Bay Meadows Horse Track Had Grand Auto-Racing History

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HORSEPOWER: A full field of race cars charges through turn one at California's Bay Meadows race track. (Radbruch Collection Courtesy Bob Lawrence Photo)
HORSEPOWER: A full field of race cars charges through turn one at California's Bay Meadows race track. (Radbruch Collection Courtesy Bob Lawrence Photo)

The history of U.S. auto racing is firmly rooted in fairgrounds dirt ovals — tracks originally built for horses. Though far less common, some privately owned horse tracks hosted auto races.

Of those, none can boast the motorsport history of Bay Meadows, which hosted both Champ car and NASCAR races.

Located in San Mateo, 20 miles south of San Francisco, Bay Meadows was built in 1934 by Bill Kyne. For 16 years, the track was exclusively for horses, among them, the famous Seabiscuit.

The first auto race was held in November 1950, when J.C. Agajanian promoted a 150-mile AAA Championship race. Embarrassingly, the checkered flag waved a lap early on Tony Bettenhausen, who coasted around to the pits out of fuel.

After two hours, it was ruled an official’s error and Bettenhausen’s win stood as no one completed the full 150 laps. The following year, the champ cars returned for their second and final race with Johnnie Parsons the victor.

Stock cars debuted in 1951 with a 250 miler sanctioned by the ARA. John Soares drove his Oldsmobile to a two-lap victory and $2,500 while fighting severe dust. An estimated 12,000 fans ensured a return despite the large amount of railing taken out.

Ben Gregory won the 1952 “250,” and the 1953 race, sanctioned by WCRA, saw “Swede” Kline drive his Jaguar XK120 back from four tire stops and seven laps down to take the victory.

One wonders if Kline was an SCCA driver racing under an alias to avoid a ban.

In 1954, the stock-car race became NASCAR sanctioned and the Grand National division ran at Bay Meadows the next three years. Hershel McGriff won in ’54, Tim Flock drove his Kiekhaefer Chrysler to the ’55 win after an overnight flight from Syracuse, N.Y., and Eddie Pagan won the ’56 race.

In the 1955 race, Elias Bowie became the first African American to start a race in NASCAR’s top division, a fact still overlooked in most records.

Bay Meadows hosted other forms of racing. Troy Ruttman won a AAA sprint-car race and Bobby Ball won a 100-mile AAA midget race after Bettenhausen again ran out of gas. Motorcycles were also an annual staple with future IndyCar champ Joe Leonard nipping future NASCAR star Paul Goldsmith in the 1954 AMA race.

In 1955, the “Cavalcade of Auto Racing” featured 50-lap mains for midgets, sprints and hardtops. The “Cavalcade” returned Sept. 2, 1956, in front of a disappointing crowd of 5,646. When Dave Leroy concluded the day by taking the checkered flag to win the hardtop feature, it marked the final auto race at the track.

Kyne died the next February and auto racing did not return to Bay Meadows. After years of uncertainty, the final horse race took place Aug. 17, 2008. Soon the grandstand was demolished to make way for a residential/commercial development.