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You can’t watch an Indianapolis 500-quality race in San Luis Obispo.
But you could more than 70 years ago.
The relics of San Luis Obispo’s racing past are long gone, replaced as the engine of development moved through the area.
Meadow Park and the surrounding neighborhood near South and Broad streets were, at one time, the fastest automobile dirt racetrack in the West.
And before cars ruled, San Luis Obispo was a hotspot for horse racing.
The old barn off Madonna Road where spectators once watched horse races burned in a fire back in February.
History was made at these tracks.
Indy 500 winners competed at the automobile track. And it’s even rumored that miner-turned-politician George Hearst — media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s father — had a man who came to the Exposition Park horse track to place bets.
A need for speed at the auto track
Exposition Park opened in 1922, and only operated for three years. During that time, records were broken and Hollywood made its mark.
Ralph DePalma, a racing legend who won the 1915 Indianapolis 500, broke a dirt-track speed record in San Luis Obispo, and another racing star, Barney Oldfield, made an appearance there. (Oldfield retired from racing in 1918.) Fred Frame, another famous race car driver, set his first world record in San Luis Obispo and went on to win the 1932 Indianapolis 500.
“This was part of the Indy racing circuit,” said Justin Jurgens of British Sports Cars in San Luis Obispo. “If you raced in the Indy 500, if you were on the circuit, this was part of it.”
In 1923, Universal Studios used the track to shoot racing scenes for the film “Sporting Youth,” starring Reginald Denny and Laura La Plante. Clips of the film, referred to in Tribune archives as “There He Goes,” can be found on YouTube.
On the same day Hollywood executives were filming, racing history was being made.
Fred Luelling of San Luis Obispo “broke all dirt track competitive records from one to sixty miles at the races held on Sept. 3, 1923,” according to a commemorative 1956 article in the Telegram-Tribune.
The day also marked the very first pit stop ever recorded, Jurgens said. It was filmed, incidentally, because of the movie.
In that year, Luelling broke five world records — and one lap averaged 85.3 mph, according to a 2016 article in The Tribune.
Four fatal accidents occurred while the track was open, according to a 2011 Tribune blog post.
Spectators used to hike up Cheapskate Hill, which overlooked the track, and watch the races for free. The hill is now better known as South Hills Open Space.
The track closed in 1925.
By the 1950s, some parts of Exposition Park remained and were used for “occasional circuses,” according to Tribune archives. But the glory days of the track were gone forever.
Before cars, there were horse races
In 1874, Gerhard Leff built a half-mile racetrack about two miles south of town, not far from what would later become the Exposition Park auto racetrack, according to local architectural historian James Papp. Another, mile-long track was built a year later, about a mile south of town.
In 1887, the “official” track was built, Papp said.
That race track, located on the south end of Laguna Lake, was constructed in the year of the first district fair by the SLO Agricultural Society and was considered part of the fairground.
The grandstand at the track was later converted into a barn.
In another tie to local horse racing, the apartments at 527 Higuera St. were originally a barn for horses that raced at the track, Papp said. The barn was converted into a hay and feed store before being turned into apartments in 1923.
Papp said there was at least one more racetrack in San Luis Obispo, located over by modern-day Marsh and Santa Rosa streets. And horse racing extended beyond San Luis Obispo.
In his research, “I saw lots of references in the 1880s to horse racing at Cambria, Arroyo Grande, Pozo and Cayucos,” Papp said. “There’s no suggestion there was necessarily a track at these places — it just seems to be this very popular activity.”
By the start of the 20th century, horse racing started to fade out of San Luis Obispo.
In 1900, William Wood bought the property near Laguna Lake and subsequently closed down the racetrack. The old spectator grandstand was moved to a new location on the former Dalidio property along Madonna Road and converted into a barn.
Long shielded from public view by hundreds of trees, the grandstand was scheduled to be moved for historic preservation as part of the San Luis Ranch development until February, when it burned down in a fire.
The barn was “a rare surviving example of a scarce building type in California,” according to a report commissioned by the city of San Luis Obispo.
The barn was used in the earliest days of county fairs, and was the last building standing that linked the first county fair in the area to the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, according to the report.
San Luis Obispo’s most popular race tracks slowly faded into obscurity and weren’t replaced. Today, the closest active racetrack is the Santa Maria Raceway.
Tribune photographer David Middlecamp contributed to this story.