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Ghost tracks, the scary sequel

07 Oct 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Like a scary sequel to your favorite horror flick, we're back with another edition of ghost tracks. Every serious drag fan, of course, had a favorite haunt in his or her formative years, and many of them have passed away, leading to the sport that's sweeping the sport: ghost-track hunting.

And, naturally, the leaders in this field of haunt hunting are readers of this column, who have been so kind as to share their finds with us. Enjoy.

Lance Peltier grew up going to Southland Dragways in Houma, La., and says that it was on par with Orange County Int’l Raceway when it was built in 1969 and managed by Dave McClelland in 1969 and 1970 before he moved to Dallas Int'l.

"There were easily 30 or more strong-running Top Fuel cars from New Orleans to Houston, so every weekend was a shootout for the eight-car open fields," he recalled. "And, of course, the place would sell out when the hometown heroes, Candies & Hughes, showed up to run. To this day, the land has not been developed, and there is still some asphalt left to be seen."

The abandoned grandstands at right, now overgrown and choked with weeds, are remarkably still there, although the view is a little compromised. Weed whacker, anyone?


(Above left) Southland in its prime. (Above right) The familiar tower still stands. (Below) Aerial view with landmarks noted by Peltier.

 

David Graves sent along these wonderfully sad shots from Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway, one of the true gems of the 1960s and Texas' first supertrack (sorry, Motorplex). DIMS was home of the NHRA Springnationals in 1969-71 and the World Finals in 1969-70. Construction of the facility began in March 1969 on what was supposed to be the Xerox Co.'s headquarters. The facility, in Lewisville, Texas (north of Dallas), just northeast of the junction of I-35 and the State Highway 121 bypass, also boasted a 2.5-mile road course and a ½-mile paved oval.

The dragstrip was 5,000 feet long, but what really caught the eye was the futuristic timing tower that rose five stories above the racing surface. On the first floor was offices and restrooms, and the second floor held the announcing deck. Security and monitor control were on the third floor, and the fourth floor was the exclusive International Room, a precursor to today's VIP suites. The open top story was for television cameras. Scoreboards at the top end gave fans the instant results and times of each pairing.

The dragstrip's racing surface was equally on par; qualifying at the 1969 Springnationals produced the sport's first all-six-second 32-car Top Fuel field.

"I have a very well-prepared proposal showing that the development that started with the dragstrip was to incorporate facilities for race teams (i.e., Brownsburg, Ind.), offices for SCCA and NHRA headquarters, auto dealerships, half-mile oval, 2.7-mile road course (which did get completed), service stations, hotel – the works," said Graves. "They had big dreams for this deal."

Things began to go sour for the facility in 1971. After multiple rainouts of non-national events forced DIMS to move to IHRA sanction for 1972, the fledgling sanctioning body's alleged "lack of promotional savvy" made things worse, and, eventually, Xerox, which held the land lease, sold the property in late 1973.

There is no trace of the facility left today, but you can see from the red rectangle that I so artfully drew here its approximately location.

"Cattle roamed the facility for years until it was leveled in the late '70s/early '80s," said Graves. "What is there now? That area grew into one of the hottest real estate markets in Texas. Now it’s shopping, warehouse, apartments … boring stuff."

 

Glen (no last name given) sent me to a Web site with pics from Fairmont Dragway, an eighth-mile NHRA track in Fairmont, W.Va., that closed in 2001 after more than 30 years of operation. The track was located off I-79. I found these directions --  "I-79 to S. Fairmont exit 125, then .3 mi. east, then 1 mi. north, then 2.5 mi. east on Industrial Dr." – and tried to find it on Google Maps but couldn't.

Here's a 2002 photo of the starting line, which still looks fairly intact, but this was six years ago. The tower was still there, and, perhaps after a little brush control and a little TLC, the place could have run again. You can find more pics on the Illicit Ohio Web site here: http://illicitohio.illicitohio.com/drags.html. I found a news story from 2002 that says the site was going to become an industrial park and that the landowner, Fairmont Industrial & Credit Corp., was going to take the track's "utility poles, lights, a speaker system, an outbuilding, long stretches of guardrail and chain-link fences" and reuse them throughout the county, including at a new BMX track. I found a message-board posting from 2004 that says a former racer had been there in 2004 and it's all gone, indeed replaced by an industrial park.

Adds Glen, "I am now in Lakeland, Fla., and have been to LakelandMotorsportsPark, which supposedly [Don] Garlits built as his personal test track. I am trying to find the location of Lake Wales Drag Strip, about 30 miles away, where supposedly Garlits made his first-ever passes in his family Ford: I've only been in Florida two years and nobody has been helpful in locating this track, but there is a decent-sized airport at the major crossroads in Lake Wales, so I assume that might be the spot."

