Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Greater San Francisco Speedway - Episode #5

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated - February 22, 2017

San Francisco, CA. Chronicle - May 11, 1921
This story starts with my Grandmother, Mae Whittier Morrill.  She moved to San Carlos, California in the late 1940s. San Carlos is a suburb of San Francisco, located south east of the city. We would visit her there, whenever we were on the west coast. A few years ago, I provided some family information and photographs to authors Nick and Betty Veronico, who were writing a book on the history of San Carlos. They were nice enough to send me a copy of their book, Images of America San Carlos. While reading it, I came across a short description of the Greater San Francisco Speedway, which was located in San Carlos in the early 1920s. When I found out the board track held Championship Motorcycle Races, I decided it was time to find out more of the story.

San Francisco, CA. Chronicle - December 4, 1921
Board tracks began to be built around the country in the early 1900s. They were similar to the smaller outdoor wooden velodromes used for bicycle racing at the time. The tracks were generally laid out in either a circle, or an oval, with some tracks over a mile in length. They were built using rough sawed lumber forming a steeply banked racing surface. They were commonly used for both automobile and motorcycle racing. The high speeds attained on these tracks made them dangerous to both competitors and spectators.

Beverly Hills Speedway

In 1919, Jack Prince and Art Pillsbury constructed a mile and a quarter board track at Beverly Hills, California. The track was highly successful and was the first of several board tracks Prince and Pillsbury would build together.

Oakland, CA. Tribune - November 21, 1921

In early 1921, Prince and Pillsbury broke ground on  a new board track located in San Carlos, California. The new track was built on 140 acres north of Brittan Avenue, between Old Country and Industrial roads.  It was similar in design to the earlier Beverly Hills track.

Greater San Francisco Speedway - San Carlos, CA. 1921
San Carlos Aviation association Collection
The mile and a quarter oval track was adjacent to the San Carlos Aviation Field. The Field hanger was just off one of Speedway's 38 degree banked turns. The new track was named the Greater San Francisco Speedway. The cost of the project is unknown, but Prince and Pillsbury are said to have spent a quarter million dollars building the Beverly Hills track. That was a considerable amount in the early 1920s.
Aviation Field Hanger on the Speedway curve.
San Carlos Aviation Association Collection

The track opened with an automobile race on December 11, 1921. The race, which had a $25,000 purse, drew 40,000 spectators. Two additional auto races were held at the facility during early 1922, each drawing large crowds.

Greater San Francisco Speedway Pits - 1921

The 1921 National Championship Motorcycle Racing season ended with the announcement Harley-Davidson was closing down it's highly successful factory racing team.  This left their team riders, Ralph Hepburn and Jim Davis, without a ride for the 1922 season. Harley-Davidson's chief rival, Indian quickly hired Hepburn and Davis for the upcoming season.

San Francisco Chronicle - June 14, 1922

The championship motorcycle races came to San Carlos on May 14, 1922. Ralph Hepburn was already having a successful season on his Indian Power Plus Daytona racer, and that did not change at San Carlos.

He dominated the days races, winning two, and finishing third in another.  Hepburn set a blistering pace of over 100 miles per hour, to win the 50 Mile Championship Race. He also picked up the Barney Oldfield Diamond Medal for his win.

San Francisco Chronicle - May 15, 1922

Hepburn's Indian teammate, Jim Davis won the 25 mile race. Ray Weishaar won the 10 mile race on his Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle races drew a crowd of 6000 spectators.

Ralph Hepburn - 1922

Motorcycle & Bicycle Illustrated - May 25, 1922

The motorcycle races were followed by another successful automobile race held at the Speedway on June 14th.

In the early morning hours of June 19, 1922, smoke and flame were observed coming from the Speedway grandstand area.

San Francisco Chronicle - June 20, 1922

Fire departments from San Carlos, and several surrounding cities, responded to battle the fire. The fire spread quickly on the oil soaked wooden track destroying the grandstand, and much of the track. 

Jack Prince estimated the damage of $250,000. Insurance for these tracks was not available at the time, which placed the entire loss and the financial burden of rebuilding on the track owners.

Greater San Francisco Speedway Fire Damage - June 19, 1922
San Carlos Aviation Association Collection
Initial press reports stated the speedway would be rebuilt, but later a decision was made to demolish it.

Los Angeles, CA. Times - June 20, 1922

Much has been written about the demise of the board tracks. Some speculate it was the inherent danger of death, and or serious injury, to both competitors and spectators. Many riders did not survive their racing careers, and numerous spectators were also killed during this period. Some towns even banned this type of racing. Others speculate the high costs of construction and maintenance made them unprofitable.

Oakland, CA. Tribune - July 2, 1922

The sudden demise of the Greater San Francisco Speedway appears to have been caused by several factors. The track had been open for a short period of time, and hosted only five events. The high cost of the initial construction had not been recouped, and the extensive fire damage would require a total rebuilding of the track. Without insurance to pay for reconstruction, the decision was made to cut their losses, and not rebuild the track. The six month competition history of the Speedway is probably the shortest of the early board tracks. The Speedway site was incorporated into the Aviation Field, which later became the San Carlos Airport. Automobile and motorcycle racing did not return to San Carlos until Belmont Speedway opened at another location in 1947.


The May 1922 motorcycle race winner Ralph Hepburn had a successful career as an Indian factory rider. After his retirement from motorcycle racing, he switched to automobile racing. He was killed in a qualifying crash for the 1948 Indianapolis 500.

Ralph Hepburn - Indy 1946

Forest Lawn Memorial Park - Glendale, CA.
A. J. Marik Collection


A. J. Marik Collection

American Racer 1900-1940
By Stephen Wright

Images of America San Carlos
By Nicholas and Betty Veronico

Los Angeles, CA. Times

Oakland, CA. Tribune

Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing
By Daniel K. Statnekov

San Carlos Aviation Association Collection
San Carlos, CA.

San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco, CA.



  1. Thanks for sharing that information Dave.

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