Playa del Rey: Speed Capital of the World, The Los(t) Angeles Motordrome, 1910-1913
I recently ran across the above fascinating postcard of the long-gone Los Angeles Motordrome and started to dig into its history. The more I learned the more intrigued I became as the story began to unfold. For a brief period from 1910 until 1913, Playa del Rey was entrenched in an exciting short-lived rivalry with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and could make a valid claim as being the “Speed Capital of the World.” Not only was the Motordrome a land-based speed mecca, but it also has a rich aviation history that very few know about. Interestingly for me, what started out to be a story on the Motordrome ended up being equally a tale of a wealthy, well-connected Los Angeles industrialist and his toys.
The Los Angeles Motordrome became a reality through the joint efforts of three larger than life characters, Frederick E. Moskovics, Jack Prince, and Frank A. Garbutt. Garbutt, son of Los Angeles pioneer, Frank C. Garbutt, was the deep pockets behind the operation with his Loa Angeles-Pacific Railway cronies assuming one-half of the initial stock in the enterprise and a syndicate headed by Moskovics the other half. (“The New Los Angeles Motordrome,” The Automobile, January 20, 1910, p. 174). Prince, a former bicycle racer, was the designer, construction overseer and initial promoter, and Mosckovics, an early automotive engineer, was the general manager responsible for contract negotiations, securing drivers for the initial meet and lining up future motordrome development opportunities.
During his student days, Mosckovic’s favorite pastime was bicycle racing. On both sides of the Atlantic he met most of the celebrities of the sport including former three-time world champion, Briton John Shillington “Jack” Prince. (See above). When Prince retired from racing he came to the United States and began a successful business designing and constructing wooden velodromes for bicycle racing. He then segued into the design of banked, board tracks for the fledgling sport of motorcycle racing. Prince and Moskovics inevitably crossed paths from time to time and became great friends.
One of the earliest members of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Moskovics gained valuable experience on both sides of the Atlantic first studying at the Armour Institute in Chicago and then the Polytechnic in Zurich and holding such positions as managing the Daimler-Mercedes Racing Team which participated in the first Vanderbilt Cup in 1904, was national sales manager for the Acme Motor Car Company in Reading, PA until 1906 and designing a powerful car for the new Allen-Kingston Motor Car Company in New York in 1907. One of Allen-Kingston’s first employees was test driver Ralph De Palma who would ironically become one of the featured attractions along with another ex-bicycle racer Barney Oldfield (see above) at the debut of the Motordrome. (See ad for the track opening below).
It was under Moskovic’s tutelage that the young De Palma (see above) drove in his first race in 1908. When Allen-Kingston folded in 1909, Moskovic’s new employer, Remy Electric Company sent him to Los Angeles where he quickly established contacts with the local racing community including his old friend, Jack Prince who was still basking in the success of his latest design, i.e., the Los Angeles Coliseum, a 1/3rd-mile board track for motorcycle racing. (See below). By 1909 Prince had become the foremost promoter of circular, wooden speedways built in the United States.
Among the close-knit circle of racing enthusiasts of Moskovics and Prince was Frank A. Garbutt (see above), wealthy scion of early Los Angeles pioneer, Lankershim Ranch and Water Company land baron and oil tycoon Frank C. Garbutt. Known as “The Oil King” in the countless newspaper articles chronicling his exploits, the well-connected Frank A. Garbutt became the first Vice-President of the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1903 (Western Field, August 1903, p. 497), was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, California Yacht Club, and Riviera Country Club, and was also a pioneering resident of Playa del Rey.
“Barney Oldfield’s attempt to commit suicide at Agricultural Park yesterday only resulted in a compound fracture of the world’s automobile record. It would seem simpler and easier for him to hire some one to brain him with an ax than suffer this lingering destruction.”
Garbutt was an extremely competitive individual and loved to race anything that moved. The Los Angeles papers frequently reported on his winning automobile, yacht, rowing, and speed boat racing activities not to mention his other Los Angeles Athletic Club pursuits such as handball, duck shooting and golf. The amateur Garbutt raced Barney Oldfield on fairly even terms in 1903 and 1904 in his Stewart-Garbutt race car he designed and built with fellow oilman A. C. Stewart. (See below). Motor Age reported on the A. C. Stewart Automobile Machine Works where the two men built “the fastest racing machine on the Pacific Coast.” (“Current Gossip of the Garages,” Motor Age, February 2, 1905, p. 23).
The Los Angeles Times reported on Garbutt winning harness races at Agricultural Park (later to become Exposition Park and the site of the Coliseum) as early as 1887 thus he knew every inch of the course when he made a healthy run at Oldfield in late 1904 in his self-designed car modeled somewhat after Oldfield’s Winton Bullet. (See above). The local papers such as the Herald and Times in Los Angeles and Daily Outlook in Santa Monica thought the larger-than-life Garbutt made great copy and were essentially his period personal Facebook pages. An example from a late 1904 Herald article covering a series of record-breaking races at Agricultural Park,
“In another race Oldfield was matched with Frank Garbutt in his Stewart-Garbutt car, which was built in Los Angeles. The two machines, with their batteries exploding like Gatling guns, dashed around the oval so close together that many times there was no light between them. Garbutt led for two miles and swept into the stretch of the last miles several yards to the good, but Barney called on his terrifying pet for an extra effort and the Green Dragon (see below) shot under the wire a winner. The contestants continued the race for another two miles and broke about even. Owing to the fact that Garbutt understood the race was to be for five miles instead of three and drove accordingly, the heat will be run again today, and some records are likely to be smashed.” (“Barney Oldfield Drives Mile in 54 Seconds Flat,” Los Angeles Herald, December 17, 1904. See also “Speedy Spins, Records Go,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1904, p. A-3).
Frank A. Garbutt on the left racing his homemade car against Webb Jay’s “Whistling Billy” at Agricultural Park. From L.A.A.C. History page.
The well-traveled Moskovics knew more about the goings-on in the automobile design, manufacture and racing businesses than anyone else in the country and was intimately knowledgeable of the details surrounding Carl G. Fisher‘s recently completed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (See above). Teaming up with Prince who was ready for his next track-building challenge, the pair approached Garbutt sometime in the fall of 1909 with a scheme to build a one-mile circular board track for racing cars to compete with and capitalize on the hype surrounding Indianapolis.
Garbutt was easily convinced and formed a syndicate with his L.A. Athletic Club, Auto Club, Los Angeles-Pacific Railway and Playa del Rey development cronies to finance construction. Garbutt chose the Ballona Wetlands for the site due to it’s marginal real estate development potential and closeness to his summer oceanfront home in Playa del Rey. His “cottage” which was built in 1903 was used in numerous period real estate ads to promote sales for his Los Athletic Club cronies Moses Sherman and Eli Clark’s Beach Land Company and their sales agent and fellow race car driver and scion of an oil man, Fred W. Flint, Jr. (See below).
Garbutt was one of the first lot owners and soon built his beach home on what was then called Marine Avenue (now Ocean Front Walk). (See lower left in below map). Garbutt had also recently moved into his new $17,000, 14-room “town” house designed by noted architect John P. Krempel at the southwest corner of Alvarado St. and Ocean View Avenue (2210) near downtown Los Angeles. (“Doings of Builders and Architects,” July 26, 1903).
