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Gone, But Not Forgotten: Former U.S. Racing Venues

by Frank Santoroski           @seveng1967  

The thought of having automobiles race against one another was conceived almost immediately after the invention of the automobile. Early races were often contested over considerable distances, traveling from one city to another utilizing existing travel routes as a means to show the durability of the car.

Automobile contests were quite a curiosity close to the turn of the century, and they tended to generate a lot of interest, fueled by newspapermen that reported all of the details in a grand fashion. This paved the way (no pun intended) for the idea of closed-course racing in a venue complete with grandstands and amenities where spectators could buy a ticket and spend the day.

The earliest closed-course races in the U.S. were held on dirt ovals that were originally designed for horse racing or high-banked wood-plank velodromes that were intended for bicycle races. Eventually, race tracks that were purpose-built for automobiles began popping up across the country.

One of the earliest, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (est. 1909), still thrives to this day with more than a century of racing history in the books. Many other race tracks, however, enjoyed a period of prosperity, but for various reasons, have been razed to the ground, redeveloped, or simply abandoned. Let’s take a look at some of the once-great facilities in the U.S. that no longer exist.

Trenton International Speedway (1900-1980)

Located in Hamilton Township, NJ, Trenton Speedway first hosted an auto race in 1900 on a half-mile dirt oval. Racing continued at the New Jersey State Fairgrounds in various categories until 1941 when the facility shut down during World War II.

The course doubled in length upon re-opening in 1946, and the one-mile dirt oval was paved with asphalt in 1957. The first top-tier racing event at Trenton was in 1949 when the AAA Champ Car Series ran on the dirt with Myron Fohr taking the win in the 100 miles.

In the ensuing years, Trenton played host to a variety of racing disciplines including NASCAR Grand National, Modifieds, Sportsman cars, Sprints, Midgets and USAC Open-Wheelers.

In 1969 the track was once again reconfigured, expanding the length to 1.5 miles. The confines of the real estate available led to one of the most unique oval tracks the racing world has ever seen. The five-turn course featured an inverted dogleg, which put a quick right-hand turn in the middle of the backstretch.

The challenging new layout soon earned the nickname “The Kidney Bean” based on the unique shape. Trenton remained a favorite stop for the USAC Indy cars as the series maintained two race weekends (and occasionally three) per season from 1958 through 1978. The list of Trenton winners reads like a who’s-who of Indycar royalty with A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Eddie Sachs, Rodger Ward, Gordon Johncock all having posted multiple wins.

When the fledgling CART series was born in 1979, there were three races at Trenton during that inaugural season. Bobby Unser swept the double-header in June, while Rick Mears won the final race for a top-tier series at Trenton in August.

The track closed in 1980, and the entirety of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds disappeared a few years later.  Today, the property is home to a serene public park featuring a variety of sculptures set up through a walking trail, a housing development, and a UPS facility. There are no remnants of the former race track that can be seen.

Ontario Motor Speedway (1970-1980)

American entrepreneur, David Lockton, had a dream to built a race track on the West Coast that would host all of the major racing series. His vision was to create the ‘Indianapolis of the West.” He intended to trump Indianapolis by adding a drag strip and an infield road course in order to attract not only USAC open-wheelers and NASCAR stock cars, but also the NHRA and Formula One.

Because he was the CEO of a large Sports Management firm, Lockton had several contacts within the racing community and was able to get agreements from NASCAR, USAC and the NHRA to hold events at a Speedway that did not yet exist. He was able to parlay these agreements into commitments from investors and bond holding companies to raise the 25.5 million dollars needed to built the track.

When the Ontario Motor Speedway opened in 1970, it was a magnificent state of the art venue. It was one of the first to feature corporate suites, computerized timing and scoring, crash absorbent walls and it housed an ultra-modern garage area for the teams.

The inaugural season featured huge crowds for all of its headline events. The Labor Day weekend California 500 for the USAC Champ Cars reported a sell-out of 180,000. The only event to fall short of its goal was the Questor Grand Prix, an odd curiosity in motor racing history that pitted Formula One drivers against USAC drivers. You can read all about that here. 

Despite the huge crowds, and nearly a million dollars worth of guaranteed revenue in ticket-renewal sales, the construction costs and expensive advertising campaign left a significant financial shortfall.

