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SLO’s Exposition Park race track was famous, fast and fatal

A crowd gathers at San Luis Obispo’s Exposition Park at the scene of a wreck. Horace Wallace was killed in a spill here in September 1923. Three others (including spectators) were also killed at various times. Exposition Park was located near where Meadow Park is today.
A crowd gathers at San Luis Obispo’s Exposition Park at the scene of a wreck. Horace Wallace was killed in a spill here in September 1923. Three others (including spectators) were also killed at various times. Exposition Park was located near where Meadow Park is today.

Years ago, before adventure travel became so popular, San Luis Obispo boasted the West’s fastest automobile dirt race track.

Called Exposition Park, the field off South Street (now Meadow Park and a neighborhood) hosted record-breaking racers from 1922 to 1925.

Fred Frame, a famed racing driver, set his first world record in San Luis Obispo and later won the Indianapolis 500 in 1932.

He was quoted in the March 14, 1934, San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram: “During the three-year period when Exposition Park was in its heyday, one world’s speed record was broken three times in a single afternoon.”

Local racer Fred Luelling, who competed with national racing stars such as Frame and Ralph DePalma, broke five dust-spewing world records in 1923, including a lap that averaged 85.4 mph.

Was DePalma good? Only Al Unser has recorded more laps with the lead at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. DePalma won the Indy 500 in 1915.

Hollywood came calling in 1923, making the film “Sporting Youth,” which starred Reginald Denny and Laura LaPlant. Clips of racing can be found on YouTube.

Racing was dangerous, however. Exposition Track claimed four lives in its three years of operation.

The lessons learned in racing made cars safer in the long run, with the introduction of features such as hydraulic brakes and safety belts.

Unfortunately for promoters, the track was not economically viable. It was a long way from the big cities, and many fans didn’t want to pay admission. Residents would climb “Cheapskate Hill” and watch the race gratis.

On June 12, 1926, the Telegram published a story that said the Exposition Park stockholders might sell the park if their debt of $18,000 was paid by the city. The Merchants Association said it would be a good location for the County Fair. Another suggested that it become the city airfield.

After Exposition Park was closed to racing, it was used for baseball and circus events.

The engines no longer roar, but you can still walk up a trail to the top of Cheapskate Hill. The trailhead is near where Exposition Drive morphs into Woodbridge Street.

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