Beach Land Company and the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway Company, with many of the same principles on the Boards of Directors including Sherman and Clark, spent at least $500,000 on the foundation work for the Playa del Rey resort. One of the principles of the Beach Land Company, recently relocated to Southern California from Seattle and later President of the California Real Estate Association, Henry P. Barbour, originally requested design proposals for a band pavilion, hotel, restaurant and dance pavilion and two railroad stations from Seattle-based architect Kirtland Cutter. The hotel (see below) was originally slated to be built on top of the bluff on the large lot set aside seen at the right center of the above plat map.
The consortium rejected the 250-room, $250,000 Cutter proposal in favor of plans from local architects Hunt & Eager. (See Cutter’s Hotel at Playa del Rey design above and below). (Kirtland Cutter; Architect in the Land of Promise, by Henry Matthews, p. 172). It seems likely that the Land Company traded a prime beach front lot to Eager in exchange for design fees for the Pavilion and greatly scaled back Hotel Del Rey below the bluff on the shoreline of Del Rey Lagoon near Garbutt’s and Eager’s houses. Sadly, it appears Playa del Rey would have been much better off with the Cutter proposal.
Hotel at Playa del Rey, 1902, Cutter & Malmgren, Architects. From Kirtland Cutter; Architect in the Land of Promise, by Henry Matthews, p. 172.
Cutter’s design was to be dominated by a slender, pointed tower similar to those at St. Augustine, and also reminiscent of the Campanile of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. (It is perhaps no coincidence that 1902 was the year the Venetian Campanile collapsed, creating worldwide concern for the loss of a powerful landmark.) Below the tower the hotel spread out under expansive hipped roofs. Cutter arranged it around two courtyards, one of which, named the Palm Court, had a large fountain at the center. Along the front, a loggia of Gothic arches opened off the principal rooms onto a broad, raised terrace. The restaurant and dancing pavilion, each with a gondola landing, were linked across a canal by a bridge distinctly Venetian in character. Their walls were enriched with Venetian Gothic tracery, and they offered romantic silhouettes enlivened by several towers. (Kirtland Cutter; Architect in the Land of Promise, by Henry Matthews, p. 172).
Land sales began in earnest around Del Rey Lagoon in July 1902 with the subdivision of land by the Beach Land Company with water provided by one of the partners, i. e., Frederick H. Rindge‘s Artesian Water Company. (For much more on Rindge see my Frederick L. Roehrig: The Millionaire’s Architect”). Six hundred acres of sand beach, rolling dunes and lofty bluffs were graded and prepared for building permanent residences. In leveling lands and excavating for the lagoon, more than 700,000 cubic yards of sand were used for filling in purposes. Sidewalks were constructed along the beach and the lagoon, a sewer system, water system and electric lights provided. An unusually high class of buildings was put up.
Development around Del Rey Lagoon as of summer, 1902. From “Electric Cars Soon in Playa del Rey,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1902, pp. III-8-9.
Indirect rail service between Los Angeles and Playa del Rey was completed on October 17, 1902 with a final direct connection via the Ivy Park Junction beginning operation on January 24, 1903. (See L.A.-P. system map later below). The Times reported,
“Playa del, Rey, the new beach resort whose dulcet name drops into rhythmic English as “the Playground of the King,” was informally opened yesterday when the first electric car of the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway Company rolled up to the water’s edge. Thus is another seaside attraction available to the public. Beginning this morning, an eight train service will be maintained to Playa del Rey via Ocean Park over the electrized Santa Fe track, that runs to Inglewood up to Del Rey Junction whence is taken the regular branch to the new beach. The arrangement will continue about two weeks whereupon the entire Del Rey branch will be completed and cars will leave the Short Line ere Ocean Park is reached, and scurry across the marshes to the ocean thus saving several miles. …
The greatest attraction of Playa del Rey however, so far as the future is concerned, is a big lagoon with a straight-away over two miles long that affords unequaled opportunity for boating of all kinds, and with a little dredging can be made a mighty yachting station. For rowing races it will be exceedingly fine. It’s windings inland make a rowing course of over seven miles. (“More Lines to the Sea; Cars Running to Playa del Rey Beach and Improvements Progressing,” Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1902, p. II-1).
Work on the Hunt & Eager-designed $100,000 Playa del Rey Pavilion and 3,000 seat amphitheater (see above center) was rushed and it was opened to the public with a grand celebration of the occasion with boat races, dancing, and more on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1904. (“Santa Monican the Contractor,” Santa Monica Daily Outlook, 1904.) The $25,000 Hotel Del Rey, a handsome structure containing fifty rooms was built the same year by George A. Cook, a capitalist of Redlands who had become largely interested in Playa del Rey. Boat houses and bandstand were completed. A two story bank building had been erected (above right center), a $5,000 Los Angeles-Pacific Railway Station (foot of bluff above) and many handsome cottages had been completed along the lagoon and on the bluff including Garbutt’s which can be seen directly above the hotel in the above photo.
“The extensive public improvements are zealously guarded by judicious building restrictions— only a desirable class of residences is permitted. Among the beautiful residences recently erected are the following: Frank A. Garbutt, Oliver Morosco, W. W. Burton, A. W. Eager (see photo in real estate ad above) and George W. Signor. (Eager would go on to design numerous homes in Playa del Rey as the community developed.) Homes will be built immediately for George B. Ellis, H. D. Lombard, N. W. Church, James V. Baldwin, F. W. Flint, Jr.,and Frank Hudson. All houses are built on uniform line, affording an unobstructed view of both lagoon and ocean. Extensive 12-foot board walks have been laid, a 20-foot surfaced speedway (see discussion below) has been built, a sewer system has been provided, also water, gas and electric lights aligning the lagoon are attractive features in the evening- and promenading in one of the delightful recreations at this time.” (For more see “Playa del Rey, The Aquatic City,” Los Angeles Herald, May 21, 1905, p. 1).
“It seems reasonably certain with the resources at our command we can build, maintain and own a piece of road that will become famous, both for its quality and its utility, as well as for the world’s records that will be made on it.” (“New Del Rey Road a Sure Thing,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1903, p. II-2).
“Frank A. Garbutt, vice-president of the club in speaking of the proposition said: “Yes, there is some objection being made to the project. It has been insinuated that the proposed Playa del Rey road is a scheme to help Clark and Sherman and the Beach Land Company. I would like to state that personally I have no interests whatever with these gentlemen but I certainly think they are entitled by reason of their liberal support of the project to derive some benetlt therefrom. The actual donation ot the land itself is something and their subscriptions have also been most liberal.” (“Ballot of Automobists,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1904, p. 7).
Garbutt’s daughter Melodile was featured in Otis Chandler’s Los Angeles Times in the fall of 1905 undoubtedly to help promote sales of his Beach Land Company and Athletic Club cronies. (See below). The lengthy piece described her mastery of the new lightweight sculls under the tutelage of Professor William Franklin.
“A committee headed by Frank Garbutt and Coach J. E. Franklin of the Los Angeles Athletic Club visited Playa del Rey yesterday afternoon and selected headquarters tor the boat crews that are to be placed, In the field as a branch of the club’s sports. The home at the oarsmen will be the old grillroom of the Auditorium (see above) and this will be fitted up suitably tor the accommodation of the crews and the boats ordered.” (“Boat Crews Have a Home,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1906, p. II-3 and “Athletic Club Buys Shells,” June 30, 1910, p. II-3)).
An excerpt from the much more detailed Herald story describing the new facilities read,
“A section of the lower floor of the pavilion has been reserved as a boating and club house with ample accommodation for a large number of speeding craft. A landing will be built at the entrance enabling ready access to the waters of the lagoon. An amphitheater will be erected at the head of the inlet overlooking the entire course.” (“Brawny Oarsmen Will Struggle,” Los Angeles Herald, June 27, 1906, p. 5).