Lockton himself bailed in 1971, resigning from the board. The Speedway continued to host commercially successful events over the next few years, including massive festival-style concerts, and an Evel Knievel stunt show while adding motorcycle and Sports Car racing to its already packed racing schedule.

The structure of the finances allowed the Chevron Land Company to swoop in, acquire the bonds for 30 cents on the dollar, and then effectively foreclose on the property in 1980. The land-grab gave the Chevron company a large amount real estate with an estimated redevelopment value of 120 million dollars for a purchase price of ten million.

Demolition of the track began in 1981. Today, there are housing developments, office buildings, hotels, a shopping center and a hockey arena where the speedway used to stand.

Langhorne Speedway (1926-1971)

Located just north of Philadelphia, PA, Langhorne Speedway began its life as a one-mile dirt oval that was purpose-built for automobiles and motorcycles. While most oval-tracks of the day that were converted from horse-racing facilities featured two long straightaways and four distinct turns, Langhorne was unique. The Pennsylvania track was nearly circular in profile, and while its turns were numbered, the track itself was essentially one continuous turn, earning it the nickname, “The Big Left Turn.”

The track opened as New Philadelphia Speedway in 1926 and was owned by a group called the National Motor Racing Association. The early years featured weekly action from local sprint, midget and motorcycle drivers. Under new ownership in 1930, the track attracted marquee events from AAA Champ Cars and AMA Motorcycles.

Langhorne shut down, along with every other race track in the country, during World War II. Upon reopening in 1946, promoter Joe Babcock picked up where his predecessor left off, staging top-tier racing. When NASCAR debuted as a sanctioning body in 1949, Langhorn Speedway was on their schedule. Sportsman and Modified cars also began to be a draw for the Speedway.

The track itself produced high speeds, and developed a reputation as being both challenging and dangerous. The Speedway was the site of eighteen driver, participant or spectator fatalities over its history. The turn two area (the second quarter of the circle, that is) was prone to developing deep ruts in the dirt over the course of a race. The bumpy ride would occasionally cause drivers to become physically ill. This section of the track became known as ‘Puke Hollow.”

With paved tracks becoming more and more of the norm in top-tier racing, The Langhorne Speedway was paved in 1965 to cater to the USAC Champ Cars, which remained their biggest annual event. The repave also included a redesign of the track that added true straightaways and gave it a D-shape.

In the subsequent years, a boom in suburban development made the property very attractive to real estate developers. Eventually, the track owners found the offers too lucrative to refuse. The property was sold, and racing ceased at Langhorne Speedway after the 1971 season.

A historical marker now stands to commemorate the “Track that Ate the Heroes.” However, there no visible signs that a racing facility once existed among the retail stores, warehouses and wooded areas that occupy the grounds today.

Riverside International Raceway (1957-1989)

While oval track racing was popular in the USA, so was the rather dangerous Euro-style of road racing through city streets. When city races began to be banned in various locations during the 1950s, several permanent road racing courses began to pop up in the States such as Watkins Glen, Road America, Laguna Seca and Lime Rock Park.

In the greater Los Angeles area, Riverside International Raceway was opened in 1957 by a group that included former L.A. Rams football star, Les Richter. The 3.27 mile long road course featured nine turns and a backstretch over one mile in length ending in a tight hairpin. The circuit featured a variety of different shorter courses to appeal to several different racing disciplines.

While the first races held were for Sports Cars, NASCAR found that Riverside was a great stop to maintain a West Coast presence, holding more than 90 races for Cup cars and Winston West over the years. Riverside, in fact, hosted nearly every major racing series at one time or another including being the site of the U.S. Grand Prix for Formula One in 1960.

Formula 5000 cars, USAC and CART Indianapolis-style cars, IROC, motorcycles, funny cars and dragsters have all run at Riverside, but the marquee event was the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix for Sports Cars. The headliners changed as Sports Car racing evolved, seeing the insanely powerful Can Am cars run in the 1970s while the 1980s saw the event expand to a six-hour endurance race.

Riverside not only maintained a full racing schedule, but it also became a hotbed for testing. Its proximity to Hollywood also made it the perfect place for production crews to film car stunts and racing sequences when needed for film and television. Local favorite, Dan Gurney, was a prolific winner at Riverside in both Sports Cars and Stock Cars and many referred to the track as “The house that Gurney built.”

