Pebble Beach: the lost West Coast raceway with a Metropolitan air

You may know it better for golf and the concours d'elegance, but in the Fifties this lush resort introduced road racing to America's West Coast

Pebble Beach 2 1950 del Monte Trophy Race

1950 Pebble Beach race gets underway

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All we have to go on is a crumpled circuit map that magazine editor Paul Fearnley pressed into my hand back in England. That and the knowledge that, each year from 1950 to ’56, a race meeting was held at Pebble Beach.

You enter the estate through a security gate just a short drop down from the Pacific Coastal Highway that runs from Los Angeles, through Carmel and Monterey, to San Francisco. The folk at the security hut are friendly and don’t seem too perturbed by the arrival of two Englishmen in a flash red Mustang. They have a map to give us, but as to information about the old circuit, we draw a blank. They suspect that either we are talking about the concours d’elegance, for which we are a month early, or the circuit at Laguna Seca, for which we are somewhat too far south.

Unfortunately, the map does more to lower our hopes of finding the circuit than raise them. Some of the road layout fits bits of our sketchy map, but it’s not possible to neatly overlay new map over old. Our only option is to head for the famous 17-Mile Drive and study our copy of American Sports Car Racing In The 1950s; a cracking book written by Michael Lynch, along with William Edgar and Tony Parravano, whose fathers were both key players in the West Coast’s sports car scene.

Previous Track Tests have an old pit complex or grandstand to give clues to past glories, or at least houses and buildings to help the racing sleuth. Pebble Beach was, still is, all trees. The circuit used access roads that wound around the picturesque pine forest, as well as a section of 17-Mile Drive, a route which winds around the peninsular. Every structure used at the annual races, from grandstands to pits, was temporary furniture, brought in and assembled just for the race weekend. After the meeting it was packed away until next year.

Pebble Beach

Trees a crowd: picturesque forest setting left little room for driver error

Andrew Yeadon

No-one seems overly bothered by the sight of the Mustang and the two shady individuals inside it slowly burbling around, stopping every few minutes and getting out to prop a book open on its roof. Most people round here are more concerned either with their golf swing or their investments.

The stretch of road used as the start/finish line we found quite easily. Bring several lorry-loads of canvas tenting and a large banner and, after a day’s work, the place would look exactly as it did at that first meeting, November 5, 1950. Today you can stand beside this straight strip of Tarmac, lean back against the fencing of an equestrian arena and look across to where the pits would have been.

There’s a couple of official-looking people standing by the arena, so we ask them if they know anything about the circuit. No, they do not. But if we go up to The Lodge and ask for a guy called Neal Hotelling, he will surely be able to help, as he runs the Pebble Beach Company’s archive. Jackpot. By the time we have made our way to Mr Hotelling’s office, he has dug out a large stack of photo albums containing black-and-whites of every Pebble Beach meeting. Better still, he has every race programme. From struggling with an old map and acres of disturbingly similar coniferous trees, we now have the story of Pebble Beach laid out before us. The photographs, a selection of which you see here, perfectly convey the atmosphere.

The programmes are even more fascinating. In them are names that a decade later would be known throughout the racing world: Phil Hill, Richie Ginther, Masten Gregory and, although he never raced in Formula 1 like the others (but nearly won Le Mans in 1966), ex-pat Briton Ken Miles.

Pebble Beach 3 1950 Phil Hill Jaguar XK120 Pebble Beach Cup

Phil Hill celebrates winning Pebble Beach Cup in his Jaguar XJ120 in 1950

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“We were really excited about Pebble Beach,” Hill says, “because this was going to be our first taste of racing on a proper road course. The East Coast people already had Watkins Glen and Bridgehampton, but out on the West Coast we raced on either traditional ovals, like Carrell Speedway, or tracks laid out on airfields, such as Santa Ana and Santa Barbara. We couldn’t wait to get to a proper road circuit.”

Hill drove a modified Jaguar XK120 in the main race at the inaugural Pebble Beach.

Although he won, the weekend didn’t run smoothly: “The XK had absolutely appalling brakes. You didn’t have to drive the car to know that they were going to be terrible, because it was obvious that the cooling ducts in the XK’s sides were there only for show and that the steel wheels would stop the brake heat dissipating. Looking back now it was crazy of us to have tried.

From the archive

“We were just a small team of enthusiasts, but we had cast some special alloy wheels for the Jaguar that incorporated the brake drum into the wheel, just as Bugatti used to do. The trouble was that the wheels got so incredibly hot from the overworked drums that the tyres caught fire. So that was no good and we had to use the standard steel wheels and separate brake drums. The brakes were so bad that they’d fade completely the first time they were used hard. I had to go down an escape road in the preliminary race.”

Yet Hill won despite starting from the back of the grid; the Jaguar’s clutch had burnt out and he had to be push-started.

From the start-finish straight, we drive through the trees on Portola Road to the first corner, a tight right that leads onto Sombaria Lane.

“The roads were pretty narrow and not very well defined,” explains Hill. “Once you were off the asphalt you were onto dirt and then into the trees. It was a pretty dangerous place, with the crowds just held back with snow fencing.”