In 1906 Garbutt’s interests with water sports expanded to include motor-yachting as he and auto-racing partner A. C. Stewart collaborated on the design of his personal yacht Skidbladnir (see above) built by the A. C. Stewart Automobile Company. This excerpt from the Herald describes the burgeoning motor boating industry,
“Probably the largest and most completely equipped yacht on the coast is the Skidbladnir, which was designed under the personal supervision of her owner, Frank Garbutt. Her 300-horse power, six-cylinder engine was built by the A. C. Stewart Automobile company from ideas furnished by Mr. Garbutt, and is a decidedly novel piece of mechanism. In addition to being one of the largest marine engines ever built on this coast, it is self-starting and reversing, so that the ordinary reversing gear Is not needed. The propeller is of the feathering pattern, that will cause no drag when the yacht is under sail. Mr. Garbutt’s intention was to design a boat that will perform equally well under either sail or power, and while the boat sharps all said it could not be done, it begins to look is though he has done it, though the boat has not been fully tried out as yet.” (“Motor Boating in Southern California,” Los Angeles Herald, December 22, 1907).
With the completion of the new Venice Bath House in 1908, Garbutt organized the addition of the Venice Annex of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in a section of the new facility, saving himself and other members the long trek downtown to use the club’s handball facilities when they were summering at the beach. Garbutt was the Club’s perennial handball champion beginning as early as 1897. (“Athletic Club Notes, Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1897, p. 5). Garbutt’s bio in the above article on the new Annex reads,
“Frank A. Garbutt is vice president of the club and is very popular among the members. He everywhere is known as a lover of true sport. He is extensively interested in oil interests in Southern California. He also is a prominent member of the South Coast Yacht club. He was born at Mason City, Iowa in 1868. At the age of 3 years he moved with his parents to Colorado and came to Los Angeles in 1882. He attends to the general business of the club and devotes a great portion of his time to the organization.” (See link under above photo).
The opportunistic Garbutt, oil magnate and soon to be movie mogul via Bosworth, Inc. acquired through shady circumstances, and Famous Players-Lasky, was well aware of the new motor speedway recently constructed in Indianapolis through the local press when approached by Moskovics and Prince. (See “The Mystery Man of Motion Pictures“). He also saw the wild popularity of the motorcycle racing then underway at 1/3-mile banked, board Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome recently completed by Prince and realized that the timing was right to come up with a larger board track designed for automobile racing.
Garbutt and his syndicate quickly bought a 100-acre site in the Ballona Wetlands 500 yards east of his home on the beach in the then resort community of Playa del Rey, retained Moskovics as General Manager and front man for the operation and commissioned Prince to design and oversee construction of the project. Moskovics and Garbutt provided design input based on their engineering and racing experience.
Mosckovics came up with the idea for the one-mile circular concept. He put his engineering training to work to assist Prince on the design making the track 45-feet wide at a three-to-one slope forming essentially a saucer which the press immediately coined the “pie pan.” Garbutt’s idea of steel guard rails at the upper railing was implemented as was Moskovic’s design for the lower car-containing guard rails. A thirty-foot wide strip of compacted disintegrated granite followed by an infield fence 125 ft. from the track edge for spectator safety. A 1/4-mile length of repair pits were also to be built. Spectator comfort was also provided for in the covered grandstand. (See design sketch below). (From The Golden Age of the American Racing Car by Griffith Borgeson, pp. 17-18).
A construction contract was signed in late January with contractor Henry X. Goetz (see above) which called for 2,000,000 board feet of lumber, 28 tons of nails, 2,000 ft. of bleachers and a covered grandstand 1,000-feet long. Goetz was a well-connected President of the Santa Monica Board of Trade, builder of the Playa del Rey Pavilion in 1904, Venice Canals in 1905, Venice Bath House and countless other facilities, and former partner with Frederick H. Rindge in the Santa Monica Investment Company. Goetz had a reputaion as a man who could build things in a hurry completing the Venice Canals in only 30 days. The Motordrome contract specified a 25-working day construction period which began on January 31st. In addition to the $75,000 that was spent to build the facility, the forward-thinking Moskovics and Garbutt shelled out $10,000 for a generating plant to illuminate the “pie pan” for night racing. (See below). (“Santa Monican to Build Monster Saucer Motordrome,” Santa Monica Daily Outlook, January 27, 1910, p. 1).
A December 1909 article in the Santa Monica Daily Outlook stated that Prince had ordered two shiploads of lumber for the undertaking and a 100-acre site had been purchased between Playa del Rey and Venice and that arrangements were underway for a rail spur to the site which would enable handling 40,000 spectators an hour. Prince expounded on the record-setting success of his 1909 Coliseum design and presciently predicted further records at Play del Rey. (“To Build One-Mile Circular Motordrome Near Del Rey,” Santa Monica Daily Outlook, December 21, p. 1). The Motordrome Spur was .736 miles in length (see map below) and was located 1.12 miles from the Playa del Rey Station and was a joint project with the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway and the track. (From Trolleys to the Surf: The Story of the Los Angeles Pacific Railway by William A. Meyers, p. 71).
Los Angeles-Pacific Railway System Map ca. 1910. (From Trolleys to the Surf: The Story of the Los Angeles Pacific Railway by William A. Meyers, p. 16).
Motordrome Site. From 1924 USGS Topo Map. (Note channel left center dredged from the site in 1910 to drain the area surrounding the Motordrome).
Jack Prince at the Motordrome on the second day of construction describing how the survey for the layout of the track would radiate from the above center post. Los Angeles Herald, February 1, 1910, p. 11.
Prince on the left directing the perimeter staking of the one-mile circular course. (From “Work on Auto Track Rushed,” Los Angeles Herald, February 1, 1910, p. 10).
After a press junket organized by Moskovics, the Herald reported on the army of workers commencing work on the Motordrome, design and safety features of the track and the first automobile to drive on the site (see below) and predicted,
“Few can estimate what this means to Los Angeles. It will bring to this city the largest automobiles manufactured in Europe and America, driven by the fastest drivers on earth.”
Mother Nature, recoiling from the destruction of her wetlands, blew down 600 ft. of framework during a storm the night of February 14th. (“New Motordrome Suffers From Effects of Storm Last Night,” Santa Monica Daily Outlook, February 15, 1910, p. 1). The unfazed Goetz got construction back on schedule in short order.
“Manager Moskovics called the newly chosen directors together and while the car was speeding from Los Angeles to the motordrome site at Playa del Rey the directors organized with Garbutt as president, F. E. Moskovics, vice president and treasurer; H. G. Feraud, secretary; directors, including the officers, R. A. Rowan, Fred Flint, Harry Lombard and Henry Keller.” (“Garbutt Heads Motordrome Company; Prominent Local Capitalist Named President,” Los Angeles Herald, February 13, 1910, p. III-3).
Construction of the Motordrome was meeting with great interest in the national press and trade journals evidenced by the illustrated article from the March 3, 1910 issue of The Automobile.
