Civil Engineer H. Clay Kellogg designed the three mile round Grand Boulevard in 1886. During that year Kellogg, working closely with real estate developer R. B. Taylor, laid out the plans for the town of South Riverside, later known as Corona. Taylor wanted a design for the newly formed community to have some character and the concept of the circular boulevard was born. Little did anyone realize what importance that road would bring to Corona just 27 years later.
In 1912, city officials were again looking for some means to bring their community to the attention of the world. With the invention of the automobile and the ensuing interest in testing the speed of these vehicles, raceways began to form all around the country. Several wealthy residents and local businessmen began to make plans to promote their idea for turning the circular Grand Boulevard into a racecourse.
On January 13, 1913, Barney Oldfield and members of the Western Auto Association were invited to Corona to test the track. Barney Oldfield proclaimed that “a race car could maintain 95 mph on the course and could make 120 mph for short distances.” This was even better than the best times on other courses, which did not top 84.3 mph. The group recommended that an “auto club” be formed to run the races, and soon after the Corona automobile club was formed with F. H. Ott, President; George E. Snidecor, Vice President; and F. W. Reynolds as Secretary.
Club members worked hard to get permission and sanctions from the Corona City Trustees, the American Auto Association, and the residents along Grand Boulevard who would be affected. It seems that everyone in the community was involved in one way or another. Even John H. Flagler, a prominent eastern businessman and owner of El Cerrito Ranch, got involved. He donated the perpetual “Flagler Trophy” for the upcoming races.
The auto club worked closely with city engineer Mr. Gully on preparing the Boulevard for the first race, which was set for September 1913. Gully said “the average man has no conception of the difficulties incident to the establishment of a grade that had to run from level to a 3% grade in a circle. Not only that, there were in addition 84 intersections to contend with, and the pavement had to be such as would hold 6,000 pounds, running at speeds of over 90 mph.”
Local citizens also set to work on improvements now that Corona would be on everyone’s map! Streets were cleaned, cement sidewalks, trees, flowers and new lawns were put in. Local businesses decorated with attractive flags and banners, and a publicity committee worked on newspaper coverage. Postal booster stamps were placed on every letter that left Corona announcing the upcoming race on September 9th. A postcard and colorful poster were reproduced and made available to the public.
The grandstands, which would hold 30,000 people, were ready by September 1st. With a winner’s purse of $11,000 collected by the Corona Auto Club, the highest prize in its day, Coronans hoped to attract race car drivers from all over the world. The town was ready to begin its first race!
CORONA ROAD RACING ON GRAND BOULEVARD
SEPTEMBER 9, 1913
Three days before the races, hundreds of people started coming into town to watch the great drivers practice. Some of the well known names included: Earl Cooper, Terrible Teddy Tetzlaff, Barney Oldfield, Felix Magone, and Ralph DePalma. Hotels for miles around were booked solid and the local Santa Fe Railroad brought in spectators from Los Angeles, San Diego, Pomona, and Riverside.
By 5 a.m. on September 9th, hundreds of automobiles began pouring into town to see the two events that were scheduled. The Corona Auto Association estimated that they would have a crowd of between 30,000 and 50,000 people. Ten cars were competing for a purse of $750 in the light car race that began at 10 a.m. There was one slight accident during the race, with only minor injuries. Ed Waterman won the race in the 37th lap. He had broken the light car world record with a time of 1:37:12!
The second race was the medium and “free-for-all” classes. Medium car drivers were going 91 laps for the $3,000 purse, and drivers in the “free-for-all” were to continue another 19 laps to try for the prize of $5,250.
Each car had two seats, one for the driver, and the other for the riding mechanic. Throughout the race, Cooper, Oldfield, DePalma and Magone competed for first. DePalma dropped out in the 23rd lap with a cracked cylinder. Magone’s Stutz battled with Tetzlaff’s Fiat.
By the 40th lap the heat and oil began to break up the carefully laid track. Oil spots showed and drivers moved to the outside of the circle. Frequent stops were made by all cars to change tires.
Cooper and Oldfield began to battle it out for the lead! A young boy excited about the race broke away from his father and ran on to the track to cheer Oldfield on. Oldfield swerved and missed the boy but lost control of his Mercer. The action caused a front wheel to buckle and the car was thrown off of the track. Oldfield was not hurt, but his mechanic received some injuries and a spectator suffered a broken leg. Cooper stopped to help and Teddy Tetzlaff roared past! Rumor says that Oldfield said “I’m okay … go on, you have a race to win!”
Earl Cooper, 27 years old, did go on to win the first Corona road race in his #8 Stutz. He broke the world record for the medium car event at 3:21:29.5, and won the “free-for-all” with a time of 4:02:38. In later years, this Californian would become the greatest overall winner of early American car racing history.
