Fast Digs: The Other Bike Racing Venues of Los Angeles...

From the first invention of the bicycle, opportunities for races have been limited only by the imaginations of the competitors. Roads have long offered nearly unlimited possibilities to challenge other riders, not to mention ourselves. For this story, though, I want to leave the roads behind, in favor of more uniquely identifiable raceways - the tracks and velodromes around which many of the earliest competitions revolved. While today's velodromes, with their oval shape and steeply banked turns are the common image, this was not always the case. Many older race tracks were built around other athletic facilities and were virtually flat, with very shallow turns. Where cycle tracks did not exist, flat running tracks and even horse racing tracks might fill in.


Edward Hopper's famous 1937 "French Six-day Bicycle Rider"

Most people who follow the sport of cycling will know of the two existing velodromes in the Los Angeles region - the Encino Velodrome, which opened in 1961, and the Velo Sport Center in Carson which opened in 2004. All but the youngest are also likely to know of the Olympic Velodrome, constructed in 1981 and 1982 for the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984. This latter velodrome, previously located in Carson near the current world-class Velo Sport Center, was demolished in 2003. All three of these well-known venues have distinguished histories of hosting top-calibre competitions. But, what I want to consider, are some of the less well-known venues of the more distant past.

When one considers the popularity of track racing, especially the so-called Six-Day Races of the early decades of the 1900s, it is not so surprising that numerous venues in Los Angeles held specially constructed wooden ovals for racing. Among these were the Rose Bowl, the Pan Pacific Auditorium, Gilmore Stadium, the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Olympic Auditorium, Hollywood's Winter Garden, and Montebello Stadium. Though it wasn't until nearly three decades into the 1900s until the first Six-Day Races were promoted on the West Coast, does not mean that the action elsewhere was not being closely followed. A brief story from May 13, 1899 in the Los Angeles Herald includes a recounting of a record breaking night (May 12) which took place during a New York Six-Day. Additionally, other types of bicycle races were widespread in California, and racing clubs were proliferating, as the sport grew in popularity from between the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. By the time the Sixes reached San Francisco first, and later Los Angeles, there was a ready and passionate following.

The races in Los Angeles, like those elsewhere in America and Europe, were great social events, attracting movie stars, socialites, power brokers, politicians. Often times these people were given prominent, if honorary, roles in the races; for instance at the October 1937 Six-Day in Los Angeles, Bing Crosby served as the honorary starter. Spectators would put up $10, $15 or even $25 primes over the course of the competition in order to keep the action fast. Canadian racer Torchy Peden who, during his lengthy career, rode in 148 Six-Day Races, winning 38 times, noted "Hey, 10 bucks was a lot of money for us back then." A bag of groceries might even be offered as a prime, "a handsome prize in the 1930s." 

In 1932 the Olympic Games came to Los Angeles, and in order to accommodate them organizers took advantage of many existing facilities by constructing new, temporary venues around (or within) them. Such was the case with cycling's track events, for which a wooden velodrome was constructed within the Rose Bowl. By doing so the Game's organizers were able to take advantage of existing seating, minimizing construction costs. At the back of their minds may also have been the hope of capitalizing on the popularity of the Six-Day Races. As it turned out, the 75,000 capacity Bowl was overkill; attendance at the track events was comparatively sparse. The velodrome held races the 1st to 4th of August; a story in the Winnipeg Free Press notes that 8,000 spectators witnessed Italy defeat Canada in final of the 4,000 meter pursuit race, during which the four-man team of Nino Orsari, Paulo Pedretti, Alberto Chilardi and Atillo Pavesi set a new Olympic record. 