Emboldened by the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by the birth of the aviation industry through the hype surrounding the upcoming Los Angeles International Air Meet, Garbutt bravely took a test flight at Dominguez Field in late December a few weeks before the meet. The Herald reported,
“William M. Garland, millionaire realty dealer, and chairman of the aviation committee, and Frank A. Gurbutt, millionaire yachtsman, skimmed the skies and looked from dizzy heights yesterday with Walter H. Brookins, the daring young aviator, as passengers on two of the aviator’s trips in his Wright biplane at Dominguez Fleld. Brookins was forced to swear by all that was manly that he would “cut out” all “dips and curves” on the trips before he secured his distinguished passengers.” (“Garbutt and Garland Soar With Brookins” and ” Garbutt, Frank A., “Flying is Great Stuff Says Initiate in Art,” Los Angeles Herald, December 30, 1909, pp. 1, 3).
Liking what he saw and surviving the thrilling experience and immediately envisioning the possibilities for the Motordrome site, Garbutt’s enthusiasm must have been further charged after hearing Professor H. La V. Twining speak on the history of flight and the Aero Club of California on the eve of the Dominguez Field meet. (“See Benefit to City in Aviation,” Los Angeles Herald, January 9, 1910, p. 4). Garbutt likely learned of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s “Auto and Aero Club” from Moskovics and quickly instructed him to negotiate a contract with the multi-talented educator, author and inventor H. La V. Twining (see below) and his California Aero Club to similarly share the Playa del Rey facilities.
Moskovics signed a $7,000 contract on Garbutt’s behalf with the Aero Club of California, soon to become affiliated with the Aero Club of America, to provide facilities for “year-round experiments and great annual contests” including a 1/3rd-mile long infield runway, clubhouse and a hangar large enough to house 14 planes and a machine shop equipped with lathes for constructing and refitting the aeroplanes in the Motordrome’s infield. An adjacent runway outside the confines of the Motordrome up to five miles in length was also under discussion.
Presaging the City of Los Angeles’s Mines Field (later LAX) a couple miles to the south and Howard Hughes‘s makeover of the Ballona Wetlands a couple miles further east for his Hughes Aircraft Company and Airport and Spruce Goose development activities a generation later, Moskovics confidently predicted that the area will become “a great aviation center and the big playground of flying machines and aviators, professional and amateur.” (“Big Hangar to be Located at Del Rey,” Santa Monica Daily Outlook, February 16, 1910, p. 1).
The Los Angeles Herald reported the same day that Howard W. Gill (see above) had already made three flights with his Gill-Dosh biplane at the facility. “Aviation Field Made Certainty,” Los Angeles Herald, February 16, 1910, P. 1). Like Garbutt, Gill was a wealthy young sportsman who was also interested in automobile races until 1906. He took up ballooning in 1906 and in 1909 began “aeroplaning.”
The February 24th edition of the Herald reported on Garbutt, Prince and Moskovic’s scheme to essentially “franchise” the design concept for the Motordrome,
“After having fortiiled his position by applying for patents on ten claims in the name of himself and Jack Prince, F. E. Moskovlcs left last night for San Francisco to make preliminary arrangement to construct a motordrome on the plan of the one being built in Los Angeles, and if the track here proves a success for racing he proposes to extend a chain of tracks throughout the country, with Los Angeles the first link.” (“Plans Circuit of Motordromes“).
On February 26, 1910 The Outlook reported that the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway had announced round-trip fares from downtown Los Angeles to the Motordrome had been set at $.40 and that there would also be direct service from Venice. (“Along the Southern Beach“).
The February 27th Herald article “Plan Test of Airship Motors; Aero Club Members Work at Motordrome” discussed the 1/3rd mile runway, hangar and machine shop being built by Jack Prince and Garbutt’s ideas for airplane engine and propeller experiments he was planning at the Motordrome Aero Club facilities. Apparently, much interesting airplane development would soon place at the Aero Club’s Motordrome facilities as the New York Times reported in 1911,
“Rear Admiral Nathan C. Twining of the United States Navy is spending all his energies to make air craft unsafe, at least in warfare, while H. La V. Twining, brother of the Admiral, is seeking daily to improve aerial navigation. Rear Admiral Twining bas just invented a gun (see below) which, it is believed, will meet and prevent the menace of bomb-throwing airmen.” (“Studying Airships in War; H. La V. Twining Builds Planes – Admiral Twining Has Gun to Destroy Them,” New York Times, September 20, 1911).
Source: Aircraft, April 1912, page 51.
As with his racing car collaborator, A. C. Stewart, Garbutt must have had great fun tinkering with both Twining and Griffith in the Motordrome Aero Club machine shop developing his ideas for airplane engines.
On March 2, 1910 The Outlook reported that a lumber schooner docked at the Long Wharf (see below) with a consignment of lumber for the motordrome. (“Lumber Schooner In“). From the Long Wharf the lumber had to be transported under special arrangement on the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway tracks along the Inglewood Line to the Motordrome site.
The March 4th issue of the Herald reported on the construction status of the Motordrome and described in detail the facilities being rushed to completion including the following excerpt.
“A paddock 300 feet long, a dozen repair pits and a complete inner track on the dirt to include the paddock board track, were included in the construction work at the motordrome at Playa del Rey yesterday. In addition to the work on the grandstand and bleachers, two subways are in process of construction (one for pedestrians and one for autos) also, and within a few days all the rough work on these jobs will be completed. The grandstand is being roofed over and will be equipped with boxes fitted with chairs. The bleachers are open and will have five tiers of seats. … “Neither of the tunnels is large enough for aeroplanes, unless they are in sections, but Builder, Jack Prince has arranged to have a drawbridge built over the track to have the machines pulled over. Lincoln Beachey, who drives the Glll-Dosh biplane, says the enclosure is sufficiently large for flights without going outside, as the best exhibitions in the future will be over small spaces of ground. He believes that races around a mile track will be the chief events of the future.”
The opening day hype began in earnest with the March 10th issue of the nation-wide publication, The Automobile, running a feature on the new track and published the complete racing schedule for the inaugural 10-day meet. (See below).
“Large Cash Prizes at Los Angeles Motordrome,” The Automobile, March 10, 1910, p. 521.
On March 11th The Outlook reported that the Goetz has announced that the Motordrome is finished but work was still under way on concession stands and buildings to house the officials and that Los Angeles Pacific was installing sidetracks in anticipation of heavy crowds expected for the opening. (“Motordrome Finished“).
On March 15th The Outlook published a complete schedule of the Motordrome’s opening weekend slate of races and prize money. (“Complete Program of Motordrome Races“). On the same date the Times reported on important visitors, Mac Purcell and Moffatt Irving, recognized experts on ignition systems representing the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company of Indianapolis, in town for the Motordrome’s opening meet.
“The name or Jack Prince is synonymous with ‘all right’ with almost almost any eastern racing driver or factory expert” said Purcell yesterday, “and that’s the reason the big men in the motor industry are coming to Los Angeles for the big opening because they know whatever Prince constructs in the line of a track is the best that can be built. I have never met Prince personally but I have driven on his tracks and that is good enough for me.” (“Motor Experts are Here to Stay,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1910, p. I-6).
Wheeler-Schebler was in the forefront of the movement to use auto racing to promote their product as evidenced by the above group portrait of the drivers after the first day of sanctioned racing at the Motordrome proudly sporting the firm’s colors on a variety of sportswear and a later Herald ad below in which the Motordrome was mentioned in the same breath with the Indianapolis Speedway.
On March 16th The Outlook reported that developer R. C. Sherman of the Beach Land Company announced that Speedway would be paved all the way from Ocean Park to Playa del Rey by April 15th to bring the Motordrome “to the very doors of the cities of the Bay.” (“Speedway to be Paved From the Ocean Park City Limits to the New Del Rey Motordrome“).
