The Nautical Week started in 1933 though it did not get its current name until the following year. The 15K race is a relative newcomer; it did not start until 1955. However it has run annually ever since making it the longest running race on the central coast of California. The SBAC (SBAA now) took over the race in the early 60s and has been in charge of it ever since.
The race is usually held on the morning of the 4th of July (though there have been a few years when that was not possible: in 2008 the Gap Fire raged and the air was unbreathable, so the race was postponed for two weeks; and in 1982 and 1971 it was held on the 3rd and 5th but I don’t know why).
In the 50s the race started at UCSB ran two loops around the airport and finished at the University. In 1968 the start and finish moved to San Marcos HS; in 1981 the start moved to San Simeon Dr.; in 1988 they first used the bikepath to get under the freeway. The course has been essentially the same since then (though there have been some small changes near the finish line in the last decade).
The feel of the race has changed considerably over the years. In 1955 there were only 13 finishers (there were 348 in 2012) and they were all young, fast males. All of the runners for whom I have data (the top 10 of 13) finished in under an hour (in 2012 32 of the 348 finished in under an hour, perhaps a better comparison: only 8 of the 20 young male runners were under an hour). Almost all the runners in 1955 came from the Los Angeles area, only one (of the top 10) was from Santa Barbara, while in 2012 more than 2/3rds were from the SB area.
The American Athletic Union (the AAU, the group in charge of foot racing up until ~1978) did not allow women to run in races longer than 2 miles until 1972 so there were no women runners in this race until 1971 (which is a little odd to my mind as women were “unofficially” running the SB Marathon as early as 1966. Perhaps the 15K just didn’t have the same appeal). Since 1971 the percentage of women has crept up slowly until now now about half the runners are women.
In the 60s there were very few non-collegiate long distance races in Santa Barbara, and this was one of them. There was also a ~4 mile cross country race at UCSB, the SB Marathon started in 1965, and the AAU Postal One Hour Run started having a heat in SB in 1967. And that was about it. In fact there weren’t many long distance races anywhere. In the 50s until the mid 80s (and a couple of times in the 90s) this race was the regional championship race of the Southern Pacific Association of the AAU. In 1965, 1976, 1979 this was even the AAU National Championship 15K race (with Merle McGee, 45:59, Gary Tuttle, 45:42, and Breton Hart, 45:32 being the National Champions).
Men over forty started entering the race in the 60s and in 1969 there was a special heat for masters runners.
In the late 70s the first running boom hit, and the race grew hugely from 83 runners in 1970 to 463 in 1978. We’ve never had that many runners again.
Between 1958 and 2000 the winning time was always under 50 minutes, but since then almost half the races have been won with times over 50 minutes. The last time anyone broke 48 minutes was in 1989. The fastest time was set in 1982 with 45:14. The fastest time for a woman was 55:00 set in both 1986 and 2003.
Perhaps this year we’ll do better?