Like Ontario before it, Riverside fell victim to booming real estate values in Southern California. Redevelopment became a much more financially rewarding prospect than continuing racing. Les Richter sold the circuit to a real estate developer named Fritz Duda in 1983. Racing remained for a few more seasons until the track was shut down for good in 1988.

A giant shopping mall now stands on a portion of the property as housing developments occupy the rest. Many of the streets are named after some of the finest drivers to have raced at Riverside in homage to the track that once was. In 2006, the Riverside International Automotive Museum opened to preserve the history of the track. However, the museum also closed in 2016, and much of its collection has been sold off.

Nazareth Speedway (1910-2004)

Located in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Nazareth Speedway is best known as the place where a young kid named Mario Andretti began his racing career. In the 94 years that it existed, the speedway has seen multiple configurations, multiple owners, periods of dormancy and prosperity.

Originally constructed as a horse racing track, the half-mile dirt oval at the old Lehigh County fairgrounds became a place for curious spectators to watch the dangerous sport of Auto Polo beginning in 1910. Weekly racing became a staple for a number of years, and following World War II, Nazareth began attracting big time racing in the form of the AAA. The bullring would also host a variety of other events such as motorcycles, endurance competitions and demolition derbies.

In 1966, a one-mile five-turn dirt oval was constructed alongside the small track that attracted USAC Dirt Champ Cars and Modified cars. The two oval tracks would operate concurrently until 1971 when the large oval was abruptly shut down. The small oval, however, continued to host weekly races.

Race promoter Lindy Vicari purchased the Speedway in 1982, and after a lengthy clean-up process, reopened the large oval to host USAC Modified and Champ Cars to impressive crowds. The success was short-lived, and Vicari closed both tracks in 1983 citing financial difficulties.

The facility remained dormant until 1986 when racing magnate Roger Penske purchased the entirety of the property. He re-sold the tract of land containing the small oval, where it was subsequently demolished and replaced with a grocery store. Penske then redeveloped the large oval, shortening it slightly while maintaining the original profile of the track. The new track was paved, and re-opened in 1987 as a modern racing facility for the CART Series. Nazareth-born Michael Andretti delighted the local fans by winning the inaugural CART event .

The new track featured a pronounced elevation change with a downhill backstretch that led to a tight turn three. The track produced high speeds and close racing. Nazareth also played host to the NASCAR Busch and Truck series’.

The CART event began to suffer a drop-off in attendance in the early 2000s due to the open wheel split. By this time, Roger Penske had already washed his hands of track ownership and sold off all of his his tracks to International Speedway Corporation in 1999. In 2002, Nazareth moved away from CART to the Indy Racing League which further diluted the crowds. While the NASCAR events still pulled a decent gate, ISC made the decision to close the track for good in 2004.

The grandstands and amenities were removed and the track has been sitting dormant for nearly fifteen years. Weeds and trees have grown up through the crumbling racing surface making the abandoned track an eerie sight.

The property was purchased by a land-development company in 2015 with plans on the books to eventually house a warehouse for Martin Guitars along with housing developments and retail establishments.

Chicago Motor Speedway (1999-2003)

One of the more monumental failures in racing history, the Chicago Motor Speedway in Cicero, IL held races for just four seasons, and was completely demolished just a little over a decade after breaking ground.

Sportsman’s Park and the Hawthorne Race Course were two horse racing facilities that operated side-by-side in suburban Chicago for many years. In 1997 Sportsman’s Park was purchased by a group that included race team owner Chip Ganassi with the plan to convert it into a racetrack for top-tier series. The Hawthorne racecourse continues to exist as a top-drawing horse racing facility.

Built at an estimated cost of 70 million dollars, the new Chicago Motor Speedway opened in 1999 hosting the CART Series in front of 67,000 fans. The track was beautiful and featured many amenities, however the course itself was lacking. Built over the profile of the horse track, the one-mile oval was basically flat with a paper clip shape: two long straights and tight, narrow turns. The racing was often processional, with multiple cautions.

