by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The rapid rise of the automobile in the early 20th century was accompanied by a dramatic growth in the sport of auto racing, though it is remarkable to compare the pint-sized roadsters to the incredibly complex machines of today, not to mention the tracks and other aspects of the industry.
A post on this blog featured, from the Museum’s holdings, a ticket for a 1913 auto race held at Ascot Park in South Los Angeles, which opened a decade before for horse racing and which also featured motorcycle and auto races by 1908. Teddy Tetzlaff emerged as the victor in the 1913 contest, but, by the end of the Teens, demand for the property was such that it was sold and it became part of a massive Goodyear tire plant. A new Ascot track opened in Lincoln Heights, lasting until the late 1930s, while a Gardena version operated from 1957 to 1990.
Also highlighted on the blog previously was a program from an early Automobile Association of America-sanctioned race, held in 1915 in Glendale with racers roaring through downtown and suburban streets in the fast-growing city northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The contest, staged by the local Elks club and intended as an annual race, was the only of its kind and was won by Ed O’Donnel.
This was about a dozen years after an auto race held as part of the Los Angeles Fiesta and five years after the opening of the Los Angeles Motordrome at Playa del Rey, a facility which lasted until a 1913 fire destroyed much of the wooden complex. The owners chose not to rebuild the damaged portion and, while it was soon effaced from the coastal landscape, it did have an effect on a raft of wooden tracks built throughout the country.
One of the earliest venues was the Los Angeles Speedway, which opened on some 275 acres in the southeast corner of Beverly Hills in 1919. A previous post on this blog, highlighting several 1921 photos of the facility from the Homestead’s collection, covered some of the history of the venue. As development pressures accelerated (!), however, it was decided that the venue was to be closed and houses, the city’s high school and the famed Beverly Wilshire Hotel were all built on the site.
In early 1924, the tract, doomed by the continuing development of the area, was relocated to Culver City where a horse-racing track, completed just the prior year and managed by Dick Ferris was retooled into a car-racing venue and given the name of “Culver City Speedway.” The owner was Cliff Durant, a racecar driver whose father William C. was the founder of General Motors, while the builders of the wooden banked track were Art Pillsbury and Jack Prince, who developed the one at Beverly Hills.
The official opening of the speedway was in mid-June 1924 involving six races and twenty drivers while patrons paid $1 for admission with free parking, while an Independence Day event was said to be the “First Time in the History of Southern California” for a 100-mile sweepstakes with sixteen entrants in which top prize money of $2,500 and a “Green Mill Silver Cup,” named for a well-known local café on Washington Boulevard, presented by the prominent screenwriter Elinor Glyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, which occupied the Culver City site established by Thomas H. Ince.
It was planned to have the first sanctioned race, spanning 250 miles, for Thanksgiving Day, but weather and other issues forced a delay until 14 December with race called by the Los Angeles Times “a baptism of speed so blinding that it left the eyes blurred, the mind dulled and the senses numbed.” From the contest, the paper gushed, there was a “whirl of speed, so terrific that it is almost inconceivable” and from which “emerged a meteorlike star to shed its luster in motordom’s firmament.”
This was Bennett Hill (1893-1977), who won all his races on board tracks and was the third-place finisher in the national car racing championship in both 1923 and 1924, His top speed of just under 127 miles per hour was considered “a new world’s record that may stand for all time,” though Scott Dixon who took the pole for last year’s Indianapolis 500 hit 234 miles per hour. Hill completed the 250 miles in just under two hours and was almost a lap ahead of the second-place finisher, Harry Hartz.
The featured object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a press photograph from International Newsreel and dated 7 March of a quartet of entrants at the Culver City Speedway in a 250-mile auto race held five days prior after a delay of about a week. The scene shows car #4 driven by Tommy Milton ahead of three other vehicles as an official waves a flag at the edge of the track near a guardrail. Behind this is a fence and then a massive grandstand, which look be about a little more than half full.
Howard Langley of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News began his coverage of the contest with the word “Rubber!” and added that
That stretchy compound could have been woven into a symbolic victory trophy for Terrible Tommy Milton and presented to the fastest human on wheels when he wrung $10,000 and first place honors out of the folds of a checkered flag yesterday afternoon in the opening 1925 speedway classic at Culver City. For it was the rubberized hoofs of those speeding motorized buggies that gave Tom Milton his victory, cheated Leon Duray out of a sportsman’s chance for first place, killed the flickering hopes of the Italian champion, Pietro Bordino, and worked a double hardship on Harry Hartz, losing him $3000 and almost taking his life for good measure.
The pace set by Milton, who would not be able to race today because he had one blind eye, as was just below 127 mph, that a world record, as he not only took first place, but, according to the photo caption, “with three other cars seemingly in close chase,” it was actually the case that “Milton had already passed them three times.” Peter DePaolo, who took second, clocked in at not far under 125 miles per hour, with third place taken by Bob McDonogh and fourth by Hartz. Duray, meanwhile, was forced out after 120 laps, though he’d led through much of the early part of the race.
