Phil Hill in his Jaguar XK120 at Pebble Beach Road Races
Phil Hill in his Jaguar XK120 at Pebble Beach Road Races

History of the Pebble Beach Road Races

History of the Pebble Beach Road Races – Page Two

The 1950 Pebble Beach course was laid out entirely within the confines of the Property and, because the land is all private including the roads, any laws of that might prohibit racing didn’t apply. The first course was 1.8 miles in length and was in an irregular rectangle. You can drive it yourself if you wish. The Start/Finish was on Portola Road. All of the turns were right-handers. Proceeding in a clock-wise direction, turn right on Sombria Lane, right on Drake Road, make a sweeping right onto Stevenson Drive and then a sharp right back onto Portola.

The circuit was exceedingly dangerous. Spectators stood or sat right at its edges and trees lined the circuit. In a contest between a car and a tree, the tree was inevitably the victor, often with dire results for the car and sometimes the driver as well. (My close friend, Ernie McAfee, was killed against a tree there in 1956, marking the end of racing at Pebble Beach.) Not only that, the roadway isn’t very wide, so passing was challenging. The 1950 Pebble was organized, as were all subsequent ones at that location, by the San Francisco Region of the SCCA. A crowd of an estimated 10,000 turned out to watch.

That year was also the first for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. When Edwards and Morse planned the race, they decided to stage a Concours in conjunction. A separate committee was formed to organize the event. The site was a practice tee and driving range on the golf course adjacent to the Del Monte Lodge. A total of 31 entries showed up. They included sports, luxury and antique cars. The oldest was a 1904 Buick. Kjell Qvale entered a 1950 Daimler Drop Head Coupe. Don Parkinson (Jaguar), Bob Gillespie (MG-TC) and Sterling Edwards (Edwards Special) entered the cars they drove in the race. Sterling Edwards won “Best of Show.” All the cars were clean and polished, but not what would today be considered in “Concours condition.”

Technical inspection and practice took place on Saturday, November 4. The first race on Sunday was “The Cypress Point Light Car Race.” It was for SCCA Classes G and F (750-1500cc). All of the 19 starters were MGs except for two Crosley Hot-Shots and an Austin A-40. After the start, Los Angeles attorney Stan Mullin in his MG got into a traffic jam and had to choose between hitting some spectators or a tree. He chose the tree. Although he was not injured, his car was severely damaged. Afterwards, he was awarded the “Best Sportsmanship of the Day Trophy.”

Henry Manney in his Crosley Hot Shot leading Stan Mullin in his MG-TC. (Photo: Bob Devlin Collection)
Henry Manney in his Crosley Hot Shot leading Stan Mullin in his MG-TC. (Photo: Bob Devlin Collection)

John Von Neumann won in his modified MG-TD followed by two TCs. After the race, he was disqualified for having Methanol in his fuel and for not draining his fuel tank on arrival. Subsequently, he obtained statements to prove that some “pump fuels” also contained Methanol and that many other contestants also didn’t drain their tanks. It’s interesting to note that in an article about the race in the SCCA magazine, SPORTS CAR, Von Neumann is not mentioned and Bill Kerrigan, who finished second behind Von Neumann, is listed the winner. Other accounts, including an article in Road & Track, list Von Neumann as the winner. At any rate, however, John had the distinction of taking the checkered flag in the very first race at Pebble Beach. The Von Neumann MG is now owned by Don Martine and is on display at the beautiful Martine Inn in Pacific Grove (between Monterey and Pebble Beach). Don vintage races it occasionally.