Longtime e-mail pal Al Booton sent me information on Des Moines Dragway, which was active from 1957 to 1967. More than 3,000 racers and fans were there on opening weekend. The strip was called Greater Des Moines Drag Strip from '57 to '60. In 1961, it was renamed Des Moines Dragway. The strip was located at the intersection of 128th (called

Grimes Road
in those days) and Aurora in what is today Urbandale, Iowa. The entire strip was there until 2000 when the Days Run housing development began, and the first eighth-mile of the strip remained until June 2003.


Fremont/Baylands was southwest of the 880 freeway.

 
Time for tears. This 2003 photo by Jonathan Westerling purports to show the ground-up remains of Fremont dragstrip pavement.

Danny Clark Jr., who used to live in Northern California's Bay Area, got his first taste of nitro watching "Jungle Jim" Liberman at Fremont Raceway, where his uncle was one of the original flag starters, and wanted to know what ever became of the track after it closed in the late 1980s. He wanted to know what I could dig up on it.

Baylands RacewayPark (nee Fremont ) was built in the late 1950s along the northern edge of the Heath Naval Outlying Landing Field, a World War II military airfield. The dragstrip property was leased from Southern Pacific.

The track, along Interstate 880 (now the Nimitz Freeway), was a staple of the West Coast for decades, and all of the hitters ran there. The track hosted the late-season NHRA Golden Gate Nationals from 1981 to 1983. The 1983 event was memorable because it's where Gary Beck ran the first 5.3-second Top Fuel pass, a 5.39, in Larry Minor's dragster.

The track also served as the shooting location for the dragstrip heroics of "Big John" Milner in the film More American Graffiti. (A 3/8-mile oval track also was built in the 1980s, reportedly using parts purchased from Ontario Motor Speedway.)

According to what I could find, Southern Pacific decided to not renew the lease because the city of Fremont had agreed to kick in $3 million toward the cost of the new business park. After everything had been shut down, Southern Pacific and the developers asked for $9 million, and the city backed out. Southern Pacific chopped furrows across the strip to keep folks from breaking in and racing illegally there.

An industrial complex eventually was built there.

Rip and Natalie Wiley, who restored the Stephens & Venables front-engine AA/FD, have pictures on their Web site of former NHRA member tracks Green Valley Race City in Smithfield, Texas (below), and Houston Int'l Dragway (bottom). The "now" photos, I believe, are from 2000, so there's no telling what the sites might hold now, but it's still sad to see them in this shape at any time. Reader Bobby Iven says of HID, "A Wal-Mart now sits where the starting line used to be, and a school is located somewhere near the finish line."

Mike McInnis, who saw his first drag race in (he thinks) 1965, recalled his most memorable ghost track. "I got interested in cars and started reading every car magazine I could get my hands on about 1962. (I was 11)," he wrote. "I started reading about drag racing and started bugging my dad to take me to a race. We were on the south side of Jacksonville, Fla., late one Sunday afternoon, and I started seeing numbers of cars (mostly flat towed) coming back from a day at the drags at nearby Thunderbolt Dragway. Needless to say, my efforts to get to a race intensified. We lived about 100 miles from that track (in O’Brien, Fla.), but that seemed like a small obstacle to a young kid dying to see some action at the drags. I heard an advertisement on the Jacksonville radio station WAPE, the big Ape, 690 on the AM dial, stating that Eddie Schartman and the Air Lift Rattler would be match racing with Shirl Greer in the Tension Dodge at the Thunderbolt Dragway, under the lights on Saturday night.

"Never has a more intense bit of lobbying taken place than that which was done as I promised my dad anything just to get him to take me. Well, he finally broke down (as dads often do; I have four sons of my own) and took me and a buddy over there. Thunderbolt Dragway was just a part of an old abandoned military airfield complex south of Jacksonville on the way to Green Cove Springs. There were no guardrails as I recall, and the main lighting other than a few bare lightbulbs strung between poles in the 'pits' was an old Army surplus searchlight mounted on a trailer and directed down the track behind the starting line. I was in drag race paradise. Along with quite a large crowd, we were standing right at the edge of the designated dragstrip within probably 20 or 30 feet of the cars as they staged and blasted off into nitro nirvana. I have never been the same. The details of other things that happened that night are fuzzy, but I do remember being there. If memory serves me correctly, I think Greer beat Schartman two out of three. About a month later, we went back (I think my dad even liked it, though he never let on) to the same track and saw Arnie Beswick take on Shirl Greer. 

"I have often wondered what ever became of Thunderbolt Dragway and when it ceased to operate. I am not sure of the exact location of it, but I believe it was on U.S. 17."

Like Fremont, Thunderbolt Dragway was on a Naval Outlying Landing Field, in this case the abandoned Fleming Island NOLF. According to the Web site Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields, the track got its name from a large number of P-47 Thunderbolt war planes that were housed there. Fleming Island was on the west side of Route 17, along the west shore of the St. Johns River, approximately 10 miles South of Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Drag racing historian Bret Kepner says that the dragstrip was run on the topmost of the facility's four runways (again, brilliantly highlighted here) and that no presence of the airfield can be found today as it has been covered by – what else? – housing.