the Olympic track inside the Rose Bowl

The Rose Bowl velodrome was maintained long enough for the Olympic Winners International Bicycle Races to be held there on the 28th of August. Forty-five athletes competed, most of them from Southern California, but others from as far away as Italy and Hungary. Among the better known racers was Henry 'Cocky' O'Brien, a successful Six-Day racer, Frank and Eddie Testa, and Italian Atillo Pavesi. Also in this competition were Pietro Pedretti, Ruggero 'Red' Berti, Marco Cimatti, Alberto Ghilardi, Nate Freeman, Giovanni Consonni, Neil Davidson, Cliff Cole, Russell Allen, Nino Borsari, Buck Ingham, Glen Slaten, Charlie Griffis who, it is noted, was the "holder of the speed record between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles", George Antrobus, Harry Murray, Glen Slaten, Alvin Rivera, Lawrence Nelson, Adolph Govers, Bennie Vezerian, Henry Paronelli, George 'Bus' Parker, Freddie Schultz, Cruz Diaz, Cecil Hardy, Bill Hill, Willy Rabel, Raul Larazolo, Carlo Ceseri, Sebastian Schmidt, Ted Hansen, Boyd Crabtree, Jabe Schwad, Charles Otto, Tony Lugo, and Albert Shusko. The victors at the end of six days of racing were the duo of O'Brien and Louis Berti. Following this, the track was disassembled, much of the wood being used in the construction of La casita del arroyo. It is interesting to note the interconnectedness of groups and events; for instance among the promoters of this race were the Bozzani's, Joseph, Amerigo, and Charlie, who were prominent members of the Italian Cycling Club of Los Angeles.



In 1933 an, as yet, unofficial Six-Day Race was held between the 8th and 14th of January, and won by the team of Henry O'Brien and Al Rivera. I have not seen any indication where this competition was held but fifteen pairs competed. Interestingly O'Brien began the competition partnered with Willie Rabel, but Rabel was forced to abandon with injury on the fourth day of the competition; for the final two days, O'Brien teamed with Rivera. The winning duo of Henry O'Brien and Willie Rabel / Al Rivera rode 1781.6 miles, while the second placed duo, forty-four year old Al Grenda and Eddie Testa, covered 1781.5 miles. Third placed Bobby Echeverra and Irvine Schuller rode for 1781.2 miles.

Two Six-Day events were held in Los Angeles during 1934. The first was run between June 21 and 27, and was held at Gilmore Stadium. The second was held from the 18th to 24th of July at Hollywood's Winter Garden.

The Gilmore Stadium races of June were won by the paired Canadian Lew Rush and Californian Eddie Testa. The official program for this race features the "Two Great Irish Boys, Henry 'Cocky' O'Brien, and Cecil 'Rabbit' Yates", both of whom, being born in the United States, were technically not Irish. It is all a matter of promotion, I suppose. The program also contains short biographies of each competing racer. The pairs for this race were: Reginald 'Iron Man' McNamara and Eddie Testa, Charles 'Moose' Winter and Cecil Yates, Harris 'Skippy' Horder and Lew Rush, Henry O'Brien and Tony Schaller, Irvine 'Mouse' Schueller and Otto Petri, Steve Wagner and Russell Allen, Eddie Triest and Jerrie Rodman, Frank Bartell and Jack McCoy, Bobbie Echeverria and Frank Turano, Bus Parker and Felix LaFenetre, Bruce Risley and Arno Kanitz, Ernie Basquez and Archie Rasmussen, and Neil Davidson with George Antrobus. Following behind Rush and Testa for second place was the pair of Yates and Winter. Yates, who was another prolific racer of the age, competed in fifty-six Six-Day Races between 1932 and 1949, winning sixteen times.

Gilmore Stadium, along with the adjacent Gilmore Field, was among the premier sporting facilities for the city of Los Angeles at the time. The stadium opened in 1934 (interestingly eleven years after the Memorial Coliseum opened) with a crowd capacity of 18,000 spectators. Home to the city's first professional football team, the Los Angeles Bulldogs, the stadium also hosted midget car races, donkey baseball (yes, you read that correctly), dog shows, rodeos, and cricket matches. While the Wikipedia entry for the stadium mentions all these, there is no mention of the Six-Day Races. Esther Williams performed diving and water ballet in a specially constructed pool at the stadium, and President Harry Truman gave his "stiff upper lip" speech there. The Three Stooges filmed their "Three Little Pigskins" at the Stadium. Gilmore Stadium, located between Curson Avenue, Beverly Blvd, Fairfax Ave, and Third Street, was demolished in 1952 to make way for CBS Studios.


Gilmore Stadium

The second of 1934s Six-Day Races in Los Angeles was held at the Winter Garden, in Hollywood. Located at 613 Van Ness Avenue, the facility was originally known as the Glacier Palace, and was built in 1928. At some point in 1934 the building was apparently renamed as the Polar Palace, so for only a brief period between those years was the name Winter Garden used. As its name suggests it was used as an ice skating rink, capable of holding 6500 spectators. A single photo shows the interior of the building with the temporary velodrome constructed for the 1934 races covering the space between the stands. On 16 May 1963 the old wooden building burned to the ground.

