By: Ed Niles
Jeff has asked me to write about the Ferrari culture, dealers, owners, and racers of the 50s and 60s. But first, where did all that racing take place?
At the end of World War II, most of us were relegated to going to Gilmore Stadium (Beverly and Fairfax) on Thursday nights to watch the midgets on that great old 1/4 mile dirt track. Of similar ilk was Carrell Speedway, which began to accommodate a few sports car events, mostly featuring Jaguars and MGs of around 1950 vintage. But with the sports car owners and drivers multiplying like rabbits turned loose in Aunt Tessies backyard, these venues rapidly became inadequate. Officials of the SCCA and the Cal Club (remember from last months Sempre Ferrari?) soon started working their magic to appropriate parts of public airports and parks to lay out so-called road courses. Examples of well-tested courses that survived for many years on airport runways were Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Palm Springs, and Glendale. (Yes, Virgina, there was actually a Glendale airport, now an industrial park, West of Colorado Blvd. and San Fernando Road.)
Temporary race courses were also designed to fit into the topography of other semi-public and private properties, including the Pomona Fair Grounds, Stardust International Raceway behind the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, Torrey Pines located in a park near La Jolla, and Paramount Ranch in the Augora Hills area. Finally, purpose-built race courses eventually showed up at Willow Springs (still in existence in the Antelope Valley), Riverside Raceway (now a residential development), and Ontario Motor Speedway (which has also been redeveloped into residential property).
It is hard to realize, in this day when there is such a paucity of race courses, that the great number and variety of venues was a part of what made sports car racing so exciting in the 50s and 60s. At one time, there were at least a dozen active race courses being used within a few hours drive of Los Angeles.
Willow Springs, Palm Springs, and to some extent Stardust, Ontario and Riverside, had a common feature: It was either blazing hot or freezing cold, and when the wind blew there would be sand in every orifice or car and man alike. As a former Turn Marshal, I can tell you that there were not enough clothes to protect one who had to stand out on a lonely corner for an entire weekend when the wind was blowing at Palm Springs.
Back in the days when the drivers were fat and the tires were skinny, we were slow learners. If there was something we could do to lay out a race course so as to make it unsafe, we did it, with innocent alacrity. Especially on the airport courses, which were for the most part flat, the courses were laid out by injudicious placement of hay bales and snow fencing. Try to picture a little wire and a few slats of wood stopping a 1500 pound out-of-control vehicle and youll get the picture. Hardly a race weekend passed without several serious accidents, often involving injuries to drivers or sometimes to workers or spectators. It soon became apparent even to the slowest of us that snow fencing was not much help. The hay bales, which started out being placed two or three at each corner, soon were stacked double high and triple thick around the outside of each corner.
There seems to have been an unwritten rule that we would not speak of these accidents outside of our little circle, and that the automotive press would play them down. But now, with the perspective of decades, it is easy to see that our IQs were no greater than our waistlines when it can to safety considerations. I cant tell you how many injuries and fatalities I have witnessed which could have been prevented under current-day thinking.
A few examples: At Pomona, I once saw the driver of one of the many iterations of "Ol Yeller" lose it on the exit to the first half of an S bend, rolling across the marbles toward the infield packed with spectators. He did his best to get their attention, even to the point of standing up in the cockpit and waving his arms, but the spectators were looking down into "their" corner, the second half of the S bend. Ol Yeller plowed right through the snow fence, and bodies flew everywhere. Another example: I witnessed the driver of an Austin Healey broadside a hay bale at no more than 15 mph. But his speed was just enough to get him airborne, and he landed upside down on the haybale. Neither the bale nor the back of his cockpit was soft enough to save his life. It was shortly after that incident that roll bars became popular. And there was a guy who fell into a ditch, upside down, at the Paramount Ranch, never to race again. At Santa Barbara, one of my friends was struck by a car which spun into the inside of a turn; a guard rail would have saved him.
These considerations, together with the continuing complaints from the sky-pilots, led to the eventual demise of the airport circuits and some of the of the temporary road courses as well. Economics did the rest.
The last purpose-built race course in our area, Ontario Motor Speedway, was certainly the safest, with substantial fencing and guard rails and at least some adequate run-off areas. But, without question, the one that made us the saddest when it closed down was Riverside Raceway, the scene of some of the best sports car racing in Southern California. Today, only Willow Springs still exists.
Our own active member Cy Yedor ran most or all of these courses. Why arent you writing this story, Cy?
About the author: Ed Niles, a lawyer in the San Fernando Valley, has been active in the world of Ferraris for more than 35 years. During that time he has owned more than 100 of Maranellos products and has met some strange and wonderful characters. During occasional moments of lucidity, he will share remembrances of cars and people he has known and loved.