|L.A. THEN AND NOW
For Auto Racers and Fans, It Was the Roaring '30s Dirt-track drivers had true grit, and some of it landed on spectators at Mines Field near LAX.
By Cecilia Rasmussen, Times Staff Writer
February 26 2006
Daredevils once flew around LAX — and they never even left the ground. Before Los Angeles International Airport became a bustling modern airport, it included L.A. Municipal Airport Speedway, where cars raced from 1934 to 1936. Speed-mad Angelenos flocked to the two-mile dirt track to see such daredevils as Rex Mays of Riverside, Louie Meyer of Los Angeles, Lou Moore of San Gabriel and Kelly Petillo of Huntington Park, who wore dashing scarves, white-cloth headgear and goggles during their adventures. In the early part of the 20th century, L.A. was the centerpiece of motor racing. In Beverly Hills and Culver City, tracks were made of lumber. Long Beach and Santa Monica used city streets. Lincoln Heights and Saugus favored dirt. In fact, according to author Harold L. Osmer, Southern California was the biggest racing market in the world. He counts 174 tracks from 1900 to the present. Osmer's 1996 book, "Where They Raced: Auto Racing Venues in Los Angeles, 1900-1990," started as his master's thesis for a geography degree at Cal State Northridge. It grew into a career: He's a racetrack historian and author of four racing books. One of the local sites, Legion Ascot Speedway, was known as "Killer Track" for its deceiving straightaways interrupted by dangerous banked curves. The five-eighths-mile dirt oval in the hills east of Lincoln Heights killed 24 drivers from 1924 to 1936 — more than any other track in the nation during that period, according to Osmer and Times stories of the era. It was a time when most drivers scoffed at safety measures, such as heavy helmets, and drove with abandon. When future three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw wore a hard helmet for the first time at the Lincoln Heights racecourse in the 1930s, spectators booed and his fellow drivers called him "chicken." "Seat belts came in with crash helmets," veteran racer Lujie Lesovsky told a Times reporter in 1962. "Shaw wore the first brain bucket at Ascot. It saved his life the first time out."
By the early 1930s — amid the Depression — Angelenos had plenty of time on their hands. The LAX track, better known as Mines Field Speedway, offered escapist entertainment for as many as 75,000 fans at a time, Osmer said in an interview. It gave drivers a way to earn a living too: Winners could earn as much as $4,000. Admission wasn't cheap. "Some paid as much as two bucks each," Osmer said, "while others sneaked in under the fence." This was a time when you could buy dinner for 40 cents. The track began as a dream of racing impresario and talented publicist William Hickman Pickens, who had helped start Legion Ascot a decade earlier. In 1933, Pickens helped persuade city fathers to lease land near Sepulveda Boulevard and what is now Imperial Highway to a racing syndicate. Pickens secured the backing of oil magnate Earl B. Gilmore and the blessing of Arthur C. Pillsbury, a structural engineer on the board of what was then auto racing's sanctioning body: the American Automobile Assn., now known locally as the Auto Club. "The AAA started as a way to bring auto owners together, promote road signage, road construction and auto awareness," Osmer said. "They organized a variety of automotive events, including races until the 1950s." Locally, the Auto Club is a sponsor of today's NASCAR race at the California Speedway and the host of hot rod races at Pomona. Pickens carved out a B-shaped design for his racetrack, which was lined with spectators in parked cars until bleachers were built. The first race was set for Feb. 18, 1934. During a practice run three days before, race driver Kenny Wellons, 27, of Glendale had been killed when his two-seater slammed through a fence on a curve. His passenger, mechanic J. Durant, escaped uninjured, The Times reported.
Despite the tragedy, the heavily promoted race went on as scheduled. An estimated 75,000 people turned out to watch legendary stock car drivers risk their necks at speeds averaging 60 mph. Most of them drove stripped-down Ford V-8s on the potholed dirt track, which was made slick and fast by regular applications of crude oil. Twenty-seven cars started the 250-mile race but only 14 finished, mostly because of breakdowns. A few crashed, but no one was hurt. The first to complete the race was Pacific Coast champion Al Gordon, in four hours, 14 minutes. But three days later, judges found that the person who'd been counting the laps had erred. They declared "Stubby" Stubblefield the winner, The Times reported, with a headline that said: "This's No 'Lapping' Matter." The first race was a big success, and Pickens hoped to stage a national championship. But he wouldn't live to see it. Wandering over the track sometime after opening day, he stepped on a rusty nail. That led to "blood poisoning," The Times reported. One of his legs had to be amputated, and he died in July 1934. Five months later, on Dec. 23, the track was host to the 200-mile national championship for two-seater race cars. Race car owner Bill White, who had managed the February race, handled this one too. But the racers demanded that the deadly kink where Wellons had crashed be straightened first. It was — after the drivers ponied up a few hundred bucks to pay for it. On race day, the fog was so thick and wet that organizers considered canceling the event. As 50,000 spectators gathered, a jackrabbit "sprinted down the straightaway, tried to get up [legendary racer] Barney Oldfield's pants leg, dashed back across the track and disappeared," The Times reported. Rocks, pebbles and dirt clods flew over the railing and onto the crowd as drivers fought for traction on the wet course.
Cavino "Kelly" Petillo of Huntington Park and his mechanic, Takio Hirashima, a Glendale High School student, crossed the finish line first, averaging above 100 mph. Petillo, driving the Gilmore Speedway Special — the car was sponsored, like the ones in NASCAR today — would win the Indy 500 the following year. When the race was over, the checkered flags, grandstands and fences were put away until the course reopened two years later. On Oct. 25, 1936, African American race driver Rajo Jack drove a Ford stock car to victory in a 200-mile national championship at the Mines Field Speedway. He won by a full two laps. Racial segregation was the norm at the time. Rajo Jack often passed himself off as Portuguese to be able to race and attract fans, Osmer said, yet "the respect he garnered among his peers allowed him access to racing circles in spite of his color." Rajo Jack's real name was Dewey Gatson, but he earned his nom de guerre by selling quantities of Rajo high-performance engine kits made for the car he drove, the Model T Ford. But fans' acceptance had limits. "His wife had to be with him every time he won," Osmer said, "because when the trophy girl came down to kiss the winner, his wife had to give him the trophy and kiss instead. He was a great guy; everyone liked him. But it was safer this way, with racial tension around." Rajo Jack was inducted posthumously into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2003. A month after the championship, just 7,000 spectators showed up to see Jimmy Miller cross the finish line first in an 18-car, 75-mile race. The speedway closed soon after. "Motorcycle racing and midget cars became more popular," Osmer said. "Crowds had become more mature and didn't want to spend the whole day watching long races. Auto racing [was] transformed from a rough-and-tumble sport to a more organized and sophisticated sport." Over the years, local racetracks have dwindled. Even the longest-running, Saugus Speedway, closed in 1995. Although the Long Beach Grand Prix is held once a year and Pomona has a drag-racing season, for full-time racing, there's only one place: "Now the roar of engines throughout Los Angeles on a full-time basis can only be heard at Irwindale," Osmer said. "And not one of Los Angeles' former raceway sites has a historical marker."