Racing in the Teens – Part 1

Venice history buffs sure seem to know a lot about the plethora of attractions that this city has had to offer in its nearly 100 year history. From the original chatauqua meetings and other various cultural assemblies presented at the Auditorium by the pier, to the side-show attractions along the Midway Plaisance. From King Neptune and his court at the early Mardi Gras festivals to the carnival rides on the pier. From the first surfer George Freeth, to the visiting circuses or to our own professional baseball team, the Venice Tigers.

And I’m sure they must all know about the great Barney Oldfield with his iconic cigar, and his exploits behind the wheel of his racing Maxwell, as winner of the inaugural Venice Grand Prix in 1915.

One of the most colorful figures in auto racing history, Berna “Barney” Oldfield, born on January 29, 1878 in Luauseon, Ohio, had boxed professionally for a time, then became a bicycle racer in 1895. The first car he ever drove was Henry Ford's new 999 in the 1902 Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Up until then, Barney had never even driven an automobile before. Earlier that year, Ford had no one to drive his specially built race car, and after Oldfield was suggested by an associate, Ford himself taught Barney how to drive, learning it all within a week.

Worried about the fate of his car, Ford counseled caution before the start of the race. “I’d rather be dead than broke,” Oldfield replied. And so was born his driving philosophy. Driving the car as he'd learned to race bikes, by sliding through turns rather than braking for them, he won that five-mile race in 5 minutes, 28 seconds, a half-mile ahead of his nearest competitor.

Oldfield in 1903 subsequently became the first American to drive at a speed of a mile in a minute on an oval or circular track. Later that year he lowered the time to 55.8 seconds. In 1914, he entered the then-young Indianapolis 500, coming in 5th place. He was rapidly on his way to becoming an early driving legend. With his cigar as his trademark, he never raced nor had his picture taken without one.

Held on St. Patrick’s Day of 1915, with a guaranteed winner’s purse of $3500, the 300 mileVenice Grand Prix was one of the first measured course races in the US, taking place through the streets of Venice. As it, and other measured courses races gained popularity, road racing soon started coming into it's own. Prior to this, most road races where more in the form of “endurance” races between distant cities, some being 400 or more miles. In this 1915 event, the course included not only standard road surfaces, but also wooden banked turns designed specifically for the race, to facilitate high speed turns.

The course was roughly a triangle, with the race running along Electric Avenue to Rose Avenue, then up to Compton Road – now known as Lincoln Boulevard. Then back to Electric Avenue, or so it seems. I can only wonder where the start/finish line was.

The entrants, along with Oldfield, included Earl Cooper, Dave Lewis, Dario Resta, Ralph DePalma – more on him later – Orville Jones, Johnny Marquis, Bill Carlson, G. Ruckstell, Eddie Hearne, Louis Disbrow, Harold Hall and Eddie Pullin, among others.

The fledgling motorcar industry was represented by some of the fastest racing machines of their day: Case, Chevrolet, Bugatti, Chalmers, DeLage, Peugeot, Mercer, Stutz, Napier, Simplex, Hercules, and Maxwell, which Oldfield drove for.

The Saturday afternoon turnout was estimated at 75,000 people surrounding the race course. They witnessed the most exciting spectator sport of the era. In what turned out to be a contest where mechanical reliability became as important as the driving skills exhibited by the starting drivers, one by one the racers were forced to drop out. Only eight of the starting entrants finally completed the grueling race.

Dave Lewis was in the lead on the 80th lap with only 17 laps to the finish when engine trouble also forced him to the sidelines. Leading the finishers to an easy victory was Barney Oldfield himself, in a time of four hours and 24 minutes, for an average of 68.2 miles per hour to travel the 300 miles. Billy Carlson, also driving a Maxwell, finished second, just 41 seconds behind. The race was considered a smashing success by all in attendance.

Or so it seemed. However, the race was actually a disappointment to the City of Venice, the official sponsor of the event. First, gate crashers, the sale of 1000 counterfeit tickets by con men, and lawsuits turned the event into a financial disaster to the tune of $10,000. Despite the sale of 40,000 paid admissions, thousands literally rushed the gate and snuck in when the ticket takers were unable to handle the large, rowdy crowd.

Nextly, there were two fatalities and a number of injuries. A riding mechanic – as was the practice back then – was killed during a practice lap. Then an elderly spectator died when he wandered onto the race course and was struck by Johnny Marquis’ Bugatti. Even the scoreboard ended up toppling over and injuring nearby spectators.

What was billed as the First Annual Grand Prix was never repeated again. End of story, right? Wrong!

It’s been said that every story has a back story, and here’s where things get interesting. As I was researching about Barney Oldfield, a lot more cool facts came up. Remember the banked turns added to the Venice roadways? They were built from left-over sections of the Los Angeles Motordrome, from neighboring Playa del Rey, which had burned on January 12, 1913.

