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Racing Scene - Venice Grand Prix Centennial

Racing Scene - Venice Grand Prix Centennial
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Venice, CA. - The first and only Venice Grand Prix took place on March 17, 1915. Legendary race car driver Barney Oldfield, at age 37, won that 300.7-mile road race in a Maxwell. One hundred years later to the day (Tuesday, March 17) a group of 50+ racing aficionados and local historians gathered on St. Patrick's Day to commemorate that event. Titled “Celebration – 100 years, 3/17/1915 – 3/17/2015”, the event took place at the Del Monte Speakeasy downstairs bar/meeting room of Menotti's Townhouse, 52 Windward Ave., half a block from the eclectic Venice beach and Pacific Ocean.
 
Pre-and post meeting discussions lasted about two hours, with dual presentations lasting from 5:30-6:30 pm. Host Louie Ryan supplied the free “Paddy's Day” Irish stew, with Irish whiskey and Irish coffee available. The two-hour program had a pair of knowledgeable, enthusiastic authors/historians split the photo slide show, narrative into parts one and two. They were flawless and professorial in their subject knowledge and enthusiastic presentations. Attendees included: J. C. Agajanian, Jr. and wife Franci, radio host Bill Wood, Howie Zechner, Autoweek writer Mark Vaughn, and photographer Albert Wong.
PART ONE: Author Todd von Hoffmann, of the Venice Historical Museum, gave a 20-minute presentation and photo slide show about Venice history and the century-old building housing us that evening. It started as Menotti's Grocery and became Menotti's Buffet; that name in tiles was still prominent inside the entrance.
 
 
 
Del Monte Speakeasy Basement
 
During the US Prohibition Era (1929-1939) the building was an actual speakeasy with a now-sealed tunnel leading under the street to another building. Booze flowed freely at all hours to thirsty imbibers. The basement even had ladies of the night in a red light room. Charlie Chaplin, who perfected his “Little Tramp” character at Venice beach, was a speakeasy visitor.
 
Venice was part of the Rancho Ballona land grant of the 1700s and included marshland. Land developer Abbot Kinney (1850-1920) envisioned Venice as “the Coney Island of the Pacific”. He built a grand lagoon. plus water-filled canals and imported gondolas and gondoliers from Venice, Italy. In 1905, Venice was established as a city; it became a part of the City of Los Angeles in 1925. A photo showed the Venice 2.5-mile steam-powered miniature railroad train that Kinney built to showcase the area to prospective lot buyers. Automobiles grew in popularity in those years and the taxi business started. Dirt roads were the only way to travel from Los Angeles west to Venice. Kinney in 1910 built a paved mile-long road from north to south and called it Speedway to show drivers the road of the future. The street still exists with that name.
 
Map of 1.3 Mile Venice GP Course
 
Baseball player Babe Ruth became a major national figure in 1915. Woodrow Wilson was US President and the US population was 100,546,000. The unemployment rate was 8.5%. Paramount Pictures and Harold Lloyd were prominent. “Birth of a Nation” was the blockbuster movie of 1915. Marshal Wyatt Earp, of 1881 Tombstone, Ariz. Gunfight at the OK Corral fame lived in Los Angeles at 4004 17th St. (near Crenshaw Blvd.) from 1910 until his 1929 death (cancer) in LA at age 80. Wyatt attended the Venice GP. The Vernon Tigers (south LA) became the Venice Tigers pro baseball team in 1915 and operated for two years.
 
