San Francisco auto racing memoirs 1950-1956

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A lot of what I enjoy most about The GarageBlog is that anyone who enjoys automobiles whether it be late model, old school, muscle, antique cars or even the latest on luggage racks with lipstick holders, can find something for every need here. One minute we can ask ourselves what was the biggest news coming out of the Nascar circuit this year and the next we can be reading why we shouldn’t be buying a sports car from Germany. (Do they really make sports car in Germany?)

Recently I have noticed several share my appreciation for some of the history of racing right here in my own back yard so I thought I would attempt to share some of this.

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There is far more automotive racing history with regards to the San Francisco Bay Area and it’s surrounding area than many realize and for the most part takes some digging to uncover. At lot of the aforementioned history had a lot to do with events that eventually gave Geneses to none other than the worlds most recognized car show (in you can call it that), the Pebble Beach ConCourse DeElegance.

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Before there was the Pebble Beach ConCourse DeElegance there was the almost forgotten Pebble Beach Road Races which were held from 1950 to 1956 on the very windy roads lined with Cypress trees and started at the Pebble Beach Lodge and ran for 2 miles much of which was gravel. Things ran well until 1956 when Ernie McAfee crashed his Ferrari into a tree and that ended the Pebble Beach Road Races but then the now famous Laguna Seca was built. To better honor the tradition of the Pebble Beach Road Races the Pebble Beach concourse DeElegance was began and has been a tradition ever since.

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It was during this amazing time that the San Francisco Bay Area began it’s love for all things automotive especially auto races. If you look closely at photographs form those days gone by you will notice it was customary to dress the part and suits and ties an even top hats were the dress code of the day. Thank God some time old traditions carry on. If you don’t think so just try wearing a pair of blue jeans to today’s Pebble Beach ConCourse DeElegance and see what kind of looks you get. It truly is a gala event of the highest standards and all done out of respect for the cars and their owners from eras gone by.

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It was in 1952 until 1954 that San Francisco felt they could easily do what Monterey had done and so they began auto racing in San Francisco’s own Golden Gate Park. They gave it several names ranging from The Mayor’s Trophy Race, The Guardsmen’s Annual Sports Car Race and The Guardsmen Campership Road Races.

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American and foreign race cars would race to raise money that made it possible for 5000 kids to summer camp with more than 115,000 spectators were in attendance. Even by today’s standards, that is a LOT of spectators considering the side of Golden Gate Park. When I asked Jerry Knuzman, the owner of the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) about this happening today he said due to safety and insurance requirements it would cost over ten million dollars just to begin thinking about it.

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I’m sad to report but I do not know what ever happened to end the races in Golden Gate Park but I strongly suspect it was the same reasons that stopped The LeMans and La Carrera Panamericana during the 50′s which was too many spectators being killed due to the lack of barricades, safety barriers and poor crowd control not to mention the increased speeds of the race cars and lack of safety equipment. Speaking of safety and early race cars, here is some trivia for you… It was a Mercedes that killed more spectators in a single crash than any other auto race and that crash was one of the main reasons the Le Mans and La Carrera Panamericana we canceled for many years. Eddie Rickenbacker and Peter Henderson were the first two to wear steel helmets in a race. Most drivers never wore gloves while racing but Tommy Milton who drove for Mercedes and the first driver to win Indy twice, hurt his hands because of improper glove material and so he decided to drive barehanded but the glue oozed out of the adhesive tape on the steering wheel and stripped the skin from his palms. It is the result of stories such as many of these that resulted in much of todays safety standards and equipment that we now have in place. As a matter of fact the Snell Foundation originated because of the death of another San Francisco Bay Area racer.

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Photos courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. In the online archive, there are some incredible automotive memories ranging from motorsports to car dealerships in the Twenties. Some very cool stuff indeed!

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Comments

  1. says

    Gary
    Bring it on! This is great stuff you’re bringing here. I can’t get enough of this history.

    You’ve inspired me to start reading “American Automobile Racing: An illustrated History” (Albert R. Bochroch, 1977) to try to get an insight on the big picture of American racing.

    You mention the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance and the races. The splash page of my collection site http://www.piczo.com/racecartoys carries my limited edition of Phil Hill in a 750 Monza on his way to winning the 1955 Pebble Beach race.

    I’ve added a “remarque” to the print of him winning, on the same weekend, “Best of Show” at the Concours with his restored 1931 Pierce Arrow (formally owned by his aunt). That win changed Concours judging around the world; previously to that moment, “Best of Show” judging was for new cars only.

    The remarqued print is in Mr. Hill’s collection.

    Cheers!
    Paul

  2. says

    What I love about the older photos is that what people are doing is the same as they do today. Guys hovering over an engine. All the fans watching and cheering the cars on. The actually racers trying to pick the right line.

    Cool shots thanks for sharing.

  3. Gary Faules says

    Paul,

    A funny story for you… A couple years ago after signing some books during the Infineon Historic’s, Phil Hill and I were walking around the paddock looking at various race cars some of which Phil knew quite a bit of history about. Then we came up to a very nicely displayed car with a big plaque telling a lot of history of the car. While were standing there admiring the car the owner of it began talking to us and after a few seconds it became apparent he didn’t have a clue who he was talking to but we just listened. He went on telling us that Phil Hill had driven this very car in this race and that race and so on giving a complete rundown to the car’s amazing history.

