NASCAR returns Sunday with the Daytona 500 and the start of the 2014 Sprint Cup schedule. Florida’s Daytona International Speedway has 146,000 grand stand seats. Big crowds at auto races are common today, but when Southern California became a racing hotbed in the first half of the 20th century the sport was a new phenomenon. The documentary “Where They Raced” details how the history of auto racing intertwines with the growth of Los Angeles.

Where They Raced, Literally

Northeast of downtown L.A. there’s a neighborhood called El Sereno. One weekend morning not long ago, El Sereno’s serenity was broken by the sound of a 1926 Winfield Ford. The vintage racecar tooled down today’s city streets, but the route they were on follows the racetrack of one of L.A.’s most storied speedways.

That was such a thrill to be able to bring back a car and sort of reunite a car with its track,” filmmaker Harry Pallenberg said. Where we are now, this is called Legion Ascot. It was a great track from the ’20s, and we were able to bring back a car that was one of the most winning cars here, and we sort of took a lap around the neighborhood. Some of the neighbors were screaming at us because those racecars were very very loud, but most of the neighbors were coming out and were like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe there was a racetrack here,’ or ‘My grandfather told me about it, and that’s awesome.’”

At the turn of the last century, Los Angeles, like today, had great weather, but back then there were very few people, meaning there was a lot of empty land. That made it perfect for auto races, like the one they held a 100 years ago in a town called Corona, 50 miles east of L.A. In the film, driver Brian Blain drove down the original course in a vintage National racecar.

There was a half a dozen or so sites of races in Southern California that drew huge crowds,” Blain said. “Corona was one of the first and one of the biggest. If you can imagine, this town had a population of 3,500 people. And in 1913, they held a race and 100,000 people came. It’s just amazing.”

'Where They Raced' Trailer

But car racing started here 10 years earlier, on a track south of downtown L.A. Harold Osmer, the film’s host and author of the book “Where They Raced” is based on, says that’s where one of the most famous names in early racing, Barney Oldfield, drove one mile in 54 seconds.

The next day,” Osmer said, “the Los Angeles Times reported, ‘Oldfield’s attempt to commit suicide only resulted in a compound fracture of the world speed record.’”

Osmer writes that he started searching for what he thought were L.A.’s 10 to 15 racetracks, but, to his amazement, he found more than 100. Auto races were used to publicize Southern California, and speedways were used as placeholders for real estate, sometimes absurdly so.

“Car Porn”

Beverly Hills, now known for French poodles in mink strollers and various groups of reality TV housewives, used to have a famous wooden track until the neighborhood grew up around it and the land got too valuable. And Pallenberg says the city of Santa Monica, now the home of the Prius and the pedestrian mall, used car racing to help fight incorporation by its rapacious neighbor, Los Angeles.

By having the races there, and having literally 100,000 people show up to watch these races,” Pallenberg said. “And they would get national press, so … if you came to California, you’d go to where you read about in the newspapers. So, they were able to generate a population base, which of course enabled them to generate tax revenue, and they were able to stave off the city of Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, the cars kept getting better and faster. According to “Where They Raced,” through 1990, more than half of the Indianapolis 500 winners had direct ties to LA, mostly because of two men who built cars here: Fred Offenhauser and Harry Miller.

And we should warn you, “Where They Raced” features long, lingering, uncensored looks at polished gearboxes, revolutionary dual overhead cams, and original Miller carbs.

That’s called ‘car porn,’” Pallenberg said. “Some of those cars look like works of art to me. And the fact that some of them are a 100 years old, and still run, and still go 60 to 70 m.p.h., I feel like the amount of tender loving care that’s been put into them should be shown off a little bit.”

About 15 miles southwest of downtown L.A. in Gardena was the Carrell Speedway. Tom Malloy, son of the man who built it, says many of the drivers who raced there contended or won at Indy, including Troy Ruttman, Bill Vukovich, and Jim Rathmann.

Southern California in itself became such a hotbed of racing — at one time the center of all racing, in the late ’40s and early ’50s the center of all racing,” Malloy said. “The preponderance of those cars and people came from Southern California.”

The documentary “Where They Raced’ is out now on DVD.

 John Rabe has also reported on this story for KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. where he hosts “Off-Ramp.”