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Remembering the Greater SF Speedway, a marvel of design that lasted six months

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Although a hit when opened in 1921, it was gone before anyone knew it

Sepia-toned aerial photograph of the San Francisco Speedway in 1921. San Carlos Aviation Association Collection

On Sunday, the racing history site 365 Days of Motoring noted the 95th anniversary of the Greater San Francisco Speedway.

What in the world is that and why have you probably never heard of it before? Strap in, because the tale of the city’s legendary, lost racing course is a bumpy one.

For starters, the so-called San Francisco Speedway was actually built in San Carlos, for an undocumented sum in late 1921, a bid to cash in on the trendy new fad of motor racing.

Although eccentrics had been racing cars since the mid 19th-century, most old-time races took place on open roads (or, in the case of illegal races, remote areas).

Nobody thought to build an actual racing course for motor vehicles until the 20th century.

The Oakland Motordrome enjoyed a brief burst of popularity in 1911 but closed after only two years, done in by, of all things, a driver’s strike over wages.

But Oakland Motordrome designer Jack Prince, a British bicycle racer, had his eye on an even bigger and more ambitious site on the Peninsula.

There, the innovations of his previous tracks could be combined into what he promised would be the fastest ever built.

When finished, the SF Speedway was 50 feet wide, a quarter mile in length, and “saucer-shaped,” lacking any straightaways at all. Prince dubbed it his masterpiece.

The December 11, 1921 inaugural race drew a crowd of 40,000, equivalent to about eight percent of the population of San Francisco at the time. Celebrity drivers competed for a purse worth the equivalent of over $600,000 today.

But by June 1922, the speedway was gone forever, after hosting only three auto races in its brief lifetime.

It wasn’t another strike, and races didn’t go out of fashion. Rather, a summer brush fire spread to the structure. The track was made entirely of wood, and had been soaked with oil from dozens of cars.

Although Prince vowed to rebuild, it was never to be. Today all that remains of San Francisco’s thrilling but short-lived venture into the racing world are a few sepia-toned photos, like these in the Stanford archives.

Stanford Photos Archive