    As we walked away I told Phil how funny it was that that man didn’t even now he was talking to Phil Hill himself and then I asked him why he didn’t tell the man who he was. He leaned over with a grin on his face and said, “I have never seen that car in my life… not in my life.” Then I asked him why he didn’t tell him so. Being the gentleman he is he said, “Who am I to ruin his day? Besides, he may have been told buy whomever he purchased it from that cock and bull story. Let the man have his dream.”

    That afternoon as we were saying our goodbyes my son told Phil what a pleasure it was for us to have spent the day with him and what an amazing life he had having won so many LeMans, Sebring, world championships and so on. But Phil grabed my son by the shoulders, pulled him over and whisperd, “Yeah, but I never won a 25 hour race like you father did.” The hair still stands up on the back of my neck each time I remember the smile he put on my son’s face in doing so. My son was so proud and I was so humbeled.

    That being said… Phil Hill is one of the finest gentelman I have ever met and he always has something nice to say about everyone else.

  4. says

    Gary
    Thanks for recounting something that can’t be picked up in a book or magazine. Stories like this only confirm how great a gentleman Mr. Hill is.

    What a rush it must have been to spend some time with him, and then to be honoured by him. Your son (and you) must have had a perma-grin after that.

    I have some photos of Mr. Hill signing my “Phil Hill in winning Ferraris” series limited editions; I”ll send them along to you.

    Cheers!
    Paul

  5. Peter McKercher says

    I am trying to gather pictures of Singer sports cars racing in the Fifties. I have a number of them shown at Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Santa Barbara, Pomona, Palm Springs, Madera, Chino and other circuits in California and have been fortunate enough to track down some of the drivers as well. My intention is to scrap bbok them for the North American Singer Owners Club to help preserve this fabulous bit of American history. So far I have about 50 shots which I’ve annotated according to who, what and where (including rare shots of a Singer Special driven by Dick van Laanen, friend and contemporary of Ken Miles). If you have any shots featuring Singers (or in which Singers are visible) and would like to assist me, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Peter

  6. Paul Maher says

    Hello, If any of you guys are interested in an early, 1910-ish photo of 11 cars getting ready to race in San Francisco drop me a line. It is a stunning image.

    Best Regards, Paul

  7. Bruce Moore says

    I am trying to see if anyone remembers an auto race in Golden Gate Park, on the upper (dirt) oval of the Polo Fields. This would have been around 1956, 57 or 58. I remember it to be very noisy and dusty. I also remember a race held in Oakland on the newly paved runways that had not been opened yet for jet use. Perhaps these are false memories, as I was only 4 when my father started taking me to auto races (including Pebble Beach).

  8. says

    Bruce,

    During my research I was contacted by someone who mentiond growing up near the dirt oval of the Polo Fields and it was exciting to hear about. With respect to Oakland, you memories are indeed very real. My good friend, the legendary Hershel McGriff himself, told me recently about many races he won at Oakland both on dirt and pavement. One of his best stories that I enjoy was when we spoke about how many trophies we have given or thrown away over the years but in the same breath how there always seems to be that special one. In Hershel’s case it was the time back on the early 50s when he won a race in Oakland. It was in 1954, and Hershel won the feature event in the inaugural year of the NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model series, which would later be renamed the NASCAR Winston West Series. McGriff drove Beryl Jackson’s Oldsmobile in 2 Grand National events setting the pole at Oakland. But Hershel accidently forgot the trophy in his hotel room so one of the maids kept the trophy all these years but upon learning he was still alive not to mention racing she found out how to contact him and sent it back to him some 60 years later.

      • Doug Milota says

        Steve,

        Doug Milota here,from Eureka.Please contact me,as I collect items from the
        McKinleyville races in '56 & '57.I'm always interested in hearing about your Grandfather.

        – Doug (707)445-3354

    • Peter McKercher says

      Dave
      Are any of these photos of Singers. I'm particularly interested in shots of Pete Snell's Singer Special which was racing under the number 100 that week end.

      Peter

  9. Tom Sahines says

    If interested in learning more about sports car racing at Golden Gate Park you might want to get this book
    Golden Gate Remembered (Paperback)
    Art Evans (Author), Gary Horstkorta (Author)
    You will be amazed at the depth of coverage about this unique auto racing event from the early 1950′s

  10. Gary Corsiglia says

    Growing up in SF and the Sunset district lead to my interest in the GG Park auto races. In the 60's I did some research for a high school English paper and found a course description so thought I would share. Start / Finish was on John F Kennedy Drive near Sprekels Lake and Speedway Meadows, hence the name. Going east through several sweeping bends. At Transverse Drive make a 90 degree right turn. A short straight brings you to Middle Drive and an over 90 degree right turn. Middle Drive has trees close to the road and you can imagine the sun and shade flashing through the racers vision as they blasted down this road. Near the Polo Fields entrance a 120 degree left turn puts you onto Metson Road followed quickly by a 120 degree right turn onto Martin L King Drive heading west. Next you'll be at Chain of Lakes Drive where you make a 90 degree right turn. Back up to JFK Drive and the final 90 degree right turn. As you head east again on JFK Drive stay to the right of the island near Sprekels Lake and you're at S/F. I don't remember the lap distance. My memory is that the races were ended due to the expense of insurance even though no drivers or spectators were ever injured.

  11. says

    My intention is to scrap bbok them for the North American Singer Owners Club to help preserve this fabulous bit of American history. So far I have about 50 shots which I've annotated according to who, what and where (including rare shots of a Singer Special driven by Dick van Laanen, friend and contemporary of Ken Miles).

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