After the sell-out inaugural Target Grand Prix, the crowds dwindled quickly. The facility also hosted the NASCAR Truck Series, ARCA, and the Mid-American Stock Car Series for a short time. They also attempted covering the track with dirt and holding horse races again. The asphalt that still laid under the dirt was problematic, and many trainers refused to put their prized horses in jeopardy.

Problems were exacerbated by the fact that the momentum of the open-wheel split was beginning to lean in favor of the IRL. Compounding matters was the fact that Chicagoland Speedway, located about 45 minutes away in Joliet, opened in 2001.

The Joliet track was a 1.5 mile oval of the ‘cookie-cutter’ variety that was immediately granted a NASCAR Cup date, and also hosted the IRL. The racing produced at Chicagoland was far-and-away more exciting and compelling than anything you would see at Cicero’s paperclip.

The final race at Chicago Motor Speedway was held in 2002 to a sparse crowd, and the track was closed shortly thereafter. The Chicago Motor Speedway, however, will always be linked to another monumental failure, the 1999 Sylvester Stallone-produced racing film Driven.

The oft-maligned film was produced for a cost of 94 million dollars, returning just 54 million at the box office. The film’s opening sequence features the fictional reigning world champion, Beau Brandenburg, stalking rookie-phenom, Jimmy Bly, finally pressuring the youngster into a mistake, taking the win at Chicago Motor Speedway.

The land was sold back to the City of Cicero at a considerable financial loss, and the facility was completely demolished by 2009. A Walmart Super Center and a giant liquor distribution warehouse now occupy the spot that was once the Speedway.

North Wilkesboro Speedway (1947-2011)

There is a common Southern expression that refers to someone becoming “Too big for their britches.” This roughly means that a recent acquisition of wealth, fame or importance has caused an individual to turn their back on their past, refuse to speak with old friends, and essentially forget where they came from.

For a lot of Southern folks, particularly those that reside within Wilkes County, NC, this phrase accurately describes how the relationship between NASCAR and the North Wilkesboro Speedway played out.

It was shortly after World War II when Enoch Staley happened to buy a ticket for a stock car race that was being promoted by Bill France. Staley was impressed by what he saw, and equally impressed with the large crowd on hand.

While France was planting the seeds of an idea that would become NASCAR, Staley gathered up a few partners to finance the construction of a race track in his hometown of North Wilkesboro. Legend has it that the meager budget of $1500 was enough to build the track, but not quite enough to level out the site. The resulting 5/8 mile dirt oval had a downhill slope in front of the grandstands, while the backstretch was decidedly uphill.

Bill France served as promoter for the early races at North Wilkesboro and the track attracted nearly 10,000 spectators for the initial race, held for Modified Cars in 1947. In 1949, NASCAR’s Strictly Stock Division (now Cup Series) debuted at North Wilkesboro. From there, the Speedway remained a regular fixture on the Cup Schedule hosting two races annually for more than four decades.

The track was paved in 1957, and the seating capacity grew to an eventual 40,000. The track updated with the times, but it never lost the things that made it a favorite. Aside from producing great racing, North Wilkesboro had a welcoming, family friendly environment, reasonably-priced concessions (something that Staley insisted they maintain), and small-town charm.

NASCAR began to experience unprecedented growth beginning in the 1970s with the influx of the Winston money. By the 1990s, NASCAR had boomed in popularity and new tracks with massive seating capacities and ultra-modern facilities began popping up.

North Wilkesboro’s remote location (more that 80 miles away from the nearest major city), poor access and traffic problems, combined with the fact that it had the smallest seating capacity on the schedule made the Speedway stick out like a sore thumb in the new-look NASCAR. Bill France and Enoch Staley were still great friends, and the track continued to hold two races annually.

France passed away in 1992, and Staley in 1995. After Staley’s death, the track was sold to Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre who promptly moved the Cup dates to their own tracks in Texas and New Hampshire.

The 93rd and final Cup race at North Wilkesboro was held in September of 1996. Since then, the track was used occasionally for racing schools or test sessions, but lie dormant for the most part.

An attempt to revive the Speedway in 2010 with lower-tier racing series saw one season of racing, but the track was closed for good in 2011. A historical marker commemorates the track, although it is still there for all to see. The billboards are faded, paint is peeling, the buildings are crumbling and grass is growing up through the cracks in the asphalt. The track is likely to remain dormant and rotting away for quite some time as the estimated cost of demolition is higher than the actual assessed value of the real estate.