On March 19th The Outlook reported that Ralph De Palma and Barney Oldfield will make appearances at the Motordrome’s grand opening slate of events, April 8-17th. (“Fast Men Will Race at ‘Drome“).
The March 20th issue of the Herald (see above) featured an in-depth preview of the upcoming meet at the Motordrome and the efforts to bring together De Palma and Oldfield for the big match race.
On March 23rd The Outlook reported on pre-opening tryouts at the Motordrome with a 73 mph run yesterday and with Ray Harroun (see above and below), Nick Nikrent (see three below) and others testing the track today. (“Trying Out Track at Motordrome“). The Automobile reported in late March on Harroun’s six-cylinder Marmon “Yellow Jacket” (aka Wasp), built specifically for the upcoming racing season and in which he also won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 the following year in a slightly modified version.
Joe Nikrent raced in five Santa Monica Road Race events, finishing second in the Medium Car division in 1911 and ’12. He and brother Louis would combine to compete in 10 Santa Monica races overall.
On March 24th The Automobile reported that Vanderbilt Cup winner George Robertson would be driving the 90-horsepower Simplex in the inaugural Motordrome meet. (See above). The same day The Outlook reported on speed trials at the new track and the building excitement surrounding the impending opening weekend with 1,200 invited guest witnessing Harry Hanshue’s one-mile circular track record-breaking performance in the Apperson Jackrabbit (see below) turning the mile course in 44-2/5 seconds or 81 mph shaving 6-2/5 seconds off the old record. The article describes the track and lists the celebrity drivers scheduled to appear. (“Fast Time and a Big Crowd at Try-Out at New Motordrome“).
Harris Hanshue won the first Santa Monica Road Race in 1909 in the Apperson Jackrabbit averaging 64 miles per hour for 202 miles (24 laps) over the 8.4 mile course. Hanshue also bears the distinction of being the first driver to crash at the LA Motordrome. He had to be carted off in a horse-drawn ambulance. (Discussed later below).
On March 29th The Outlook reported on the completion of a big canal being dredged to the lagoon to drain the alkali salt flats and protect the Motordrome from flooding and future plans to flush the land with fresh water to remove the salts and make the land suitable for farming. (“Big improvement at Motordrome is Close to Finish“). The canal work would have been similar to Motordrome contractor Henry X. Goetz’s crews at work excavating and dredging Abbott Kinney‘s nearby Venice Canals seen in the photos below.
On March 30th The Outlook reported on the smashing of records during time trials specifically by Ralph De Palma and Caleb Bragg. The article also discusses the flaming arc lights which make possible night racing and that the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad in anticipation of a large opening day crowd is planning three separate routes to the Motordrome with spurs built to handle an off-loading of 25,000 passengers hourly. (“All Records Smashed on Saucer Track Here“).
On March 31st The Outlook reported on the continuing assault on the record books by De Palma and Caleb Bragg and the muddy access road conditions. De Palma turned a two-mile in 1 minute 21-1/5 seconds in his Fiat Cyclone, Caleb Bragg a 41 second one-mile in his Fiat “Sixty” and Jo Nikrent a 45-3/5 in his Buick “Forty.” (“Time Again Broken by De Palma on Big Motordrome Track“). A companion article in the same issue reported on the status of the 40×400 ft. airplane hangar under construction in the infield, the judges and timers stands, the ticket offices and enclosure of the outside perimeter of the underside of the Motordrome with 18-miles of wire to keep intruders from going underneath the track. (“Eighteen Miles of Wire Screen to Surround the Big Motordrome Stands“).
On April 1st Ray Harroun and Jack De Rosier were clocked at 38-4/5s, Caleb Bragg in 41-2/5 and Ralph De Palma in 42s. Barney Oldfield was to arrive that day, reportedly “on the wagon” since the first of the year. (“Records Go to Pieces on Motordrome Track“).
On April 3rd the New York Times reported on the record-breaking time-trials going on at the Playa del Rey track and that most of the drivers were speculating that famous mile motordrome record of 37.7 seconds held by Lewis Strang (see above) would be broken. (“Los Angeles Track Will Open Friday“).
On April 4th Barney Oldfield took to the course for the first time and established a new world’s record of 36-1/5s or 99-44/100 mph in his “Lightning Benz.” Barney said, “I have promised Jack Prince I will do a mile in 35 seconds and that will be fast enough to win from any car now here.” (“Oldfield Broke Record Once More“). In the same issue erstwhile three-time world’s bicycling champion and Motordrome designer Jack Prince introduced world’s women’s bicycling champion whom he formerly managed, Tillie Anderson (see below), to a roaring crowd at the track and reminisced about their old days together on the circuit. (“World’s Champion Bicyclist Gets Ovation at the Motordrome“).
On April 5th The Outlook assured readers that the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad will be providing cars leaving every 10 minutes from North Beach over the Inglewood Line beginning at 12:30 on race days and that half-hour service will be provided on the Lagoon Line from Playa del Rey through Montana Ave. to the Motordrome. (“Cars Will Leave for Motordrome Every Ten Minutes for Races“). A separate article “Entry List at Motordrome” delineated the key entrants and what they were driving.
The April 6th issue reported the names of guards the Santa Monica police chief assigned to duty at the Motordrome. (“Guards Are Chosen for Motordrome“). The same issue also reported on the first accident at the track with Al Livingston’s Corbin breaking a steering knuckle and the car rising to the top of the track, hitting the steel guard rail put in at Frank Garbutt’s insistence and safely coming to a stop. Without the steel rail the wheel caps would have cut into the wood and thrown the car. The article also chronicled Oldfield’s activities mentioned that he took Tillie Anderson for a few laps around the track. (“First Accident at Motordrome Monday“).
The April 7th issue reported on the readiness of the track, travel arrangements (see below) and Jack Prince’s predictions for many records, weather permitting. (“Start to Break Records at Big Motordrome Tomorrow Afternoon“).
The April 7th issue described the readiness and the gathering of the crowd and that the Gill-Dosh aeroplane had a tryout this morning and got about a dozen feet off the ground and that it would make a real attempt at aviating in the afternoon if the wind wasn’t too strong for flying. (“Races Now Going On At Del Rey“). In a related article it was reported that ambulance service will be available at the track. (“Todd Ambulance Will Be At Motordrome”).
On opening day the Herald included the above composite illustration featuring Motordrome Vice President F. E. Moskovics in the center surrounded by clockwise from the lower right, Jack Prince, designer; A. L. McMurtry, chairman of the technical committee; F. T. Wagner, starter; and S. B. Stevens, referee. The drivers featured going clockwise from the bottom include: Barney Oldfield, “Lightning Benz; Ralph De Palma, Fiat “Cyclone”; Joe Nikrent, Buick; Ray Harroun, Marmon; Caleb Bragg, Fiat “90″; Kershner, Darracq; Harry Hanshue, Apperson ‘Jackrabbit”; Endicott, Cole “30″; and Siebel, Reo “Bird.” The four corner photos highlighted the facilities including clockwise from the upper left: Main Entrance; Judges and Press Stand; Garage and Repair Shops; and Repair Pits and Grandstand.
Headlines for Herald’s full-page spread announced,
“THOUSANDS EAGERLY AWAIT RACES AT OPENING OF NEW MOTORDROME; Fastest Cars in the World Being Groomed for Titanic Struggle That Will Eclipse All Auto Contests – It Is Estimated that at Least 150,000 Persons Will Attend Giant Speed Carnival. Entire Motor World Will Have Its Eyes on the Initial Official Performances on Already Famous Course.”
