Racing History In The California Desert

While taking a quick respite away from the shop out to "The Springs", I had some time to dig into the racing history of this quaint desert oasis; Palm Springs. 

Let's start the story in the early 1950's.

According to Art Evans in his 2011 profile of the 1985 Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix in, the first post-WWII sports car road race in Southern California was held in Palm Springs on April 16, 1950. For the first couple of years, the road race was held on the city streets of Palm Springs. In 1953 the course was laid out on the local airport runway.

Photo: Palm Springs Historical Society

Soon, a Hollywood actor got wind of these races. Lew Bracker called his buddy "Jimmy" James Dean to get away from the Hollywood stress and come out to watch some races in Palm Springs. Dean was hit with the racing bug. He bought a Porsche 356 Super Speedster and two weeks later took it to the races in March of 1955. 

Veteran racers wouldn't give the star any slack and at the end of the first lap, Dean led by 300 yards, the second lap widened to 400 yards and on the sixth and final lap he crossed the line with a half mile gap. Gus Vignolle of of MotoRacing magazine said that Dean's reaction was "Gee, I can't believe it."

That win proved respectful of the veteran drivers and Dean took third in the following day's final but was bumped to second place win after the officials disqualified winner Ken Miles for a technical infraction. One can't help but wonder if Ken threw a wrench at the official???

Later that year Lew called Dean and told him that there was a Porsche Spyder in the window of Hollywood's Competition Motors. As in Janice Kleinschmidt's article in When Dean arrived at Lew's house in the Spyder, Lew went to the dealer to trade-in his Speedster for the Super Speedster that Dean had traded for the Spyder.

James Dean entered two more races against the demands of the Warner Bros. Studio execs until his tragic death where he crashed his Porsche Spyder on his way to a race in Salinas, California.

Jumping ahead 30 years and Art Evans shares his story of the 1985 Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix. This exhibition ran 19 Formula One and Indy veterans on the same grid. Dan Gurney, Bobby Unser, Stirling Moss and others. After the event Carroll Shelby said "...It may be the most successful vintage car race ever held on this continent."

1985 Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix

That signature event was Evans' idea as the promoter. Evans was the childhood friend of "Mr. Palm Springs", Mayor Frank Bogert. In the mid 1980's Palm Springs was suffering as a get-a-way spot. Frank remembered the races in the 1950's and was on board as long as he can get the insurance. With the help of friends Johnny Von Neumann, Vasek Polak, Keith McCormick, the VARA, and others, they were able to bring out celebrity racers and the event was a huge success. Evans' article in is highly detailed if you want to have more info. The event ran till 1996 when there was just too much push-back from the community. 

I remember going to the Palm Springs Grand Prix. One of my favorite memories was watching the late 60s GT cars including big-block Trans-AM Cobras, Mustangs and Camaros roar from the starting line to the tune of "Bad Boys, Bad boys, whatcha gonna do, when they come for you?....." against the back drop of palm trees and the mountains.

Burns Stainless Exhaust

Inspired by all this racing history Tim Rogers initiated The Thermal Club an exclusive country club that traded the green fairways for smooth raceways. Yep, you guessed it, a purpose built series of race tracks as the heart of a private club to cater to those who want to exercise their sports cars. You can run on the 5+ miles of 3 different tracks in their "arrive and drive" program. 

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