The Winter Garden Six-Day Races of 1934, were held between 18 and 24 July, and were contested by nine pairs of racers. The matchings were: Eddie Testa and Reginald McNamara, Freddy Schultz and Bobbie Echevarria, Felix LaFenetre and Geary May, Frank Turano and Jack McCoy, Sebastian Schmidt and Neil Davidson, Pete Hagapian and Charles Moe, 'Bus' Parker with George Antrobus, Cruz Diez was matched with Erne Basquez, but Basquez was replaced by Bruce Risley, and Eddie Lorraine with Dave Landry who replaced Frank Landry. At the end of the six days, Frenchman LaFenetre and May had won the event.



Before the Winter Garden track was dismantled, at the conclusion of the July Six-Day Races, filming began on a production titled "Six-Day Bike Rider". Ostensibly a story of romance, the plot revolves around the Six-Day Race scene, and was clearly intended to capitalize on the international popularity of the event. Numerous racers participated in the filming of the race scenes, including Neil Davidson, Eddie Testa, Pete Hagopian, George 'Bus' Parker, Steve O'Connor, Frank Turano, Freddie Schultz, and Canadian champion Lew Rush. At one point during the filming Rush's front wheel collapsed, sending the rider under the wheels of the camera motorcycle, which crashed as well. In all sixteen riders hit the deck. Rush suffered a possible fractured skull and required thirty stitches for lacerations to his face. Newspaper reports of the incident note that there was little hope held for the recovery of the cameraman. When finished, the film joined a number of similar productions from the era, including the French "Open All Night" and the German film "Um eine Nasenlange", each documenting the Six-Day Races.

Of course, Six-Day Races were not the only types of bicycle competitions taking place over these years and decades. Single day races were also being run, just as they are today, at a wide variety, and less well known venues. One such venue was Montebello Stadium where, on the 25th of November 1934, the Italian Cycling Club of Los Angeles organized the, National Cycling Association sanctioned, California Sprint and Motorpaced Championships. Forty-three athletes competed in the championships. I have not seen much information on Montebello Stadium - a few short mentions, and advertisements for events taking place there, as well as the lone photo below, showing Freddie Schultz and Russell Allen apparently posing during a promotional photos shoot at the venue. I have assumed, because of the lack of information, that the stadium was probably a flat running-style track, but it is difficult to tell by the photo whether it is flat or banked, or what the surface is. The program for this race refers to Montebello Stadium as "The Cradle of Olympic Champions", site of "Amateur & Professional Races", with a "Big Day Every Sunday."



Montebello Stadium, besides its more obvious sporting connection, was also frequently used by various organizations for social, cultural, and political functions. As I have dug deeper I have found that Italian-American groups and labor organizations, in particular, favored the facility. Eventually I made the connection - monte bello, beautiful hills, in Italian - though I find that Italian immigrants played no significant role in the city's founding (the name was in fact suggested by William Mulholland).

Anyway, and whatever the case, Italian-Americans gathered at the stadium regularly for picnics and athletic contests. During these, men would compete against one another at games such as "tiro del formaggio", where twenty-five pound rounds of aged cheese were tossed for distance. In July 1949, for instance, the twelve Los Angeles area Sons of Italy Lodges held a picnic with an all-day program of sporting events. There is no indication whether cycling was a part of the festivities. Similarly, in the biography of Nelson J. Baldo, it is noted that "Mr. Baldo was one of the sponsors of the Los Angeles Drive for Mutilated Children of Italy, which was held at the Montebello Stadium." No date is given, but I suggest it may have followed World War II.

Beside those events, a wide range of others took place at Montebello Stadium as well. In 1947 the New York Giants (baseball) held a young players' camp and try-outs. In September of 1949 the Los Angeles Lapidary Society hosted a two-day lapidary (gem) picnic and show. In June 1955 the Food Industry held its Sixth Annual Fiesta, BBQ & Dance, sponsored by the Illuminators, in the Stadium. In September of 1955 the Greater Los Angeles CIO Council held a picnic. In September 1956 fights broke out around Montebello Stadium where members of the Boilermakers' Union were holding their annual picnic. So, while I am still yet to find a good photo of the stadium it appears to have been quite significant, and capable of hosting large gatherings and a wide range of activities.

