The automobile race track in San Luis Obispo, called Exposition Park, had a brief but significant history in early motor racing in the United States. A number of forces brought the track into existence. The end of the First World War in 1918, and along with it an end to the need of American farmers to feed large Allied armies in Europe, saw an agricultural depression sweep over rural communities like San Luis Obispo. In 1922 a group of local businessmen incorporated themselves as the San Luis Obispo Exposition Park, believing that they could lift the local economy by taking advantage of California’s exploding automobile ownership. In 1910 there were only 36,000 cars in the state, in 1922 however, there were nearly 700,000. These businessmen believed that a race track would be a magnet for both new and aspiring automobile owners, and bring much needed commerce to the city.
In the spring of 1922 construction began on a mile long banked oval track with a large single covered wooden grandstand on one straightaway that could seat 1,500 people. By the summer all was completed for $ 6,000.00. The track was built on the south side of the city, appropriately on South Street, in open ground that increasingly sloped upward to a steep mountain. Exposition Park’s banked turn design was inspired by the world’s first enclosed automobile race track at Brooklands in England built fifteen years before, and also on the speedway completed at Indianapolis twelve years previous. With these tracks as models investors hoped that Exposition Park would become the “Indianapolis of the West.” On the front straightaway that paralleled South Street and across from the grandstand, was located a series of spaces for mechanics to work on the cars. Because the ground here rose significantly in the direction of a mountain, the area had to be dug deeply into the upwardly sloping ground to maintain it at track level. This area quickly became known as the “The Pits” and it gave rise to the universal term that today still describes track side space to work on race cars.
The track was dedicated on the fourth of July, 1922, with a series of races featuring local drivers, almost all of which, had built race cars on Model T Ford chassis. All were powered by Ford’s ubiquitous four cylinder engine. These engines were, however, highly modified with over-head valves supplied by Frontenac or Rajo, cams and carburetors developed by Ed and Bud Winfield, and Bosch ignitions. Modifications like these nearly doubled the horse power of the engine and produced straightaway speeds at the track of 90 mph and average race speeds of 80 to 85 mph. As a result of these engines, and the track’s banked turn design, Exposition Park was the fastest dirt track in the country in the early 1920s. Shortly after its opening, and with its reputation spreading, the track drew past and future winners and participants at Indianapolis: Ralph Da Palma (1915), Eddie Hearne (second in 1919, third in 1922, fourth in 1923), Peter De Palo (1925), Louis Moore (second in 1928), and Fred Frame (1932). Although he did not compete, the retired, but still famous Barney Oldfield visited the track in 1923. Local drivers, who were still alive in the 1960s, reported that these national figures, driving larger and more powerful Duesenbergs, Millers, Essex, and Mercer specials were faster, but only marginally so, than the light modified Ts.
The national obsession with the automobile during the post-war period brought Hollywood film makers to the track. As the longest and fastest dirt track in the west it was regarded as a perfect location for films depicting at a high level what many Americans were experiencing in their daily lives. On Labor Day in 1923, only a year after its opening, the track hosted the filming of “Sporting Youth,” (initially titled “There She Goes”) starring Reginald Denny and Laura LaPlant. The grandstand crowd and local racers served as extras with Reginald Denny actually driving a few laps before turning duties over to a second.
In its first two years the romance of speed made the track a financial and racing success. This, however, quickly vanished. Conventional wisdom has always indicated that the failure of the track was the result of the large number of spectators who avoided paying and instead watched the racing from the hill beyond the back straightaway; called “Skinflint Hill” or “Cheapskate Hill.” The loss of a significant number of potentially paying customers certainly did not help the stockholders, but it was almost certainly not the fundamental cause of the end of this “Indianapolis of the West.” In the first two years of racing there were at least five recorded deaths at the track, most of them local drivers, and an even larger number were critically injured never to return to racing. The idea of a western version of the Indianapolis speedway may never have been a possibility in the sparsely populated central coast of California. Nevertheless, the track would always have been able to continue on with the support of local racers who were willing to risk their lives and invest their resources to design and build cars for the entertainment of the public. These sobering tragedies, however, prompted a precipitous decline in local driver interest, entries, and finally spectators. The last race was held in 1925 and the next year the stockholders hoped to obtain public ownership of the track, but that idea failed in a city election in 1926. In the late 1920s the grandstand and the track’s infield were used for high school football games. In 1929 the owners pulled down the grandstand and the area was used by traveling circuses from the 1930s until the 1950s. In the late 1970s a housing development, appropriately called Exposition Park, was built on almost all of the land that once contained the track. The final remnant of this once grand scheme can be seen today on South Street in San Luis Obispo’s Meadow Park. There, the careful observer will see a small portion of the banked northeast turn of this once fastest dirt track in America.
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Thurlow Weed is a vintage Jaguar enthusiast who resides in California.