John Von Neumann in his TC leading Richard Scott (64) in his TC at the 1950 Pebble Beach. (Photo:
John Von Neumann won the very first race run at Pebble Beach in 1950. In this photo of John in his MG-TD, he is leading Dick Scott in an MG-TC. Scott failed to finish. (Photo: Julian Graham)

John Von Neumann (1921-2003) was a fascinating character as well as my friend and neighbor. He burst on the racing scene at that first Southern California event at Palm Springs on April 16, 1950. He entered the same car—the modified TD—but blew its head gasket in practice. So he borrowed a Riley for the main event, but ran out of gas. John came from a famous Jewish family (distantly related to the Harvard mathematician). He father was a well-known surgeon in Berlin. But when Hitler came to power, the family fled to Austria and then to the U.S. Young John attended New York University and later transferred to the University of Southern California.

Then the war came along, so John enlisted in the Army and took basic training at the Torrey Pines Army base (where he would later race). After the war, he made his home in Los Angeles, became interested in sports cars and was one of the three founders of the California Sports Car Club. In 1952, he heard that Porsche was making a sports car, so he took the train to New York City, bought one from Max Hoffman and drove it back to California. Von Neumann entered that Porsche in the May 20, 1952 Pebble Beach. Although he failed to finish due a mechanical problem, he led his race—The Pebble Beach Trophy—for a while. His Porsche, the first seen on the West Coast, created a lot of interest. To make a long story short, John went back to New York, bought another Porsche, drove it California and sold it. Eventually, he became a dealer and finally the Western States distributor for both Porsche and VW. He added a Ferrari franchise to his empire and quite successfully raced different models himself. Phil Hill, Richie Ginther and Ken Miles also drove for John during the fifties. In 1971, Von Neumann sold his distributorships to Porsche and VW (they were separate then) and joined the ranks of the super-wealthy.

John Von Neumann racing his Porsche 356 at Torrey Pines
John Von Neumann won the main event for cars under 1500cc at the December 1952 race at Torrey Pines in his Porsche 356. The course at Torrey Pines used roads that were part of an Army base in WWII. Von Neumann took basic training there. Von Neumann was the first Porsche dealer in the West and then the Western States Distributor of Porsche and Volkswagen. (Photo: Art Evans Collection)
John Von Neumann in his supercharged MG Special. (Photo: Qvale Collection)
John Von Neumann in his supercharged MG Special. (Photo: Qvale Collection)

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  1. Great nostalgic article – thanks for keeping the memories alive! I wonder what some of these folks think of the 2013 version of “sports car racing” since it is all so serious now?

  2. @Chuck, my dad raced at those races and while todays racing is very serious and money driven, he absolutely loves it and doesn’t miss a race in TV. He doesn’t compare the two though, apples to oranges as far as the the big picture. But out on the track, it’s apples to apples for the driving, which he loves.
    He also has movies from those “good ole days” that are a true treasure.

    1. Thanks, Scott, that’s good to hear your dad enjoys today’s action – it stays in your blood I guess. Today’s “track days” or “DEs” are very close in spirit to the 50s races in that many of us still drive our cars to and hopefully from the track and enjoy the camaraderie and friendships as much as the driving challenges. Then it was the Jag 120 and now it is the Vipers or ZR1s that blow your doors off, but we love being there!

  3. Great story Art. You probably know this, but If anyone follows your directions for a drive around the old track, they’ll be doing a slightly abbreviated version. Though much of the original road racing course is remarkably intact, there have been changes to a few of the roads, and to the names of some roads, around the upper parts of the old course. The 1950 race would have gone straight ahead on Drake Road at present-day Stevenson Road, then made the sweeping right onto what is now Forest Lake Road, before coming down the hill to the hairpin right, back onto Portola. Unfortunately, you can’t drive this stretch between Stevenson and Forest Lake anymore. Also, I’m not sure what award Mr. Qvale is presenting in the photo, but it’s certainly not the main event trophy in 1950. The 1950 Pebble Beach trophy was something like 3 feet tall, and was presented to Phil Hill by Mrs. Bjarne Qvale while he sat in the black XK120 just after the race.

  4. Nice article Art, thanks for the memories. A friend recently passed away leaving the Bill Kerrigan MGTC from the 1950 race and several extremely low mileage MGs. Any reference material you can recommend would be appreciated by the family and myself.