Lance Reventlow sits in the cockpit of his Scarab at the Palm Springs Road Race of 1958.

The History of Palm Springs Road Races

The Coachella Valley’s association with motorsports dates back to the Palm Springs Road Races of the 1950s and includes a bounty of ambition, money, and important names in racing.

Ronald Ahrens History

Lance Reventlow sits in the cockpit of his Scarab at the Palm Springs Road Race of 1958.

Lance Reventlow sits in the cockpit of his Scarab at the Palm Springs Road Race of 1958.

A newcomer rolled up to the starting line at the Palm Springs Road Races in 1958: the Scarab, a car curiously named after a dung beetle. The insect, as it happens, shimmers in the same blue as the roadster’s sleek bodywork. With white accents on the hood, the Scarab manifested a variation of the United States’ international racing colors. Conceived as an all-American effort to match Europe’s best, it was the bespoke project of 22-year-old Lance Reventlow, son of Danish Count Haugwitz-Reventlow and Beverly Hills heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton.

A year prior, Reventlow had escorted actress Natalie Wood to the Academy Awards. Not long after, he married Jill St. John.

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The Scarab in motion.

Thanks to Reventlow’s liberal allowance, three Scarabs were made in West Los Angeles. (One of the surviving cars is now located in Phoenix.) The Scarab combined proven light weight, European-style structural design with the punchy Chevrolet V8 engine that roared out of Detroit in 1955. To stay with contemporary trends, Reventlow explored the use of aluminum, magnesium, and ultimately titanium, as the aircraft industry had pioneered. This pursuit contributed to the legend of “unobtanium,” a metal so light, strong, and exotic that you couldn’t get it.

Armando’s Bar

Palm Springs Road Race program.

When the Scarab mounted the scales for chassis balancing, the mechanics often joked: “Maybe we should lighten it up a bit on that side because Lance might bring his wallet.” At least that’s the recollection of mechanic and engineer Raoul “Sonny” Balcaen in his eponymous 2022 autobiography. Now 88 years old, Balcaen graduated from the Los Angeles street-racing scene that fostered the original The Fast and the Furious movie circa 1954. He became associated with Reventlow and later served in Carroll Shelby’s operation, Shelby American, in Los Angeles. He looks back fondly on the events in Palm Springs.

Road races started in Southern California as sportsman events at the dawn of the 1950s. Drivers put their MGs, Jaguars, and the occasional Alfa Romeo to the test at airport circuits in Santa Barbara and Palm Springs. Other West Coast dates included open-road races at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach and airfield circuits at Bakersfield and Reno. Racing on a permanent “road” course started in 1953 at Willow Springs Raceway, with nine — sometimes alarming — turns over 2.5 miles.

The first Palm Springs race occurred April 16, 1950. Among 29 entries were Los Angeles lawyer J. Stanley Mullin and John von Neumann, both members of the California Sports Car Club and eager to win behind the wheels of their MGs. Von Neumann would go on to become the West Coast distributor for Porsche and Volkswagen. The 1.65-mile desert course hosted four events during the inaugural year. Novices and stock touring cars (sedans and convertibles) ran 10 laps, unlimited sports cars got 15 laps, and production sports cars raced for 50 laps (82.5 miles). Sterling Edwards, a Yale grad, took the top spot on the podium as the overall winner after a smashing drive in a special fiberglass-bodied roadster with a nasty Lincoln engine.

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Miss Palm Springs Stephanie Bruton, Jack McAfee, and models pose with Ferraris at the 1956 Palm Springs Road Race at the Biltmore hotel.

In just two years, the entries doubled, with 60 drivers participating in 1952. Among them was Phil Hill — America’s best sports car driver (and a future Formula 1 world champion) — in a Chrysler-powered Cunningham. Von Neumann returned in a Porsche. The schedule included a Concours d’Elegance on Saturday evening with “custom and imported automobiles modeled by feminine owners.” Grandstand seating was free. Sunday’s $1.50 ticket promised: “An amazing demonstration of sports cars at high speeds in six events including the 100-mile Palm Springs Cup Race.” Extended to 2.3 miles in 1952, the nine-turn circuit ran on streets west of the airport. Chuck Manning, an aerospace engineer, won the big race in his own high-powered, home-brewed roadster. 