The city of Santa Monica (just north of Venice) had the established Vanderbilt Cup auto race. Venice had a junior Vanderbilt Cup kids race in two-cylinder open-kart type cars. Youth, not wearing helmets, raced for a $1,400 purse and were awarded six silver cups; one cup is still on display. The 14-year old winner completed the race in 37-minutes.
Von Hermann continued his presentation by saying in 1957 Revell Co. model car kits were manufactured in Venice. Racer Carroll Shelby built his famous Cobra cars at 1042 Princeton St. in Venice during the 1960s. A photo of actor Steve McQueen taking delivery of his Cobra at the factory was shown. Drag racer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth had a shop in Venice. Movie director Roger Corman shot his 1975 movie “Death Race 2000” in Venice.
PART TWO: Racing historian/book author Harold Osmer gave his 40-minute presentation complete with slide photos of the 1915 Venice GP. Osmer, half of the auto racing program publishing duo--The Program Guys, delighted attendees with his presentation. Wearing an Indiana Jones-like brown fedora, the bearded speaker regaled his enthralled audience with detailed facts and on-screen photos of the 2015 Venice GP. He explained that his masters degree thesis in geography from Cal State University--Northridge led to his study of land uses and auto racing tracks in Southern California. He said since 1903 more auto racing has taken place in So Cal than anywhere in the world. There have been 174 race tracks in the area. His research led to “Where the Raced” (Volume I and II),“Real Road Racing, The Santa Monica Road Races” and “Saugus Speedway” books. He showed an aerial photo of the one mile horse track around the LA Memorial Coliseum during festival week (an early LA County Fair).
Elks Tooth Turn
 
Barney Oldfield and his early racing exploits in a Stearns six-cylinder, 1,800 rpm race car in the Altadena-Pasadena races in 1906-09 were discussed. His speed increased from 12 mph in '06 to 38 mph in '09. Osmer covered the Playa del Rey Motodrome one mile circular track made out of wood with 18-degree banks. Fans watched from the infield as stripped down stock cars raced. Races were promoted with full page newspaper ads. Motorcycles raced 100 mph and cars ran 97 mph. Cars ranged from 35-60 HP to Oldfield's 200 HP car. Official race programs cost ten cents. Spectators came from LA by train and other attractions included camel rides. The area today is Marina del Rey, a residential area developed in the early1960s. “There is no trace of the track today,” the speaker said, “I looked for it.”
 
 
Next Osmer described the “Race for Life” attraction in which a man drove a stripped-down Hames motorcar 8-10 miles at 55-70 mph on a board track with 75-degrees banking. Halver Shain was killed on 12/30/1912 driving in this early auto thrill show. He then discussed Culver City Speedway at Lincoln and Washington Blvd (where Costco is today). It was built as a dog racing track. Culver City annexed the site and it ran midgets and jalopies in the late 1940s-50s. Movies, such as “The Big Wheel” staring Mickey Rooney, shot racing scenes there.
 
Osmer also discussed the Red Car streetcar system and the 1950s-60s conversion to more maneuverable buses for non-rail mass transit. He discussed the Santa Monica road race that ran from 1909-1919. It ran on Montana Ave. and Wilshire Blvd. and was 8.4 miles per lap. That was considered a short course because the Long Island road race was 20+ miles per lap. He described and showed photos of race souvenirs of the day, including pennants and printed race programs.
 
 
Osmer showed a map of the Venice GP 1.3 mile race course. The track ran counter-clockwise as horse races did. Start/finish was on Electric Ave. near Venice Blvd.; the track went east on Venice Blvd to Lincoln Blvd., which is now the four-lane wide Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1). The track turned left and went north on Lincoln to Rose Ave., then left on Rose to Hampton Drive, and left on Hampton to a jog onto Electric Ave., where grandstands were located. A two-story house at Rose & Hampton pictured in a race day photo is still there. Turns were made out of wood and banked to increase lap speed.
 
Race promoters installed a canvas-covered wall around the track to force people to buy a ticket if they wanted to see the race. An estimated 60,000 persons attended. There were five gates and crossover bridges for infield admission. The race was 97 laps and it was a balmy 85 degrees on race day. I worked from 1970-73 in a two-story building on Lincoln at Rose and never knew that famous Barney Oldfield raced past my workplace 55 years earlier. Ironically, my work site has been replaced by newer commercial buildings, while the house shown in 1915 at Rose and Hampton still stands.
 
