Tracing America's Racing Roots
Though the Indianapolis Motor Speedway unarguably ranks as Indiana’s most famous race track, the state boasts a host of historic racing ovals.
Oval racing—a distinctively American form of racing in contrast to the road courses popular elsewhere in the world—traces its roots to state fair exhibitions on horse tracks. Before his renown as an Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder, Carl Fisher raced his personal automobile against horses and offered rides for a fee at county fairs across the Midwest. The newfangled invention stirred the interest of a curious public, most of whom didn’t own cars.
The first automobile to record 60-mph speeds, a Cooper-Ford 999 driven by Barney Oldfield in 1903, achieved the feat at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on the one-mile oval that has hosted the Hoosier Hundred sprint car race since the 1950s. At the Vigo County fairgrounds, the Terre Haute Action Track, a half-mile clay oval, has hosted races intermittently since the 1950s.
The Montpelier Motor Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in eastern Indiana, opened for horse racing in 1903, switched to auto races in 1915, back to horse racing in the ’60s, and returned to automobiles again from the mid-1980s through today.
Many of Indiana’s tracks developed in the late ’40s and ’50s, when the booming post-war economy led to a rise in automobile ownership for ordinary folks. Some of these tracks became known for their banked construction, like the 1957 Tri-State Speedway in the southwestern Indiana town of Haubstadt, and the paved 1947 Salem Speedway. With its 37-degree banking, the asphalt Winchester Speedway is one of the steepest ovals, fueling its reputation as “The World’s Fastest Half Mile.” It started hosting auto races as early as 1916, and gained a national reputation after World War II.
Most vintage Hoosier tracks, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, have retained the historic footprint of the track, with grandstands and other service buildings torn down or modernized. A time-capsule track stands near Turkey Run State Park in Parke County. The 1926 Jungle Park Speedway retains remnants of its grandstand, track, and a nearby hotel, gas station, and cabins—collectively identified as a potential historic district in 2009. Though the track closed in the 1960s, auto devotees still occasionally stage reunions there to admire vintage cars and drive around the track.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Indiana Preservation.
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