Corona’s first road race was deemed a huge success. Crowd estimates ranged from 65,000 to 100,000 people. Two world records had been broken, and the Corona Auto Club netted $1,571.75.
On the negative side, there had been three wrecks, five people were injured, and the tarred dirt racing surface had begun to break up causing the course to become dangerous and slippery. Nevertheless, people loved it, and the townspeople had no doubt that they wanted to try to have the races again in 1914.
CORONA ROAD RACING ON GRAND BOULEVARD
NOVEMBER 26, 1914
On August 28, 1914, Corona road race fans met with race car winner Earl Cooper to discuss the possibility of having a second race on Grand Boulevard. F. H. Ott was again elected President of the auto club. The date for the race was set for Thursday, November 26, 1914. It was decided that having the race on Thanksgiving Day would draw more people. By having it later in the year they also hoped that the weather wouldn’t be as hot.
The organizers formed the Corona Auto Racing Association. They wanted to make sure that none of the race supporters would be held personally liable for any accident or injury. The Association’s directors also decided to have only one 300-mile “free-for-all” race that day. First place would get $4,000, 2nd place $2,500, 3rd place $1,500, 4th place $1,000, 5th place $700, and 6th place $300. They planned to start the races at 10:30 a.m.
The directors had learned a lot from the first race. This time they wanted to make sure that the crush of people coming to Corona would not overwhelm the system. They worked out detailed plans with the Santa Fe Railroad to make sure that fans trying to get in would be able to reach Corona. Frank Herkelrath was put in charge of crowd control and making sure that there was organized distribution systems for ticket sales. An increased effort was put into making the Grand Boulevard track even safer. For several days the course was sprinkled with tons of a calcium chloride mix, wet sand and gravel and repeatedly rolled to create a smooth surface. The result was a two-inch covering of macadam over the entire road surface. In order to prevent the fiasco that happened the previous year with a young boy running on to the track, they put a 5-foot high wire fence around the entire racetrack. They hired 50 men to guard the course during the races. Other safety measures included having all tires changed in the pits rather than on the course, and installing emergency telephones in the judges and press stands. Ambulances were to be on duty, and a hospital would be set up at the city hall.
Marketing of the race was very important. The Association hired A. M. Young, the manager of the Santa Monica road races to help in managing the race. By November 16th Coronans had gone into clean up mode to prepare their city for the influx of people from all over the world. As in the previous year, the 1914 Corona road race attracted the attention of many famous race car drivers. Eddie Pullen, Huntley Gordon, Bob Burman, Eddie Rickenbacker, Barney Oldfield, Eddie O’Donnel, and Ralph DePalma were just some of the famous drivers who signed on for the 1914 road race. Estimates show that more than 100,000 people were in attendance on that race day. There were English, German, French and American cars lined up at the starting position (a monument is placed at the location of the starting line up, which is on the outer Boulevard parkway adjacent to Corona Fundamental Intermediate School).
Despite all precautions there were still numerous mishaps to occur that day. Blown tires plagued every driver and mechanic. The No. 9 Sunbeam driven by Harry Grant hit a palm tree after blowing a tire. A stray dog was hit and killed by the No. 18 Sunbeam driven by George Babcock. The damage to the car forced him out of the race. No. 8 Earl Cooper in a Stutz dropped out when a timing chain broke in his car. No. 4 Eddie Pullen in a Mercer won the race in 3 hours, 26 minutes, and two seconds. His average speed had been 87.76 mph. He not only received $4,000 for winning the race but an additional $2,000 for breaking the world record.
Though the net profits were not great, the Association deemed the second Corona Road Race a success. The publicity had helped to put Corona on the map. The Grand Boulevard track had held up really well during the race. And thanks to the extra safety measures, there had been no major injuries to either drivers or race fans.
NO RACES IN 1915
Other local towns were noted for events like the Tournament of Roses Parade, National Orange Show and Mt. Rubidoux Easter Service. Why not let Corona be noted for road racing? Those who were against the Road Races argued that homeowners along the boulevard did not like the mess left on their front lawns after the races. They said that fans trampled their gardens and left behind a lot of trash. Schoolteachers complained that students lost at least one day of school because of the races. Many residents disliked the road race odors of castor oil, gasoline and burning rubber. Then, the main road to Corona was washed out during spring flooding and wouldn’t be repaired in time for the proposed races. The final defeat for racing enthusiasts was felt when the American Auto Association decreed that Corona’s circular boulevard was not a road but a speedway. The local Association would have to abide by speedway rules and the increased costs that included larger monetary prizes. That spelled defeat for the 1915 race, but enthusiasts quickly began planning for 1916.
Unfortunately, those who were against the Road Races were just as adamant. They argued:
1. The war in Europe is demanding the attention of American citizens.
2. Other races in Southern California were already competing for the attention of racing fans.
3. Homeowners along the boulevard did not like the mess left on their front lawns after the races. They said that fans trampled their gardens and left behind a lot of trash.
