RACING AT PEBBLE BEACH IN 1950
by Larry Roberts
July 11, 1997
Today, auto enthusiasts the world over associate the name "Pebble Beach" with the very classy international auto show that's held annually at The Lodge. Everybody who is anybody is there to see and be seen.
But to many of us, the name conjures up memories of a few years in the '50s when the Sports Car Club of America held races on residential streets behind the famous 17 Mile Drive. The first was in 1950.
I have a copy of that first program and its cover page shows a Jaguar XK 120 at speed with a single Cypress tree in the background. Its price was 50 cents and inside, the program reads like a primer for spectators. Miles Collier authored a piece on "Why Do They Race On The Road," explaining why these amateur enthusiasts eschew oval tracks stating in part that "... anyone who races a car on an oval track hasn't good sense." This was an interesting comment since Pete De Paolo, winner of the '25 Indy 500 was the Chief Steward that weekend.
"FOR YOUR PROTECTION - PLEASE OBEY OFFICIALS" is a headline on the first page, and that applied to drivers as well as spectators. Rule 2 of "Rules Of The Road" states that "In the event that a driver desires to pass another, but is unable to do so because the car ahead occupies too much of the road, he should sound his horn. In the event that this signal is impractical for any reason, the overtaking driver may raise his arm above his head, and pull over to the left. The driver being overtaken is obliged to pull to the right, making room for the overtaking car to pass." It wasn't "gentlemanly" to block another driver. There was to be no passing at all in those areas marked as such and if two vehicles entered these zones at the same time, the overtaking car was required to yield the right-of-way and pass in a "safer" area. Smoking in or near the pits was forbidden and no advertising of any kind was allowed on the competiting cars. These were "gentlemen" racers.
The field was a bit sparse for that first meet. Only 35 cars were entered and ranged from a Ford-powered '33 Auburn to a '38 BMW 328 to a top-heavy '49 Austin A-40 sedan that was a spear-carrier to fill out the field in the event for "real" sports cars.
By count, the most popular sports car to be raced in those early days was the MG, but here there was a division. The "purists" were devotees of the rough-riding, cart sprung TC model which had gone out of production in '49 and 14 of them were entered. These ran the spectrum from bone-stock, complete with 19-inch wire wheels, to "specials" that were stripped, modified and in four cases, supercharged. There was even a '36 MG model NA entered.
The "division" came in a which-is-best controversy between the purists and those who owned and drove the "modern" MG TD that had been introduced that year. The TD sported a stiff frame, comfortable seats and - horror of horrors - independent front suspension. Six of them were entered and in just a few years, were to prove that like youth, modern design couldn't be denied.
The field of popular cars entered in the premiere event for cars from three to eight liters was an even split between the Jag XK-120 and the Allard. It was left to the Auburn and the Cannon home-built Ford special to keep it from being a two-make battle.
Among the Jag drivers was Phil Hill, described in the biographical profiles written by one Harry Fair as the "...driver to watch." Hill won the main event that day and Fair's words were prophetic as Hill was crowned Formula One world champion driving for Ferrari ten years later.
Every year when I cover the concours at Pebble Beach, I take the time to go down Portola Road past the old start/finish line, make the right turn at Sombria Lane, make another right on Drake Road to continue on its uphill right-hand sweeper, go right again down Stevenson Drive to its hairpin right-hander and back onto Portola.
And in my mind's eye I can still see those ancient cars charging up and down those streets. We'll never see races like that again.