The specter of death has hovered over auto racing from its earliest days. Though many of the advancements in automotive engineering can be traced to lessons learned in the crucible of competition, the knowledge has had a price in human lives. From hydraulic brakes to crumple zones many safety features were first test driven on a race track before they found their way into the standard equipment installed on the assembly line.
From 1922 to 1925 one of the premier stops on the dirt track circuit was Exposition Park in San Luis Obispo. The one mile banked oval gave drivers a chance to open up the throttle and world record dirt track speed marks were set during the brief life of the track. Local racer Fred Luelling competed with national racing stars like Ralph DePalma and speeds topped 80 miles per hour. The track was haunted tragedy with 4 fatal accidents during its brief 3 year life. In the end the track was not economically viable. In retrospect it may have been a mistake to locate the venue near a hill where the cheapskates could watch without paying admission.
The front page of the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram was remade into an EXTRA edition to carry the big news of the September 3, 1923:
Luelling Wins 60-Mile Labor
Day Auto Race in Record Time
Fred Luelling of this city won the final sixty-mile event at the San Luis Obispo Exposition Park this afternoon, the event being the climax of the San Luis Obispo County fair.
Five world's records were broken by the local driver, making new times for the one mile, ten mile, fifteen mile, twenty mile and twenty-five mile distance. His time for the sixty miles was 47 minutes and 58 seconds.
Luelling made a mile in the second lap in 42 1-5 seconds, 2-5 seconds less than the previous record for a mile dirt track made by Ralph DePalma in a Ballot at Syracuse, N.Y. Sept, 18, 1920.
(According to my calculations a race average of 73.6 miles per hour and the single fastest lap at 85.4 mph.)
Though death did not visit the track this day there was mayhem. Another story on the front page carries details of a driver and five others injured, including three children, when Louis Wilson's Duesenberg clipped the outside rail then came back inside rolling end over end into the infield in front of the stands. A third story updates the condition of local driver, Johnnie Holmes who had been injured the day before when the steering knuckle snapped on his car.
Prize money for the races totaled $2,250, the largest purse offered at the speedway including the $250 prize split between individuals who could beat the world's record speed for the mile, five, and ten mile distances on a dirt track.
The Labor Day races of 1923 provided a backdrop fit for Hollywood when they shot the film that would become "Sporting Youth". The movie's working title was "There He Goes" and the Telegram said director Harry Pollard planned to film at Exposition Park and 17 Mile Drive in Carmel. The stars were Reginald Denny and Miss. Laura LaPlant. The movie poster is said to be in the auto racing poster collection at Indianapolis Speedway.
The Telegram synopsis of the plot has Denny cast as the chauffeur of a wealthy eastern man who comes to the west coast with one of the rich man's automobiles. Jimmy Wood wants to win the attention of a girl and hits on the plot of racing his employer's car for a $10,000 prize. Wood is mistaken for a famed English driver, comedy of errors ensues the race and girl are won. This Universal Motion Picture must be one of the earliest major studio features filmed in the county. The footage above may be outtakes or a promotional film made at the track.
An excellent overview of early racing in the region, including the three year history of Exposition Park, can be found in the book The Achievers, Central California's Engineering Pioneers edited by Tod Rafferty.
In other news on the front page, reports were coming in that Japan was devastated by the great Kanto earthquake followed by fire and a 40 foot tsunami. The death toll would be estimated at 140,000 — hard hit were Tokyo and Yokahama.