Thursday, September 29, 2016

The story of the
1948 Pacific Coast 5/8 Mile
Hot Rod Championship
Scan of the event advertisement from the
October 29 1948 edition of the Oakland Tribune
At this time of the year, most regional racing series and local race tracks have completed their regular racing season and they stage a “special event” before closing down for the season. 1948 was no different as on Sunday October 31 the Northern California Roadster Racing Association (NCRRA) presented the 100-lap “Pacific Coast 5/8-mile Hot Rod Championship” at Oakland Stadium.
Actually located south of Oakland in San Leandro, the track hosted “hot rod” roadster events during the NCRRA's inaugural 1948 season, but most of those races were held on the flat infield ¼- mile oval not the higher speed 5/8-mile oval track with its steeply banked turn three and four complex.  

During the immediate post-World War two years, “hot rod” or "track roadster” racing was wildly popular throughout the United States. It was a relatively inexpensive form of racing, a mixture of hot rodding and oval track racing that used modified nineteen twenties and thirties open bodied cars powered by contemporary 6- and 8- cylinder racing engines. A number of “hot rod” roadster drivers later starred at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, among them 500-mile race winners Bob Sweikert, Pat Flaherty, Jim Rathmann, and Troy Ruttman.

Articles in the Oakland Tribune newspaper in the days before the Halloween race trumpeted that over sixty roadster drivers from across the West had pre-entered for the race. The list included Sacramento area champion Wayne “Bromo” Seltzer, Washington state champion Julian Castro, the 1948 NCRRA champion “Jumpin Joe” Valente, and the rival hot rod group, Racing Roadsters Inc. two-time champion Johnny Key.
The entry list mainly featured drivers from the NCRRA supplemented with drivers from the California Roadster Association (CRA) and Racing Roadsters Inc. (RRI) and included teammates George Pacheco and Ed Huntington, Mel Alexander, George Danburg, Bill Steves, Dick Vineyard, Paul Kamm, Al Palamides, and Ed Elisian.  

The lead articles in the Oakland Tribune on October 31 1948 focused on the upcoming United States Presidential election to be held in two days as the Tribune endorsed Republican Thomas Dewey.  Dewey selected California Governor Earl Warren as his running mate and was heavily favored to win the race for the White House over incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman and his running mate Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley.

For those looking for celluloid entertainment on Sunday the Esquire Theatre on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland had extended the run of the western ‘Red River’ that starred John Wayne and Montgomery Clift for a third week, while the Motor Movies outdoor theatre located two miles south of Hayward on Tennyson Road offered a double feature with ‘Key Largo’ and ‘The Son of Rusty.’

Elsewhere in Sunday Tribune the Foreman & Clark Men’s Store offered a men’s suit with two pair of slacks on sale for $54.50, while WT Grant offered women’s rayon dresses for $2.98. At Sears, you could buy a three-piece bedroom set – a complete bed, dresser, and nightstand with mirror for $79.00, while Bay Area Crosley dealers offered a radio/phonograph in a compact free-standing walnut cabinet for $59.  

That new furniture would be perfect in the new ranch style homes which could be purchased for $21,500 to $30,000 in the Sun Valley Orchards subdivision in Walnut Creek which the realtor advertised “has approximately 300 days of sunshine a year.” Even corrected for inflation, that would have been a good buy as those homes today sell on average for $1.3 million.    

Prospective automobile buyers were introduced via Tribune advertisements to “a new eight letter word - “Dynaflow” by Buick” and were told to “Ask the woman who wants one about the new Packard,” or to take “One look, one ride and you’ll know what’s new for 1949 – Hudson.” The Automobile Manufacturer’s Association announced that a total of 11,889,400 passenger cars and trucks had been built during the 1948 model year.

A massive crowd of 8,000 fans were in the Oakland Stadium grandstand when time trials for the “Pacific Coast 5/8-mile Hot Rod Championship” began at noon on Halloween with the temperature in the mid-50’s and a light breeze. Salinas driver Elmer George, substituting for Wayne Garland, crashed into the outer wooden retaining wall on the front straightaway during qualifying, and a piece of timber struck NCRRA flagman Leslie Pine in the left leg. Pine, 24 years old, was transported by ambulance to the Permanente Hospital in downtown Oakland where doctors later that evening amputated his severely injured leg.

Herb Hill of Modesto posted the fastest qualifying time with a lap of 22.56 seconds, which was two-tenths of a second faster than the track record set just two weeks earlier by Bob Sweikert, with an average speed nearing 100 miles per hour.  We could find no records of the preliminary heat race results but George Danburg of Oakland won the four-lap trophy dash and Al Berndi of Berkeley won the 15-lap semi-main to transfer into the 20-car feature starting field.

1948 NCRRA points’ runner-up George Pacheco in his #82 roadster led the feature in the early going but his car slid into the infield and he lost two laps. Lodi driver “Flashin” Lemoine Frey in Al Dickman’s #9 roadster then led for a time as did Herb Hill before Joe Valente surged into the lead which he never relinquished. “Jumpin Joe” won in a time of 43 minutes 33 and 8/10 second to establish a new track record for the 100-lap, 62 ½ mile distance. Bob Machin in the (Bennie) Hubbard Auto Parts Special came across the line in second place while Pacheco recovered to finish in third place.

On March 30 1949 Leslie Pine filed suit against Oakland Stadium Inc., track manager Jimmy Reed and Golden State Theatres, owner of the track, in Alameda County Court. Pine’s suit asked for $150,000 as he alleged that negligent maintenance of the track resulted in the loss of his left leg. When the case came to trial before Judge Ralph Hoyt in January 1952 Pines’ attorney Adrian Palmquist used films and still photos shot the day of the race as evidence of the alleged negligence, which showed that part of the wooden crash wall actually extended onto the racing surface.  

A jury of eight men and four women agreed with Pine and on February 1 1952 awarded him $96,000 in damages. The case continued to wind its way through the courts for five and a half years as Golden State and its insurers Lloyds of London and Fireman’s Fund wrangled over the terms of the policies and which company was liable to make the payment to Pine whose judgement reached $108,524.24 including interest when finally paid.

The careers of most of the racers in the 1948 Pacific Coast championship never advanced beyond the Bay Area, but there are several notable exceptions. Two-time RRI champion Johnny Key later moved into “hardtops” and during the 1952 season he won 54 feature races. Key and his Salinas friend Elmer George went “back East” to race midgets and ‘big cars’ with the American Automobile Association (AAA) but Key’s promising career was cut short when he lost his life in a Cincinnati midget crash in June 1954.  
Elmer George who survived the same accident that killed Key went on to become the 1957 United States Auto Club (USAC) sprint car champion, the same year that he married his car owner, Mari Hulman, daughter of the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Elmer raced in the three Indianapolis 500-mile races with little success before he retired and he later died of multiple gunshot wounds on May 31 1976.  Elmer’s son, Tony George, served as the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 20 years and founded the Indy Racing League.

Another participant in the 1948 Pacific Coast Championship, Ed Elisian of Oakland raced in five Indianapolis 500-mile races, most notably the 1958 ‘500’ when he received blame for triggering  the first-lap accident that took Pat O’Connor’s life.  Elisian’s career declined and his personal life spun out of control before he was suspended from racing for six months. Ed died at age 32 in a fiery crash at the Milwaukee Mile in August 1959. Oakland Stadium itself closed in 1955 when the land became too valuable for developers and the site became the Bay Fair shopping center.      
The author thanks his friends and fellow racing historians Jim Thurman, James Taggert and Tom Motter for their invaluable assistance in researching this topic.  

1 comment:

  1. Here's some legalese from a 1957 appeal: