Among the lost landmarks of San Francisco, Playland at the Beach tops the list for many. Unlike the Sutro Baths or previous iterations of the Cliff House, many living people still remember going to the beachfront amusement park at The City's western edge — a fond nugget of nostalgia for boomers of a certain age.
Some of Playland still survives. Memorabilia of the park — which closed in 1972 — is visible today in El Cerrito at Playland-Not-at-the-Beach. And a part of Playland — about 220 feet of it — has resurfaced across the country.
That's the new home of the legendary Sovereign 220, the largest slot-car track ever built, which was installed in The City in 1965 and then lost to time for about 40 years before its rediscovery in rural Texas. Now Ashland, Mass., is the home of Modelville Raceway, from where the track's proud new owner tells his story.
“This was the largest slot-car track in the world,” Peter Lentros says. “It's the original prototype — and it's the only surviving model. It's the holy grail of slot-car racing.”
Millennials might scratch their heads over the notion of crowds going gaga over miniature cars traveling along a model track. But for kids of the 1960s, slot cars were king.
Eager kids would bring their own cars to the track, where the center of each lane featured a groove surrounded by two metal strips conducting electricity. A pin on the bottom of each car fit into the groove, and brushes beneath the car transmitted electricity. Drivers sent them flying along with the push of a trigger.
Playland Modelcar Raceways opened during the Fourth of July weekend in 1965, in the building where Topsy's Dance Hall once stood. The big track was the draw, an unparalleled Sovereign 220 built by American Model Car Raceways of Los Angeles. The 220-foot-long particle-board racing surface was a doozy, featuring a large banked turn, several S-curves and a long straightaway where cars tried to build up enough speed to make it through the banked turn.
But the days of slot cars were already numbered, foreshadowing Playland's own impending doom. By 1969, the track closed, after American Model Car Raceways itself went out of business. The Sovereign, along with the other tracks, was sold to someone in Texas. That's where Lentros found it.
The track's legend lived large in the following decades; there was no other track like it. Lentros, like many others, hung on to the pastime as a weekend hobby. He and others restored tracks and ran cars on them. But the greatest track ever made was gone.
Through his hobby, Lentros had become acquainted with the publisher of Scale Auto Racing News, John Ford.
“I asked him if any Sovereigns were still around,” Lentros recalled. “He said, 'No.' None were known to exist. But then he told me of this long shot.”
After Playland Modelcar Raceways sold the Sovereign, it operated for a time in Texas. But video arcades killed slot-car racing, and a race car enthusiast put the track in storage.
That could have killed it for good, except for a lucky break. The slightest bit of moisture could have warped the particle-board track and ruined it. But the owner lived in Odessa, Texas, where it seldom rains. Odessa's climate was a fountain of youth.
Through Ford, Lentros acquired pictures of the track, packed away in a trailer. The original sales documents were preserved with it. “The Purple Mile,” as it was also known, was in perfect shape, and Lentros bought it and took it back to Massachusetts. Or did he?
In some photos, the Purple Mile isn't purple at all. It's blue, just as it is in some sales materials from American Model Car Raceways. That leads some Playland experts to doubt the provenance of Lentros' find.
“I don't think it's the track,” said James Smith, an expert on San Francisco history and author of the forthcoming tome “San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Golden Years.”
Yet others remember the Sovereign as “the Blue Mile,” not the Purple Mile. Second-generation San Franciscan Greg Brown described it as such in a letter to Smith.
“The real deal at the place was the Blue Track,” Brown wrote. “Also known as the Sovereign Course. It was the largest in the world, beautifully made, and massive. Other than its sheer size, its most distinguishing feature was the extremely sharp banked turn at the end of the long straight away. This is what made it so challenging. The long straight away was needed to gain enough speed, so that a slot car could stay on track by the centrifugal force created going into the banked turn.”
It's that banked curve that convinces Playland-Not-at-the-Beach proprietor Frank Biafore that Lentros has the original Sovereign 220.
“It sure looks like it's the same track,” Biafore says. “I think it's totally plausible.”
And there's Lentros' ace in the hole. Written in pencil on the track's bottom is the installation date: June 1965, a few weeks before the Playland racing center's opening. If that wasn't enough, stationary from Playland at the Beach was hidden in the track components.
The blue memories, supporters think, are a byproduct of old four-color film that couldn't accurately capture purple. As time passed, memories faded with the rudimentary color photos, and blue became purple.
“That uncertainty is part of the charm of Playland at this point,” Biafore says.