% for the driver finishing fourth, 8% for the fifth-place holder, and 5% to the racer coming in sixth. The remaining 27% was to be retained by the management.

After asking “could this be fairer?” and stating that a national association official would be present to make sure “everything is done ‘according to Hoyle,'” Smith wrote that “the people of Glendale are behind this race” and “have seen to it that everything possible has been done to assure the public a run for its money.” Apparently looking to jest about the “frame-up,” he went on to say that “all kicks” from enjoying the race “can be registered with the best bunch of Elks I’ve ever met, but be careful how you talk as there may be ‘kick-backs.'”

Smith’s essay ended with:

Twelve fast cars in the Glendale road race, the first annual automobile event held in the Jewel City. The race today is to be the forerunner of a bigger and even better speed battle to be held this coming year. The race today, however, will be all that you desire and then some. It is well worth watching.

A separate essay, “Concerning the Drivers,” noted that Alley “has endeared himself to the hearts of the motor loving public” through his “fair and square manner” and his holding of the 100-mie dirt track world record with the same car he was driving in the Glendale race. O’Donnel placed third in the same machine at Corona a couple of months prior “and proved one of the stars of that big race,” while Callaghan “has hard luck of late,” but his vehicle, a Dusenberg like those helmed by Alley and O’Donnel, “is in racing trim.”

“Of particular interest” was the Alco of Taylor, which “turned two laps at a speed that shows Taylor to be decidedly in the running” and the fast car hit 70 mph on the Brand Boulevard straightaway. Elliott’s “little Ford” was deemed “one of the surprises of the race” as it was “faster than many would believe.” Finally, there was Gordon, whose Special “is an entry that must be reckoned with” as a speedster that “will be sent into the fight with a bid for first honors.”

Waddell in the coverage of the Times on the 4th proclaimed that “it was Dusenberg day at Glendale yesterday” as O’Donnel and Callaghan finished in the top two spots and, in fact, led the entire race. Alley “met with disaster at the wire” when he damaged an axle at the start, otherwise, it would have been a complete sweep for the make, so Hill managed “to ooze his little Chevrolet into third position.” O’Donnel finished in 2 hours, 7 minutes and 7 seconds, a little under 3 minutes faster than Callaghan and a bit below 4 minutes ahead of Hill.

The racers were in pairs and started ten seconds apart with Oldfield as the starter, but with Alley out immediately, the ten others hit the course aggressively. Gordon, however, “associated until the seventeenth lap with great difficulty, then passed outside.” At each turn, he “overran his corner, losing time and taking great chances on wrecking his car and his own anatomy” and finally burned out his brakes.

Reynolds “stopped five times in four laps to apply a crowbar to his springs” and spun out on the twelfth lap “planting head-on into a pile of baled hay” before being called off the course on the next lap “on the grounds of something that sounded like incompetency.” Morris was third through fifteen laps, but on the next run through “pulled a bloomer and overran Hay Market turn” sending spectators scrambling “and no damage was done except to Gaston’s pride.” The announcer, Mickie McGuire, yelled through his megaphone, “man overboard” but Morris’s crew got him back on the course, but on the 27th lap he blew a tire and a record, it was said, was set in changing it in under ten minutes! Twenty laps later, a wire stretched over the course “blew low” and Morris was cut on his cheek.

On the 47th lap, Taylor blew a tire, but was already trailing badly. Cadwell, who was in third for a few turns around the course, exited with a broken water pump the next lap. Lastly, Elliott, in his “little Ford,” remained in the race, “but had not enough of the speed stuff to compete with the faster cars.”

The program also listed the officials of the committee, the referee, clerk, judges, technical committee, chief timer and assistants and the manager, Mel Stringer; the entries; the official chart; and plenty of advertisements from businesses in Glendale as well as a few in Los Angeles, while newly signed Jesse Lasky Feature Company director George H. Melford, perhaps best known for the Rudolph Valentino hit, The Sheik (1921) and who worked with Princess Mona Darkfeather (Josephine Workman) at the Kalem Studio before he joined Lasky, also advertised.

The entry form was not filled out, but there are plenty of pencil inscriptions, including dollar amounts and percentages for the top four finishers (O’Donnel, Callaghan, Ball and Taylor), the name of Wilbur D’Alene, a race car driver whose Marmon was driven by Ball, and the words “Glendale Road Race Claim.”

While it was intended that this contest be an annual one and there was talk of another race in the Jewel City later in 1915, it does not appear that either took place. The program and entry form are notable as surviving artifacts of what looks to have been the only official motor race held there, though the Glendale American Legion did operate the Legion Ascot Speedway in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from 1924 to 1936.

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