Midget auto racing at Bonelli Stadium in Saugus, 1945.
According to Osmer & Pherigo (2001), Bonelli Stadium went dark for World War II from June 30, 1942, until September
9, 1945, when the stadium hosted the first postwar race on the West Coast and "Billy Vukovich was first to the checkers. Nine race meetings were held during the
year, with Vukovich winning the championship. Race buffs may recall that Vukovich went on to win the 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500, then lost his life in a
qualifying attempt on the bricks in 1955."
Other early favorites during the heyday of midget racing at Bonelli Stadium were Johnny Parsons and Troy Ruttman.
"The stadium's dirt track was first paved in 1946 but was later torn out and the track reverted to dirt. Midget auto racing, the latest sensation
across the country, continued to draw large crowds through the late '40s. In 1947, the big roadsters roared onto the scene and were the big attraction
until 1950 when midgets staged a brief comeback."
According to Osmer & Pherigo, 1950 also saw the replacement of the original backstretch stands by "imported" seating from Gilmore Stadium
in Los Angeles, which had closed down earlier in the year. (Gilmore Stadium was demolished in 1952 to make way for CBS Television City.)
"During the early fifties, midgets and roadsters shared the track about equally, with the occasional rodeo or circus thrown in. In 1956, the track was paved
for the second time." Stock car racing started in 1959, and a few years later the oval was renamed the Saugus Speedway.
The future Saugus Speedway was built originally as a rodeo arena in 1927 by Roy Baker, brother of shoe magnate C.H. Baker.
Roy Baker purchased the 40-acre property east of Bouquet Junction in 1923 for the purpose of breeding and selling show and pleasure horses.
To that end he imported saddle brood mares from Kentucky and studded them with a pedigreed, chestnut-colored saddlebred stallion named Peavine McDonald (b. 1910),
which sired five pedigreed mares and four pedigreed colts between 1920 and 1936.
Baker advertised that he had 2,500 acres of grazing land and also offered training and boarding services for outside horses.
Probably to attract horse buyers to his ranch in faraway Saugus, Baker staged rodeos. Some references suggest he
built a 12,000-seat arena in 1924, but this is dubious. We do know he held a rodeo on the property on April 11, 1926. That December,
Baker and partner Bob Anderson started construction on a new stadium, complete with partially covered grandstand seating and a quarter-mile oval track.
When it opened May 1, 1927, it seated 18,000 fans, and thousands more had to be turned away for lack of room.
Over the next decade, ownership of the arena
would change hands three more times.
As with a majority of the American populace, Baker was hit hard financially by the Great Depression of 1929 and was forced
to sell the stadium to cowboy actor Hoot Gibson in 1930. Gibson continued to hold rodeos at the stadium and drew a Hollywood crowd
including famous actors such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Tom Mix, and John Wayne. He also used the stadium as a movie set
or leased it to other companies for film making.
But Gibson felt the effects of the Depression, as well. In September 1933 he appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom and pleaded poverty,
saying he had no assets with which to repay a $2,500 loan. He testified that he owned a one-third interest in Hoot Gibson Inc., which owned
the Saugus rodeo, and that it was in arrears.
In 1934, Gibson sold the stadium to Paul Hill, owner of the Western Livestock Stockyards, who continued to call it the Hoot Gibson Rodeo.
As with his predecessors, however, the stadium brought
Hill financial hardship when it was hit by the Great Flood of March 2, 1938. Heavy rains that year caused a river of water to flow down
Soledad Canyon and filled the ranch home and arena with mud and debris. As reported in the Los Angeles
Times, the "old buildings ... collapsed during the March floods" and the arena was built anew.
Nonetheless, Hill lost the ranch sometime after the April 1938 rodeo. According to Reynolds,
the property was repossessed by
the bank. In 1939, ownership passed to William Bonelli, and it was renamed Bonelli Stadium.
Bonelli, a professor of economics at Occidental College,
continued the annual rodeo tradition
for a number of years but introduced auto racing in 1939 on a more frequent schedule; ultimately auto racing became the primary draw and Bonelli
renamed the arena Saugus Speedway.
Occasional rodeos and circuses continued until at least the late 1960s, auto racing until 1995. The facility was sometimes used for
concerts before the grandstands were removed in 2012 (the originals had been replaced in 1955). The venue continues to host an outdoor swap meet.