The Venice GP was round six of a 27 race 1915 AAA National Championship Trail. Nine races were on road courses, seven on dirt ovals and Indianapolis Motor Speedway was classified a brick oval. Points were not awarded in 1915. Later points were awarded and Earl Cooper was named 1915 national champion. Ten race distances were 100-miles. Other distances were 300, 350, 400 and 500 miles (Indy 500) on May 31. The season ran from January 9 to November 25. Race sites prior to Venice were: San Diego road course,-Jan. 9, Glendale road course-Feb. 3, Ascot dirt oval Feb. 7, and two on a road course in San Francisco (American Grand Prize-Feb. 27) and (Wm. K. Vanderbilt Cup-Mar. 6). Following Venice, on Mar. 20 teams raced 103.152 miles on the Tucson road course. Subsequent races were in Oklahoma City, Galesburg, Ill., Chicago, Sioux City, Tacoma oval (July 4-5), Omaha, Burlington, Des Moines, Chicago, Elgin, Ill. road course (Aug. 20-21), Kalamazoo, Minneapolis, Providence, Astor Cup-Sheepshead Bay, (Oct. 9), Harkness Gold Medal Race at Sheepshead (Nov. 2), Phoenix dirt oval Nov. 20, and San Francisco dirt oval 100-(the third SF race).
 
 
The 1915 AAA National Champion Earl Cooper raced in 14 races. He scored five victories, four seconds, two fourths, plus one DNS. P.2-Dario Resta started nine races. He won five, was second once and had one DNS. P. 3-Gil Anderson raced eight times. He won twice, had two seconds and one each third and fourth. P. 4-Eddie O'Donnell raced 17 of the events and won three times. He added a pair of seconds and five thirds. P. 5-Eddie Rickenbacker made 12 starts. He won three, and added two thirds and a fourth with one DNS. P.6-Ralph DePalma started 11 times, won twice, placed second once and added three fourths with one DNS. P.7-Barney Oldfield raced in 15 of 27 events, won twice (Venice and Tucson), had one second, two thirds, and one fourth to go along with three DNS. P.8-Bob Burman made 13 starts, won twice, had three seconds, one third and one fourth, plus two DNS.
 
RACE FACTS: The Venice GP started 18 of 23 cars present. All were two-man cars of the day. The starting field included ten Indianapolis 500 drivers; three Indy 500 drivers did not start. Indy 500 vets in the Venice GP were: (in order of finish) P. 1 Oldfield (1914 & 16 Indy 500 vet); P. 2 Billy Carlson (1914-15 Indy 500 starter who finished ninth both years); P. 5 Eddie Hearne (a nine-time Indy 500 vet between 1911-27); P. 6 Cliff Durant (a six-time Indy driver from 1919-28); P. 7 Louis Disbrow (1911-14); P. 8 Dave Lewis (four time Indy starter from 1916-27); P. 10 Eddie Rickenbacker (two-time Indy 500 driver); P. 12 Art Klein (five time Indy 500 vet from 1914-22); P. 13 Harry Grant (four-time Indy 500 driver 1911, 13-15), and P. 18 Eddie Pullen (a 1921 Indy 500 driver). Non-starters who were Indy 500 vets included Harold Hall (1911), Hughie Hughes (1911-12) and Louis Nikrent (1913).
 
 
Car chassis in the Venice race included three Maxwell cars designed by 1911 Indy 500 winner Ray Harroun. Other car makes that also had engines by the car builder were: Mercer, Bugatti, Case, Simplex, Stutz, Chalmers, King, Delage, Chevrolet and National. Cars that missed the race were: Hercules, Napier, Simplex, Fiat and Mercer.
Cliff Durant started on the pole in the No. 9 Stutz. WW I flying ace/future Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner/Eastern Airlines President Eddie Rickenbacker was alongside in the No. 12 Maxwell. Oldfield started 12th in the No. 1 Maxwell, a four-cylinder engine that produced 445 horsepower. Carlson started 14th in the second of three Maxwell entries and finished second. Carlson was killed on 7/4/15 in a race at Tacoma, Wash., just 11 weeks after the Venice GP. Oldfield finished the 97 laps (300 miles) in 4:24.02.4 at an average speed of 68.438 mph. Carlson averaged 68.261 mph. Seven of 18 starters finished with five on the lead lap. Glover Ruckstell, John Marquis and Eddie Hearne also completed 97 laps. P 6 Durant and P. 7 Disbrow also were running but were flagged off the course. Osmer said starting in 1913 the checkered flag concluded racing for all cars. Prior to that year all cars raced until they completed the full distance.
 
