A Look Back at Some Obscure Racing History
This is what happens when you’re off-the-scale weird in your attraction to racing history.
It all started last year when a guy got in touch with me because he had this old poster for a United Racing Club sprint car race at the Virginia state fairgrounds track in Richmond (the location of Richmond Raceway today), and he wanted to know if the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, for which I volunteer, might be interested in buying it before he put it up on eBay.
I wasn’t much help. First, I told him that the museum got plenty of donations and didn’t buy things like the poster. Then, after some quick research, I told him that the poster wasn’t from 1948, as he supposed, but rather from 1954.
That 1954 race was won by Bert Brooks of Fairfield, Conn., long a stalwart of sprints and midgets in the Northeast. He lost his life 14 years later in a crash at Hershey Stadium in Pennsylvania.
That would have been that, except for the weirdness part. You see, my quick research had revealed to me that URC actually sanctioned no fewer than 11 sprint car races in Richmond between 1951 and 1967 (the year before the old fairgrounds track was paved). I’d had no idea those races had been run, and I needed to know more about them. It was gnawing at me.
I went to EMMR, which has the URC club archives, and found the exact dates for all those races (I’d found the year of each online), but no results. A friend checked one of those online services that make archived newspaper stories available and found nothing. So I plotted for using some of my next trip to Richmond to visit the State Library and check the newspaper microfilm archives.
A lot of effort these days is going into digitizing old newspapers, but there are a lot of papers out there, so many remain available only at the source or in libraries, and the Richmond News Leader, the long-defunct afternoon paper in Richmond, is one of those. When I first became a full-bore race fan, the News Leader had better local racing coverage than its morning counterpart, the still-printing Times-Dispatch, so I wanted to check it out. That required the trip back to Richmond.
Here’s an early aerial, from Adolph Rice Studio, of the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds, with the raceway at the back.
I love libraries, and the State Library in Richmond is a really good one, staffed by really friendly, helpful people. With their help, I was in business, even when it meant overcoming my mechanical/technical ineptitude. Microfilm readers are ‘twixt & ‘tween as far as technology goes, just advanced enough to trip up pad-and-pencil geezers but antique enough to befuddle those with implanted smart phones. All day, I was afraid somebody would come up and say, “Don’t you realize you’re doing that all wrong and will break that thing,” but nobody did.
All total, I think I looked at 14 different spools of microfilm. It was awesome.
The first spool held papers from late August through mid-September 1951. All I was looking for was results from one race, at the fairgrounds on September 9, but when I found a bunch of others, I couldn’t stop looking at them, too. I spent about an hour and a half on that two-week slice of sports history, then realized I had to start limiting my interest, or I wouldn’t come anywhere near completing my project.
Still . . .
The biggest surprise, which took place later in the week after the sprint cars, was more-or-less an unsanctioned Grand National/Cup event at Richmond’s Royall Speedway (now Southside) – it was a 400-lapper referred to as “strictly stock,” the original name for what we know as the NASCAR Cup Division. NASCAR regulars like Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Joe Weatherly and others were entered, along with all the local hot shoes. New Yorker Jim Reed, one of early NASCAR’s most under-rated drivers and the 1959 Southern 500 winner, took home Royall’s trophy, in front of 7,348 fans, a record for the track.
Here’s Jim Reed at about the time he captured his non-NASCAR “strictly stock” win at Royall Speedway.
Officially, Southside/Royall has hosted four Grand National races, all in the early 1960s, well before the smaller events were eliminated and Winston Cup took over. Now you know the real number is five.
Motorsports and fairs seemed to go together in years past (today you’re lucky to see figure-8s or a demo derby), and Richmond was no exception. At least eight of the 11 URC sprint races were held during the fair, and frequently they weren’t the only events. Some years the fair was bracketed by stock cars the opening weekend and the “big cars,” as the sprints were called then, the closing weekend. For at least a couple of years, the sprinters shared their weekend with Sunday motorcycle races.
And then there were the thrill shows. One season the races were held Saturday afternoon and a thrill show followed that night
That brings up a personal story I’ve told a few times before: Around 1966, a group of teenagers at the fair discovered that they could climb Paul Sawyer’s white fence surrounding the race track and watch the thrill show – Jack Kochman’s Hell Drivers – for free. One driver saw us and, after each stunt, tried to see if he could come close enough to the fence to make us jump off. Our nerve held up for some of his efforts, but not all.
The Kochman show definitely had this stunt, but one driver used his slow-down lap to try and scare us off the fence.
The last sprint car race during the fair was held in 1962, but four year later, Paul Sawyer brought the URC back for a stand-alone show in June, accompanied by the racers of the Sports Car Owners and Drivers Association – SCOBA – a New York/New Jersey area group that raced Corvettes and gull-wing Mercedes, among other makes. Quite a few of the top drivers in SCOBA were racers in other areas as well: a SCOBA race at the old one-mile Raleigh Speedway was won by Tim Flock in a Kiekhaefer Mercedes 300SL.
Here's Tim Flock at Raleigh in his Mercedes.
I was going to races pretty regularly by ’66, and I dearly wish I had made it to that race, which was probably the weekend after I graduated from high school. The next April, the sports cars were gone, and the sprinters opened their season alone in Richmond in front of what was described as a “slim” crowd of about 1,000. That was the end of URC racing at the fairgrounds, although the 1968 pavement likely would have ended things, too.
In a way, that era seems kind of a golden age for race fans in the Richmond area. Royall was running weekly, as was Mooers Field Speedrome in the city and Richmond, and Richmond Speedway, which ran midgets weekly just north of town. There were the various races at the fairgrounds, too. Most folks didn’t make much money, but the races didn’t take away that much of it: the most common admission price I saw advertised in 1951 was $1.25.
Plus, you could see sprints, midgets, modifieds, stocks in various forms . . . and if you were on your way to Royall/Southside, you could stop first at the Holly Inn on Hull Street Road and get the “Speedway Special!” of country style steak and beverage for 95 cents – if you saw the ad in the News Leader.
One final bonus find during my research: The fairgrounds track I’ve been speaking about was built right after WWII when the fair moved from along the Boulevard (now Arthur Ashe Boulevard) out to the former Strawberry Hill farm. The old fairgrounds had a track, too, now the site of Richmond’s minor league baseball ballpark, and I found an ad and preview story for the last race held there, on September 27, 1941. The war temporarily ended racing after that, and by war’s end, the fair was on the move, taking racing with it.
An ad for that 1941 race that closed out more than three decades of racing at the old Richmond fairgrounds, located where The Diamond baseball park stands today.
In a bit of continuity, though, Ted Horn won the first race at the new track in 1946, an event for Indy-style cars. He also held the qualifying record at the old track when it’s run ended.