by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For most people, the words “Ascot Park” conjure up memories of J.C. Agajanian’s speedway of that name in the Harbor Gateway area in the “shoestring” of Los Angeles next to Gardena and which operated from 1957 to 1990. Some of us remember the radio ads that featured its owner proclaiming, “Come to Ascot, where the 110, 405 and 91 freeways collide.”
Decades before that course debuted, however, its ancestor opened, during another major regional development boom, at the corner of Slauson Avenue and South Park Avenue, now Avalon Boulevard, in the South Park tract of South Los Angeles. A 160-acre parcel owned by Henry E. Huntington’s land company was leased in 1903 for horse racing, though moralists in the City of Angels lamented what gambling, drinking and other undesirable behavior would do (Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin faced much the same crowd as he launched the original Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia around the same time.) In fact, there was even talk of incorporating the area around the new facility as a city to avoid either annexation and control by Los Angeles or the overzealous oversight of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Ascot opened on Christmas Eve 1903 to a crowd of 4,000 spectators for a pair of mid-afternoon races. Though much was made of Huntington’s Los Angeles Railway being extended to the track with a special loop system, said to be the only of its kind in the nation, to drop off guests without having to reverse the direction of the cars, the Los Angeles Express reported that “the most disagreeable feature to patrons was the poor car service necessitating an unusual delay in reaching the grounds.”
In its far more extensive coverage of the debut, the Los Angeles Times expanded upon the transportation snafu, observing that, despite the excellent weather, “there was one thing that started them off wrong, and that was the collapse of the street-car system after it had carried a large part of the sports about half way to the track.” Apparently, the cars simply ran out of power “and the sports had the satisfaction of walking the rest of the way to the grand stand.”
The Times recorded the attendance as far less than that stated by its rival, noting that there were about 2,500 spectators. The grandstand was accounted to be “splendid” and the track offering a minimum of dust and the electric scoreboard announcing the winners also drew attention.
Within a few years, as the automobile gained more traction (!) in what quickly became the car capital of the world and just about a decade after the first “horseless carriage” appeared in Los Angeles, Ascot began to host auto and motorcycle races, with the likes of Barney Oldfield racing around the dirt oval. Five years after Ascot Park opened, there was a “Grand Carnival of Racing Cars” on the two days after Christmas.
In 1909, California banned betting on horse races and the industry went into a steep decline (Santa Anita closed, for example, and now, with so many horse deaths at the current Santa Anita, there is growing pressure to ban horse racing in the state), so it was an apt time for auto racing to step into the limelight at Ascot.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact is an original unused ticket (number 2488) to the auto races at Ascot on 9 February 1913. Admission was $1, which, adjusted for inflation, would be about $26 today, though there was no extra charge to park or sit in the grandstand.
The day’s Times reported that “with the mile track in almost perfect condition the automobile race at Ascot Park this afternoon promises to be the best ever held here.” Theodore Herbert “Terrible Teddy” Tetzlaff, a native of Orange, was an auto mechanic before he launched his career in racing and earned his sobriquet for the rough treatment he gave his cars. He participated in the first four Indianapolis 500 races and also made several appearances in films, including some in which actor Wallace Reid played a race car driver.
Tetzlaff, who set a speed record in 1911 in a race on a paved track against another famed driver, Ralph de Palma, “is in condition to break a world record” at the Ascot race according to the Times. The paper stated that it was Tetzlaff’s ambition to become the speed king of dirt tracks, with the world famous Oldfield holding the record at Ascot with a five-mile time of four minutes and twenty-o ne seconds, but there was stiff competition from George Hill, Felix Magnone and Frank Verbeck among the contestants.
Despite one paper claiming that the track was in poor shape, the Times’ Bert C. Smith, reported that, “in a sensational dash against time,” Terrible Teddy completed the five miles in four minutes and twenty seconds, just over a second faster than Oldfield. Smith added, “the crowd was wildly excited as Tetzlaff flew into the turns, dashed down the stretches and across the tape.”
Evidently, the supremely confident driver told bystanders, once he’d inspected the track prior to the race, that he would best Oldfield’s record. Once the starter sent the racers off, Tetzlaff “shot into the first turn with a wonderful burst of speed” but, as he made the second turn, “a deep and dangerous rut almost threw the champion from his seat and he was forced to shut down.”
The racer, however, “stepped on the throttle again and came into the stretch” at a fine pace and took the first mile in fifty-two seconds. The next time he came to the troubled turn, he timed his approach so that, while he slowed, he was able to make the second mile faster than the first. Still, he needed to ramp up his efforts.
As Smith told it,
this time he took a desperate chance. He knew he must drive to beat Barney Oldfield’s time. He went into the turn at a terrific clip, once more [he] was almost hurled from his seat and his Fiat was sent far out into the curve. This was courting death and he was again forced to shut off . . .
Still, Tetzlaff was on pace to break the record, even as he again hit the rut in the fourth mile and “bumped to the outer edge of the track.” As he rounded the course for the final mile, the racer “hit that rut again, held his seat swung around” and tore into the home stretch, taking the last mile at just above 51 seconds, sending the crowd into a frenzy. A photo showed the champ posed his Fiat and it is striking to be reminded of how exposed these drivers were in vehicles that flew at speeds at over 100 mph.
In fact, Tetzlaff had his share of spills during his career and this at a time when deaths were not at all uncommon. It was said he was kidnapped for ransom in Tacoma, Washington in 1915 and allegedly was kept at a brothel and didn’t show much disposition to leave having taken a liking for his captors.
Just after he married for a second time in 1916, Tetzlaff, then approaching his mid-thirties, retired from the sport. He returned to being an auto mechanic and operated a popular garage at Eighth and Olive streets in downtown Los Angeles and then a service station in Hollywood, where he continued to appear in the occasional flicker (his son became a cinematographer in the industry.)
By the mid-1920s, though, Tetzlaff had to retire while just in his early forties and he spent his remaining years in Santa Ana, near where he grew up. His poor health was attributed to injuries sustained during his racing career, perhaps with some brain trauma. He was sent to a rest home in Artesia for several months before his death at age 46 from a stroke in late 1929.
This ticket is a rare artifact from the early days of auto racing in Los Angeles and, just several years after the race, there was another kind of rubber burning on the Ascot Park site, as the Huntington Land Company sold the 160-acre Ascot Park tract to the Goodyear tire company, which bought an additional 320 acres from James Slauson, whose father was the namesake for the boulevard running next to the track, to build a massive factory.
Meanwhile, the proprietors of Ascot in its last period in South Los Angeles, leased a 160-acre property at the edge of Los Angeles city limits in Lincoln Heights near Lincoln Park and opened a new Ascot Park. The Homestead has several photographs of that facility, which will be shared here some day, and which lasted until 1937. Agajanian then opened his track some two decades later.