AUTO RACING in New Jersey
The definitive history.
The need for speed has drawn racers to New Jersey for a century and a half. At first, those racers were seated on or behind horses. But after betting was criminalized in the 1890s, the state’s many ovals were hardly used. That began to change with the advent of the horseless carriage. The same dirt tracks that once drew thousands of horse racing enthusiasts now drew hordes of curiosity-seekers hoping for a glimpse of ear-splitting automobiles skidding through curves and achieving speeds of 100 mph or more on the straightaways
One of the first auto racing tracks in New Jersey was the Trenton Speedway, in Hamilton. It began hosting races on its half-mile dirt oval in 1900 and continued right through World War II. After the war, the track was enlarged to a full mile, and in 1957 it was paved. Trenton hosted a number of Indy-caliber races, and was a stop on the NASCAR Grand National and Winston circuits for several years.
In 1969, Trenton Speedway was enlarged again, this time with a mile-and-a-half kidney shaped track, which was in operation until the early 1980s. Bobby Allison won the final NASCAR race at the track in 1972. Previous winners included Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty and David Pearson. The Grounds for Sculpture was built on the old raceway property.
Other venues that hosted auto races in the early 1900s included Wildwood, Cape May Courthouse and Longport. Each featured beach races in the sand, usually on a course marked out with wooden barrels.
One of the most important early auto racing venues in the Garden State was Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway off Franklin Turnpike (aka Rte. 17). A half-mile dirt track, it began hosting races in 1910 and continued to do so more or less continuously for more than a quarter-century. On race day, the sounds and smells of the track permeated the air for miles around. It was this excitement that first drew Ridgewood teenager Chris Economaki to racing. He would become the sport’s most influential journalist.
In 1931, director Howard Hawks picked Ho-Ho-Kus to shoot several racing sequences for his film The Crowd Roars. Board racing specialist Harry Hartz did the driving for leading man Jimmy Cagney. In the movie, a driver played by Cagney’s off-screen friend Frank McHugh burns to death in a grisly scene that predated the Hollywood censorship codes.
Fiction became reality on July 4, 1938, when two cars locked wheels and Vince Brehm’s vehicle flew into a crowd estimated at close to 10,000. Nineteen people were badly injured, including a 10-year-old boy who died at the scene. Another man, whose partially severed leg was amputated at trackside with a pocket knife, died in the hospital. The track was shut down, never to reopen.
One of America’s longest-running racing venues was Flemington Fair Speedway in Raritan Township. It opened as a half-mile dirt track in 1917 and held weekly races almost every season until 1972. It continued on as a clay oval and then later a paved 5/8-mile oval. The National Auto Racing Hall of Fame was located at Flemington until the track ceased operation in 2000 and was moved to Pennsylvania. Flemington was demolished in 2007.
The Newark area saw its share of auto racing in the early years of the 20th century. Olympic Park Stadium featured a half-mile track that opened in 1909 for motorcycle races. In 1915, it staged a night race under the lights. The track was later used for midget races in the 1930s. In the early 1950s, Ruppert Stadium had a paved oval that was used for stock car racing and the old Ironbound Stadium also held stock car races.
During the Roaring 20s, the roar of automobile engines spread throughout the nation and racing became a national passion. In the southern part of new Jersey, the Mount Holly Fairgrounds, Cape May County Fairgrounds and race tracks in and around Atlantic City were very popular.
Motorcycle racing also caught the public’s attention in the 1920s. A wooden oval called the South Orange Bowl hosted motorcycle racing dating back to the World War I era. There was night motorcycle racing in Wayne in the 1920s. Another popular motorcycle track was Tri-City. The cinder track supposedly took drivers through Newark, Irvington and Union each time around (hence the name). It also served as a venue for midget racing until World War II. In the Hudson County town of West New York, motorcycle racing was also popular in the 1930s. This type of competition continued to draw good crowds into the 1960s in New Jersey.
BOOM TIMES IN HARD TIMES
While racing suffered elsewhere in the United States during the 1930s, it flourished in New Jersey—so much so that many of the nation’s top drivers relocated to the Garden State, including three-time national champion Ted Horn, Johnny Ritter, Rex Records, Len Duncan, Pappy Hough and Duane Carter, father of Pancho Carter. They coalesced around a strip of garages in Paterson nicknamed Gasoline Alley. These fully equipped service stations, lost by their original owners after the stock market crash, were available on a month-to-month basis for pennies on the dollar. Many raced midgets at nearby Hinchliffe Stadium from the early 1930s right into the 1950s.
Among the tracks that thrived during hard times (at least for a few years) were ones in Vineland, New Market, Freehold, Camden, Mays Landing, Troy Hills, Dover and Asbury Park, where night races were run at the high school for several years. One of the more interesting venues was Union Speedway, which features a 1/5-mile paved oval inside a half-mile dirt oval.
