Indy Cars' rich Philly history

May 26, 2012 8:53:54 PM PDT
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway (actually in suburban Speedway, Indiana) is the nation's oldest motor sports venue. It's also the world's largest sports arena in terms of spectator capacity. The track opened in 1909, and back then most racing venues were unpaved (most were also used as or were originally horse tracks) but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was all brick, hence its nickname, "The Brickyard." The all-brick surface was switched to modern pavement in the mid-1950s, but a one-yard strip of bricks remains at the start/finish line. It's traditional for the winner of the "500" to kiss it, usually the next day, when official photos are taken.

The first "500" was run in 1911. Ray Harroun won aboard a Marmon Wasp. While most racers carried a riding mechanic whose duties included looking back to assess oncoming traffic, Harroun drove solo, and used a rear-view mirror to keep an eye on the competition. He's generally credited with its invention. Marmon is still making motor vehicles today, but only trucks.

Many local drivers have competed at Indy over the years. Most notable, of course, is Nazareth, Pennsylvania's Mario Andretti, who won in 1969. He won in a backup car after crashing his primary ride earlier that May. Mario suffered burns in that accident and spent the rest of the month in pain. His discomfort was great enough that he skipped the ceremonial winner's photo session the next day. Identical twin brother Aldo stood in and nobody noticed. Aldo is the father of Indy and NASCAR racer John Andretti. Mario's sons Michael and Jeff race Indy cars, and Michael's son Marco now carries the family standard.

For much of the sport's history, Indy cars made regular visits locally. The Langhorne Speedway hosted one or two races a year from its opening in 1926 until it closed in 1971. Philadelphia's Fred Winnai was its first winner. It began as a one-mile dirt circle, lightning-fast but difficult to drive. It stood along U.S. 1, south of Woodbourne Road in Middletown Township. Some racers, notably two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward, disliked the unusual layout. Ward would skip running Langhorne. In 1960, defending a national championship, Ward's car owner, Bob Wilkie, decided to enter his car anyway. With ward out of the seat, Wilkie brought in 1958 Indy winner Jimmy Bryan, who loved racing at Langhorne. That fateful day, Bryan hit a rut and the car became airborne. The Leader Card Special landed nose-first and the impact killed Bryan instantly.

Langhorne Speedway was paved before the 1965 season, when the backstretch was turned into a straightaway. That brought the then-new rear-engine cars to the track. Indy cars visited "The 'Horne" every season from then until it closed after the 1971 campaign. It had actually been sold to developers in 1967 but promoters leased the track through 1971, when it closed. Its grandstands were removed from the site and are now the seating for the 5/8 mile dirt oval at Bridgeport, New Jersey. Much of the Langhorne property was never developed.

The other major venue for Indy cars in the Philadelphia region was the Trenton Speedway in suburban Hamilton Township, N.J. It stood on what was then the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Auto races were reported on the site dating back to 1900, but it wasn't until 1947 that they were regularly-scheduled. For that season, a one-mile dirt oval was created on the site. It was paved in 1957, attracting the pavement-only cars that had become part of the Indy car scene. In 1968, a right turn was added to the backstretch, and the complex became a 1 1/2-mile kidney-shaped circuit. This prompted Indy car racing at longer distances of up to 300 miles. Trenton hosted at least one Indy car event each year through its closing in 1979. A.J. Foyt won 12 of them, all on pavement. Today, the site is occupied by the New Jersey Sculpture Garden, a restaurant ("Rat's"), a UPS facility and the Hamilton Lakes housing development. Its scoreboard ended up at Bridgeport.

Indy cars performed at other tracks in the region. Dover Downs, primarily a NASCAR site, hosted one event in 1969. It was won by Indy veteran Art Pollard in a rear-engine car powered by a Plymouth V-8, Chrysler Corporation's only Indy car win. That car was later fitted with a Chevrolet and Pennsylvania dirt tracker Bobby Allen drove it.