Here’s the back story. In June 1902, the Beach Land Company was formed by Henry P. Barbour. He had previously purchased 1000 acres around the natural lagoon south of Venice-to-be, and named the community Playa del Rey - The King’s Beach. The company intended to develop the marshy land into a Venetian style resort. The landscape architect, Alfred Solano, intended to take advantage of a channel previously dredged in 1885 for a proposed harbor. His design included Venetian bridges and towers, a bathing pavilion along the beach, and a 250 room luxury hotel on top of the bluffs. Some additional dredging was required but there were no plans to build an extensive canal network.  

Nearly 100 lots were sold for prices ranging from $500 to $1500 at a July 16th auction and more were sold in August and September. With the completion of the Los Angeles Pacific electric trolley line, the “Short Line,” to Los Angeles on October 19, 1902, hundreds began visiting the new resort. A pavilion and small hotel were eventually built in Oriental craftsman rather than Venetian style, around the lagoon in 1904, but few investors actually built on their lots. While Playa del Rey was considered a modest success in attracting day tourists, it proved to be Abbot Kinney’s inspiration and served as an example of a resort that wasn't large enough in scope to attract investors or excite the public.

The company built an impressive three-story, $100,000 pavilion with restaurant and dining rooms, bowling alleys and a dance floor. The Los Angeles Pacific Railway Company built the $200,000 Hotel Del Rey with fifty guests rooms. A boat racing course was laid out and a grandstand and boathouse were erected on the shore. A bridge spanned the lagoon’s ocean entrance and a 1200 foot long fishing pier was built nearby.

While Playa del Rey wasn’t nearly as popular as the newly-opened nearby Venice, it partially owed its success to C.M. Pierce, who included it on his Balloon Line Excursion Route. For $1.00 tourists could ride big red electric streetcars from downtown Los Angeles and visit Hollywood, the Sawtelle Old Soldier’s home, Santa Monica, Venice, Playa del Rey (where lunch was served at the Pavilion), Redondo Beach’s Long Wharf, and finally return to Los Angeles. They would often move 2000 people on a Saturday or Sunday excursion.

The resort developed several other attractions over the years. One, an incline railroad, was built up the side of the palisades to give tourists a panoramic view of the lagoon and seashore. Its two cars were named Alphonse and Gaston. The counter-balanced funicular railway was to become almost as famous as the Angel’s Flight railway, built in 1901, in downtown L.A.

But the other major attraction which began construction on January 30, 1910, was the Los Angeles Motordome, the first high-bankedboard-track auto speedway in the world.

The Motordome, affectionately known as “The Boards,” near the present-day intersection of Culver and Jefferson Boulevards, was built under the direction of Fred Moskovics and Jack Prince. Moskovics, a Hungarian-born auto industry entrepeneur with a background with the Marmon & Franklin, Stutz, and Daimler companies, was the track’s owner. Prince, himself a famous English bicycle racer and the foremost promoter of circular wooden speedways, built the 20 degree banked marvel. The track was paved with wooden 2x4's  and ran a circumference of 5,281 feet. The magic mile.

On such a track, a car-racing daredevil could reach speeds up to 100 mph with his hands entirely off the steering wheel. Banked courses capable of supporting such high speeds soon found great favor in the United States. No tracks built since then have ever approximated the speeds allowed on these heavily banked boards. Subsequently, the L.A. Motordome became a huge success.

Prince’s motordrome designs were made mostly “seat-of-the-pants” style, an expansion of his earlier sketches for bicycle velodromes, rather than formal construction drawings. Board tracks of that era used the same engineering technology as the smaller wood velodromes used in France for bicycle racing. The dapper Englishman, wearing his trademark Derby hat, would walk around the site, driving stakes into the ground to mark the layout for the new track. In a grand manner, the board track impresario would hire hundreds of carpenters, and schedule railroad car deliveries of three million feet of 2x4’s, and 10 tons of bolts and nails, and have them hammered and sawed into the final one-mile saucer shaped monster.

Within weeks the race track took shape, followed by grandstands for the spectators and track-side towers for the officials.  When completed, Prince turned over the management of the track to the local owners and left to build, open, and promote other speedways around the country.

The Playa del Rey Motordome was soon followed by more than 20 similar speedways built between 1915 and 1926, including tracks in Beverly Hills, Sheepshead Bay, New York, Brooklyn, and Atlantic City. Incidentally, the Beverly Hills track stood approximately where the prime-time shopping blocks of Rodeo Drive are now located. The popularity of board-track racing peaked in 1926, with the last major board-track race held in 1930 at Altoona, Pennsylvania.

The major historical importance of board racing came in the technological innovations that it prompted. Cars that raced the boards were specially designed, rather than adaptations of production cars that were the norm before the rise of board tracks. They were designed to have balloon tires (tires inflated by air as opposed to being made of solid rubber), four-wheel brakes, four-wheel drive, and superchargers, which are devices to improve the power output of engines. In addition, they added tetraethyl lead to gasoline to improve engine performance (most racing cars still use leaded gas), and were streamlined to increase speeds. Thus, the open-wheeled car designed specially for racing evolved from the board-track car.

