Dario Resta (R), with Johnny Aitken and Eddie Rickenbacker.
(Photo: Auburn University Special Collection Archives)
We are keen students of the history of our sport, and a side project has revealed the fascinating tale of the one – and only – grand prix event held in San Francisco. In 1915, English driver Dario Resta won both the Vanderbilt Cup and grand prix races held on a temporary circuit constructed adjacent to the bay.
The origins of the race can be traced to the Panama Canal. In 1911, President Taft nominated San Francisco over New Orleans for the site of the Pan-Pacific Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating completion of the canal. Constructed over bay mud on the city’s northern bayshore, the Exposition would feature neo-classical archways, gardens, wide promenades, and exhibition halls such as the “Food Products Palace”, the “Horticulture Palace” and the “Machinery Palace”.
As part of the celebration, organizers had lobbied hard for a Grand Prix of San Francisco, to be run as one round of the 1915 Vanderbilt Cup. The race was scheduled for late February, a traditionally wet time of year in Northern California. But the excitement of a grand prix race had infected the city.
“San Francisco thinks, eats, drinks and lives nothing but motor racing at the present time,” Motoring Magazine reported in February 1915 (“Devoted to the Motoring Interests of the Pacific Coast”). The exposition “was the greatest the world has ever known”, but bringing the race to San Francisco was no easy task. Noting that San Francisco had no established racing scene, rival promoters in Southern California had invested in more advanced racing facilities, and they expected to receive the prized Vanderbilt Cup date.
“That San Francisco will hold these events has only been made possible by the public enthusiasm of William Hughson, for years identified with the auto industry on the coast,” wrote Motoring’s Frederick Marriott. Hughson – a Ford dealer – went east in 1914 and lobbied the Cup committee to sanction his race, subject to approval of the AAA. He also secured the backing of a car dealer’s trade association, and the local press jumped on the idea of having the races held during the Exposition. Hughson sought support of various drivers, and he offered an olive branch to the Los Angeles promoters by offering to split the ”grand prix” and Vanderbilt Cup races between the two cities.
Hughson and Exposition chief Hollis E. Cooley traveled east to meet with W.K. Vanderbilt, but they arrived to find that the meeting had been delayed for a month through the trickery of another group of rival promoters, this time from their own city. Vanderbilt was having none of it, and at a hastily called meeting the entire project was awarded to San Francisco. Both races would be held during the Exposition.
It was not a perfect situation. The course distance had to be shortened from eight miles to four, and few could predict the outcome of a race run entirely on an enclosed course made of wooden planks. “The result will be eagerly awaited with interest,” Marriott wrote.
No one had factored in the rain. February is usually one of the wettest months in San Francisco, known for cold air and lashing storms. This would play heavily in the outcome of the grand prix race held on February 27. Many cars retired in the sodden conditions, including early favorites Barney Olfield and Eddie V. Rickenbacker. Resta persevered in his Peugeot and took the first victory.
The Cup race was scheduled a week later, on March 6, with a field of 31 drivers. The second race included a $3,000 purse.
“Thrill In Each Lap of Wild Cup Race” the Sausalito News reported on March 13, 1915. Resta also won the second race, turning a total of 294 miles, or 77 laps, on the Exposition’s “intramural” race course. It took almost four and a half hours for Resta to complete the circuit with an average speed of 67.5 mph. He stopped just once for fuel, at a relatively brisk pace of 28 seconds.
“Smiling young” Howard Wilcox finished second in a Stutz. Two-time Cup winner Ralph De Palma finished fourth, ahead of Billy Carlson “who had not been figured to get anywhere near the money.”
The verdict on racing was favorable, although the Vanderbilt Cup never returned to San Francisco. “The race was one of the most remarkable in the history of automobile racing,” the Sausalito News concluded. “The fact that Resta and Wilcox, who fought wheel by wheel through the rain and mud for the Grand prix, again finished first and second is an unusual thrill.”
There were two accidents worth noting, one that injured driver Bob Burman and his mechanic, and another that caused injuries to a spectator when a tire flew into the crowd “Apart from these and several slight mishaps which had no connection with the race there was no work for the ambulances, and that is regarded by the officials as one of the remarkable features of the long grind over a difficult and perilous course.”
The exposition was temporary, and the circuit was never re-built. World War I would soon intervene. Racing in Northern California would later move to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and south to Pebble Beach. But that’s an entirely different story….
Dario Resta was killed in an accident at Brooklands in 1924. Rickenbacker owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for several years before World War II put a temporary end to racing. He later sold the raceway to Anton Hulman Jr., whose family still owns IMS. Olfield retired from driving in 1918 and died in 1946.