Langley wrote that “Some 50,000 cash customers and middle men slept peacefully in the stands and infield” while Milton roared to a convincing victory, but the greatest drama was provided when Hartz, who was in second place and increasing his speed hit a piece of rubber from another car “and slid into the north curve sideways, banking off the guardrails.” There was a bit of flame and Hartz came to a stop, though, after a brief inspection, he continued but lost ground to DePaolo, who claimed the $5,000 second prize, and McDonogh, who pocketed the three grand, and finished in fourth.
John W. Swallow of the Los Angeles Express noted that “the hot weather helped eliminate over half the field,” meaning that ten of the nineteen entrants had to bow out, including the famed driver Ralph De Palma, but also recorded that Milton’s time was actually a tenth of a second slower than Hill’s record-setting performance noted above from December. Hill was one of those who had to abandon the contest. The sportswriter noted that Milton, the first driver to win the Indy 500 twice, having done so in 1921 and 1923, was viewed by many observers as the favorite to capture the national championship for 1925.
Swallow also noted that Richfield Oil, a local concern that is now part of ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) emerged from the race with “another feather in their already heavily feathered cap” because its fuel was used by Milton and the firm advertised this fact after the contest was over and feted the driver for his accomplishment. He added that “strange as it may seem every car was equipped with Firestone tires” and noted that Hartz’ crash was notable because “he didn’t even puncture one of his tires and was able to continue the race.”
Typically, the Los Angeles Times not only provided extensive coverage of the race but included several great photos, including one of course on one of the high-banked turns, while it showed Milton crossing the finish line and had a close up of the victor, and the last showed pit crew members assisting Hartz as he prepared to get back in the race after his near-disaster. Writer Warde Fowler began his piece with
Tommy Milton took on a bunch of scrappy speed demons at Culver City yesterday afternoon and trumped all their tricks. He won the postponed Washington’s Birthday classic of 250 miles, a fat purse of several thousand dollars, quite a mess of championship racing points and al the yelps of joy and delight that 60,000 overheated auto fans [the Express counted 45,000, so there was quite a range of guessing by the local press] could muster up.
In his recounting of Hartz’ harrowing spinout, Fowler noted that the incident could well have been fatal and added that McDonogh “narrowly averted the crazy car on its mad flight” in what he adjudged “the hair-raising flutter of a peaceful race.” Echoing Swallow, the writer observed that “the heat played considerable havoc with casings and engines” while tire changes, of which there were about two dozen with Hartz’ crew completing one change in just about 11 seconds, were frequent and Durant was unable to get his car to start and dropped out before the race started. While Duray did well early on before the heat affected his tires, Milton, denoted as “Terrible Tommy,” took control after lap 72 and never looked back.
On the 3rd, the Times reported that there was an adjustment in Milton’s time compared to Hill’s, so that the latter was actually determined to have reached 126.785 mph and the former was at 126.88, but added that the winner of the previous day’s contest also set a record, verified by the local board of the AAA, of 1 hour, 58 minutes and 13 seconds, a full 5.6 seconds faster than Hill’s effort from December. While the findings needed to be certified by the national organization, Milton certainly earned a particularly impressive set of laurels with his convincing victory during a stories career.
Another interesting post-race article, from that of the Hollywood Citizen of the 4th, concerned Italian Pietro Bordino, nicknamed, for some reason, the “Mad Mullah,” winner of the 1922 Grand Prix in his home country, and who died in 1928 when his race car hit a dog and landed in a river where the driver drowned. Bordino’s Fiat required four changes of tires, an inordinate number, and which set him back so far with a sixth-place finish that “although he put on a tremendous burst of speed near the finish in which he even lapped Tommy Milton, he could not make up all the lost time.”
A final surprise twist to the race came when the Citizen of the 5th reported that “that skid by Harry Hartz on the 193rd lap . . . won’t cost the daring driver so much after all” as officials determined that Hartz actually finished third and McDonogh was in fourth. The result gave Hartz an extra $1,000, while that amount was actually lost to Milton because it was his car that the fourth-place finisher was driving.
The ever-changing real estate market and other conditions led to a short-lived future for the Culver City Speedway. Another post on this blog highlights a program from a 6 March 1927 race, called the Los Angeles National Speedway Classic and which was won by Duray, with Hartz finishing as runner-up and DePaolo taking third place. Shortly afterward, despite the fact that there was a reported crown of 50,000 at the event, the venue was closed.
The Museum’s holdings contains other great photos of early Los Angeles race car events and we’ll look to share more of these in future installments of the “Games People Play” series of posts on regional sports, so be sure to check back for those.