The eighth Palm Springs Road Race, in March 1955, drew juicy Italian machines to a 2.3-mile course contained within the airport grounds. Hill ran a Ferrari. So did Balcaen’s friend Bruce Kessler. But Ken Miles, whose story was immortalized along with Carroll Shelby’s in the film Ford v Ferrari, demonstrated a different strategy with his MG Special, a small screamer known as The Flying Shingle.

In 1952, the circuit ran on streets west of the airport. Sections included Smoke Tree Bends, Phone Pole Corner, Bomber Run, City Hall Crossing at Tahquitz Canyon Way, and the Finishing Straight on El Cielo Road.

At Palm Springs, horsepower was only rivaled by star power. James Dean participated in ’55, winning the six-lap qualifier by a half-mile in a Porsche Speedster. The race was the actor’s first. He finished third in the main event. Although Miles was first to the checkers, the post-race inspection discovered illegal fuel. That meant Cy Yedor, another California Sports Car Club stalwart, slid into the top spot, and Dean took second place. Alas, he died six months later. Balcaen writes that Reventlow and Kessler had lunch with the actor 30 minutes before his fatal highway accident.

Of at least 17 races held in Palm Springs from 1950 to 1961, the weekend of April 12–13, 1958, stands out as the paragon. A crowd of 23,000 amassed under the sun to watch. Among 26 steeds in the “Over 1500cc Modified” class, Reventlow’s Scarab took the pole. Shelby and Dan Gurney would have to chase his fumes in their Ferraris. Then came the heartbreak of an engine problem, causing the Scarab to scratch from the big race. “Nothing ever came apart, but it might have [been related to] a technical thing,” Balcaen recalls.

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Carroll Shelby and Jack McAfee pose with their Ferraris in ’56.


Drivers prepare to put pedal to the metal April 7, 1957. Approximately 12,000 spectators attended that year.

Shelby led the first 19 laps, but Gurney passed him on Lap 20 of 25, finishing the 70.2 miles in 54 minutes, 48 seconds — 12 seconds ahead of ’Ol Shel. The next year, Shelby and co-driver Roy Salvadori won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in an Aston Martin.

A combination of factors brought about the demise of the Palm Springs Road Races after 1961. Regular airline service started at the airport in 1954, with 11,189 passengers traveling through the airport the following year. The city forked out $1.5 million for 600 acres to expand the airport; a five-member commission formed, and they knuckled down on funny business, including motorsports. Road racing was already shifting to Willow Springs and other courses, anyway. Laguna Seca Raceway, near Monterey, and Riverside International Raceway opened in 1957.

Local enthusiasts revived road racing in 1985, creating the Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix. Action unfolded on a 1.1-mile, seven-turn street circuit. In the second year of the revival, there were 13 races over Thanksgiving weekend. Phil Hill returned at age 59 to drive the 1964 Formula 1 champion Ferrari.

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In 1990, the revival race was known as the Chrysler Grand Prix.

“The revival was successful for many years, but finally, the growth of the city and complaints about the noise spelled the end of the action on the streets in 1996,” Donald Osborne wrote in the June 2014 issue of Palm Springs Life. Founded as a complement to the Vintage Grand Prix, Keith McCormick’s Classic Car Auctions — held annually in November and March — survive as a vestige of the era.

A little-remembered proposal in 1991 would have painted a different future. The Palm Springs International Raceway, drafted by Arciero & Sons Inc., envisioned a motorsports complex squeezed onto 400 acres between the freeway and railroad tracks at the southwest corner of Interstate 10 and Gene Autry Trail. The design included an oval super-speedway, a dragstrip, and a road course.

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Palm Springs Road Race posters.

That plan died in obscurity, but another — The Thermal Club — took off. Opened in 2013, the residential club surrounds a racetrack. It hosted IndyCar for preseason practice earlier this year. The series will return March 22–24, 2024 — and this time it’s more than “spring training.” The inaugural $1 Million Challenge is a made-for-TV race that will air on NBC.

In anticipation, it’s worth recalling the Coachella Valley’s avid embrace of motorsports and car culture, an illustrious and vigorous heritage of almost 75 years.