Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures
Walt Faulkner, Midget Driver
Bonelli Stadium, Saugus, California

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Famous midget and stock car driver Walt Faulkner behind the wheel of his No. 99 midget racer at Bonelli Stadium in the 1940s or early 1950s. Photo, 8x10 glossy, by Jerry Wright's Photos, 3839 S. Denker Ave., Los Angeles.

We don't know whether it is an autographed photo, or if someone else wrote his name on the print as an identifier.

Born Feb. 16, 1918, in Texas, Faulkner moved to Los Angeles in 1936 and was racing in early days at Bonelli Stadium, where auto racing started in 1939. A short bio in the Bonelli Stadium 1945-46 Photo Annual reads:

Walt Faulkner, the "Little Dynamo," is a native of Los Angeles [sic] but now lives in San Diego, where he and Gib Lilley operate a service station. Walt served 18 months in the Army, received a medical discharge in 1944 because of an injury incurred in racing. From his start in 1939, he has driven nothing but midgets, and is accredited as one of the best on the Coast. He is still laid up as a result of his accident at Bonelli Stadium last September but plans to drive again next year.

The spectacular accident occurred Sept. 30, 1945, when Faulkner flipped his racecar. It made an impression on one of our readers, Frank Bothwell, who wrote in 2013: "My dad used to take me to the midget races at Bonelli when the war was over. ... I was about 5 years old. I was there the day Walt Faulkner, famous picture, went upside-down and was hanging out of his car." (The picture can be seen in the 1945-46 photo annual.)

Faulkner, who had been the 1941 Pacific Coast U.M.A. Champion, recovered and went on to achieve even greater success in both midget and stock car racing. He was also the first rookie to win pole position in the Indianapolis 500 in 1950.

He died April 22, 1956, from injuries he sustained in crash during a USAC stock car qualifying race in Vallejo, Calif. He was posthumously inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2007.

About 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. (Promoter Bob Anderson organized a local rodeo in 1924, but its exact location is unclear, and it wouldn't have had grandtands.) Anderson did hold the annual rodeo on Baker's property in April 1926. That December, Baker and 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.

LW2995: 9600 dpi jpeg from original photograph purchased 2017 by Leon Worden.



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