Auto Racing 1904 Style

Claudine Burnett

Professional auto racing through the streets of Long Beach has been a yearly tradition since 1975, but did you know the city’s first racetrack was established in 1889 at the west end of town south of Anaheim Street? There meets were held and horses trained. When automobiles entered the picture, Long Beach’s famed seven-mile-long beach became a popular spot for car enthusiasts to test the power of this new form of transportation. As the 2021 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach approaches, let’s take a look at another race in 1904 that had everyone talking.

In December 1904, Los Angeles/Long Beach auto fans were excited when famed auto racer Barney Oldfield told the Los Angeles Herald he would lower the mile circular track record to 50 seconds or better at Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park) and break a mile in 30 seconds on the sands of Long Beach.

Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield declared that the beach at Long Beach was better than any place in Florida for attempting to set a new straightaway mark. He knew other automobile enthusiasts raved about driving on the sands of Long Beach. One of them was Carl Hendrickson, an early Long Beach pioneer and the first Ford agent, who owned a specially built racing car, a four-cylinder Oldsmobile with wheels about 34 inches high. Hendrickson loved to drive his Olds up and down the beach where other automobile owners gathered to race. Hendrickson’s car was too fast to be allowed to race against other Long Beach autos, but Hendrickson would start the race and then pass the competitors towards “Devil’s Gate” (where the Belmont Pier is today) to show the true superiority of his vehicle.

Though powerful, Hendrickson knew his auto was no match against Barney Oldfield’s Green Dragon but was anxious to see the racing “pro” in action. The record in 1904 for completing a mile on a straight course was 39 seconds, set by W.K. Vanderbilt Jr. on Ormond Beach, Florida, in December 1903, but Oldfield was sure his Green Dragon could drive a mile in 30 seconds. But before he could attempt his anticipated record-breaking Long Beach run, he set out to please fans by breaking another racing record...this one on a circular track.

On December 17, 1904, several thousand fans lined up at Agricultural Park in Los Angeles to see Oldfield, who held almost all the records in auto racing since entering the sport in 1902. The start of the day didn’t live up to expectations when local racer Frank Garbutt’s Snowball proved no match for Barney Oldfield’s Green Dragon, which beat Garbutt by ¼ of a mile. Though Oldfield’s mile in 53 seconds was impressive, it did not meet Oldfield’s goal of 50 seconds. But things were soon to change.

Up until now the Los Angeles Times reported, it was thought automobile races were called “races” by courtesy, when in fact they were nothing more than one car trying to pass another. But auto racing, the Times continued, indeed became “racing” that day in Agricultural Park when Charlie Burman and Frank Garbutt showed the crowd that an exciting contest could result when two cars of about the same relative ability came together.

Garbutt had hoped his gasoline powered car would do well, but autos back then were little more reliable than a racehorse, so predictions as to what a given automobile would do on a particular day were hard to make. Garbutt hadn’t beaten Oldfield’s Green Dragon, but he hoped Snowball’s engine was warmed up enough to beat Oldfield’s other car Blue Streak, driven by Charlie Burman.

Fans rose to their feet after Burman’s Blue Streak immediately took the lead. They started to cheer when local entrepreneur Frank Garbutt’s Snowball nosed ahead. When Burman dashed for the lead in the backstretch the crowd moaned and then roared with excitement as Garbutt finally jaunted past Burman at the very end, winning by the narrow margin of three feet with a time of 3 minutes 12 seconds. 

When asked about Garbutt, Barney Oldfield said Garbutt was “a splendid fellow,” who understood his automobile better than most wealthy men (Garbutt made money in the oil industry, boat and airplane building and movie industry) who followed the sport for the fun of it. Barney also went on to say that if he had Garbutt’s money, you would not see him on the track. Instead, he’d hire someone else to do the racing!

Though Oldfield had been three seconds short of his anticipated time at Agricultural Park, he was sure he would meet his straight course goal in Long Beach. December 18th, between 1 and 3 in the afternoon, when the tide was retreating, was the time chosen for Oldfield to race from Devil’s Gate to the Pine Avenue Pier. But the race was not to be. The Los Angeles Auto Club, sponsoring the event, cancelled the demonstration after the Green Dragon blew a tire earlier in the day, plowing through weeds and brush. Disappointed fans were not to see the famed Oldfield, the first man to travel 60 miles an hour in an automobile. Prior commitments and injuries prevented him from rescheduling the event.

Oldfield never made it back to Long Beach to race along the city’s sandy shore. The seven-mile-long beach that made the town famous, is no more. Auto racing, however, has returned, with portions of the track following the course Oldfield hoped to travel. Though racing fans in 1904 did not see any records broken, perhaps fans in 2021 will.


Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at


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