4. Schoolteachers did not like the fact that students lost at least one day of school because of the races.
5. Many residents disliked the road race odors of castor oil, gasoline and burning rubber, which overpowered the usual scent of citrus blossoms.
6. Many of the Association members did not feel that the little income received from all of their hard work was worth the effort.
7. The main road to Corona had been washed out during spring flooding and wouldn’t be repaired in time for the proposed races.
The final defeat for racing enthusiasts was felt when the American Auto Association decreed that Corona’s circular boulevard was not a road but a speedway. The local Association would have to abide by speedway rules and the increased costs that included larger monetary prizes. That spelled defeat for the 1915 race, but enthusiasts quickly began planning for 1916.
CORONA ROAD RACING ON GRAND BOULEVARD
APRIL 8, 1916
A local automobile dealer, W. L. Peeler, ignited the enthusiasm for a third Corona road race. Working with George Bentel, a member of the new Ascot Speedway Association they presented their ideas at a meeting in City Hall on January 8, 1916. Locals again became intrigued with the idea. Cars were even faster, and Coronans wanted to again become part of the prestigious racing events.
They formed a new Citrus Belt Auto Racing Association and got approval to sponsor a Corona Grand Prize Race with six money prizes and the Flagler trophy. Racecar drivers looked forward to the event stating that Corona had one of the best racetracks on the West Coast. Marketing for the races was even more extensive than in previous years. Local businesses again participated by displaying colorful banners and stickers. The Association predicted that Corona would have its largest crowd yet.
As the day of the race drew near, racecar drivers began to practice at predetermined times. A jinx seemed to plague the drivers. A wheel came off Earl Cooper’s car and it jumped the curb and struck a palm tree which some say you can still see today.
The fastest car in the race was now out of commission. Another driver, Sam Price, lost control of his car. It hit a palm tree and he did not recover in time for the race. A famous stunt pilot, Tex LaGrone was practicing exhibition flights above Corona when his plane crashed just outside of the City. Yet, the show must go on, and local citizens looked forward to a successful race. The race was not scheduled to begin until 1 p.m. on April 8, 1916. Spectators spent their time walking around and seemingly to the residents just leaving their trash strewn all over their front lawns. The predicted 100,000 people did not show. Some say only 25,000 people came to the races that year. The afternoon heat had begun to affect the course and racecar drivers were forced to make frequent stops because of tire trouble. Earl Cooper dropped out on the 15th lap because of engine trouble. Wild Bob Burman made frequent pit stops to repair broken tires. Back on the track he pushed his Peugeot to catch up to O’Donnell. By the 46th lap Oldfield and Gandy had dropped out due to car problems.
By the 97th lap the crowd waited in vain to see if Burman would catch O’Donnell. The sound of ambulances let them know something was wrong. They found out later that there had been a problem with Burman’s left rear tire and he was unable to control his Peugeot. The car jumped the curb, took out two posts, and flew into the air taking off the top of a parked car. Burman later died at Riverside County Hospital, his mechanic Shraeder died at the hospital in City Hall. The speeding car instantly killed William Speer, one of the guards hired to watch the racecourse. At least five other spectators suffered serious injuries.
The 1916 race was a great disappointment. The tragedy of Burman’s crash affected everybody. Though ticket prices had increased from $.50 to $1.00 for adults (children were free), the sponsors took in only $4 for every $25 they had spent. Residents along the Boulevard were fed up with the noise, the smell, and the litter. The era of Corona road racing was officially at an end. It would now be remembered only as part of the city’s glorious past.
THE FLAGLER TROPHY
The Flagler trophy was used as a prize in all three Corona road races. It is currently in the possession of the O’Donnell family. The trophy stands 16.25 inches high. The opening at the top is 8.5 inches and the base 7.2 inches. There are three handles, which are 12.5 inches high. The trophy is solid sterling silver. It has ornate vines at the top, the bottom of the flute, and around the base.
Inscription on the front of the trophy reads:
John H. Flagler Trophy presented to the Corona Automobile Club of Corona, California by John H. Flagler, September 9, 1913
On one side of the trophy there is an etching of a racetrack with a rail around the track, 2 race cars on the track with drivers and mechanics on board. The cars bear the numbers 6 and 2. The inscription is as follows:
1913 won by Stutz No. 8 / Earl Cooper, Driver
On the other side of the trophy the same etching appears. In this case though the cars bear the numbers 1 and 7. The inscription is as follows:
1914 won by Mercer No. 4 / Eddie Pullen, Driver Distance 301 miles average 87.7 miles per hour
There is no inscription for the final race held in Corona on April 8, 1916. The winner was Eddie O’Donnell.