"On This Day"... forgotten Fort Wayne Speedway lives on
"On This Day"... forgotten Fort Wayne Speedway lives on
(TOLEDO, Ohio – October 2, 2015) – On this day, October 2, 1960, Iggy Katona drove a Ford to the winner’s circle in the MARC (Midwest Association for Race Cars/predecessor to ARCA) race at Fort Wayne Speedway. The place, which is long gone by more than 50 years, lived on the north side of Fort Wayne, Indiana, just north of what is now Coliseum Boulevard and Glenbrook Square mall.
The track was built in 1928 by Frank Funk, who also built Winchester Speedway and Dayton Speedway, among others. And like Winchester and Dayton, Fort Wayne was high-banked, fast and treacherous.
Renowned photo journalist Tom Davidson remembers the place well.
“I was fascinated by it,” Davidson said. “The sheer height of the place would get your attention. It was a lot like Winchester and Dayton…it was scary, but fascinating.
“I remember when Keith Plough took a terrible flip there in a ’58 Chevy convertible. There were a lot of scary wrecks there over the years. It was a big high-banked, five-eighths track…bigger than a half and like all those tracks – Dayton, Salem, Winchester – you had to run it around the top to go fast.
“I’d say Fort Wayne was probably closest to Dayton…really roly-poly with dips all the way around. You could get in trouble there all on your own. You didn’t need help from another car…the track would launch you on its own. It was a giant, high-banked rough old racetrack.
“I remember that you could actually stand in the infield down in three and four and look down at the cars…not the cars way at the top of the track, but the ones down closer to the bottom. There was a big infield embankment down there…almost as if they just cut the track right through it, and then left it there. What a place. Back then, they called it the fastest half-mile in the world…I think they were probably right.”
Fort Wayne Speedway was originally a high-banked dirt track. The area around it was all farmland, and remained so for most of the track's existence. Coliseum Boulevard was California Road – a dirt road then – and neighboring farmers probably constituted what little traffic there was.
“I remember the first time I ever went to Fort Wayne, it rained out. I was with Paul Wensink and his two brothers. So we went over to South Anthony.”
From 1952 to 1964, another race track broke the silence on the south side of town. South Anthony Speedway, a 3/8ths-mile asphalt oval, ran two nights a week.
Image: Drivers often found themselves in trouble on their own at Fort Wayne. Its treacherous high-banks served as unwelcomed launching pads, and the short rail at the top did little to hold racers in the ring.
In 1964, Baerfield Raceway, which still operates, first showed up on the ARCA schedule as Fort Wayne faded fast away, as an all but forgotten relic while Dayton, Winchester and Salem lived on. But in its day people came by the thousands to Fort Wayne Speedway to sit under the covered grandstands to witness the high-banked, high-speed thrill shows.
The huge wooden grandstand, on the right as you drove into the parking lot, could seat just over 6,000 people. There were also some box seats on a platform in front of the grandstand, just six or eight folding chairs inside a railing. The track straightaways ran north and south and the banked turns topped out just over 20 feet from ground level.
Auto racing, like it did across America, ceased at Fort Wayne during World War II. During the war years, the track fell into bad shape from neglect with deep trenches running across the track from wind and rain.
But fortunately, in 1942, during the war, Charles ``Dutch'' McKinley bought the track and decided to revive the place right after the war. McKinley was primarily interested in a place for his trotting horses. Since auto racing had stopped during the war, McKinley used the facility for working out horses. Outside of that, the track sat idle.
In 1946, McKinley built a half-mile dirt oval and a quarter mile track inside the 5/8ths-mile banked track. He ran his trotters on the dirt track and built them a state-of-the-art horse barn. The building, which once housed 20 to 30 horses, still stands at the west end of Stable Drive. McKinley wanted to have regular harness racing that spectators could place wagers on. When that plan didn't materialize, harness racing was limited to the week of the fair.
However, it would be stock car racing that would eventually bring the track back to its glory. Sunday afternoon stock car races became the standard attraction, though numerous other events, such as thrill shows, rodeos, wrestling matches and the Clyde Beatty Circus entertained the big crowds.
Image: Start of first MARC race at Fort Wayne in 1954.
In addition to stock car racing, which began to really take off in the early 1950’s, they also raced Big Cars (Indy Cars), sprint cars and midgets at Fort Wayne, attracting some of the most well-known drivers of the era. They also, from time to time, raced the Roaring Roadsters, which was basically a jalopy with no roof.
Over a 10-year span, MARC sanctioned 11 races at Fort Wayne from 1954 through 1963. The inaugural MARC race at Fort Wayne was held on May 16, 1954, a 100-mile/200-lap race won by Fonty Flock in a Hudson Hornet.
The track hosted two MARC shows in ’55, Jack Farris winning in an Oldsmobile on August 21, and Jack Harrison winning in a Ford on September 25. Two weeks later, Harrison, in the same car, won the inaugural MARC/ARCA race at Salem on October 9.
Nelson Stacy won at Fort Wayne in a Chevy on May 13, 1956 before Russ Hepler, in a Pontiac, won the 100-lap race there on August 25 that same year.
Farris became the first repeat MARC winner at Fort Wayne, winning for the second time on August 3, 1957. The series did not race at Fort Wayne in ’58, but returned on August 8, 1959, Jack Shanklin the winner in a Ford. Katona won back-to-back races at Fort Wayne in ’60 – May 22 and October 2.
Then it would be nearly three years before the MARC tour returned on May 19, 1963 when Dick Freeman was the victor in a Mercury.
The final MARC race sanctioned at Fort Wayne came on July 28, 1963, Jim Cushman the last winner there in a Plymouth.
Don Radebaugh, email@example.com