In March of 1935, Jimmy Walthour Jr. paired with Alfred Crossley to win a Six-Day Race in Los Angeles. This is probably the race I have seen referenced as having taken place at the Olympic Auditorium. The same reference notes that the Six-Day began on March 8, with nine international teams participating. Beside Walthour and Crossley, other "cycling stars" included Piet Van Kempen and 'Cocky' O'Brien. There is apparently a photograph at UCLA (from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive)  showing the track set up inside the auditorium, but I have not seen it published anywhere.


Walthour with Crossley (not at Los Angeles)

If there is such a thing as an American cycling dynastic family, it would be the Walthour's. Twins Bobby Sr. and Jimmy Sr. both raced in the early 1900s. Their sons, Bobby Jr. and Jimmy Jr., were both prolific and successful racers during the 1920s and 1930s, and both have been inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame. Bobby Walthour IV has continued the family's winning tradition up to the present time; his hundreds of victories over the course of a 25 year career has included multiple National Championships. Jimmy Jr's teammate at the 1935 Race, Alfred Crossley, was quite prolific and successful in his own right, crossing the US, Canada and Europe while competing in 85 Six-Day Races between 1929 and 1940. Ten of those races ended in victory.



There does not appear to have been an International calibre Six-Day event in Los Angeles during 1936, but the following year two Six-Day Races were held. The first of these, run between the 21st and 27th of April, was held at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which had opened two years earlier. Eleven pairs of racers competed at this event - Willie Honeman teamed with Eddie Testa, Albert Marquet (Fra) with Joe Devito (Ita), Ewald Wissell (Ger) with Al Ballinger, Archie and George Bollaert, Italians Mike DeFilippo with Frank Turano, Bobby Walthour Jr. with Oscar Juner, Geary May with Harvey Black, Harris 'Skippy' Horder (Aus) with Frank Hays (Can), Alvin Rivera (Mex) with Joe Lett, Jack and Eddie Schroeder, and Pete Hagopian (Arm) with Julian Raoul (Fra). The competition was won by Walthour and Juner, but not before conflict erupted between competitors. Heading into the 54th hour of the race, the Italians DeFilippo and Turano held a two lap lead. A little more than 819 miles had been covered by this point. During a midnight hour sprint DeFilippo crashed along with Pete Hagopian, both of whom then engaged in a quick bout of fisticuffs. Apparently enraged by this, Hagopian's sister, Rose Koontz, managed to evade the track guards and, with her purse, walloped DeFelippo's teammate, Turano in the face (Prescott Evening Courier, 8 October 1937).


the specially constructed track inside the Pan Pacific Auditorium


The second of the Six-Day Races in 1937 took place between the tenth and sixteenth of October and, like the April races, were held at the Pan Pacific. The October Races were contested by eleven pairs of racers: Bill Honeman and Eddie Testa, Albert Marquet and Joe DeVito, Ewald Wessel and Al Sellinger, Archie and George Bollaert, Mike de Filippo and Frankie Turano, Bobby Walthour and Oscar Juner, Geary May and Harvey Black, Harris 'Skippy' Horder and Frank Hays, Alvin Riveria and Joe Lett, Jack and Eddie Schroeder, Pete Hagopian and Julian Raoul. The victors were the Bollaert pair, Archie and George.

Until it was destroyed by fire on the evening of March 24, 1989, the Pan Pacific Auditorium was among Los Angeles's most iconic buildings. Opened in 1935, the Streamline Moderne building was the premier venue for indoor events during its heyday, and could hold up to 6,000 spectators. Athletic contests, including ice hockey, basketball and tennis, political speeches, musical performances, circuses, and car shows, were among the many varied events held at the facility. 


Pan Pacific Auditorium

In 1938 an amateur Six-Day Race was held in Los Angeles, at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. A story from 5 March in the San Jose News notes that after the fourth night Stanley Gadrim and Albin Jerea held a 280 point lead over Charlie Morton and Jimmy Mathews. Two days later, a brief entry in the Binghampton Press notes that Gadrim and Jerea persevered to win, "far out-scoring their nearest rivals." This race marked the beginning of a nearly four-decade absence of Six-Day Races from the City of Angels. Two events of note took place during those intervening years, however. In 1952 Murphy Sabatino brought Six-Day racing back to San Francisco's Civic Auditorium between December 7th and 13th. According to a story in the Bend Bulletin of 1 December 1952, Sabatino had plans to continue a programme of Six-Day Races in Los Angeles the following year. This road show was to be made possible by a portable wooden track with 55º banked turns. I am yet to find any confirmation that these plans ever came to fruition. The second significant event took place in 1961 - the opening of the permanent outdoor concrete velodrome at Encino.