One of the America’s most popular race tracks during this period was Woodbridge Speedway, which encompassed a half-mile board oval. Board tracks were constructed of thousands of boards set on their edges (as opposed to flat). Woodbridge was known as the fastest track of its size in the country and was used both for racing and for testing new parts and technologies. A skilled driver could negotiate a full lap in under 20 seconds.
Becauseof the track’s speed, several drivers perished in crashes there before a steel-cable guard rail was installed. Among the big-name drivers competing at Woodbridge were Freddy Frame, fresh off his 1932 Indy 500 victory, and Mauri Rose, who would win the 500 twice in the postwar years.
Woodbridge Speedway was one of the country’s last major board tracks, switching to oiled dirt after the wood began to disintegrate in 1933. Special trains carried fans from New York and Philadelphia on race days in the late 1930s and lights were installed for night racing. The track fell on hard times in 1938 and finally closed in the fall of 1941. Seven years later, a high school football stadium was constructed on the site, and in the 1970s it was named Nick Priscoe Field after a beloved Woodbridge High Barrons coach.
Another popular board track was the Nutley Velodrome, which hosted both bicycle and auto races. It featured turns banked at 45 degrees!
1945 & BEYOND
The postwar era brought renewed interest in auto racing, and the Garden State saw a number of tracks flourish in the late 1940s and 1950s, including D-shaped Alcyon Speedway, Lodi Stadium, Morristown Speedway and Manahawkin Speedway. Vineland Speedway featured a challenging paved oval and road course in the 1950s and 1960s; Mark Donahue and Roger Penske often raced there.
One of the strangest racing venues in the Garden State was the Teaneck Armory. The armory hosted major events from the circus to pro basketball games. In the early 1950s, it also started hosting midget racing on a 1/10th-mile track.
In 1950, what could arguably be called New Jersey’s most iconic racing venue opened in Wall Township. A high-banked, paved 1/3-mile oval, it became home to the popular Turkey Derby in 1974 and launched the careers of Ray Evernham and Martin Truex Jr. In 2008, Wall nearly shut down, but it ewas up and running under new ownership in 2009 and continues to this day. One of the more memorable circuits in the early 1950s saw the state’s top drivers race at the Hightstown Speedway on Friday nights, Wall Stadium on Saturdays and Long Branch Speedway on Sundays.
Among the other venues that hosted NASCAR events were Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City (during the early 1950s) and Old Bridge Stadium, which was a regular stop on the circuit from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Lee Petty won races there. Besides Wall, a few old-time tracks are still in operation today in New Jersey. New Egypt Speedway, for example, dates back to the 1950s, when it was known as Ft. Dix Speedway. It had a robust racing schedule into the 1980s, and again after the track was reconfigured in the late 1990s.
Drag Racing also became very popular in the U.S. during this time, and New Jersey soon was the sight of several drag strips. The first paved ones were located in Woodbine and Manville Airport in the early 1950s. A few years later, a drag strip opened a runway at Linden Airport. The airport had previously been used for stock-car races, and holds the distinction of being the location of the only NASCAR Grand National race won by a foreign car. Al Keller took the checkered flag in the spring of 1954 in a jaguar. In 1968, unused runways at McGuire Air Force Base were devoted to drag racing as part of the Strato Rods Dragway, which operated for 15 years.
In 1965, Raceway Park opened in Old Bridge off Englishtown Road. It quickly became a major NHRA venue and over the years grew to offer more than just drag racing. It has drawn more than 80,000 fans to some of its events, including the Supernationals. In recent years, the track—hailed as one of drag racing’s fastest—saw the deaths of two top drivers, Scott Kalitta in 2008 and Neal Parker in 2011.
INDY COMES TO JERSEY
In July of 1984, Indy car racing came to New Jersey for the Meadowlands Grand Prix. The road course, which featured super-tight turns, was set up in the huge parking lots radiating out from the sports complex. The Meadowlands Grand Prix was the first major auto racing event in the NY-Metro since the Vanderbilt Cup was discontinued in the 1930s. With a purse of over $500,000, it was second only to the Indianapolis 500 in terms of prize money. Mario Andretti led from start to finish before a crowd of 35,000. Al Unser Jr., Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal won the next three years, but the race came under criticism from drivers for being flat and dull, and from fans, who complained about the sight lines.
In 1988, the race course was changed to a semi-oval and Unser won it for the second time. The race’s new sponsor was Marlboro, but even with tobacco money behind it, the Meadowlands Grand Prix could not turn a profit. Rahal won the race twice more in 1989 and 1991, with a victory by Michael Andretti sandwiched in between. In 1992, dwindling attendance prompted an effort to relocate the event. Englishtown was briefly considered, but promoters wanted to stage it in lower Manhattan. This attempt was thwarted by mayor David Dinkins, who had banned cigarette advertising in the city. The 1991 race turned out to be the last at the Meadowlands.