Tales from the Pits: the First Santa Barbara

At the Coronado Speed Festival four years ago we had a Torrey Pines reunion; among the five cars there that actually raced at Torrey Pines were the ex-Phil Hill 2.6 Ferrari Barchetta and MG Magnette 0878, which my Dad had driven. Standing between the two cars on the pre-grid I was reminded of the last time I had stood in the same position, at tech inspection at the first Santa Barbara road races, Labor day, 1953. I told an amused Phil how while standing behind his former car–then owned by Howard Wheeler–Wheeler had started it up and sprayed wet carbon dust on my new blue denim trousers. For two months I wouldn’t let my mom wash them, and she refused to let me wear them!

We towed from Pasadena on Friday and checked into the Mar Monte hotel next to the bird refuge, and I was sent to the dining room while our entourage left for the King Supper Club on upper Milpas St, where they watched a stripper while eating their steaks. At the hotel, my waiter pointed out to me Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie at the next table, there to film “Johnny Dark” at the races. In the film Curtis plays Johnny, an ambitious auto engineer who is unaware that the Brass see the sports car he is developing only as a publicity stunt. In the film Curtis’ rival for the Boss’ daughter (Laurie) wins the race in the experimental car after Hill’s Ferrari (pictured above) conks out while leading. In the real race, Hill in his 2.9 Vignale bodied car wins after Bill Stroppe spins his Kurtis into the ditch at turn two. The film car is the  Woodill Wildfire, a Glasspar bodied Willys. When we went to the film at the Crown Theatre in Pasadena, they had the car in the lobby. Woodill built and sold only a few. It had a slightly different grill and tail from the standard Glasspar body and was quite good-looking. When I entered UCSB in 1960 I found Mike Woodill, son of the builder, living in my dorm. Mike and I had some success building push carts for the then popular college sport of push cart races.

At this race only the pits were on the grass between the start/finish and the double back stretch rather than on the opposite side by the hangars. There was a little tower there, and the film has some shots of the cars from the tower, including a staged one of Hill’s car dying, and a real one of the Cannon Spl being pushed to the grid. Turn one was marked by bales and cones and was sharper than in later races; Stroppe spun there too, and Ernie McAfee in his new Siata 208s hit the hay three times on Saturday. His car was entered in the Concours at the Biltmore later in the day; after judicious hammering, he borrowed some red nail polish from my Mother to retouch it!

Most race weekends prior to this had practice on Saturday and four races on Sunday. Here, Ken Miles used his newly gained influence to have a program of six or seven shorter races each day. Hill and Jim Lowe in his new Le Mans Replica Frazer-Nash staged a good battle in the big bore production race, Lowe holding off Hill’s Ferrari for several laps. But though both models supposedly qualified for production status according to the FIA, both were disqualified for having locked rear ends! Miles, of course, won the semi-main in his first MG special R1. Dad finished seventh both days in Magnette 0878, pictured here at Palm Springs with uncle Pete Jacobsen at the wheel for the novice event.

One response to “Tales from the Pits: the First Santa Barbara”

  1. Bruce Jones says:

    I was there. Even though I was only 7 years old the memories are still fresh. I think in 1954 we stayed at the Silver Saddle Motel which was closer to the track. As I recall we’d drive the racecar back to the motel so your dad could work on it and we’d drive it back out to the track the next day. One Saturday after practice your mom drove the racecar back to the motel and I got to ride in it. My “job” was to watch the water temp. and make sure it didn’t get too high. Great days.

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