Bry Schmidt, a former crewmember for the Weaver family's Dream Weaver Top Alcohol Funny Car, attended his first drag race in 1962 at the San Luis Obispo County Airport where he watched Top Fuelers and altereds. "I remember only one Top Fueler name (Otis Body Shop) out of San Luis Obispo and one competition orange '32 AA/FA that never ever went straight (one time it ended up in the parking lot about 200 feet away from the track). Also, one time two Top Fuelers were on a run down the track, and a plane landed (coming right at the rails) right about the finish line. The drivers did some very creative driving to avoid the single-engine aircraft, which just kept motoring up the strip like nothing happened. Ask Alan Johnson about the strip in Santa Maria; there was lots of really good racing there as well. I knew some guys from San Luis Obispo (Superior Muffler) who ran an A/Fuel Dragster there. It was a small-block Chevy on 98 to 100 percent nitro. After a run if they hurt a piston, they would just look around until they found another piston that would fit in the hole, slapped the thing back together, filled the tank with nitro, and made another run."

Lots of memories still coming in for the long-gone Michigan tracks previously featured here. Doug Gordon wrote, "Onondaga was a particular favorite of ours. Even in the early '70s, it seemed like a throwback to the '50s. It was the kind of place where the spectators just nosed their cars up to the fence and sat on their hoods (sheet metal was thicker back then!), drinking beer, and enjoying the racing on a Saturday evening. They would call out to us as we pushed past them on the return road, and I remember a guy coming into the pits to thank me for the 10 bucks he won betting on us in the previous round.

"Another unique practice for the area was that they ran a Top Eliminator every Saturday night, which was a run-what-you-brung type of open event. Junior Fuelers like ours were best suited to the short, narrow track, but you'd see all sorts of things, including the occasional Funny Car or Top Fueler show up. I was on the same track with Dick LaHaie once and remember running against Frank Hawley in a Funny Car out of Ontario. For qualifying positions, we drew numbers out of a paper bag. There was also a 'major purse' up for grabs: They paid $25 for each round that you ran, and I think $200 to win and $100 runner-up (plus the round money). It almost paid for our nitro back in those days.

"I always enjoyed running under the lights there. Of course, lighting was expensive, and the spectators only cared about what happened up to the finish line, so the shutdown area was DARK! And did I mention it was short? Timing was everything, as you tried to pull the chute release just before the first timing light and hope it opened just as you crossed the finish line. More than a few ended up in the sand trap when they got caught up in the race and ran it all the way through the eyes."

Ron (no last name given) recalled of Detroit Dragway, "The first taste of nitro I got was at Detroit, where I met Don Schumacher at the Palace Restaurant not far from the track. Most any Tuesday night you could go out and see maybe one week eight Pro Stock cars, Sox and Martin., 'Grumpy,' Dick Landy, Motown Missile, and more. Then the next Tuesday, you may see an eight-car shootout of Top Fuel cars, 'the Mongoose' and 'Snake,' Ivo, Bradley, Lachaise and Wiebe. The next Tuesday would be eight Funny Cars: Meyer, Tripp Shumake, Twig Ziegler, Ramchargers, Trader Ray, Color Me Gone, Beadle, Gene Snow, the Hawaiian, Connie, the Eastern Raider, John Collins, and more. At one time, [promoter] Gil Cohen had eight of his own Funny Cars that he hauled on an old semi car hauler, and he would have a bunch of drivers come in to drive them. Drag racing was at its best back then. After I turned 12, I used to ride my bike to the Holiday Inn and hang out with the fuel guys. This was any kid's dream. The pits had very large rocks in them, and I would go in front of John Collins' car and kick them out of the way because they would drag the oil pan of his low-riding Mongoose Duster. Later I went with Frank Bradley to the races and helped wash parts or whatever but also had to help push the car back after the burnout; no reversers back then. This was a great dragstrip for a long time, but they say all good things have to come to an end, and it did."

Wrote Bill Anderson, "In the early '70s, some of my early dates with my wife included trips to U.S. 30, either running my car or seeing shows such as Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars.  Like other tracks, we stood just off the starting line behind a simple chain-link fence as the FCs roared away. I was excited to expose her to the sensation; she tolerated it with a girlfriend's loyalty and love. At first, in common fashion, she associated guys and their cars with stereotypical macho-guy mentality until I explained that while we can't draw, paint, or sculpt, this is our art and creativity that we share with each other (as well as the thrill and need for improved acceleration).

"During that time, I made many trips to the concession stand for eats and drinks. Twenty years later in the early '90s I was a hardware designer at Bell Labs in Naperville, Ill. Chatting with a group member, Jerry, swapping interests, backgrounds, etc., turns out he worked at U.S. 30 in the concession stand. We found it incredible that as late teenagers I was buying burgers and cokes from him, and 20 years later, we were working together. A weird, special bond."

"A weird, special bond" -- an appropriate coda to our feelings for these long-lost strips. Thanks for playing.