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PUBLISHED: Forgotten Del Mar Airport central to racetrack’s celebrity past

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Where the surf meets the turf

Down at old Del Mar

Take a plane

Take a train

Take a car

There’s a smile on every face

And a winner in each race

Where the surf meets the turf

At Del Mar

-Bing Crosby

Anyone who’s been to the Del Mar horse racing tracks has heard the anthem, but these days most will raise an eyebrow to the suggestion at taking a plane to the area. Del Mar, once an area frequented by the biggest names in Hollywood — so much so that a song was written about it — was largely influenced by such glitz and glamor because of its proximity to a small airport just steps away from the racetracks. This airport, originally a United States Navy project to bypass traffic, had a short-lived hayday before being tragically and ironically discontinued for the same reasons it was built.

“We don’t know much about specifics,” says Mac McBride, Media Director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “It was referred to as the Del Mar Airport, and it was made up of a few hangars and a landing strip.”

Bill Scherlis, the racetrack’s resident photographer from 1945 to 1979, explains that the Del Mar airstrip was originally built to offset air traffic from the naval base on North Island in Coronado.

“It was intended to be a pilot training facility,” says Scherlis, “but there was too much traffic [in Coronado] so they constructed a few hangars and a concrete runway in Del Mar.”

By the time the horseracing track opened in 1937, the landing strip was renamed to the Del Mar Municipal Airfield and became an attractive location for the wealthy and famous. “The people that flew in and out of the airport were not regular people, you had to be very wealthy,” says Scherlis. “You’d land there and take cabs to the racetrack, which were only a few minutes away.”

Horseracing, which had become one of the most popular sports in the country, made Del Mar an even more attractive place to visit. Those who didn’t arrive in private planes at the track’s adjacent airstrip came by car or train to see the races and the glamor that came with it.

After the U.S. became involved in World War II in 1941, the racetrack and airstrip became exclusive to the U.S. Military. Del Mar was revamped to manufacture parts for B-17 bombers, the airstrip was used for blimp flights, hangars housed up to 130 people in barracks and even became a base for anti-submarine patrols along the west coast due to its convenient location near the ocean. When the war ended in 1945, the racetrack reopened for civilian use and, for the first time in history, so did the airfield. Scherlis even recalls taking a flight to take aerial pictures of the fairgrounds once the opportunity arose. “I went up in a Cessna,” he says, “it was interesting.”

Despite the Del Mar Airfield becoming available and affordable to the general public, big-name Hollywood stars such as Bing Crosby still visited Del Mar. He even immortalized the airport in his song, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” in which he mentions Del Mar by name.

Despite flights becoming much more affordable, the area soon became much more populated and flights were no longer in high demand. As most of the track’s traffic now came from cars than by plane or train, the airport closed in 1959 and partially demolished to build the I-5.

Now, as the racetracks remain just as popular as ever and visitors listen to renditions of Bing Crosby’s love song to Del Mar before every race, they will most likely unknowingly drive over the very same airstrip that brought the wealthiest to one of the trendiest places in the country. The same airstrip that brought traffic to the racetrack was built over by a road to bring even more traffic by car instead.

for FINE Magazine

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