This was about 15 years ago, and the car and racing enthusiast was working on his MS in geography from Cal State Northridge when he started to find old racetracks -- hundreds of them -- all over Southern California. Most had long since been plowed under and replaced by tract homes and strip malls. A few were still around. It was pretty fascinating stuff. He had his subject.
"In terms of sheer venue numbers, more auto racing has taken place in Southern California than at any other area in the world," Osmer wrote recently in Autoweek. "Officially sanctioned events have been held at more than 174 different venues in the region. The first was at Agricultural Park (now the LA Coliseum) in 1903. The list goes on to include the roads of Santa Monica (1909-19), a wooden speedway in Beverly Hills (1920-24), Gilmore Stadium (1934-50) and four tracks named Ascot."
His thesis then became a book, "Where They Raced," followed by a second book with more tracks called, "Where They Raced Lap 2." Now, after years of filming on locations all over the LA area, the whole history is available on DVD titled, what else, "Where They Raced - Speed Demons in the City of Angels."
You will not find a more complete perspective on the historic Southern California racing scene. What we now know as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was once an enormous, banked wooden race track for automobiles. The track we know as Ascot has had four different venues around LA. Drag strips, dry lakes and numerous circle tracks dotted the map in the days before TV, video games and freeways. People came out to the races because there wasn't much else to do and racing was pretty exciting.
Osmer narrates the whole tale, driving through Los Angeles in his big old pickup truck, describing all the local flavor and history in his folksy, friendly manner. Guest racers bring their old cars out and drive them on public roads that used to be racetracks. It has the down-home vibe of a video by local PBS hero Huell Howser, whose story about the Corona circle track of 1915 is what prompted the whole DVD project 11 years ago. Producer Harry Pallenberg was working for Hauser at the time and started work on the Where They Raced DVD four years ago.
You can meet Osmer, Pallenberg and the team Saturday at Autobooks Aerobooks in Burbank and get your own signed copy. Or meet them at any of the following locations: in the basement of Kentia Hall at the L.A. auto show in booth K-733; at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona; or see a screening at the Petersen Automotive Museum in February. You can also buy your own copy online here for $24.95 plus $3.95 shipping and handling. It will make a good Christmas gift for the racer on your list. In the mean time, enjoy the trailer above.
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