Coordinating a club event with a National Park site, especially one as busy with filming and other events as Paramount Ranch is, can be challenging, but on April 12th, it all worked out. The weather couldn’t have been more ideal – cool morning temperatures under beautiful sunny skies.
Nineteen cars with 30 people met at the park-n-ride at Santa Rosa/Pleasant Valley Rd. in Camarillo. We headed off for a back road drive to Paramount Ranch. We headed down Pleasant Valley Rd to Lewis. After passing Cal State University Channel Islands, we turned on Potrero Rd. for a twisty climb from the coastal plain to the Conejo Valley. In Newberry Park, we jogged on Reino to stay on Potrero and continue our drive thru Hidden Valley and by Lake Sherwood. From Westlake, we took Agoura Rd. To Kanan, then left on Cornell to Paramount Ranch.
The drive took about an hour and once at the Ranch, we were met by retired Park Ranger and now volunteer interpreter Tom. Tom is a long time car enthusiast and restorer, and has been working with the Park to bring the California car culture and the racing and automotive history of Paramount Ranch together. We were also met by Interpretive Ranger Iliana who would share some of the filming history with us.
We started the tour by getting in our cars and driving down the front straight of the race track and across the start/finish line to turn 1. Julie had the honor of waving the checkered flag for each of us as we raced (at a snail’s pace) across the line. You all know how enthusiastic Julie can be and she didn’t disappoint with her flag waving. In fact, she waved us by so vigorously that the stick on the flag broke! Oops, sorry Tom!!!
Once parked in turn 1, we got out of our cars and Tom told us about the racing history of the track. He told us about how Ken Miles took a VW Beetle around the Ranch to figure out where the track would go. And how it was originally planned to be run in the reverse direction except for the fatal flaw that if someone lost control going down the front straight heading into what is now turn 11, they would spin head-on into race traffic coming off of turn 9. There were famous drivers like Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant who raced at Paramount as they were getting their careers started. And the three deaths that occurred during what would be the final race at Paramount in December of 1957. Craig had the honor of holding up a large map of the race track and pointing to various turns as Tom was talking so we all had an idea of where we were and where certain things occurred. We all learned from that experience that getting directions from Craig would probably not be a good idea!
We next got back into our cars where we continued around turns 1, 2 and 3 before heading back down the front straight (in the wrong direction!). We headed across the bridge and around the old western town before parking again back on the high banked corner of turn 7. What a great sight to see all those old British cars parked on the old race track. Some of the cars there were actually makes and models that raced on the track back in the day.
Ranger Iliana took us on a short tour of the old western town where many movies and TV shows have been filmed. One of the most well known TV shows that was filmed there for 7-8 years was Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. And one of the most recent movies that was filmed at the ranch (right at turn 1) was American Sniper. There is a scene where they are at a firing range and that was filmed at the Ranch. Iliana took us in into several buildings including the Sheriff’s Office and the Saloon.
After the western town tour, we went into the old barn which was wonderfully cool and quiet. There we watched several video clips of movies filmed at the Ranch that had automotive themes. The one that best showed the race track was the 1957 film called The Devil’s Hairpin. The movie never was a big hit, and in fact, some say it was downright bad (I thought it was OK), but the last 10-15 minutes of it are racing scenes that show many of the sections and turns of the race track.
We then took a short walk backwards around the track from turn 7 (called the Hornpipe in the movie), turn 6 and to turn 5 (the Devil’s Hairpin). At turn 5, Tom talked about how urbanization of the area (Oak Park in particular) had altered the creek from an annual to a perennial stream and the resultant periodic floods that occurred. He explained how even without the deaths in the last race, Paramount Race Track was doomed due to the flooding and erosion that has occurred. In fact, it won’t take too many more of these floods before the remaining asphalt in turn 5 is completely gone.
We wrapped up the tour under the pavilion where we all had lunch. There was everything from sandwiches to exquisite spreads of cheese, crackers, fruit and wine. It was great socializing with folks during lunch and before they headed home in various directions.
While the Park has no plans today to preserved the remains of the track, Tom is hopeful that if the word can get out about this unique cultural resource and money can be raised, some preservation can be done. So if you are a member of another car club or have friends who are, tell them about Paramount Ranch and that if they have a group between 15 and 50 people, they can arrange an interpretive tour of the Ranch. Like the old saying goes, “We will only conserve what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught”. So help get the word out.
If anyone is interested in learning more about the racing history at the track, there is a very good book – more like a scrapbook – called Paramount Ranch Remembered. You can buy it at the Santa Monica Mountains visitor center at King Gillette Ranch, or on Amazon (and probably other places too). The movie The Devil’s Hairpin is harder to find. There are a couple of internet retailers that have copies for sale.
By Joel Justin