Bridgehampton Race Circuit (1957-1998)

The village of Bridgehampton, located near Sag Harbor in Long Island, NY, was the site of some very exciting racing through city streets in the post-war era. With the State of New York declaring a ban on street racing in 1953, a group of locals put together a plan to built a permanent road course.

Led by Henry Austin Clark Jr., members of the Motor Sports Club of America, Sports Car Club of America and Long Island Sports Car Club banded together to form the The Bridgehampton Road Races Corporation (BRRC), and began offering stock at five dollars a share in November 1953. The corporation purchased 600 acres of heavily forested land on an uninhabited hillside and construction commenced.

The track opened in 1957 as a 2.86 mile long, 12-turn circuit with more than 130 feet of elevation change. The first event held was a club meeting sanctioned by a local Harley-Davidson Dealers Association. However, the first big-time race would be held just three weeks later. Sanctioned by the SCCA, the opening weekend featured six races for fifteen classes of cars. One year later, the first NASCAR Grand National race ever held on a road course was at Bridgehampton.

The BRRC struggled to keep ahead of the finances early on, particularly due to the fact that race fans had this nasty habit of wandering through the woods to get to the track, thereby bypassing the process of paying for admission. A small group of astute lawyers, promoters and businessmen were convinced to join the board, pro bono, to shore up the finances, and improve spectator amenities and security.

A section of cushy armchair seats from the Polo Grounds, former home of the NY Giants, was brought in to create the exclusive Circuit Club located near the start/finish. In the ensuing years, Bridgehampton would host up to four marquee events per year for motorcycles, sports cars and occasionally stock cars. Bridgehampton spectators were able to watch some of the finest drivers of the day including Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Mario Andretti, Sam Posey, Chris Amon and Denny Hulme tackle the challenging and unforgiving race circuit.

In 1965 the annual USRRC event reintroduced the Vanderbilt Cup, a trophy with Long Island heritage that dates back to 1904.

Late in the 60s, new laws in the Bridgehampton area rezoned the property surrounding the circuit from agricultural to residential. As housing developments began to crop up around the track, noise complaints from the new residents became more and more pronounced.

Noise restriction laws in the area effectively put an end to professional racing at Bridgehampton in 1970, although the circuit remained a popular club racing facility for several more years. Investor Robert M. Rubin purchased the majority of the shares of BRRC in 1982, and attempted to gain a temporary lift on the noise restrictions in order to hold an annual Vintage Racing event. After several attempts, and no results, Rubin changed his tune and put a golf course and housing development where the track once stood.

Club racing ceased in 1998 when construction of the golf course began. Currently a membership at ultra-exclusive golf club known as “the Bridge” costs more than $100,000 annually. On the bright side, the clubhouse is decorated with racing memorabilia that pays homage to the great race course, while a one-mile section of the course including the front straight, the Chevron Bridge, and turn one reside on the golf course, preserved for prosperity.

Notable Others

There are many other motorsports venues in the United States that have failed for various reasons. One of the earliest to fail was the Uniontown (PA) Speedway. The wood-planked track opened in 1916 and was gone by 1922.

Texas World Speedway hosted NASCAR and USAC during the 1970s, and remained a testing facility for some time. It shut down for good in 2017, nearly 20 years after its last professional race: an IMSA event in 1996. The massive grounds are currently being used as a giant parking lot for cars damaged from Hurricane Harvey.

Walt Disney World Speedway, in Orlando, FL, with the claim to fame of hosting the first ever race for the Indy Racing League, was demolished recently to accommodate overflow parking for Magic Kingdom visitors. Flemington (NJ) Speedway is gone, as is the Louisville (KY) Speedway, Ashville-Weaverville (NC), and the road courses at Augusta (MA) and in Marlboro County (MD). There are hundreds of other former tracks in the US that are now gone.

Some are holding on by a thread, on limited life-support provided by club events and racing schools, but remain ripe for the picking of a real-estate developer.  Rockingham (NC), The Milwaukee Mile (WI) and the Nashville Superspeedway (TN) all fall into this category.

Times change. Things we love go away. Preserving the memories is more important now than ever.

 

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