In 1910, the emphasis was on short-distance speed records in match races. Cars were still a novelty, and it hadn’t been long since Oldfield had made his first mile-a-minute ride. Oldfield, as was the case nearly any time the crusty old campaigner showed up, didn’t disappoint. Two days before the opening, the big boys couldn’t wait. Oldfield ran a mile at 99 m.p.h. in the Benz. De Palma answered the challenge by breaking Oldfield’s five-mile mark with a 92.10 m.p.h. average.
The April 9th issue of the Outlook reported “All Records Once More Upset at the Bay Motordrome.”
April 10th was an exciting day at the track as a serious accident in the Apperson driven by Harris Hanshue blew a tire. The Outlook reported,
“The car was going at a swift pace when the tire exploded and Hanshue rather than risk an accident to the spectators, turned the car towards the bottom. As the rubber strips from the outer tire casing were torn off they became clogged in the chain and the rear wheels were locked.
Bouncing like a ball, the Apperson turned over and ove with the two men beneath the wreckage. The radiator was torn from the engine and hurled 100 feet away. Every wheel was smashed and heavy rods were bent and twisted as if they had been toothpicks. The mounted police rushed to the scene and Dr. Fielding, who is the official surgeon of the track, was there in a flash with the ambulance and at Hanshue’s side. He found the man badly bruised and shaken up but not seriously hurt. He then turned his attention to the Mechanician King whose escape was equally remarkable.” (“First Accident on Motordrome Track Thrills Spectators“). The below photos from the Herald the same day illustrate the crash.
The April 13th issue of Horseless Age and April issue of Motor Age reported on the Motordrome’s opening weekend’s results showing the national interest in the record-breaking potential of the “Pie-Pan.” (“Wholesale Shattering of Records at Los Angeles.” Horseless Age, April 13, 1910, pp. 537-9).
Above, 1915 Indy 500 winner Ralph De Palma in action, below, Endicott in Cole “30.” (“Wholesale Shattering of Records at Los Angeles; Board Motordrome Proves Fastest Circular Course in Country – Indianapolis and Atlanta Marks Beaten.” Horseless Age, April 13, 1910, pp. 537-9).
April 14th the New York Times Motordrome article headline read “Five American Speedway Records: Oldfield Performance Was Most Noteworthy at Los Angeles Auto Meet” and listed Oldfield’s records for the half-mile and kilometer at 17.91 and 22.88 seconds respectively, lowering his mark in the latter made at Indianapolis the previous year by 1.4 seconds.
The Motordrome could only obtain a limited number of sanctioned auto-racing events from the A.A.A. so Hempel had to also include motorcycle races to make the Motordrome a more profitable venue. The first big motorcycle records at the Motordrome were established by Jake DeRosier (see above) on May 8, 1910 in a F.A.M.-sanctioned 100-mile run against the clock on his Indian. He compiled 74 miles and 667 yards in one hour stopping to refuel at the 53-mile mark and finished 100 miles in 1h., 26m., 14 2/5s. despite running out of gas on the last lap and pushing the bike across the line which cost him about five minutes. He broke every five-mile interval record along the way. (“Jake in Record Ride,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1910, p. 19 and “De Rosier Breaks Row of Records,” Motorcycle Illustrated, May 15, 1910, p. 33).
The May 15th Herald reported,
“Frank A. Garbutt, Los Angeles, is endeavoring to develop a distinct American type of aeroplane, utilizing the experience of others and avoiding the radical but without copying. He has associated himself with Leigh M. Griffith, who has made a specialty or internal combustion design.”
The Motordrome site was not only making headlines and capturing the imaginations of Angelenos for a continuous onslaught of automobile and motorcycle speed records on the track but with the even more fledgling aviation industry. For their inaugural event at the Motordrome, the Aero Club of California commemorated their second anniversary in existence by staging an open house-picnic open to the public to show off their new facilities and planes and have Garbutt properly dedicate their new hangar. (See below). (“Aero Club Invites Public to Big Picnic,” Los Angeles Herald, May 20, 1910, p. 2 and “Young Aviators Have Their Day,” May 30, p. 12).
“Above is a photo of the Eaton-Twining machine, standing on its nose. This machine is a biplane of the Bleriot type, except that it has sliding planes at the wing tip for securing lateral stability. This machine has been making small jumps for a couple of weeks. It is equipped with a Ford automobile engine of 22-1/2 h.p., four-cylinder, water-cooled. The power plant weighs 200 pounds, and the whole machine 700 pounds, including the aviator. Warren S. Eaton was driving the machine when it went over on to its nose. It was running on the ground at the rate of 25 miles per hour when the front axle broke. As the tail was high in the air at the time, the tips of the skids stuck in the ground, and it ended up as shown. Mr. Eaton was thrown into the framework, but escaped unhurt.”
As the subheadings for the front page article on the Aero Club’s second Motordrome event (see ad above) indicate, such as “Birdman Gives Thrilling Exhibitions at Field on Playa del Rey Line”; “Slavin Spills in Descent”; and “Cannon Supplies Excitement While Being Towed Around Grounds by Large Auto.” The latter was likely the first time an aeroplane was towed by an automobile around an enclosed racetrack. What a thrill it must have been for the spectators in attendance to witness the early evolution of machines that would rapidly change life as they knew it.
Twining reported in the December issue of Aeronautics,
“All machines without motors were wheeled out and lined up along the paddock. (See earlier photo above). Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock the program was opened by a towing flight by Jack Cannon. Considerable difficulty was experienced, owing to the lack of power on the part of the towing automobile. After several attempts it was exchanged for a more powerful vehicle, a 72 h.p. Stoddard-Dayton driven by Mortimer, a member of the club. Owing to rains some days previous the ground was slippery and complete circles were not made but short flights were obtained. Inside the Motordrome the other machines developed engine troubles and did not attempt to fly.”
“Jack Cannon furnished the greatest excitement of the afternoon with his towed flights in the biplane built by the Cannon brothers. (See above). Towed by a big Stoddard-Dayton (see below) driven by L. Mortimer, which skidded around the curves in the soft ground, Cannon guided his machine several times around the inside course of the motordrome paddock without coming to the ground. The crowd cheered as he went by the grandstands and commented on the ease with which the aerial machine made its rounds us compared with the difficulties under which the automobile party labored. Cannon won the only prize awarded for an exhibition inside the motordrome and L. Mortimer, the owner of the automobile, received an honorable mention.” (Note: Garbutt crony and sales agent for the Beach Land Company in Playa del Rey, Fred W. Flint, Jr., owned the local Stoddard-Dayton dealership.)
“Walsh made a variety of flights, circling about in any direction desired and landing easily at the starting point. He did not attempt to fly high, and the altitude prize was at first awarded to Slavin, but on a protest from Walsh’s friends the contest committee decided in favor of the San Diegan. The trophy for highest flight is a silver cup presented by business men of San Diego. Other cups won by Walsh at this meet are the Whitley Jewelry company’s trophy for endurance, the W. H. Leonard cup for the best circular flight and a newspaper trophy for distance.”
Powerplant on Roehrig Aeroplane. From Twining, H. La V., “Flights by B. F. Roehrig, Aeronautics, November 1910, p. 172.