Because wood deteriorated and splintered, these tracks were notoriously difficult to maintain. The lifetime for 2x4’s exposed to racing tires was approximately five years, after which deadly splinters and potholes begin to dot the track's smooth surface. During the Depression, the expensive upkeep of the board tracks made them impractical, which contributed to the decline of the sport. The last decade of board racing was a sight to behold. Cars tore down straightaways at 120 mph while carpenter’s patched the tracks from beneath. It wasn’t unheard of for mischievous children to peek their heads up through holes in the board tracks to watch their favorite racers with a squirrel’s eye view.

Entertainment today just isn't what it used to be, is it?

But, back to “the Boards.” Come April 8, 1910, Fred Moskovics was confronted with a problem - what should he do with his perfectly round, steeply banked 1-mile bowl near the beach? Well, it was an automobile race track, so naturally he wanted the most famous racers in the world for the grand opening. What else but a $1,000 match race between the two biggest-name racers of the era, Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma. (Remember him, mentioned as part of the Venice Grand Prix before?)

DePalma’s family had come to America from Italy when he was 10 years old, in ­­­­1893. During a 25-year career that began early in the century, he won an estimated 2,000 races on every type of surface imaginable, Before formal championships had been established, he was considered the champion of dirt track racing, the sport’s birthplace, from 1908 through 1911.

The Grey Ghost, as was his nickname, later won the 300-mile Vanderbilt Cup race in Santa Monica on Feb. 26, 1914, in what DePalma called his greatest race, and went on to win the 1915 Indy 500.

During that time, when the short-lived board speedways came to their height of popularity, DePalma could always be found out front early in the melee setting his habitual blistering pace. Ralph said later that he never enjoyed driving on those wooden bowls, as it required no real skill. All that was necessary was a heavy right foot to open up and to hold her on that methodical groove. In fact, it struck him a bit boring to negotiate those lightning fast boards, when anybody with a lead foot could sit in a cock pit and hold her down to 130 mph for a couple of hundred miles.

However, the initial idea of racing on the unheard-of wooden circle, and the lure of big money, also swiftly attracted other “names” in automobile racing, such as Marmon and its number-one driver Ray Harroun, and an amateur named Caleb Bragg.

Unknown newcomer Bragg was a wealthy, handsome, 22 year old graduate of Yale whose main goal in life seemed to be bugging the hell out of Barney Oldfield. But the “big” story was still the legendary rivalry between Oldfield-DePalma, with the two taking potshots at each other every time they spotted a reporter within hearing distance. DePalma was quoted as saying, “I would rather beat Oldfield than eat five plates of spaghetti in a row,” a statement he later denied making.

But as luck would have it when the Grand Finale day approached, Ralph DePalma was unable to get his temperamental 200-horsepower Mephistopholes Fiat to the grid for a match race against his perennial rival Oldfield as advertised.

Poor promoter Moscovics was in a jam. How could he sell tickets for a race that wasn’t going to happen, and how could he pay Oldfield the promised $1,000 he didn't have?

Up steps the good looking, young, rich Caleb Bragg, with a $1,000 in hand offering to race Barney not for a $1,000, but the promoter’s thousand and the thousand dollars in his hand as well. He would take DePalma’s place in his own hotted-up Fiat 90 against Oldfield’s Killer Knox machine.

His terms were one two-lap race on Saturday, and two two-lap races on Sunday. The winner would be two out of the three races. Grinning all the time, Barney quickly agreed to the terms. It was an offer the cigar-chomping showman couldn’t refuse.

Caleb got a break on Saturday when he drew pole position for the first race and another break when Oldfield made a huge mistake when the flag dropped. Barney broke the rear tires loose on the slick boards and went up in a cloud of smoke; the powerful Knox was never able to makeup for the bad start. One race to Bragg.

Comes Sunday and this time Barney has the pole and he told the starter he wanted a rolling start. This time he didn't break the rear wheels loose. Bragg’s Fiat was no match for the Knox in acceleration and down the backstretch, the distance opened up between the two cars. Barney easily led the first lap.

But Oldfield’s tires were beginning to heat up and the big Knox was wanting to drift higher and higher on the slick, circular boards. Barney was fighting the steering wheel and had the Knox in a constant four wheel drift. Finally at the three quarter mark of the last lap, Oldfield couldn’t hold the Knox any longer and it went even higher. That opening was all that Bragg needed.

In a move that has been going on ever since in automobile racing, the youngster put the nose of his Fiat underneath the Knox and headed for the finish line. As the slipping, sliding, speeding pair crossed the finish line, it was Caleb Bragg’s Fiat in front of Barney Oldfield’s Knox by about a hood’s length.

History didn’t record Barney’s words, or whether he bit his cigar into two pieces, but the record book still records that the veteran barnstormer was beaten in two straight races by Caleb Bragg, the brash youngster from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Whew! What a dramatic and exciting time it once was. Nothing less than thrilling. But you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Next month – motorcycle racing comes to Venice!