The heart-breaker of the day befell race leader Dave Lewis who started 11th in his No. 7 Stutz. He had a huge lead of seven minutes with two laps remaining when his crankshaft broke. He placed eighth. That mechanical failure cost him the $3,500 first place money. In today's dollars (per Bureau of Labor Statistics) that equates to $81,370. In 1915 the Venice victory was the equivalent of three years of earnings because the average income was $1,076 annually. Cars in 1915 cost about $500 vs. $31,252 today; a house cost $4,800 vs. today's $177,600 nationally. A gallon of gas cost 12-14 cents vs.$3.35 currently. First class postage cost two cents vs. 49 cents now.
 
 
Other causes for dropouts were: broken oil line, engine problem (three), broken crankcase (two), radiator leak, broken connecting rod (two), and stripped gears. Oldfield maintained a steady pace and won the race without making a pit stop. Runner-up Carlson stopped seven seconds to add a quart and a half of oil and trailed the winner by 41.2 seconds. Stories about the Venice GP ran in newspapers across the nation and gave the city desired publicity. Firestone Tire and Maxwell Cars ran ads featuring their Venice victory.
 
OLDFIELD: Osmer spoke about winner Oldfield, who was born on 1/29/1878 in Fulton County, Ohio. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 68 on 10/4/1946 in Beverly Hills and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City (near Venice). He was a bicycle racer to 1902 and bellhop in a Toledo hotel where he dropped his given name Berna Eli in favor of the name Barney. A co-worker called his given name sissy. Then little known automaker Henry Ford hired Barney, 24, to race his Ford against the favorite Winton bullet in a five-mile race. Barney won by half a mile. Barney was a showman and barnstormed around the country where he would win two out of three match races arranged by his agent Will Pickens. On June 20, 1903 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds mile oval Barney became the first to run a mile in 60 seconds. Barney made up to $1,000 per appearance when Henry Ford paid his factory workers $5.00 per day, generous for that time. Barney traveled in his own lavish private railroad car. He also appeared in movies and on the Broadway stage.
 
Speaker Harold Osmer and J.C Agajanian Jr
 
Barney is considered the first “outlaw” because the major sanctioning body AAA suspended him numerous times. Barney raced an airplane in 1910; he also raced black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and won in Brooklyn, N.Y on 10/25/1910. Many photos pictured him with a cigar in his mouth. He was more a barnstormer than a circuit follower after 1910 when professional drivers started winning more. He won the 1914 Cactus Derby Los Angeles to Phoenix race on dirt roads. He was proclaimed “Master Driver of the World” and was among the first national sports celebrities. Even non-racing fans knew Oldfield's name the way A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were known by the general public from the 1960s onward.
 
Oldfield's record in Indianapolis 500: He competed twice (1914 and 1916) and drove a Stutz both years. He drove No. 3 in 1914 and started 30th with a qualifying speed of 87.250 mph (24th best speed overall). He finished fifth and ran all 200 laps. In 1916 he drove car No. 15, started fifth with a speed of 94.330 mph (fifth best speed overall) and again placed fifth with all 120 laps. The WW I Indy 500 was scheduled for only 300 miles. He completed all 320 laps and finished both races, but he did not lead any Indy 500 laps. Osmer said Venice winner Oldfield could be considered the forerunner of baseball star Babe Ruth, who also was a bigger than life sports figure in the 1920s. Traffic cops in past decades asked speeders, “Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?” Winning the 1915 Venice GP helped Oldfield attain his legendary status.