Off-Ramp

A weekly look at Southern California life covering news, arts and culture, and more. Hosted by John Rabe

'Where They Raced' — New doc tells LA's forgotten auto racing history

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp

A racer identified only as "Al" poses behind the wheel of his racer at the Corona auto race in this undated photo. LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Did you know 100,000 people showed up for a car race in Southern California … in 1913? And that Santa Monica – home today of the Prius and the pedestrian mall — might owe its existence to auto racing? Those are just two revelations in a new documentary called "Where They Raced," directed by Harry Pallenberg and based on the book of the same name by Harold Osmer, who hosts the film.

Auto racing and Los Angeles grew up together, shaped each other. Once, there were racetracks across the region, until humans pushed them out because of the noise and the crowds or, as in the case of Beverly Hills, the land became too valuable to use for racing.

Pallenberg is a minivan driver who says he didn't know any of this until he worked on an episode of "California's Gold" with the late, great Huell Howser that featured a segment on the Corona race, "and I was just blown away that 100,000 people would come out to a racetrack at 1913. That's, you know, like 20 percent of the population of the area showing up to an event."

Pallenberg says the city of Santa Monica used car racing to publicize itself nationally and to draw enough business and residents to bring in the tax revenue that would let it fight off incorporation attempts by the city of Los Angeles.

One of the beauties of "Where They Raced" is that it takes you to the sites of the various defunct racetracks — Exposition Park, Legion Ascot in El Sereno, a board track in Beverly Hills, to name a few — and shows you the traces of the old tracks. And in many cases, they do it with an antique car that actually raced there. You get to sit in the driver's seat and you can almost feel the wind in your hair and the motor oil blowing into your eyes.

Listen to our interview with Harry Pallenberg for much more on our shared history with auto racing.

"Where They Raced" has two LA screenings this month:

  • Sunday, Feb. 9, 1 p.m., at the  Automobile Driving Museum, where they'll give you a ride in a vintage car. Free screening and popcorn, with a $5 suggested donation. 610 Lairport Street, El Segundo, CA 90245, (310) 909-0950.
  • Wednesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m., at  The Petersen Automotive Museum, where they'll be showing off several vintage race cars starting at 6pm. RSVP via 323-964-6370 or sscott@petersen.org. 6060 Wilshire Blvd. LA CA 90036, 323-930-CARS.

 

CORRECTION: In our audio interview, Harry Pallenberg gave the wrong dates for the Santa Monica races. They were held from 1909-1919, not 1913-1919.

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