The November 17th issue of the Times announced that noted aviator Glenn H. Curtiss (see two and three above) would be setting up shop and a flight training school at the Aero Club facilities at the Motordrome and that he would be managing a series of meets (see ad below) at the facility beginning with the first scheduled for December 9, 10 and 11. (“First Meet in December; Curtiss to Manage Events at Motordrome”). In the November 20th issue, W. H. Leonard reported on the Cutiss plans and the advantages of the Motordrome site and facilities for experimentation with an article headlined, “Great Center for Aviation; Southern California First With Experiments; Great Flying Promised All the Year Around; Local Organisations Unite in Boost Campaign.“
Curtiss signed a lease in early December with Motordrome manager Walter Hempel and Vice-President Fred Moskovics for the use of the Aero Club’s facilities at the Motordrome and fully intended to spend the winter experimenting on his first seaplane design. Curtiss was the only American to appear at the first ever aviation meet in Rheims, France in his “Golden Flyer” (see above two photos) in August 1909 and was honored with the first flight at the Dominguez meet in January 1910. Curtiss knew Prince and Moskovics well as he also cut his teeth on motorcycle racing. (See earlier above). The Herald reported,
“Mr. Curtis brought his entire workshop with him from his home in New York. There are several cars filled with machinery, designed especially for airship construction, a carload of aeroplane parts and twelve ‘machines complete. With these to work with Mr. Curtiss will conduct his experiments as soon as he is able to get a suitable place to work.
Mr. Curtiss has retired from exhibition flying and now devotes his time to the construction of airships and to experimenting with them. He is endeavoring at the present time to work out and perfect some method by which an aeroplane may be used at sea.
“At present the experiment in which I am most interested is the use of the aeroplane at sea. I have experimented to a certain extent with my machines on the water and am going to do a whole lot more of it while here.” (“Glenn H. Curtiss Here to Conduct Air Experiments, Los Angeles Herald, December 7, 1910“).
Although Hempel, Moskovics and Garbutt were likely sad to see Curtiss leave for San Diego, there was much activity to get the track ready for a big meet on the boards scheduled for January 14-15. The January 11, 1911 issue of the New York Times reported on the vaunted National racing team’s West Coast invasion,
“Howard Wilcox, Charles Merz, and Don Herr have gone to Los Angeles. Calif. where they will pilot the National motor cars upon the mile board track motordrome Jan. 14 and 15. The trio of National cars which the pilots will handle in the two-day speed carnival were shipped to the “Golden West. … Wilcox is one of the youngest and best pilots in the country. His last notable performance was his non-stop victory in the 100-mile race for the Remy Brassard and Trophy Cup on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last September. He covered the century in 83 minutes and 8 seconds, after a great battle with the foremost stock chasis performers of the country.” (“Racing Pilots Going West; Wilcox, Herr and Merz to Drive at Los Angeles Motordrome,” New York Times, January 11, 1911).
“The crack racing pilot took his shotgun and sneaked across the infield of tile track where he has won such signal victories. A mallard, alarmed at the sight of the wiry young autoist, flew away and ”Coxy” feared he had lost his meal. He dropped to his stomach in the mud and began a record crawl of half a mile. He reached the edge of tbe pool without disturbing the two red heads. Jumping to his feet Wilcox took careful aim and fired. In his excitement he pulled both triggers and was kicked backwards into the slush. When he recovered he saw the brace of ducks floating on the water. He waded into the pool and earned his toothsome meal.” (“National Racer Scores; Wilcox Bags Brace of Ducks in Center of Pie-Pan Track,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1911, p. III-3).
Local boy, Teddy Tetzlaff driving a Lozier in a much-hyped 100-mile match race with 1915 Indy 500 winner Ralph De Palma in a Simplex established four new world’s records at the Motordrome on March 19th building upon his convincing victory at the Santa Monica Road Race the previous November. (See below). The New York Times reported,
“The race was finished in 1 :14:29 1-5, lowering the previous record of 1:16:21 made by Harroun. De Palma was six and a half miles behind when Tetzlaff finished. The following intermediate records for a speedway regardless of class also were established: Twenty-five miles-18:22 2-5, former record. 18:52. Fifty miles-36:35 4-5; former record, 37:55 3-5. Seventy mlles-54:50 1-5; former record, 57:15 3-5. It is practically certain that the hour record of seventy-slx miles also was broken, but the time was not taken.” (“World’s Auto Records; Tetzlaff in Lozier defeats De Palma,” New York Times, March 20, 1911).
1911 was a banner year for Indian motorcycle racing teams. While Indian motorcycles were winning most races on dirt and board tracks, a 4′-10″ ninety-pound, 16 year-old named Don Johns burst into the national headlines when he shattered all amateur records from 2 to 20-miles on the Playa del Rey track on April 4th. Riding a standard-valve Indian, Johns tied Ray Seymour‘s professional record for the mile and shaved 2/5th of a second off the professional record for two-miles of 1m. 24 1-5s. set by DeRosier on the same track two months earlier. His average speed of over 83 mph for 20 miles easily eclipsed the best English record of 56 mph. (“Motorcycle Racing, American and Foreign Records,” World Almanac and Encyclopedia, 1911, p. 414).
The long-delayed 24-hour endurance race at the Motordrome took place on the first anniversary of its opening on April 8-9, 1911 and was refereed by Frank Garbutt. There was a great build-up for the marathon event in the local press with almost daily stories in the Times. Though no big names entered the race due to lengthy delays caused by the earlier heavier than usual seasonal rains and other reasons, fourteen cars and 28 drivers were slated to start and attempt to break the 1,253 mile record set at Brighton Beach. The Times reported on the testing of the lights the night before the race,
“The $25,000 lighting plant was put into service last night at 7 o’clock and thousands of incandescent bulbs with hundreds of the new flaming arc searchlights flooded the grounds and board surface with light. For miles in each direction the lights glowed like an aurora borealis and attracted a large crowd from the beach resorts. Many hurried over in automobiles and trolley cars to see what was going on.” (Smith, Bert C., “Bright Lights to Glow as Speed Demons Spin,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, p. III-1 and “Twice Around Clock Grind,” April 2, 1911, p. VII-8).
Throngs of fans camped overnight in the infield and the concession stands did a booming business. R. A. Wynne reported on the world-record shattering results the day after with the Fiat “Forty-Five” driven by Valentine Hush and Frank Verbeck compiling 1,491 miles during the race for an average speed of 62.125 mph versus the previous record of 52 mph set the previous August at Brighton Beach. George Adair in the Cadillac “Thirty” (see ad below) also broke the record finishing with 1,448 miles. (“Fast Foreign Fiat Wins Twenty-four Hour Race; World’s Records Broken on Motordrome Boards,” Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1911, p. II-1 and “Fiat Car Makes New World Mark,” New York Times, April 10, 1911).
Naturally, the Times was flush with ads from suppliers of cars, tires and parts of the well-performing vehicles. The Elmore Motor Car Co., local dealer for the Stearns which held the Brighton Beach record, placed a sour grapes ad (see below) which elaborately calculated, using the differential between Barney Oldfield’s Benz times on Ascot’s dirt track and the Motordome’s boards that the Fiat would have had to average 67.92 mph to have beaten the Stearns record. Hempel and Moskovics must have been thrilled with the ad and used it in attracting drivers to future racing events as it was more a testimonial for the record-breaking potential of the Motordrome than anything else.
Dave Lewis in the No. 10 Stutz White Squadron car and Charles Mertz in the No. 7 National, October 22, 1911. From Moore, George, “America’s Early Years of Board Track Racing: Playa del Rey: Birthplace of the Boards,” Cars & Parts, January, 1981, p. 47.
