Age Is Just A State of ~ Speed
For all its plusses and minuses as a stock car racing venue, Indianapolis Motor Speedway definitely is the oldest race track on the Monster/NASCAR Cup tour, dating all the way back to 1909.
The first race at Indy, on the original dirt surface
In fact, this year’s Big Machine Vodka 400 was run less than a month from 110 years after the first auto races at what wasn’t yet the Brickyard – bricks came after multiple deaths, including two spectators, at the first race on the original oiled/tarred dirt surface. Despite that inauspicious start, things settled down (no more motorcycle or balloon races, which also had been held in ’09), and the first 500-miler was held two years later, starting the tradition for which Indy became known.
NASCAR, of course, was an afterthought, 85 years after the track’s founding (and a few years before the U.S. Grand Prix and other road races), but it still can claim a piece of the history, I guess.
All that brings us to next weekend’s Richmond race, which takes place on what is arguably the second-oldest track on the circuit. The “arguably” part, in Richmond’s case, has several components, because the track can celebrate its anniversary several ways:
Ted Horn Richmond’s 1946 opener, which he won
Opened in 1946 (after the state fairgrounds moved to the Strawberry Hill land north of town), with Ted Horn winning the first event, for Indy cars, on October 12, 1946.
First NASCAR race, for modifieds, run in 1948 (won by Red Byron).
First Grand National (Cup) race run in 1953 (won by Lee Petty). There was no GN race in ’54, so they really didn’t become “annual” until 1955.
Two races per year run for first time in 1959 (second race won by Cotton Owens).
Track paved in 1968 (first race on pavement won by Richard Petty).
New (“reconfigured”) track opened in 1988 (first race won by Davey Allison).
Soooo . . . depending on how you want to scramble the numbers, the Federated Auto Parts 400 is the 73rd, 71st, 66th, 64th, 60th, 51st or 31st annual event. Got that?
Martinsville correctly characterizes itself as the “oldest” GN/Cup track in the GN/Cup series, the only one that was on the schedule when it was begun (as “Strictly Stock”) in 1949, but that speedway was built in 1947, a year after Richmond, which means age is relative and dependent upon criteria.
Watkins Glen sneaks up in that discussion as well, because it ran its first race in 1948. However, there’s a major asterisk with this one, because the races were run on public streets until the purpose-built raceway opened eight years later. NASCAR, after a brief flirtation in the ‘60s, became an annual Glen event in 1986. Also, as a road course, the Glen has undergone multiple layout changes.
Early Watkins Glen races on the village streets
If NASCAR involvement isn’t necessary for your history to count (a reasonable thought), Knoxville Raceway in Iowa – home of the Indy/Daytona-equivalent Knoxville Nationals sprint car race – lays claim to being the oldest track in the nation. Built for horses in the late 1800s, it held its first auto race in 1901.
Auto races began more-or-less as soon as autos hit the ground, but the earliest ones were on streets/roads, then migrated to fairgrounds and other tracks built for the ponies. By one account, the first auto race on an “oval” took place at Narragansett Trotting Park in Rhode Island on September 7, 1896 (a Labor Day celebration, it would appear). The Milwaukee Mile, which may be on its way back to active status, began in the 19th century for horses and held its first auto race in 1903.
Here's Milwaukee in the early days
Locally, we have quite a bit of history in Pennsylvania. Williams Grove Speedway, one of the closest tracks to me, is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, and it was purpose-built for auto racing, like Indy (although it shared ownership and parking spaces with an amusement park). Recently, I visited Sharon Speedway, actually just across the line into Ohio although named for a Pennsylvania locality, and it was celebrating 90 years of nearly continuous operation.
Stephen Bubb, the dedicated historian at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, has been looking for race advertisements as evidence of early events, and he’s uncovered some dating way back for McKean County Speedway up near the New York line. That fairgrounds track has been largely idle this year, but Bubb’s evidence shows it going back – I believe – to the first decade of the 20th century.
You’ll notice that not all these tracks are an unqualified success story. Milwaukee has been closed for several years, and it appears McKean County may only run during the fair this year. Others are doing pretty well, but most have evolved over the years, although perhaps none quite as much as Richmond.
Still, if survival is an indicator of success, we should look at these, and in the case of the NASCAR tracks, I think there’s a common denominator in that they are distinctive:
Martinsville is the smallest Cup track and has been for more than half its history. Richmond became distinctive when it was rebuilt as a ¾-miler. Watkins Glen is a road course in a series of ovals. Indy . . . well, there has to be an exception, and while Indy is distinctive as a track, it seems the only distinction for NASCAR is that it doesn’t work very well for race cars at their current state of technology. It seems to me that either the rules have to change, or Indy has to change.
This just isn’t sustainable, so something has to change at Indy
More to the point for the overall success of NASCAR, maybe some other, newer tracks need to change, too, or they’ll never make this list of “oldies.”
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Just for fun, this year’s Federated Auto Parts 400 should be dedicated to Al Kent and Ollie Olson. They were both drivers from Richmond who made their first and only GN/Cup appearances in that first race in 1953. Kent’s Henry J finished the race in 13th place, while Olson’s Hudson came home 24th (or maybe got back home by the time the race was over).
On the other hand, maybe the dedication should be to Speedy Thompson. Richmond ran two races for the first time in 1959, but the year before, the track’s single date had been moved from spring to September, and Thompson had come home the winner in the first fall GN/Cup race at Richmond.
Al “Speedy” Thompson knew how to get around the old dirt track at Richmond
Maybe one reason Martinsville gets more “oldest” publicity these days is that it was a NASCAR-loyal track pretty much from the beginning, while Richmond played the field. It ran a AAA stock car race in 1952 and several URC sprint car races in the ‘50s. There may well have been other non-NASCAR events that are buried in history. I hope to make the URC races a future research project.