DESIGN: Those Were The Times No. 20 – 1950 Sports Car Racing

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr

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Published on October 16, 2013 at 3:00 am with 9 Comments

Bob Gurr, race car fanatic?  That’s right.  This Disney Legend was a speed racer way back in the day.  In fact today we set our time machine to 1950 and try to keep up with Bob as he shares his lifelong passion for racing.

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1950, so here we go. Starting in 1950 sports car racing was all the rage in Southern California and I couldn’t wait to get involved. My two childhood passions from age 5 had always been cars and airplanes. We lived near the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale California, so airplanes were always overhead, cars everywhere else. When my father took me to a stock car race in 1939, I was hooked on auto racing, which is still a passion today.

WWII put a stop to all racing and it wasn’t until 1946 when I could listen to the Indianapolis Race on radio that my excitement gathered. By 1947 the midget auto races were on again at Gilmore Stadium near Hollywood where I went every Thursday night in my old Model A Ford. I even started going to the Culver City Jalopy Races, 1950 sports car racing was held at a WWII blimp base in Irvine, and also at the Palm Springs Airport. After more Southern California racing, I attended the 1952 Indianapolis Race in person. The next year I was invited to work as a race official, age 21, at the sports car races around Southern California. Whoowee!

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At that time there were two race organizations; Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and the California Sports Car Club. For SCCA I served first as a corner flagman, then was soon elevated to Turn Marshall, the guy in charge of everything happening at a race corner. The Cal Club job was perfect for me as a budding car designer. The starting job was Gas Truck Monitor. In addition to these activities, I’d join with my car design buddies from Art Center to volunteer to paint race numbers on the race cars. Entrants were required to bring their cars for technical inspection a few days before the race at a Hollywood sports car garage. Thus the chance to hang out with the drivers and crews.

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Since Mobilgas was supplying free fuel to all the race entrants, someone had to make sure no free gas was “liberated” for private use. Each race car was issued a gas card that I was to punch whenever fuel was placed in a race car. The rules were that you cannot fill a gas can, just bring the race car to the gas truck. Perfect! I can stay in one place while all the race cars are brought to the gas truck. That way I could examine 100% of all the cars in detail while gas was pumped. I absorbed every interesting design detail of the latest sports cars that way. My curiosity pumped all this information into my brain at full speed. Of course, I was a hard nose official, denying all excuses for can fuel, even to the richest sports car owners around!

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Soon I had another job – Pit Marshall. Prior to each preliminary class race, I would be given the running order and then go thru the pits instructing each driver’s crew to get their car out onto the pre-grid line up in the proper order so as to proceed out onto the race course starting line. At the time, many celebrities raced sports cars – example: newsman George Putnam and movie star James Dean (who was always polite and cooperative). Many racers or car owners were very wealthy, so it was an interesting crowd that I had to deal with – kid official vs rich old guy.

At the SCCA races I loved my job as a Turn Marshall. In the early days the road race courses were very rudimentary, no permanent crash walls, just a few hay bales for spectator protection. Two flagmen and a turn marshall were assigned to each corner. One flagman would face the oncoming cars to signal course conditions, the other faced me. This was because when a crash or spinout occurred, I’d give the flag signal change from green to yellow. If a driver spun out, he ended up past the turn, where he was to await my signal to resume racing after it was safe. To minimize running after spun cars, I’d position myself right where they’d wind up – sometimes right at my feet! Just whack them on head and go!

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The cool benefit was that as turn crews were rotated to change corners, a free lunch was delivered. This was in addition to race entry for free. But the best thing was that I could take close up photos of the racing action. I especially enjoyed “driver portrait” photography as drivers would cut the corner real close with their faces just a few feet away. In the fabulous 700 page 2007 book Weekend Heroes, 32 of my official portraits from over fifty years ago have been printed and credited.

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Over many years I officiated at dozens of races held at almost every Southern California sports car race track learning so much about race car design and engineering.

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Certainly this is part of my “engineering by curiosity” training that I was able to use well in hundreds of projects over the years. Still today I follow all the international Formula One racing so I can learn the latest racing technology. You never know where I might use it.

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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  • Usul831

    Great article Bob! Maybe it’s time to add KERS and DRS to the Autopia???

  • RSZero1

    Wow, so many places to go race and enjoy racing back in the day – so hard to find places today.

    If they had more venues open today, it would certainly cut down on street hooligans.

    Thanks for sharing a great story Bob, I would love to have seen the cars and events you have seen!

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    It amazes me how many things you are involved with. If MiceChat buys a race car, you’ll be our designated driver!

  • jl925sanders

    Having had the distinct pleasure of observing (stalking?) and speaking with Bob in his native habitat (Disneyland). He has left me with two impressions – Kid in a candy store and extremely happy. The articles are fascinating and an extremely important part of history, keep them coming.

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    I can only imagine the look on your face as each race car drove up to you, and how eager you were to look over them while you gassed them up!
    Great story, as per usual, Bob!

  • disneylandfan8

    My father used to race sports cars in Northern CA at Laguna Seca back in the mid 1950s. I can still remember some of the MGs and Alfa Romeos he had. Guess it was this early exposure to foreign sports cars that contributed to my love of them to this day. What a fascinating life you have had!

  • Sparky

    Bob, were you ever involved with the races at the Paramount Ranch racetrack in the late 1950′s? If so, my National Park collegues would probably love to talk to you. I collaborate with NPS staff on Paramount Ranch’s film and other history. The NPS owns and operates the site now and we’re always working to discover more of its great history.

  • DisWedWay

    Bob, glad to get to read more about the 50′s race car history in the LA and Glendale area you were involved with. Do you remember ever seeing my old Legendary neighbor Scott Crossfield’s( Edwards X-15 Pilot who broke the sound barrier by going 3 times faster ), race car he built from reused airplane parts? I know that’s something you enjoyed doing on Disneyland’s Mainstreet vehicles.I hope when they finish the tower building they also include besides period planes, a few of the vintage race cars from the old Glendale track era.

  • Bob Gurr

    Yes Sparky, I was an official out at the old Paramount Ranch track several times in 1954-57. It was a very dangerous layout considering the speed of some of the faster cars. I witnessed several scary crashes. I later attended many Renaissence Fairs there too, starting in 1968.