Open wheel, championship style racing has visited many different types of tracks through outs is 100+ year history. From street circuits to dirt tracks, the variety of tracks that the big cars have visited is, indeed as impressive as it is unique in the world of motorsports. No other type of racing experimented as much with scheduling and track setup as champ car (Ed: notice the little “c” and the space between words) racing. The names that made Indianapolis famous are also the names that filled the fields in other events of the seasons. Many have made their names away from Indy, only to become world famous upon winning the great race. This is a look at the firsts and lasts of the different types of tracks that American open wheel racing has visited in its past.
As a note, there is debate on what is official verse not official in regards to AAA sanctioned racing pre 1920 and I will denote non official championship years when needed. The poor historical recordkeeping of early AAA racing is the number one topic for early American racing historians and is a post for another day. (Ed: This is the second time you have put this off… we are all still waiting…) Some of these races ran earlier and later than the years I state, for the “official” and “non-official” schedules form 1905 to present.
First Dirt Oval – The history of closed circuit racing has its roots racing on dirt horse tracks. In 1905, the inaugural race of AAA’s new official, dirt track championship was located at Morris Park. The repurposed horse track situated in the Bronx, was site of the birth of championship racing. Super star of his time, Louis Chevrolet captured victory on the one mile dirt oval. Morris Park was also the home to the Belmont Stakes from 1890 through 1904 and the Preakness Stakes in 1890.
First Point-to-Point – The Cactus cup was an annual open road point-to-point race ran from 1904 through 1914. The start was in Los Angeles and the finish was 480 miles of open dessert away in Phoenix, roughly following the future route of Interstate 10. The 1909 edition was included in an unofficial championship season schedule in 1927.The AAA sanctioned cup was the first organized race to be held in Arizona, and started a rich history of racing in the state. Joe Nikrent, a future 1913 Indy 500 starter, won the two-day event in 19 hours and 13 minutes piloting a Buick.
The Pike Peak Hill Climb, another Point-to-point race, initially appeared on the schedule during the confusing 1946 year of 77 races with some held to champ car rules and some to sprint rules. Oddly enough the hill climb was a non-points race that year. It didn’t gain a points paying slot until 1947 and had an on again off again relationship with championship racing for two decades.
First Open Street Circuit – The majority of races during the early part of the 1900’s were contested on open road circuits. During that funny 1909 season, Portland Oregon started its love affair with championship racing with a street circuit laid out on the public roads of Portland. During the 1916 season, the second true season after 1905, The Vanderbilt Cup was awarded as the prize for the Santa Monica road race won by Dario Resta. This course was also laid out on open public roads.
First Board Track – Tacoma Speedway was the site of the first major board track race, although taking place in 1915 and being another non-championship year. The five turn track had gravel in between spaced two by fours. Track historian Wayne Herstad said “There was a saying that all board tracks were awful, and then there was Tacoma.” Sheepshead Bay Speedway held the first points paying board race in 1916 with Johnny Aitken taking the win. The beautiful 2 mile facility was, again, a repurposed horse racing track.
First purpose built road course – William K. Vanderbilt II, of Vanderbilt family fame, successfully etched his name in the Vanderbilt family history books with his yearly Cup race. Inaugurated in 1904 and sanctioned by AAA, the Vanderbilt Cup was the first internationally recognized trophy in the US. In 1907 Vanderbilt constructed the beginnings of the Long Island Motor Parkway as a permanent race facility, home for his Cup and on the non race weekends the main artery into Long Island. Similarly to the 1909 running of the Cactus Cup, in 1927 the 1909 results of the race were included in non official championships. Harry Grant is credited with the 1909 victory.
The first true points paying race held at a purpose built road facility was in 1935 at Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, New York. Amazingly, the prize for this race was, again, the Vanderbilt Cup. The track was constructed to hold the USGP for the following two years. The event lasted two years before its demise and the end to road racing for 30 almost 30 years.
USAC visited the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park for the Indianapolis Grand Prix in 1965, marking yet another return to road racing. This inaugural event was won by none other than Mario Andretti. By 1968, almost a third of the schedule was on road courses.
There are a few more firsts and plenty of last still to uncover. With a history so varied it has been difficult to discern fact from fiction and official from non. I am only an armchair historian trying to learn as much about our sports storied history as possible. DO NOT take my writing as gospel as I am sure Donald Davidson would have a thing or two about what I have said. Never the less, walking through history is always a fun ride. Look out for part two next Tuesday.