Automobile engines were what put the roar into the Roaring 20s.
In San Luis Obispo a palace to the newfangled automobile was constructed between two monuments of the railway, it was called Exposition Park. The roundhouses for the Southern Pacific and the Pacific Coast Railway were near opposite ends of South Street. The narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway ran up South Street from a roundhouse and shop near the corner of Higuera and South. Southern Pacific’s was located behind what is now the main fire station. By the time the article below was written all three would be half remembered relics.
Gasoline, exhaust and hot rubber were the perfume that brought motorheads to South Street in San Luis Obispo. At the time it was blue-collar area on the fringe of town.
One of the largest grandstands ever built in the county was at Exposition Park.
I took the liberty of cleaning up a few typos in the following story. The post Labor Day typesetter even fumbled the byline. Veteran reporter Elliott Curry had a chance to interview eyewitnesses to the spectacle, originally published Sept. 4, 1968.
Labor Day recalls great era of S.L.O. auto racing
World records were broken at Exposition Park
Forty years have passed since the roar of big time auto racing engines faded from the San Luis Obispo scene, but for some of those who took part in those dramatic events of long ago, Labor Day brings many memories.
There were a few brief years, 1922 to 1924, when San Luis Obispo had a dream of becoming the auto racing capital of the west, the Indianapolis of California. They built here the “world’s fastest dirt track” and some of the biggest names in auto racing flashed around the one mile oval.
The dream never quite came true, but the record of those years wrote a colorful chapter in San Luis Obispo history which today only a few recall.
Three members of a racing team that helped write the story of those days were Johnnie Holmes, R.E. Heidorn and Earl Crampton, and they all remember very well the events that drew thousands to Exposition Park.
Holmes, now retired after 43 years with the PG&E, was one of the top drivers at the old track. Heidorn, retired city police captain and former chief o the department, built one of the cars which Holmes drove. Crampton, retired school shop superintendent, now lives at Atascadero and was associated with both Holmes and Heidorn. He helped Heidorn build his auto from a Model-T block, and he rode as mechanic with Holmes in some of the early races when the cars carried two men.
The park, with its huge wooden grandstand and one-mile dirt track, was located just off South Street. The curved bank of the track is still plainly visible near the government housing project which occupies part of the site. The grandstand faced toward the mountain from South Street and collapsed in a windstorm some years after the era of racing had passed.
The main part of construction on the track was done by Holmes and Fred Wallace, who owned the California Garage, located on Higuera Street where the Sears store stands. The track was first used for the fourth of July celebration in 1922 in what the Morning Tribune called “a milestone in the city progress.”
Holmes has no doubt that the San Luis Obispo track was the fastest dirt track in use in the United States at the time. The races were sanctioned by the American Automobile Association, which still directs racing in this country, but the world records set here never became official because they were timed with stop watches. Only electrical timing devices were acceptable.
Some great crowds gathered to see the races, most of which were held either the Fourth of July or Labor Day, but there was one large catch which eventually proved the death of the whole idea. Much of the crowd failed to pay.
“Thousands of persons watched the races from the hill across the track the grandstand,” Holmes recalls. “It came to be known as ‘Cheapskate Hill.”
Purses were also considered inadequate by some. For the opening race in 1922, purses totaled $2,000, of which $500 was for the final heat. Drivers did not appreciate risking their lives for this kind of financial reward when hundreds were getting a free look.
At least two racers were killed on the track. Enos Bello of Santa Maria was killed when he hit a colt on the track while practicing for the opening day. Horace Wallace, a nephew of Fred Wallace, was killed in a race in 1924.
High point of auto racing in San Luis Obispo was reached in the Labor Day celebration of 1923. Not only did the city have auto racing that ye4ar, but the track was the scene for the filming of “There She Goes,” [note: the working title was changed, released as "Sporting Youth"] an auto racing epic starring Reginald Denny and Laura LaPlant.
The crowds in the grandstand that year became part of the cast for the picture, with Director Harry Pollard signaling from a platform when he wanted their biggest cheers.
Johnnie Holmes was to have appeared in that picture but for him that was the year of near fatal tragedy. The day before the filming took place, the left steering arm on Holmes’ Ford special broke as he was taking one of the curves and he was sent hurtling through the air to land on his face. His jaw was shattered, his face badly cut, and for 11 days he lay unconscious.
There was not only no ambulance at the track but there was none in town. A friend took the door off a nearby chicken house, loaded Holmes onto it, and rushed him to the hospital atop a Maxwell car.
“They said it looked like I was thrown for 50 feet through the air,” Holmes recalls today. A community dance was staged to help pay some of his hospital bills.
“You wouldn’t think it,” Holmes said, “but those Model T specials used to get up to 100 miles an hour at times.” With a basic Model T, the mechanics of that day souped it up with overhead valves and special pistons and carburetors until they had something that Henry Ford would hardly have recognized.
One of the big danger points Holmes remembers was in the tires. “The old cotton tires were quickly torn to pieces under high speeds.”
Among the famous drivers who appeared here were Ralph De Palma, who won the Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1915, and Peter DePaolo, who won it in 1925. Da Palma set a track time of 40 minutes, 35 seconds for 50 miles on Sept. 7, 1924. Holmes said that most of the famous drivers, however, found that their big Duesenbergs were too heavy for the track here.
Fred Luelling, who died during the past year, was perhaps the most famous of the local drivers. In one racing meet in 1925 he set five world records for dirt track racing at distances from one to 60 miles.
Automobile racing and driving have come a long way since the Roaring Twenties yet both the luxury sedan and the dragster owe something to the pioneers of those days. Heidorn and Cramption putting together a racing car in the back yard of the Heidorn home at 1417 Marsh Street, were forerunners of today’s sophisticated mechanics who aim at speeds far over 100 mils an hour.
Johnnie Holms saw his racing career cut short but he never lost his love of driving. In later years he rebuilt a 1904 Reo that became a familiar entry in holiday parades. It was slow but it too represented some of the passing parade of auto history that once touched San Luis Obispo for a few unforgettable years.