Pocono International Raceway hosted Indy cars for several years, from 1971 to 1989. All races were 500-mile events. Ten Indy winners also claimed victory at Pocono. After the 1989 event, the sanctioning body stopped scheduling races at the 2/12-mile D-shaped track in a dispute over safety facilities (they wanted crash wall improvements management would not provide). But Pocono is still a successful track, hosting two NASCAR races each year among other events.

Indy cars in various forms raced at tracks in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Al Unser, Sr. and Mario Andretti won races on the site when it was a dirt oval in the 1960s. Dirt cars were part of Indy car racing in those days. On a later dirt track there, Pennsylvania sprint car legend Keith Kauffman won a 100-mile "championship" car race in 1982.

Gladwyne, Pennsylvania's Roger Penske acquired the site and operated a paved track slightly smaller than one mile. Indy cars ran annually from 1987 to 2004, when the track closed and was torn down. Winners include Nazareth native Michael Andretti, who visited victory lane there twice.

Perhaps the most unusual track on the local list was what was officially Atlantic City Speedway. Here's a website with old photos and information about Atlantic City Speedway. It was far from town, off Moss Mill Road (now Atlantic County Route 561), in the Pinelands, south of Hammonton. The site was occupied first by a munitions plant during World War I. That factory was known by the name of the explosive it produced, Amatol. When a speedway was built there in 1926, it was laid out to be 1 ½ miles around with a wooden surface and high banks. Most called it by the name of the explosive once produced in the site: Amatol Race Track. Board tracks were fast but deadly in those days, and Amatol had speeds far quicker than Indianapolis. But only three races were run there as the drumbeat to ban board tracks had begun even before the first car ran there. Car manufacturers used the track as a proving ground until 1933, when it was torn down. The lumber involved was enough to fill more than 250 railroad cars and was used for other projects. Today, almost 80 years after its demise, it's said you can still see the footprint of the track from the air. And its headquarters building still stands.

In its day, Amatol had an exclusive contract with the American Automobile Association and no track within 250 miles could stage Indy car races. Other local tracks like Trenton and Langhorne had events sanctioned by other organizations. AAA continued to be the sanctioning body for open-wheel races until the mid-1950s, when it was felt that racing's accidents compromised its mission as a club promoting highway safety.

In its heyday, open-wheel racing was everywhere. Philadelphia's JFK Stadium (formerly Sesqui Stadium and then Municipal Stadium) had a track surrounding its football field. The last event on that track was a midget race co-sponsored by the United States Auto Club and the American Racing Drivers Club in the early 1970's. Veteran Indy racer Gary Bettenhausen won it.

USAC also sponsored a midget race inside the Spectrum in those days. The cars pitted across the parking lot at JFK and no fuel containers were allowed inside the building. While Comcast-Spectacor archives acknowledge that a race was run in the building, no other record exists. USAC records that far back are sketchy.

Long after the Frankford Yellowjackets faded from the pro football scene, their stadium at I and Erie was known as a racetrack. Local midget standout Harry Collins lost his life in a crash at Yellowjacket Stadium in the 1940s.

Back in the days when there was an airport at Pennsauken's Airport Circle, a building across the highway was the grandstand for the Airport Speedway. My dad, Bob, Sr., lied about his age so he could race midgets there in the 1930s. That building today is a furniture store, but if you look through the plate glass windows upstairs, you can see the underside structure of the grandstand.

Today, Indy cars are just a memory locally, and not likely to return. Our closest speedways, at Bridgeport and New Egypt in New Jersey and Grandview in Bechtelsville, Pa. (north of Pottstown) are all smaller dirt ovals. All feature stock cars as their regular fare, and fans support the local action. The road to Indianapolis once began on tracks like these, but almost all drivers learn elsewhere now. Most hail from outside the United States.

No doubt, Indianapolis is a far-different place from what it was in 1911. Championship racing continues to evolve, but it's undeniably fast and exciting. Enjoy the 96th annual running of the "500" this Sunday on 6abc. As they say, it's "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing".

Internet searches of related photos:

Photos of Amatol site
Langhorne Speedway images
Trenton Speedway images
Various Nazareth Speedway images
The Airport Speedway