The roar of race cars has long been replaced by the rumble of dump trucks just off Soldiers Home-West Carrollton Road.
Once the proud site of Dayton’s heralded racing history, Dayton Speedway has been buried under trash and industrial rubble for close to 20 years. Referred to as The Hills (along with fellow high-banked thrill rides Salem Speedway and Winchester Speedway in Indiana), Dayton Speedway challenged and even conquered racing’s best drivers.
Today, the only hills to be found at the site are those made by the mounds of debris. It’s an unceremonious end to a track that celebrates its 80th anniversary this month. Dayton Speedway, a half-mile (plus 210 feet), hair-raising ride, ran its first official race on June 3, 1934.
Dayton’s Don Flory and the late Don Thompson tried to save Dayton Speedway in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But with too much work and not enough money to get the track suitable for racing, and with rubble already starting to entomb the outer edges of the speedway, it closed for good in 1982.
“Yeah, I hated to see it,” said Flory, who quit his job and sold his house to lease Dayton Speedway. “When me and Don owned it together we started filling around the outside edges of it (with debris). Don (later) started filling just the center of the infield. He wouldn’t let them fill up close to the track because he thought maybe someday he’ll run another race.”
For every lap run at Dayton Speedway there are just as many sensational stories and colorful characters.
A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Eddie Sachs and Joie Ray — the Jackie Robinson of auto racing — all ran at Dayton Speedway. So did Spider Webb, Benny Parsons, Iggy Katona and Lee Petty.
The speedway served as a test for aspiring Indianapolis 500 drivers. If you could run Dayton, Salem and Winchester, you were ready for the Indy 500.
Area drivers battling the high banks reads like a who’s who of Miami Valley hot shoes: Jack Bowsher, Dick Dunlevy Sr. and Jr., Dick Freeman, Chick Hale, Larry Moore, Neal Sceva, Harold Smith, Lee Raymond and Don Wilbur among a hundred more worthy of mention.
There are also those remembered for their tragic endings. Gordon Reid plowed into the grandstand on April 20, 1952, killing himself, two spectators and a police officer. Reports said as many as 98 were injured.
Fairborn’s Jim Welty was watching from the pits as a kid the day Reid died.
“No one was really sure what had happened. What amazed me was the gray paint. He hit a barrel of paint and that stuff was everywhere,” said Welty, who later raced the high banks with ARCA and USAC. “The thing that I recall when we left – we came up under the bridge when we came out – Gordon Reid’s shoe was still sitting on the bridge.”
Months later on Aug. 31, Jim Rigsby’s throttle stuck wide open after contact with another car sending Rigsby speeding straight up the 30-degree banking. It was a several story drop on the other side straight down. Reports say his car shot 20 feet into the air — captured in a famous photo on the cover of Popular Mechanics — and landed in a field 200 feet away. Rigsby’s accident prompted a U.S. senator to call for a ban on auto racing.
The late Chick Hale had his own harrowing tale in 1953. When a car slammed into his from behind as they approached the green flag, it dropped Hale’s fuel tank onto the track. His car was engulfed in flames.
As his car continued around the track on the backstretch, Hale jumped out the passenger side. His car slowly rolled back around to the grandstand side and stopped. Those in attendance thought Hale was still inside. Hale came walking up a minute later with burns requiring a 10-week hospital stay.
“Man, I jumped out of that sucker. It got hot in there,” Hale said.
Friends rebuilt the car for Hale while he recovered. Hale won with the same car his very next race.
And then there was Old Joe. An unofficial caretaker of the speedway, Old Joe lived next to the track. Welty and others knew how to get past Old Joe and onto the track to get a few test laps in, which was not allowed.
“If you took Old Joe a six-pack of Pfeiffer’s Beer and said, ‘Joe, we’re just going down here to test the brakes. We’re not going to go fast,’ he’d say, ‘Well, OK. Well, OK. Just don’t tell anybody.’ He’d let us go down there and run a few laps. … He lived in that trailer that smelled like beer.”
According to Mike Thompson, creator of DaytonSpeedwayLives.com, and racing historian Rick Patterson, Dayton Speedway was built by civic leaders to increase the city’s sports profile. Financial struggles soon followed.
Frank Funk purchased the track in 1937. Funk converted the 5/8th-mile into a half-mile, high-banked oval — something he knew a little about — and was rumored to have buried old trolley cars to fill in the banking. Funk built the first half-mile oval in the United States about an hour northwest in Winchester, Ind.
Dayton Speedway was sold again in 1949 during its glory days of the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s still brought great racing and crowds of 10,000. But Dayton Speedway started to fall on hard times in the 1970s.
Lebanon’s Harlan Fengler owned the track in the 1960s and Eldora Speedway creator Earl Baltes took over later in the decade. It was with Baltes in charge that Dayton Speedway gained notoriety as a tough track … to get into, that is.
NASCAR’s Bill France Sr. visited Dayton Speedway in 1969 to convince ARCA drivers to come race at his new track in Talladega, Ala. The ticket taker having never met France before charged him to get into the race. France’s reaction? He was impressed Dayton Speedway made him pay and told Baltes that he’d always have a job waiting for him in Daytona, Fla., to teach his staff a few things.
The track closed from 1971-74 and again from 1976-78. Flory and Thompson got it up and running again, often drawing drivers from as many as seven different states, briefly before it closed for good in 1982.
“I sold my house and quit my job. No regrets at all,” Flory said of his efforts to save Dayton Speedway. “I was hoping I’d make some money and that never happened. But I met so many great people and so many people volunteered to help me out it was incredible. … I think if it had been 10 years later (in the 1990s) I believe it would still be there. More people got into racing because of NASCAR. Racing just seemed to pick up. I’d love to see it still be there.”
He’s not alone.
Some, including Welty, still try to sneak onto the SRI Inc. site to visit the track and take another look around, even though Dayton Speedway has vanished from view.
“In the end the track just disappeared from the landscape,” Baltes once said. “But it will never disappear from the memory of a lot of fans, and I know I won’t forget it either.”