On October 17, 1931, about 28,000 fans filled the stadium seats and infield for the dedication of a new one-mile, oval dirt-track racing stadium in San Leandro. Ernie Triplett won the 100-mile feature race at the Oakland Speedway dedication.
Despite the “Oakland” name, the racetrack was located at the junction of East 14th Street and Hesperian Boulevard (then called Telegraph Road), unincorporated land that would later be annexed by San Leandro. The land for the racetrack was leased from John and Annie Coelho, a Portuguese family who had been growing hay and grain in the area since the 1880s.
The Oakland Speedway brought the thrills of American Automobile Association-sanctioned racing to the West Coast. Records from this racetrack were eligible for entry in the A.A.A.’s “Record Book”, and fans now had the chance to see the big-time drivers and cars that would compete in the Indianapolis 500 race. A.A.A. Indy car, American Racing Association big car, stock car, midget, and motorcycle racing thrilled fans at the Speedway with the "fastest dirt mile track in the country" for the next decade.
In 1936, the National Championship would be decided at the Oakland Speedway. Here is how Tom Motter, author of The History of the Oakland Speedway, 1931-1941, describes that 150-mile National Championship race:
If ever a race could be called “spectacular”, this one had all of the ingredients . . . The winner (Al Gordon) started in last place. Babe Stapp, starting first, didn’t finish the race. Pre-race favorite, Louie Meyer, should have won by virtue of his leading so many of the laps. Chris Vest, whose car burst into flames coming down the main straightaway, saved himself, his riding mechanic, and probably many others from real disaster by steering his car into the crash wall, avoiding others cars on the track. The lead changed hands thirteen times during the first half of the race.
Meyer, who was in the lead, blew a tire in the 145th lap, but instead of going into the pits for a change, stayed on the track and finished third.
This was the 22nd and last A.A.A.-sanctioned race at the Oakland Speedway. There had also been four Pacific Coast Auto Racing Association and two American Motorcycle Association races in this time period.
A half-mile track was built within the one-mile oval in 1935. The American Automobile Association withdrew from the racing scene on the West Coast in 1936.
Soon after, Charles Ashton Curryer became the new Oakland Speedway promoter and brought “big car” racing, often on the half-mile track, to the Speedway. Many of the cars were homebuilt creations, “not as fast or as pretty as the AAA’s big cars” according to Tom Motter, but those “low-buck” racers running “low-buck” races were just fine with Great Depression race fans.
From 1936 until 1941, the Oakland Speedway would host big car, stock car, midget, motorcycle, and roadster races. Curryer even brought a 500-mile Indy-type race to the track. The 500-mile races, held in 1938, ’39, ’40, and ’41 were “complete successes, artistically as well as financially sound” with high attendance figures.
But in 1941, the lease with the Coelhos was about to expire. And then World War II brought a stop to auto racing in America. The final blow came when the stadium grandstands caught fire in 1941.
The land reverted to the Coelhos, who broke up the parcel into about eighty lots and divided it among cousins, uncles, and nephews.
After the war, Curryer and new associate Bill Linn cobbled together options on enough of the Coelho lots to build a new racetrack at the site of the old Oakland Speedway. The new Oakland Stadium, with five-eighths and quarter-mile tracks, opened on Sunday, June 30, 1946. Eighteen thousand people watched Freddie Agabashian win the midget show.
The five-eighths mile course for the new Oakland Stadium was not an exact oval. The larger of the two turns had about 30 degrees in banking; the tighter turn had a much tighter radius with almost 62 degree banking. The foundation of the track through this turn was thirty feet high—no track in America had turns banked that high.
The 5/8-mile course would become the second-fastest racecourse in the country.
Once drivers figured out the advantage of driving at the top edge of the banked turns (coming off the high bank at full throttle gave the driver a boost in speed for the straightaway), the race cars often fell into line with little or no passing on the curves. (To pass on a curve, the driver would have to drop down from the high edge to get around the car in front of him, thereby losing the boost). Management tried various tactics to stop the “rim riding,” from painting a white line near the top of the banked turn, piling hay bales above the line, and filling in the banked turns with dirt.
“Big cars” (later called sprint cars), stock cars, midgets, roadsters, and hardtops all raced at the Oakland Stadium. Midget races were usually held on the quarter-mile track formed inside the 5/8-mile track. Stock car races, held on the full 5/8-mile, high-banked track, drew large crowds. When interest and attendance at the midget races began to wane, hardtop auto racing was introduced in 1949. It became so popular that by 1950, a local television station began broadcasting a live half-hour remote from the track.
This prime piece of real estate was situated on the main north/south road from Oakland to Fremont. The post-war population explosion and housing boom in the Bay Area brought rising land values. Developers were making attempts to purchase the Oakland Stadium property by 1951.
The inevitable happened. The Tribune of August 26, 1954, noted that, “Construction plans for the new $25,000,000 Bay-Fair shopping center, which will bring Macy’s with a $6,000,000 department store to the Oakland area, were announced today.” Soon after, the Oakland Stadium was closed.
Thousands of visitors attended Macy’s grand opening on August 9, 1957. As Tom Motter puts it in his book, “Where once stood two famous auto race tracks, now stands a glorious monument to urban sprawl. That’s progress, I guess.”
All of the material in this article came from two books by Tom Motter: A History of the Oakland Speedway, 1931-1941 and A History of the Oakland Stadium, 1946-1955. Filled with terrific photos of race cars, drivers, crashes, and fans, these two volumes may be found at the San Leandro Public Library.
Click here to read more about the opening of Bayfair Mall in 1957.
The next San Leandro Historical Society meeting is hosted by the San Leandro Historical Railway Society at their railway museum, 1302 Orchard Avenue in Thrasher Park. Nonmembers are welcome – please go to our website, www.sanleandrohistory.org, and register for the meeting. The meeting starts at 1:00 on Saturday, November 10, but come early if you want to see the fantastic model trains and the history exhibits at the Railway Society museum.