Forgotten Del Mar Airport central to racetrack’s glamorous heyday


By Rob LeDonne

The biggest stars in Hollywood, the richest people in the country, and businesses so glamorous that they ignited a tremendous growth and interest in Southern California. That was Del Mar in the 1930s, a time of glitz and glamor thanks largely in part to the Del Mar Racetrack in its heyday. However, central to the racetrack’s exploding notoriety was an airport, long forgotten, located right in Del Mar.

“We don’t know much about specifics,” explained Mac McBride, the director of media for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “It was refereed to as the Del Mar Airport, and it was made up of a few hangers and a landing strip.” At one point in the 1930s, the airport ran multiple flights a day in and out of Burbank (now known as Bob Hope Airport,) on DC-3 planes operated by private airlines.

One person who remembers the airport fondly is Bill Scherlis, who was the racetrack’s resident photographer from 1945 until the 1970s. Scherlis, who turns 90 this October, recalls that the airport was originally built by the United States Navy.

“It was intended to be a pilot training facility. There was one at the Naval Air Station on North Island, but there was too much traffic so they constructed a few hangers and a concrete runway in Del Mar.”

Referred to then as the San Dieguito Air Field, most estimates pin the airport’s construction to around the early 1920s, a few years after the 1917 opening of the Naval Air Station on North Island. It wasn’t until 1938 when the property was renamed the Del Mar Municipal Airfield, and turned over for racetrack use. The racetrack had only opened a year earlier.

“The people that flew in and out of the airport were not regular people, you had to be very wealthy,” explained Scherlis. “You’d land there and then take cabs to the racetrack,” which was a few minutes away. At the time, horse racing was only second in popularity to baseball and Del Mar instantly became one of the trendiest places in the country.

After the U.S. became involved in World War II in 1941, the country put fun and entertainment on hold and the racetrack, as well as the airport, were used by the U.S. Military between 1942 and 1945. Parts for B-17 bombers were manufactured at the track, and the airport was used for blimp flights, housed up to 130 people in barracks, and became a home base for anti-submarine patrols around the Western United States. Once the war ended, the property was decommissioned once again; the racetrack and airport picked up right were they left off for civilian use.

It was around this time that Scherlis remembers flying in and out of the airport himself. “I went up in a Cessna to take some aerial pictures of the fairgrounds,” he remembers. “It was interesting.”

In the 1950s, flights between Del Mar and Burbank were $16 round trip and were operated by the former Pacific Southwest Airlines, then in its infancy. Del Mar was still attracting the biggest stars of the day, including (perhaps the track’s biggest fan) Bing Crosby, who Scherlis photographed on one of his very first assignments.

“He was with (fellow movie star) Pat O’Brien. I went to take his picture, and Crosby looks at me and asks ‘What do you want me to do?’ I was floored, here’s the biggest star in the world asking me what to do,” he remembers with a laugh almost 70 years later.

As time went by, the area slowly started to change as did popularity for the airport, which experienced its last summer season in 1959, closing that September. It was then partly demolished to make room for Interstate 5, which currently runs right through the property, southeast of the current fairgrounds and at the end of Grand Avenue. It wasn’t until 2006 when many of the remaining traces of the airport disappeared during the restoration of the San Dieguito Lagoon by Southern California Edison — a historical marker was then erected.

Today, the only other surviving evidence of the airport is immortalized in a song by Bing Crosby himself. “It’s called “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” and is now the racetrack’s theme song. McBride explains, “If you listen to the lyrics, at one point he sings ‘take a plane’ ... he’s referring to the airport.”