An examination of Southern California race tracks going back to the beginning of the 20th century reveals a legacy of international innovation.
Top speeds of cars in the 1880s were about 10 mph, but by 1910, they were over 80 mph.
The Los Angeles Motordrome in Playa del Rey was an elevated, wooden-board track that opened April 8, 1910. It was not the first racetrack in L.A. but it was the first of its kind in the world. The 1-mile oval could host 12,000 spectators and was designed by velodrome (bicycle track) designer Jack Prince.
The track Prince built in 1910 was estimated to have banking of at least 18 degrees (by 1912, Prince had a track in St. Louis with 62-degree banks). The Motordrome was successful for three years and hosted both automobile and motorcycle races.A fire broke out under the Playa del Rey track in August 1913, and the damage was so bad the owners opted not to rebuild.
The Motordrome was not the only L.A. track to be abandoned due to fire. The Legion Ascot Speedway, built in 1924, was closed after the grandstand burned down in 1936. The speedway was near what is now Lincoln Park, a little east of the 5 Freeway and a few blocks north of the 10 Freeway.
The Legion Ascot Speedway (one of several Ascot Speedways over the years) was a five-eighths mile, banked dirt oval similar to what sprint cars use today. The track had a deadly reputation and was nicknamed the “killer track” after 24 people died there in a dozen years. This could be the reason the track is also known as the first to use safety helmets.
When you think of Beverly Hills, does the image of a race car come to mind? If it were 1920, that might be the case. Prince designed a 1.25-mile wooden track that featured 35-degree turns on a large plot of land where the Beverly Wilshire Hotel is today.
The track could host 50,000 to 70,000 fans and the winner of the first race in 1920 averaged 103 mph over 250 miles – faster than the Indianapolis 500 winner that year.
The Beverly Hills Speedway was closed by February 1924 when the land became more valuable for real estate development. The track owners built a new venue in Culver City that opened in December 1924 and lasted until 1927, when its real estate value grew.
Just as tracks in Los Angeles gave way to development, so did the ones in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The Riverside International Raceway and the Ontario Motor Speedway sites are occupied by malls, warehouses and homes. The track in Riverside was open from 1957 to 1989, and the Ontario track opened in 1968 and closed in 1980. Ontario was the first track to host stock cars and open-wheel racing (on oval or road coarse) and have a drag strip.
The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which opened in 1997, is about 2 miles from the old Ontario Motor Speedway.