Stressed from the constant scheduling problems caused by rain delays and Barney Oldfield’s A.A.A. suspensions, Walter Hempel resigned as manager of the Motordrome after the 24-hour event and was replaced by A. M. Young for a meet in October sponsored by the Automobile Dealer’s Association of Southern California. (“Giant Racers Ready for Motordrome Speed Fest,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1911, p. III-3). Teddy Tetzlaff and Harris Hanshue highlighted the card for the October 21-22, 1911 races at the Motordrome with no records being set. (“Five Thousand Fans See Great Motordrome Races,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1911, p, VII-1). The two-day meet drew record-breaking crowds of over 12,000 to witness wins by Tetzlaff, Lee Oldfield, and Roscoe Anthony among others. (See above and below). (“Great Crowd at Motordrome,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1911, p. II-1).
Roscoe Anthony in the Regal driving to victory in a five-mile sprint race, October 21, 1911. From Moore, George, “America’s Early Years of Board Track Racing: Playa del Rey: Birthplace of the Boards,” Cars & Parts, January, 1981, p. 43.
Stressed from the constant scheduling problems caused by rain delays and Barney Oldfield’s A.A.A. suspensions, Walter Hempel resigned as manager of the Motordrome after the 24-hour event and was replaced by A. M. Young for a meet in October sponsored by the Automobile Dealer’s Association of Southern California. (“Giant Racers Ready for Motordrome Speed Fest,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1911, p. III-3). The two-day meet on October 21-22 drew record-breaking crowds to witness wins by Teddy Tetzlaff and Lee Oldfield among others. (“Great Crowd at Motordrome,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1911, p. II-1).
Also beginning in 1911, a young rider from Texas, Eddie Hasha, began to make his mark on one of the Hedstrom-designed Indian 8-valves. Hasha was very fast, and in May, at the Playa del Rey Motordrome, he set a new record for the mile, attaining a speed of 95 mph.
Teddy Tetzlaff and Harris Hanshue highlighted the card for the October 21, 1911 races at the Motordrome with no records being set. (“Five Thousand Fans See Great Motordrome Races,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1911, p, VII-1).
“Caley Bragg Is New World Short – distance Motor Champion and Joe Nikrent Star of Distance Events. (See Case Racing Team and ad below). Ralph de Palma a Strong Contender With the Mercer - E.M.F. Team Defeats Large Field.”
The Case Racing Team (see below) led the way with Joe Nikrent setting new world’s records in the 5 and 25-mile events, Louis Disbrow establishing a new mark in the 10-mile and Neil Whalen winning a 5-mile free-for-all handicap.
The Case Team of 1912 (right to left) Joe Nikrent, Louis Disbrow and Neil Whalen. From Moore, George, “America’s Early Years of Board Track Racing: Playa del Rey: Birthplace of the Boards,” Cars & Parts, January, 1981, p. 45-6.
“Two daring aeroplanists came hurtling through the air over the boards of the pie-pan and gave the throng a new thrill yesterday While the fastest motors on earth were ripping world records to pieces, Parmalee in his biplane and Turpin in another biplane, soared through the air. The spiral dip caused a hush from the thousands The man in the air was vieing with the drivers on the boards. He won the applause. It was the first time the throng had been given a chance to judge between the ships of the air and tho kings of the speedway. The honors went to the airship as far as the spectacular part of the programme was concerned.” (“Case Cars Crack World Mark on Greasy Pie-Pan,” L.A. Times, May 6, 1912, p. III-1).
The Case Team of 1912 (right to left) Joe Nikrent, Louis Disbrow and Neil Whalen. Nikrent won a 25-mile event and Whalen won a five-mile free-for-all handicap on May 5, 1912. From Moore, George, “America’s Early Years of Board Track Racing: Playa del Rey: Birthplace of the Boards,” Cars & Parts, January, 1981, p. 45-6.
On December 30, 1912, Excelsior gained world renown for being the first motorcycle to officially reach 100 mph. On that day, at the one-mile board track in Playa del Rey, Excelsior rider Lee Humiston circled the banked 1-mile track on his direct-drive Excelsior in 36 seconds flat becoming the first motorcyclist officially timed at 100 mph by a sanctioning organization. Even Barney Oldfield never achieved the magic century at Playa del Rey, his best time (36.1 seconds or 99.72 mph) set in a match race against Terrible Teddy Tetzlaff two weeks later on January 12, 1913 eight months before the track burned to the ground. Humiston also continued on to break every record through twelve miles. (“Humiston Dashes Around Motordrome in Fast Time,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1912, p. III-4).
At the same track a few days later, on January 7, 1913 Humiston took every time record for the distance between 2 and 100 miles, breaking the previous 100 mile record of 75 minutes, 24-2/5 seconds with his time of 68 minutes, 1-4/5 seconds. (From Reocities).
Lee Humiston. From Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing.
Excelsior had won the race to the magic 100 mph mark and they had smashed the Indian-held record for the 100-mile distance as well. The publicity was enormous. Every school boy in America knew that a man had traveled at 100 miles per hour on a motorcycle, and that he had accomplished this feat on an Excelsior built in Chicago.
The closing chapter on the Motordrome in the California Outlook read,
“The Motordrome near Playa del Rey which was built five years ago at a cost of $110,000 and which has been the scene of several races of importance, is now being torn down and its three million feet of lumber disposed of, in order to devote its space to the growing of sugar beets. This circumstance is interesting in view of the doleful utterances of certain prophets of evil who have been telling us that the sugar-beet industry of California is on the road to ruin and that the $15,000,000 invested in it is to prove a dead loss, because we can’t compete with imported beet sugar. The war in Europe has made a mockery of all such talk, and goes also to prove that it takes an uncommonly wise man to be a reliable prophet.” (“From Motordrome to Sugar,” California Outlook, August 29, 1914, p. 16).
The last vestiges of the Motordrome disappeared in 1918 when the Pacific Electric Railway received permission from the California Board of Railroad Commissioners to remove a portion of its spur at the Motordrome Station at the old Motordrome site in the Ballona Wetlands. (Annual report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of the State of California, 1918).
Del Rey Lagoon with the Pavilion and fishing pier on the left and Hotel Del Rey on the right. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Just as Walter Hempel and the Motordrome owners were cursed by nature and fire during the track’s brief existence, so was the community of Playa del Rey. The town’s tourist facilities were damaged or destroyed by nature and fire as well. A large portion of the fishing pier collapsed in July 1911 and again in July 1917. Tide gates, which maintained high water in the lagoon (and the wetlands surrounding the Motordrome site), had to be dynamited during a heavy winter rainstorm because nearby Venice and the vast flat ground between became flooded. Soon the grandstands were torn down and sand clogged the boat course (see below). The pavilion burned before WW I and the Hotel Del Rey (see above upper right), which had become notorious as a house of prostitution in 1917 and in 1920, the Hope Development School for mentally retarded girls which burned to the ground in a disastrous fire on May 31, 1924 killing 24 victims (see below).
Playa del Rey and Del Rey Lagoon shortly after the disastrous Hope Development School fire. See lingering smoke from the site at upper left. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Ballona Wetlands ca. 1940 after the dredging and levee building to channelize Ballona Creek but before the dredging which created Marina Del Rey. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Playa del Rey to this day remains somewhat of jinxed community which may yet recover after the State makes peace with mother nature with the completion of long-awaited Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project. (See above). This effort will enhance the remnants of the wetlands remaining after the channelization of Ballona Creek by the Corps of Engineers in 1938 and the wetlands-killing dredging and filling, also by the Corps, which created Marina del Rey in 1960 (see above and below).
Ballona Creek and Marina Del Rey, 1968. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.