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Origins, Part 2 – LA Runs First Big Stock Car Race

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 11 2010

Bill France Jr. and Bill France Sr. flank a contractor and discus the soon-to-be-built Daytona International Speedway. However, long before the speedway was built, the sport of stock car racing already had a foothold in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a RacinToday five-part series on the earliest days of stock car racing in America and how the sport first evolved into a national phenomenon.)

Prior to the first outbreak of stock car racing in the 1930’s, America’s driving heroes raced open-wheeled cars built specifically for the 500-mile contest in Indianapolis. One such hero was Frank Lockhart, who won the Indy 500 at age 23 in his first attempt with an innovative, daring and risky driving style that emphasized charging into the corners. Continuing to win races and break records across the country during the Roaring Twenties, including three victories on a board track in Charlotte in 1926 and 1927,  the name recognition for Lockhart ranked with baseball’s Babe Ruth or boxer Jack Dempsey.

Outside of Indianapolis and its early nexus of car manufacturing, the primary hotbeds of Indy car racing were Los Angeles and New York. The L.A. region was home to the board tracks in Beverly Hills and later Culver City as well as road races in Santa Monica.  New York City hosted major events on the board track in Brooklyn at Sheepshead Bay and others on Long Island.

Lockhart, a self-taught mechanical mastermind, was born in California and had begun his career by building an open-wheel Indy car from the running gear of a Model T in borrowed space at a shop in Hollywood as a teenager.

Although cars like the Model T and Model A Ford were raced on occasion, racing production cars in the same manner as Indy cars, often known as “Big Cars,” was an idea that arrived out of necessity at a location not far from that Hollywood garage where Lockhart began. With longtime promoter William Hickman Pickens at the helm, the city of Los Angeles launched organized stock car racing in a big way at Mines Field in 1934, a time when the Great Depression’s early days had crippled the AAA’s National Championship circuit for Indy cars, reducing it to four races and only one in Los Angeles.

“A new era in the enthralling history of automobile history,” was how the race day coverage in the L.A. Times summed up this new racing event for production cars, using history twice in the same sentence as a way to emphasize the landmark nature of the event. “After four hours of chilling speed, breath-taking daring and courageous endurance, which will of necessity be shown by the winning driver, the 50,000 fans who are expected to line the well-oiled surface will have been shown to their own satisfaction just how well their own little runabouts compares with the other various makes of light cars on the road.”

In a foreshadowing of NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race 15 years later in Charlotte, the article further stated, “The race is strictly on a stock-car basis.”

The race was part of the Gilmore Gold Cup series, sponsored by the Gilmore Oil Co., making it part of the first major professional series for stock cars. The four-race series had begun in Elgin, Ill. under AAA sanction near Chicago in August of 1933 on a road course, using the concept of strictly stock equipment, although bumpers, fenders, headlights and windshields could be removed. The AAA was in charge of verifying the drive train was entirely stock on the cars, the majority being Ford Roadsters equiped with the flathead V-8.

Near what is now the L.A. International Airport, the second race of the Gilmore Gold Cup series was run at a B-shaped course on property leased from the city of Los Angeles in February of 1934. The first race at Mines Field drew a crowd said to be bigger than those at the popular air races and was estimated at 75,000 by the Times.  Even if that estimate carried some hot air, plenty of fans lined the fences of the long front straight of the two-mile track, many in their own vehicles as well as in the grandstands.

The Gilmore Gold Cup, one of many promotions engaged by second generation oil man Earl Gilmore of Los Angeles, proved that a field of production cars, especially the Ford Roadsters equipped with the company’s relatively new flathead V-8 engine, would create an ample number of entries, compelling speeds and a good crowd. In Los Angeles, one participant’s death during practice early in the week probably helped pre-race publicity and the turnout as well. Also, the entries were lined up in a parade on Broadway in downtown L.A. to promote the race.

Even allowing for the purple prose of the time, fans saw an outstanding event where local heroes “Stubby” Stubblefield and Al Gordon, trying to maintain his 16-race winning streak established at tracks in the L.A. area,  fought it out in the closing stages. “And so it went,” reported the Times under the byline of Bill Potts, “Gordon taking unbelievable chances and making up time in the dangerous east curve and Stubblefield gaining it back on the straight-aways. …Gordon kept the entire assemblage in a state of breathless suspense with his wild antics to no avail.”

