Legion Ascot Speedway (1924 – 1936) was legendary in the dirt track world for taking driver’s lives. Often called “the killer track,” the 5/8ths mile dirt oval was the first track to hold weekly racing broadcasted over the radio.
The track, located in hills of Lincoln Heights along Soto Street from Valley Blvd. to Multnomah Street, opened as Ascot Speedway with a crowd of 25,000 people watching as Indianapolis 500 Champion Ralph De Palma won the main event. Spectators also saw Jimmy Craft wreck his Frontenac into the guardrail, jumping out of the car to show the fans he was alright when driver Norris Shears plowed into the waving driver. Both men were killed instantly. The track’s treacherous straightaways and banked turns claimed the lives of 24 drivers. This was more deaths than at any other track in the nation during that same period.
As Legion Ascot’s death record continued to climb, the track continued to draw huge crowds. In 1928 the American Legion Post 127 of Glendale assumed management of the track and the official name became Legion Ascot Speedway.
In the early 1930’s, “the sensational” Rex Mays came to the track at the same time that the best Indy racers were competing. Racer Al Gordon set a track record that set a mark for the other drivers to reach. It became an obsession with the racers, and they began pushing the limits of the track that was already called “too fast.” The greatest racers of the era became regulars with Chet Gardner, Babe Stapp, Wild Bill Cummings, Kelly “the Shiv” Petillo, Wilbur Shaw, Shorty Cantlon, Ted Horn, Stubby Stubblefield and Rex Mays fighting it out every week. Rex Mays and Al Gordon began to dominate the weekly racing at Legion Ascot.
On January 26th, 1936, 35,000 spectators gathered to watch a AAA Indy Car non Championship event. Al Gordon, a Redlands, California native and veteran of three Indianapolis 500 races and had just won a national championship race at Oakland stadium two weeks earlier, was in the field. His rival Rex Mays, from Riverside, California, was also competing for the coveted title of Ascot 125 winner. Total, there were 15 drivers signed in for the non-points race.
Records show that promoter Bill White made this a two man race (one driver and one riding mechanic) with a set distance of 125 miles covering 200 laps. Gordon, one of the favorites to win, pitted on lap 116 when the right rear wheel collapsed on his #6 Wetteroth-Offenhauser Indy car. After quick repairs, Gordon and his riding mechanic, William “Spider” Matlock, made 10 more laps before the #6 spun and crashed backwards through the south turn guard rail. The car went down an embankment rolling over Gordon and Matlock.
Mays went on to win the race with Louis Meyer, Floyd Roberts, Bill Cummings, and Chet Gardner as the top five, and only finishers of the race. Besides Gordon, there were nine other non-finishers.
Al Gordon died during the night with wife Helen at his side. Matlock, a former stunt man for the motion picture industry, died a day later with his wife and 10 year old son at his side.
Auto racing was discontinued at the Legion Ascot Speedway after these deaths. Eight months later the grandstands burned to the ground mysteriously, preventing any possibility of the track re-opening. Seven years later, Linden Emerson, the track’s former janitor, turned himself in for burning down the grandstand. Even though the track was closed, Emerson explained why he started the fire, “I thought they might re-open it and kill some more of my friends.”
Rex Mays, who had won the Indianapolis pole in 1935, won the top starting spot again in 1936 and 1940. Mays went on to win the AAA National Championship in 1940 and 1941. It seemed that Mays was destined to win more Championships but WWII suspended racing until 1946. After the war was over and auto racing restarted, Mays won the Indy 500 pole again in 1948 but retired with a mechanical problem. Sadly, Mays was killed in a crash during the only Champ Car race ever held at Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, California in November of 1949.