Nestled in the foothills of the Agoura Hills a few miles north of Malibu, Paramount Ranch Racetrack was the first purpose-built road racing course in California, created during the sportscar racing boom of the 1950s around a western movie set. Extremely short-lived, it served for less than two years before tragedy forced its closure.
The circuit takes its name from the Paramount film studio, which bought the plot of land in 1927 for outdoor filming. The studio built numerous large-scale sets on the ranch, including a huge replica of early San Francisco and even a Welsh mining village.
In 1954 Paramount purchased the Academy Award-winning sets previously used at the RKO Pictures Encino Movie Ranch. The freshly-rebuilt Western Town featured in some of the era's most popular TV Westerns including 'The Cisco Kid' and 'Gunsmoke'. Later on these would be used for other series, notably 'Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman', the HBO series 'Carnivàle' and more recently 'Westworld'.
The racing connection began with the boom in interest in automobiles in early post-war America, which convinced the studio to diversify to make what it hoped would be further profitable use of its land. Racers Ken Miles and Dick Van Laanen were approached to design a two-mile road course on the property. Under the direction of the Sportsman Club, the course was constructed in December 1955, ready for action the following year. The undulating course featured a near-¾ mile front straight and a figure-of-eight layout, the first of its kind west of the Rockies. This would prove to be its major fascination and also its major flaw.
It wasn't in fact until August 1956 that the burgeoning numbers of mainly amateur sportscar racers had the chance to sample the circuit in anger, with what would turn out to be first of just seven organised race meets at the Ranch. The first event was organised by the California Sports Car Club and drew an estimated crowd of some 2,000 spectators, who crammed the narrow roads out to the venue for their glimpse of something new.
Among the notable names competing were Lance Reventlow, Ritchie Ginther and Bob Bondurant, who made up a more than 350-strong entry list of drivers across a variety of categories. Winners that weekend included Ed Barker, Ginther, Eric Hauser, Rudy Cleye and Harrison Evans, while the Ladies' Race was won by Ruth Levy.
Safety leaves something to be desired
Further events would be organised in November by USAC and the CSCC, ahead of a full programme of events in 1957. While the circuit had carved out a reputation as a tough track with little margin for error, the rather lax safety standards of the day had not proved overly problematic until the final race of 1957, when three serious crashes marred proceedings.
In practice, Hugh Woods spub his Corvette into the barriers at Turn One, receiving serious injuries.
Worse was to come during the 10-lap preliminary race for big production cars, when George Sherrerd III crashed his Jaguar XK 120M at the same spot. Incredibly, the guardrail had not been repaired from the earlier incident and poor Sherrerd was killed instantly when the exposed guardrail pierced through the car.
If the age of innocence was now over for the mainly amateur drivers taking part, further tragedy was to unfold the following day. A Dan Gurney took the chequered flag to win in Frank Arciero's ex-Parravano Ferrari 375 Plus (his debut victory) there was drama further round the course as Jim Firestone's Frazier Nash got loose on the shoulder at Turn 3, hit the bridge parapet and rolled, reportedly five times. His seat belt pulled loose and the car struck him at least twice, causing fatal injuries, car and driver ending up on the hillside at Turn 4.
It was a truly appalling way to end the racing year and, as it would turn out, Paramount Ranch's racing life. Insurers would no longer offer to cover racing activity, such were the concerns about the safety of the facility following the tragedies. With competition now also established in-State from the likes of Riverside, Willow Springs and Pomona, the writing was on the wall and Paramount took the inevitable decision to close the venue.
Circuit lives on through the big screen
However, it wasn't quite the end of the story for high-octane action in the Agoura Hills. As could be expected of a film studio with a racing track on its books, Paramount made use of its mothballed facility in several feature films in the proceeding years. Capitalising on the car culture that had swept America, the track was used for filming a tranche of 'B-movies', including 1957's "Devil's Hairpin", "Roadracers" (1959) and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" (1965).
Perhaps the most famous depiction of the circuit on the big screen came during 1965's 'Spin Out', notable for starring Elvis Presley. Cameos also followed with 1966's 'Munster Go Home', 'The Love Bug' (1968) and its sequel, 'Herbie Rides Again', in 1974.
Thereafter the racing engines fell silent. In more recent times, the Ranch has been taken over the National Park Service, with the former movie sets becoming a tourist attraction in their own right, although the California wildfires of 2018 devastated the area, destroying all of the wooden buildings on the site.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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Paramount Ranch Racetrack was located at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains in Agoura Hills California.
Today, the National Park Service maintains the entire ranch including the racetrack as an historic site. Remnants of the racetrack remain, including the main straight and Turns 1, 2 and 3, though the asphalt is in a very poor state and the bridge is blocked off so vehicles cannot drive over it. The road underneath the bridge has been overgrown with trees and shrubs, while other parts of the circuit are now barely discernible, crisscrossed by well-used horse trails.
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