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.”
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 (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.