OLD NEWS: The 1964 race for the presidency on the 405 Freeway

Editor’s note: “Old News” is an occasional series looking at some of Long Beach’s quirky and interesting historical stories and headlines.

Presidential elections would run much smoother, cost a lot less money, result in a near absence of irritating political ads and mailers and shut up social-media commenters if we could all agree that the matter would be decided by a friendly race between a donkey and an elephant. Winner take all. Losers don’t whine. They just take it like a little man, or a little burro (burrito!) or a little elephant.

Are there flaws with this system? Sure (though some won’t see them as flaws). For one thing, everyone knows that an elephant will always beat a donkey in a hoof race as long as the donkey passes its drug test and plays fair. Even a cheetah can’t beat a donkey that’s all hopped up on erythropoietin.

The interspecies contest was given a shot in Long Beach on Sept. 27, 1964, with  popular KNX-AM morning personality Bob Crane (later of “Hogan’s Heroes” fame, and later still, murder victim) piloting the pachyderm, while KNX sportscaster and voice of USC football and men’s basketball Tom Kelly drove the donkey in a 6-mile race on the San Diego Freeway, between the Orange County line and the Cherry Avenue overpass, as a promotional event and a predictor of the upcoming election between incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson,  and, in the elephant trunks, the challenger, relatively arch-conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

The venue was a still unopened stretch of the 405 Freeway, which would first see traffic just three days later on Oct. 1, with a spectacular opening-day traffic jam that stopped motorists who just a day earlier had been perfectly content winding their way across town via surface streets but who suddenly wanted to experience the futuristic freeway. The next day’s Press-Telegram reported that commuters who finally made it home “were greeted by cold wives and cold dinners.”

But it was clear sailing for our race contestants on a sunny Sunday, when the elephant took an early lead which it would not relinquish, crossing the finish line in a minute under two hours, a mile ahead of the stubborn donkey, to no handicapper’s surprise. At a horse track it would’ve paid a dime on a $2 wager.

And, as an election predictor, the race was a flop. To recap: LBJ took 61% of the popular vote with 486 electoral votes, while Goldwater plodded along, more like a donkey than an elephant, getting his home state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South, worth 52 electoral votes.

The 1964 donkey-elephant clash on the freeway remains the last sanctioned race to be held on the 405.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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