In May of 1973 an effort to bring back the glory of the Six-Day Races occurred when Charles Ruys and a group of partners organized the Los Angeles Pro Bike '73 International Six-Day Race. For this event a 160-meter cedar plywood track with 58 degree banked turns was constructed within the 13,000 seat Los Angeles Sports Arena. This track was completed just five minutes before start of competition. Riders from North American and Europe competed, but many of them had very little actual experience, and within the first fifteen minutes there were six crashes. Only 2,000 spectators attended the event over the six days, a financial disaster. A second Six-Day Race in this promotional series took place in Detroit in October. It was the last one.

An additional venue I have uncovered was the Douglas Plant in El Segundo. The Monday July 11, 1955 edition of the Long Beach Press Telegram notes that "Crebs Club of Long Beach dominated the annual open bike races staged by the Italian Cycling Club of Los Angeles Sunday at Douglas Aircraft plant, El Segundo. Riders from all parts of Southern California competed." Just for the heck of it, the results of that day: 

Class A (8 mile sprint) Jack Disney (CCC) 41 points, Bob Tetsloff (CCC) 29 pts, Bill Disney (CCC) 28 pts, Bob Olson (CCC) 15 pts, Ray Gandy (CCC) 7 pts.
Class B (6 mile sprint) Jerry Freck (NHW) 26 pts, Bill Lambert (USN) 19 pts, Lee Marshall (CCC) 16 pts, Duane Davenport (NHW) 15 pts, Steve Shearer (ICC) 10 pts.
Class C (4 mile sprint) Bill Keith (CCC) 17 pts, Bill Jennings (SDCC) 15 pts, Jim Montgomery (NHW) 14 pts, George Gainer (NHW) 10 pts, Don Tenney (SDCC) 9 pts.
Abbreviation Key: CCC = Crebs Cycling Club, NHW = North Hollywood Wheelmen, USN = United States Navy (I think), ICC = Italian Cycling Club of Los Angeles, SDCC = San Diego Cycling Club.

College and University Athlectics

Southern California colleges and universities have long served as incubators of athletic prowess. It remains to be seen whether the five lap bicycle racing track, with five foot high embankments, at Pomona College in Claremont was an anomaly, or one of many such facilities. The track at Pomona College was likely dedicated in 1899, at a time when the popularity of bicycle track racing was still a couple decades from its peak of popularity; it seems probable to assume that other colleges had similar facilities during the years of the early 1900s.

the Pomona College bicycle track team, 1899

If stuff like this interests you there are a couple terrific sites to look into: 
www.6DayRacing.ca and Howie Cohen's Everything Bicycles {Collection}, this latter link is a reference I have used before, and is a great source of general cycling memorabilia; regrettably I read that Howard Cohen passed away in July this year. His family intends to maintain his site in memoriam. We can be thankful to them for that, as well as to Mr. Cohen for making his wealth of information available.

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. That was a great article ... One note ... My Father is Julien Raoul .... In the April race the pair of Al Marquet and Julien Raoul rode as partners as they usually did .... But my father was in Spain at the Olympiada and returned late due to the start of the Spanish Civil War ...which cancelled the Olympiada.... Marquet teamed with his new brother in law joe DeVito and my father paired with Hagopian .

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  4. Ps: I have the Pan Pacific ( playbill ) from that race but wasn't able to post it here ... My email is mjr417@optonline.net if you would like to see a copy

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  5. Thank you for the information Marcel. Email sent.

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  6. I came across this article while doing some family research on my grandfather, Peter Hagopian. I knew very little about his racing career and was surprised to find out about the incident with the crash with DeFilippo. It's a great story that finally the rest of my family now knows about. Thank you!

    -Rakelle H

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  7. All right! I love it when people find out things they did not know; it is even better when they find out something about a relative. Plus, it's just a great story.

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  8. @ itsalladream. My father Julien Raoul raced with your grandfather ...... Maybe we could share some of their past .....

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  9. Sorry forgot to add my email address mjr417@optonline.net

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  10. Sorry forgot to add my email address mjr417@optonline.net

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  11. Anyone have any photos of the the 1932 Olympics Mens Cycling team pursuit. Id love to have a team photo, My grand Uncle Harold Ade was team mate of Russell Allen's. Thanks Robert Ade robert4realestate@gmail.com

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    Replies
    1. I am going to "forward" your question as its own post, on the chance that more people will see it that way, making it more likely to get an answer.

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