The history of motor racing in California runs deep. In fact, the Southern California area was once the heart of the country’s auto racing culture. In the early 1900s, speed-freaks raced their cars on dirt tracks, dry lakes, and city streets.
The area was also home to the Los Angeles Motordrome — the world’s first wooden racetrack. The track was built as a way to attract nearby beachgoers, and the first races were held here in 1910. Back then, you could expect to see helmetless racers fly around the one-mile circular track at speeds nearing 100 mph. It attracted some of the biggest racers in history, including Ralph DePalma, Barney Oldfield, and LA’s own “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff.
Sadly, the Motordrome closed due to a fire just three years after it opened. However, the area had acquired a taste for speed that simply wouldn’t go away.
California Drag Racing: 1930s to Today
Drag racing as we know it began in Southern California. In the 1930s, car enthusiasts, known as “hot rodders” started customizing their cars and taking them to local drive-in stands where they could show off their handiwork. This often escalated to them challenging each other to a race so they could determine once and for all who had the fastest vehicle.
By the late 1930s Ernie McAfee had made a name for himself, regularly breaking speed records while racing on the Muroc dry lake beds, located about 50 miles north of LA. However, the passtime wasn’t just illegal, it was also dangerous. This led to a new focus on creating safer, legal drag racing options.
In the 1950s, Creighton Hunter and C.J. “Pappy” Hart and brought legal drag racing to Orange County. They’re responsible for founding the Santa Ana Drag Strip, which took advantage of an unused runway at the Orange County Airport. While organized drag racing was safer on the runway, the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause glorified street racing, eventually creating an entire subculture of young people with a “need for speed.”
From drag racing and drifting and organized Cannonball Runs, illegal street racing came back again, catching on like wildfire. Today, most street racing is legally organized. They’re now referred to as “road rallies.”
The Rise of California’s Racing Tracks
The 1.25-mile Los Angeles Speedway (also called the Beverly Hills Speedway) was built in 1919. By the early 1920s, this oval-shaped wooden track regularly brought in huge crowds, easily holding 50,000 to 70,000 fans.
As time passed, more than 170 official racing venues popped up around Southern California. In the 1940s and 1950s, the area was the world’s racing hotspot. Unfortunately, as the population exploded, many tracks were plowed over to make room for developments.
Some still survived, though.
One notable example is the Irwindale Speedway, which opened in March of 1999. It still remains open today, despite having filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2012. In 2015, plans were made to demolish the speedway and build an outlet mall on the site. However, in 2017, former driver and racing champion Tim Huddleston and Bob Bruncatti, the owner of K&N West, purchased the speedway. At that time, they announced that the track would stay open for another five years.
Another thriving local track is the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, also known as the Pomona Raceway. This racing facility features a quarter-mile dragstrip that has been a popular attraction since it was first founded in 1961. To this day, it’s still considered one of the most famous dragstrips in North America. It’s currently the site of the NHRA’s Winternationals and the NHRA Finals.
Though it has ebbed and flowed over the years, California’s love of racing never died. Racing events across the state continue to attract hundreds of thousands of fans every year.