It Was a Canyon Racer’s Playground

I always knew where Mulholland Drive was though I didn’t find out just who Mulholland was for many years. I was raised near this epic road carved in the mountain, and when I got my first car I headed straight there.

I believe the day Mulholland Drive was created—sometime around 1924—someone drove it fast. Famous people, and people who became infamous, raced up there. Actors like Gary Cooper and John Caradine were reported to have flogged their Deusenbergs across “The Hill.” Phil Hill, Max Balchowsky, Dan Gurney, Steve McQueen and others all found that the ridge route road atop the Santa Monica Mountains was a perfect playground for sports cars. As time went on and people started to build houses in the area, the playground became just another Los Angeles traffic jam. However, from the summer of 1970 to sometime in 1974, I was there most every night in my ’65 MGB.

The MGB in 1974.

I was, shall we say, somewhat underwhelmed after having driven a lot of trick stuff. But the “B” was mine and it had only one purpose and that was to drive The Hill. I drove that thing everywhere without ever touching Ventura or Sunset Blvd.

Late one night, I pulled up near a bunch of cars parked at Bowmont Street and Mulholland and people were milling around full of energy. All they talked about was cars and racing. I was in heaven. It turned out that the “Track” was well defined as going between Coldwater and ending at the residential area. The corners even had names like Carl’s (where he went off), Pole Turns, Mini Esses and The Pits. The group would take off en mass and head out to various areas where they could enjoy their cars and their skills. But I was an outsider and too shy to break into the group. I’d follow them on different runs but stayed in the back with the MGB.

Ripping through Mulholland Drive.

One night—and we drove always at night when traffic was clear—I’m coming up Coldwater from the Valley side and I see these headlights behind me. I believed them to be a Mini Cooper and figured I should be able to get away from him having already chased a Mini Cooper S before. So we go wailing up Coldwater, full tilt racing line, blasting up the Pole Turns and flashing by The Pits in full view of everyone and going as fast as I could. Right about then, the Mini pulls out and passes me like I was standing still. But that was no Mini. It was a white Lotus Super 7 with some Cosworth BDA motor in it. Dang, I think to myself and backed out of the gas. But oh well what the hell, and I stepped hard into the gas. Raced him all the way to the residential area and turned around and came back up behind him. There was no way I could catch that guy but he didn’t disappear from me either.

When I pulled into The Pits, I was greeted as a hero. The Pits was a perch on the hill with great views of Mulholland. From this perspective the other drivers watched in disbelief as I tried to race a Lotus with an MGB and held my ground. I didn’t tell them I didn’t know what I was up against. From that moment on, and on most nights for the next four years, I challenged all comers. Up on The Hill it mattered less what you had but how well you drove the road, and I knew the road very well. Up there the MGB earned respect it rarely saw elsewhere.

A stone stock MGB was, and is(!) a very capable car on mountain roads like Mulholland because it is so very stable. Up rating the springs and/or shocks would give the car less ability to stay on the ground. A Mulholland car needs to have suspension travel and predictable handling. This is where the MGB excelled. Datsun 510’s with BRE’s Mulholland suspension kits were easy prey because they were bouncing off the ground half the time. And full-blown racecars were all over the place. So a car prepared for The Hill has big tires (for the period), sway bars (if it needed them) and better brakes. But the springs and engine were generally left alone.
Racing The Hill is many years in my past and I can say that most all of those guys I met up there did in fact go SCCA and IMSA racing. I, myself went on to win two SCCA national Championships in a Showroom Stock B category. I can tell you that we were all very surprised that racing at Riverside Raceway or Willow Springs is a lot easier than up on The Hill as all the traffic goes the same direction and for the same reason, there’s no cliffs and no coyotes, and there are emergency people everywhere cheering you on.

Probably the best result of being on the track was it took away any desire to street race. When you stop and think about it, there is no such thing as racing smart on the street, you can only be the dumbest one out there. I still have the same MGB. I made a promise to myself that I would never crash it, and so I guess I can never sell it either as I like to keep my promises. The car is tight as a drum and fast as ever with 133,000 miles to date.

By Victor Van Tress


'It Was a Canyon Racer’s Playground' have 7 comments

  1. November 9, 2012 @ 6:29 am 2VT

    Just want to mention that the Polaroid photo from 1974 does not reflect the color well. It is now as it always has been Olde English White. In fact, the car was never repainted until 2005.


  2. November 9, 2012 @ 7:20 am August

    well written, and what a great story. nicely done


  3. November 9, 2012 @ 7:21 am Dave



  4. November 9, 2012 @ 7:23 am Greg



  5. November 9, 2012 @ 7:24 am Bob

    You only have 133k on the odometer? I would have guessed 1333k….

    Cool article!


  6. November 9, 2012 @ 7:25 am Mark

    I know that dude!


  7. November 12, 2012 @ 5:25 pm Ken

    I have riden in the infamous MG – It is an awesome car. Very comfortable on Mulholland


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