In a result eerily familiar to the first race at the Daytona International Speedway in February of 1959 – precisely 25 years later – the first Mines Field event took three days to determine a winner. It was not until Thursday morning’s paper that readers were informed Hartwell Wilburn “Stubby” Stubblefield, who was passed during a pit stop by Gordon in the late going, was the winner after a re-check of the scoring from the race on Sunday.

Given that the field was made up of “blue bloods” of racing, including Indy 500 winners Louis Meyer and Pete De Paulo as well as future Indy winner Wilbur Shaw plus local heroes Rex Mays and Kelly Petillo, the Indy winner in 1935, the Mines Field race had high a very high profile. Eddie Rickenbacker, the famed World War I flying ace and chairman of the AAA Contest Board, was among a long list of dignitaries to attend the event.

Adding controversy and general awareness to the event, Gordon waived his right under the rules to check Stubblefield’s entry for non-stock equipment when the official results were changed three days after the race. The two were shown shaking hands in front of the Roadster of “Stubby” in the widely circulated publicity photo announcing the new winner.

The Mines Field event established a precedent for those in the business of running motor racing contests. The city fathers of the Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach areas, where the AAA had sanctioned the land speed record attempts since 1906, were among those keenly aware of the activities of the Contest Board, the epicenter of American motor racing at the time. A race on the West Coast within shouting distance of the Pacific Ocean, one that had been “spine-tingling” and where drivers “cheated the Grim Reaper” despite the deep ruts that developed in the sandy soil was viewed with great interest.

Ironically, a Los Angeles driver’s accident on the sands of Daytona would forecast the end of land speed record attempts, which eventually led to the first stock car race on the Florida beach.

In 1928, Lockhart, who had turned his engineering genius toward breaking the 225 mph barrier, had to be be rescued from the gray-green waves of the Atlantic after his self-designed Stutz Black Hawk flew out of control on the beach. He returned that same year and met his doom when the Black Hawk barrel-rolled and crashed again due to a tire problem. By 1935, the men such as Sir Malcom Campbell who had survived and their ilk disappeared into the wide-open tableau and hazy heat of the Bonneville Salt Flats to pursue the land speed records.

The city fathers of Daytona Beach were forced to look for a new way to draw tourist to the unpredictable, often chilly climate of north Florida in the winter months. The success of the Mines Field event one year earlier in Los Angeles offered a solution. If a stock car race could replace the glory of the established “Big Cars” in California, why not give the stock cars a try on the beach in Daytona?

The city fathers asked Daytona garage owner Sig Haugdahl, a veteran of land speed record attempts with his “Wisconsin Special,” to stage the race south of the city, away from the more heavily trafficked commercial district and closer to Ponce Inlet.

The race lost money for the city of Daytona in its first two years, largely because fans had become accustomed to watching the land speed record vehicles for no charge and often occupied the course without buying a ticket. In 1938, driver turned promoter Bill France, who had assisted Haugdahl the previous year, took over the race promotion and the rest is far better known history than events at Mines Field.

Whatever happened to the track in Los Angeles? It was almost like the reverse of the situation in Daytona Beach. Promoter Pickens contracted blood poisoning when he stepped on a nail at what was officially known as the Municipal Airport Speedway not long after the first event. He eventually died from the wound and without his expertise the race lost its momentum. The facility remained active for two more years, but the open-wheel sprint cars, midgets and “Big Cars” soon regained the upper hand with local promoters.

Two more Gilmore Gold Cup events were held in 1934, one at Legion Ascot in Los Angeles in March of 1934. But the Ascot event failed because fans found ways to watch without buying a ticket – the course had cars leave the oval to run a road circuit and then return to the track. Oakland also ran a race on its one-mile oval that same year and despite the end of the four-race Gilmore Gold Cup continued to run races for stock cars until World War II.

This new thing of racing production vehicles instead of “Big Cars” took hold at places like Ft. Wayne’s mile oval and elsewhere in the Midwest, too. Thanks to the success of the first race run by France in Daytona, the tracks at Lakewood in Atlanta and Langhorne near Philadelphia also began promoting stock car events where previously they had focused on barnstormers and Indy cars.

The race to promote stock cars was on.

(Next: The “big three” in the East — Daytona, Lakewood and Langhorne.)

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 11 2010
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