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The Thunderbowl Race Track

Thunderbowl
Lee Hammock Photo

By Jim Campos

The Thunderbowl Opening day, Aug. 4, 1947, drew an overflow crowd of 6,600 in the grandstands, with 2,000 turned away. The oval was about a ¼ mile around with a pit stop area in the center of the infield to accommodate the pit crew teams that refueled and repaired the cars. Has there ever been a bigger entertainment venue in Carpinteria?

The era of the Thunderbowl can be divided into two parts. From ’47–’50, midget racers were the main attraction. They were powerful and fast, costing $10–$15,000, a small fortune in those days. After two fatalities, however, the Thunderbowl went in a different direction in 1950, to jalopy races. These cars had to be of models and engines no older than 1937. Carpinterian Dave Moore notes, tongue-in-cheek, that “drivers often paid less for their cars than refreshments at a race today.” Actually, they averaged about $300 to buy, build and maintain. But, crashed autos often ended up in a junkyard grave behind the Thunderbowl. Still around today, the garages Colson, Garibay and Rosebro were all players attending to the race cars.

Thunderbowl
Lee Hammock Photo

The Thunderbowl in the jalopy era stressed entertainment. Attractions included motorcycle racing, demolition derbies, Evel Knieval style ramp-to-ramp jumps, and crashing through lit haystacks doused in gasoline. Moore described the era in “Greater Carpinteria, Summerland and La Conchita (2009)” as follows, “…the Thunderbowl was epic. The players included iconic drivers, both male and female: Indianapolis 500 winners Parnelli Jones, Bill Vukovich and Troy Ruttman (the youngest Indy winner at 21); Indy participant Jack McGraff; Hiela Paulson (the first woman in California to drive a NASCAR stock car); and local legend Spencer Blickenstaff, a studious, dedicated teacher by day who morphed into R. Spencer, a wily, competitive jalopy racer at night. If this isn’t tiptoeing along the periphery of epic, one has to wonder what is. How could the Thunderbowl faithful not be captivated by the cast of characters and their daredevil antics?”

The fun came to an end in 1957. The crowds were waning and a new racetrack had been built nearby in Oxnard. The Thunderbowl was closed and covered over with tons of dirt causing the bluffs to rise in height! The car junkyard that had accummulated over the years was buried with the track, too. Jon Washington and Roxie Grant Lapidus mused in “The Carpinteria Thunderbowl” (“Grapevine,” Sept/Oct 2011) “…a discovery awaiting some future archeologist”!

Over the ensuing years, the covered-over racetrack has continued to be called the Thunderbowl, and for a while was used for racing purposes by motorcyclists. But, to this day, even racing enthusiasts who attended the car races at the Thunderbowl have trouble pinpointing exactly where on the bluffs the racetrack sat.

If you have a story or photo that tells a unique part of Carpinteria’s history, please contact Jim at drsjcampos@gmail.com. To learn more about Carpinteria’s unique and interesting past, visit the Carpinteria Valley Museum of History, open Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at 956 Maple Ave.

By Jim Campos |coastalview| May 14, 2020