Pebble Beach 5 test ride

Carefully groomed hedges on today’s Drake Road replace straw bales of 1950

Andrew Yeadon

For the first year a 1.8-mile circuit was used, which was then lengthened to 2.1 miles. From Sondria Lane, you have a short straight to another right-handed corner, again with an escape road dead ahead, after which you take Drake Road. There was no safety net on this part of the circuit; come off along here and you had to hope that the car would spin to a stop before the trees. The last part of it is uphill with crests and kinks; to have driven a sportscar with a power-to-brakes ratio well on the side of terrifying must have required a great deal of confidence.

Cars such as the 6-litre Cadillac-powered Allard owned by Tom Carstens and driven by Bill Pollack in the 1951 event, that year held in April over the longer course.

Pollack and the Allard became a famous pairing in West Coast sports car racing.

According to Hill, “Pollack was the guy to beat”. No doubt lessons learnt the year before put Hill off driving Jag XKs, so for ’51 he drove his recently purchased Alfa 8C. He won the preliminary race in it, so lined up for the 48-lap main event as favourite. But after 20 lead-swapping laps between Pollack, Hill and another Allard-Cadillac driven by Jack Armstrong, Pollack’s white-walled Allard finally took the win.

“Pebble Beach was a beautiful place to hold a race,” remembers Pollack. “There was almost a fantasy quality to the place. The view out to the Pacific Ocean. Sea mists. Fabulous. The atmosphere was very special, too. Although the country’s top sports car drivers would be at Pebble Beach, and a few like myself were driving cars for their owners, it was still very much an amateur event with people turning up and racing their own cars.”

Pebble Beach 4 1955 vinateg car race

Vintage race in 1955

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Two of the best-known entrants were Edgar and Parravano. Both were larger-than-life characters, who perfectly fitted the classy and stylish atmosphere at Pebble Beach. Edgar was definitely the kind of enthusiast of which legend is made. He entered cars for drivers such as Pollack and Jack McAfee; a long list of injuries sustained in hydroplane racing before the war — a set of broken ribs and an absent kidney — had left him in no shape to race cars competitively himself. He had not lost his love of speed however, as he could be seen riding his Vincent Black Lightning around Beverley Hills, until one day he dropped it and broke an arm and shoulder.

Parravano was an even more intriguing personality. This Italian entrepreneur made a fortune in the construction business in California and got the racing bug when McAfee, a talented driver, invited him to the races. Parravano would eventually own a superb scuderia of Ferraris and Maseratis, driven by McAfee, Carroll Shelby, Gregory and Miles. Then, one morning in April 1960, Parravano disappeared. He was never seen again, and mystery still surrounds his disappearance.

The Pebble Beach races of 1952 saw some interesting new machinery. Hill came to the Monterey peninsula with a Ferrari 212 he had bought from Luigi Chinetti. However, he’d already committed to drive a lightweight XK120, so let a friend called Arnold Stubbs drive the 212.

From the archive

Pollack again drove the Cadillac-Allard that he’d driven to a win the year before. This time he led from the start until his fuel light came on with three laps to go. He backed off to save fuel, which would have let Stubbs catch up in the Ferrari if it wasn’t for the fact that he, too, was taking it easy in case he stuffed his friend’s valuable car. Hill finished fourth, no doubt rueing the fact that he wasn’t in his own car.

The Carsten Allard was back again in 1953, with Pollack gunning for a hat trick. This time, though, Hill was better equipped for victory with a new Ferrari 250MM. Yet Pollack still blasted off into an immediate lead, while Hill had to force his way through the field having started on the seventh row. It took Phil 23 laps to catch the leaders and then pass Pollack, who was struggling with brake trouble. The famous Cad-Allard’s reign was over.

This circuit wasn’t just for big-engined sports cars, though. Miles engineered and drove two MG specials here in 1500cc races. He won the class in 1953 thanks to a brilliant drive in teeming wet conditions — not unusual for the Carmel circuit. A win in ’54 looked on as well, until the crankshaft in R-1 snapped.

Miles brought his new R-2 to the races in 1955 and put in another superb performance in the rain. The organisers were so impressed with his class win that they let him run in the main race, too. The brilliant British star finished an incredible third behind Stirling Edwards and winner Hill in Ferrari Monzas.

Pebble Beach 3 1955 XK120 Pebble Beach Cup

Pebble Beach in the mid-fifties: treacherous at the best of times

At the root of it all, however, there was an unshakeable truth: even by the standards of the day, Pebble Beach was a dangerous circuit.

“When the faster sports cars arrived, the writing was on the wall,” recalls McAfee. “It was pretty obvious that eventually there was going to be a problem. And in 1956 Ernie McAfee [no relation to Jack] was killed.” With his death, road racing at Pebble Beach was over — and with it went its unique atmosphere.

“Pebble Beach was different to other places,” remembers McAfee. “The atmosphere was more metropolitan; no doubt because of the culture in San Francisco, which was very different to what we were used to in LA.”

There are rumours that a new golf course is to be built on the land where memories of the old circuit drift, like sea mist, in and out of the trees. If you are ever in the area, perhaps visiting the Pebble Beach Concours polishing contest, you really should take some time off to walk in the woods and marvel at the idea of racing an ex-Le Mans car between the pines.

This place shone more brightly than chrome ever could.

Racing’s lost circuits