Balboa Stadium Was A True Auto Racing Castle
Located barely a mile from downtown San Diego, Balboa Stadium hosted auto racing from 1938 to 1961, with many future stars taking the checkered flag.
Opened in 1915, racing began at the facility — then known as City Stadium — with a midget card on March 7, 1938. In the inaugural 40-lap feature, Louis Foy came home first ahead of 1931 Indy 500 winner Lou Schneider.
The midgets continued to grow in popularity under UMA sanction until World War II halted racing. Following the war, huge crowds turned out as Balboa was the Wednesday stop on the URA Red Circuit (for non-Offy-powered cars).
Many midget racing Hall of Fame inductees won races during this period, with San Diego resident Walt Faulkner the track’s big winner. At least five future Indy 500 winners won midget features, as Johnnie Parsons, Troy Ruttman, Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan and Rodger Ward all won on the quarter-mile dirt.
Bobby Ball, Bill Cantrell, Mel Hansen, Allen Heath, Ronney Householder, Johnny Mantz, Cal Niday and Danny Oakes are among other noted drivers who won midget features. Roadster races also were run at Balboa, but they never seemed to capture the crowds the way the midgets did.
As the popularity of midget racing waned, the San Diego Racing Ass’n was formed in 1953 and began racing at the stadium. From 1953 through 1956, the SDRA raced jalopies, but by 1958 they evolved into modified-sportsman — precursors to supermodifieds.
The cars struck a chord with fans and attendance once again boomed. On Nov. 26, 1959, another future Indy 500 winner entered the ranks of Balboa Stadium feature winners when Parnelli Jones won a modified-sportsman feature. NASCAR’s Western stock cars also raced on the flat quarter.
During 1960, nearly 170,000 fans attended as Art Pratt captured his third-straight modified-sportsman title. When the Los Angeles Chargers football team announced it was relocating to San Diego, it marked the beginning of the end of racing at Balboa Stadium.
Despite obstructed seats due to stadium expansion, 12,000 fans were on hand for the 1961 season opener. Don Edmunds, later known for his chassis building, won three of seven 1961 mains.
The final race took place on July 4, 1961, with popular Bud Sterrett winning a 100-lap feature ahead of Hank Henry, another noted chassis builder. After the races ended, the track was removed to make way for the San Diego Chargers NFL team.
Just 11 days later, the first SDRA race took place at Cajon Speedway, beginning another chapter in San Diego racing history.