Before the gold rush

US stock car racing boomed thanks to NASCAR. But its roots were planted in unlikely territory: California dirt
By Jonathan Ingram

Many claims have been made about the location of the first race in America for production cars, which came to be known as stock cars. The majority of these accounts concern bootleggers racing in cornfields in the South, stories often told for the benefit of Southern pride and pre-race publicity by whiskey trippers-turned-race car drivers. But there's little dispute about which race was the first to establish that stock cars could generate speed, excitement and a large crowd of ticket-buying enthusiasts.

This landmark race was held near the coastline in rutted, sandy soil and featured cars powered by the engine that convinced bootleggers they could outrun Revenuers despite cars laden with whiskey — the Ford flathead V8. But it wasn't at Daytona Beach: it was held on the California coast, far from the birthplace of NASCAR.

Run in February 1934 in an already car-crazy Los Angeles, the Gilmore Gold Cup was a spellbinding event that lived up to the standards of its promoter William Pickens, a publicist known for finding new ways to sell tickets to an admiring public, such as pitting a biplane against cigar-smoking barnstormer Barney Oldfield's Fiat around oval speedways. When it came to the idea of racing stock production cars three decades on, Pickens was the middleman in a trio driven by a desire to sell gasoline and Ford cars.

Keen to promote his Gilmore Gasoline, oilman Earl B Gilmore liked sponsoring the 'Big Cars', as Indy-style machines were known, in national championship events sanctioned by the AAA, including the Indy 500. But in the early 1930s, the demise of board tracks and the economic downturn had reduced the AAA's national championship schedule. Looking for new avenues, Gilmore teamed with Pickens and Ford dealers to create the Gilmore Gold Cup. A four raceseries, this started on a public roads circuit in Elgin, Illinois before moving to LA for the second race. To tout the performance of the new flathead V8, LA Ford dealers provided Roadsters, while Pickens recruited well-known driving stars.

They were to race on a new, purpose-built oiled dirt track near what is now Los Angeles International Airport. The Mines Field track had a long front straight and an ample viewing area for spectators, but to give fans a closer view of all the action the back straight bowed in toward the front. Slewing out of the east turn, drivers could hit 90 miles an hour on the front straight before downshifting into second gear for the west turn.

Given that the field was made up of racing blue-bloods, including Indy 500 winners Louis Meyer and Pete De Paulo, future Indy victors Wilbur Shaw and Kelly Petillo plus local heroes like Rex Mays, who would win the pole at just over 70mph, the Mines Field race had a high profile. Dignitaries included flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker and famed French racer Leon Duray, while a parade of cars and drivers was held on LA's Broadway to promote Ford's Roadsters and ticket sales.

The AAA was to verify that the drivetrain was entirely stock on the cars, although bumpers, fenders, headlights and windscreens could be removed. The majority of the entries, 23, were Ford Roadsters, but one Chrysler, a Chevrolet, one Plymouth and a Rochne also ran. Due to the expected rutting of the soil and the necessary pit stops for fuel and tyre changes, the average speed of the race was anticipated as around 60mph.

On the morning of the race the LA Times described the event as "A new era in the enthralling history of automobile history on the Coast. After four hours of chilling speed, breath-taking daring and courageous endurance," ran the story, "the 50,000 fans who are expected to line the well-oiled surface will have been shown just how well their own little runabouts compare with the other various makes of light cars on the road."

The inaugural race at Mines Field drew a crowd estimated at 75,000 by the Times, many in their own vehicles as well as some temporary grandstands after paying $2 a ticket, then a large sum. They saw an outstanding event where local heroes 'Stubby' Stubblefield and Al Gordon fought for victory in the closing stages. Coverage could also be heard on a local radio station.

"And so it went," reported the paper, "Gordon taking unbelievable chances and making up time in the dangerous east curve and Stubblefield gaining it back on the straight-aways. ...Gordon kept the entire assemblage in a state of breathless suspense with his wild antics, to no avail."

In a result eerily familiar to the first race at the Daytona Speedway in February 1959, the first Mines Field event took three days to determine a winner. It was not until Thursday that fans were informed 'Stubby' Stubblefield, who was passed during his pit stop by Gordon in the late going, was the winner after a re-check of the scoring.

Adding controversy, Gordon waived his right to check Stubblefield's entry for non-stock equipment when the official results were changed, and the two were shown shaking hands in a publicity photo announcing the new winner.

At a time when Detroit was flooding the American market with relatively low-cost automobiles, the Mines Field race established a precedent when it came to the crowd appeal of stock cars. In this light, the Mines Field race had as much to do with the origins of NASCAR as the bootlegging in the Appalachian mountains.

Among those taking note were the city fathers of the Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach areas, the scene of land speed record attempts since 1906. Following the death of record chaser Frank Lockhart at Daytona in 1928 and the shift of Sir Malcolm Campbell and his ilk to the relatively safer hazy heat of the Bonneville Salt Flats to pursue land speed records, the entrepreneurs of Daytona Beach were forced to look for a new way to draw tourists to the unpredictable, often chilly climate of north Florida in the winter months. The success of the "spine-tingling" Mines Field event one year earlier in Los Angeles offered a solution. If a stock car race could replace the glory of the established 'Big Cars' in California, why not give the stock cars a try on the beach in Daytona?

Starting in 1936, the race on the sands of Daytona and Highway A1A lost money for the city in its first two years, largely because fans had become accustomed to watching the land speed record vehicles for no charge and often occupied the course without buying a ticket. Then in 1938 driver turned promoter Bill France took over the race promotion and the rest is better known history than events at Mines Field.

Whatever happened to the track in Los Angeles? It was the reverse of the situation in Daytona Beach, because the successful event in California soon folded in the absence of its charismatic pitch man. Promoter Pickens contracted blood poisoning when he stepped on a rusty nail at what was officially known as the Municipal Airport Speedway shortly after the first event. He later had his leg amputated and subsequently died in July '34. Without his expertise the race lost momentum. The facility remained active for two more years, but the open-wheel sprint cars, midgets and 'Big Cars' soon took the upper hand.

Affectionately known as an "accelerator of public sentiment", Pickens was lauded for his many promotions in the LA Times obituary, which concluded with a note on his ambitions. "He planned and talked of larger and better races for the stock cars," read the obit, "but [Mines Field] was his last big effort."

Two more Gilmore Gold Cup events were held in 1934, one at Ascot Speedway promoted as the 'American Targa Florio'. This failed because fans could watch without buying a ticket as the course left the oval to run on public roads and then returned to the track. Next, the Ford dealers took their cars back and sold them refurbished after the two LA races. In fact, they literally raced on Sunday and sold on Monday!

The last Gold Cup race ran in Oakland on its one mile dirt oval that same year. Despite the end of the Cup, Oakland's dirt mile hosted stock car races until WWII.

This new thing of racing production vehicles took hold at places like Ft Wayne's mile oval in Indiana and elsewhere in the Midwest, too. Thanks to the success of the races run by 'Big Bill' France in Daytona, the mile dirt tracks at Lakewood in Atlanta and Langhorne near Philadelphia also began promoting stock car events in the late 1930s where previously they had focused on barnstormers and Indy cars.

The race to promote stock cars was on.