A Century of Motorsports: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
Line up of midget cars at the Hershey race track on May 30, 1940. Eastern Museum of Motor Racing

By Rae Tyson
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXIX, Number 1 - Winter 2013

At the turn of the last century motorized vehicles began to displace horses as the primary means of transportation in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. In the beginning automobiles and motorcycles were mechanically primitive and the roads made of dirt, which often turned to mud when it rained or snowed. But it was not long before utility turned to entertainment.

As the automobile became more popular in the United States and Europe in the early twentieth century, it was inevitable that some form of competition would emerge, just as it had with horses in the previous century. In Pennsylvania, Uniontown hotelier George Flavius Titlow, one of the first to own an automobile, immediately recognized the tourism potential of motorsports competition. Fewer than 30,000 automobiles existed in the entire country at the time. Titlow acted on his hunch by launching the Automobile Club of Fayette County which, in turn, led to sponsorship of the first competitive automotive events in the Keystone State. Operating in a region overflowing with cash from the burgeoning coal industry, the club began promoting an automobile hill climb on a three-mile winding, uphill dirt road on Summit Mountain. The events were rather rudimentary; quite simply, the winner was the driver with the fastest time from bottom to top.

The competing cars were straight from the showroom with few modifications and no added safety features. Amazingly, the winning time of less than four minutes - an average speed of close to 50 mph - was recorded by a Kline Kar, first built by the B. C. K. Motor Company in York, York County, from 1910 to 1912, and in Richmond, Virginia, from 1912 to 1923. Second place was claimed by a Buick, which was one second slower. Prizes totaling $5,000 were divided among the winners.

The events attracted scores of competitors and thousands of spectators who lined the road along the way to the summit. "Ideal weather helped bring out the crowds from Pittsburgh and the towns of western Pennsylvania," Motor Age reported in 1914. Not surprisingly, Hotel Titlow was the unofficial headquarters for the race. The magazine also reported that wealthy locals, among them Isaac W. Semans and Josiah Van Kirk "J. V." Thompson hosted lavish parties for friends and business associates. "The social features of the meet were among the most pleasant happenings of the two days." But the weekend of festivities and racing was marred by tragedy.

Board track designer Jack Prince stands on the Uniontown Speedway in Hopwood, November 1916, as the oval racetrack is constructed with 34 degree banked curves. from speedway kings by Marci Lynn McGuinness

J. E. Shafer, driving for the Pittsburgh Mercer Automobile Company, was killed and several drivers were seriously injured as the result of crashes on the treacherous mountain road. It was not long until the dangerous sport of hill climbing was banned, which forced entrepreneurs such as Titlow to search for safer alternatives that would continue to attract crowds to Uniontown and his hotel. The alternative had its origins in Europe.

The first race tracks in France were built of wood, commonly hemlock, and ranged from one-fourth to one mile in length. Spectators lined the top rim of the wooden track, not unlike the vantage point of a Barcelona bull-fighting ring. Before long, the popular European craze made its way to the United States and George Titlow decided to build a board track in Uniontown, one of the first built in the United States.

Opened in 1916, the one-mile Uniontown board track was an instant success, transforming Uniontown in southwestern Pennsylvania practically overnight into a destination for the rich and famous, contends Pennsylvania author Marci Lynn McGuinness in her book Yesteryear at the Uniontown Speedway. The venue, backed by entrepreneurs including Carl Laemmle, founder and president of Universal Pictures, became a magnet for well-known silent film stars, including popular actress Vivian Prescott. It attracted an array of soon-to-be-famous inventors-turned-automobile manufacturers, including Louis Chevrolet and Henry Ford. It also lured individuals such as inventor Thomas Alva Edison and Harvey S. Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, one of the first global makers of automobile tires. To further capitalize on the emerging popularity of board track racing, Universal Pictures captured the events on film that was shown in theatres throughout the country. Laemmle donated a silver trophy that reportedly cost $3,000.

Ultimately, the risk to drivers and spectators alike led to the demise of board tracks for both cars and motorcycles. An accident at a New Jersey board track killed four teenaged boys, all of whom were spectators. Notable fatalities on Pennsylvania board tracks included four Indianapolis 500 winners, three of which occurred at the Altoona wooden track in Tipton, Blair County. The 1919 Indy winner, Howard S. "Howdy" Wilcox died on September 4, 1923; the 1929 winner, Charles R. "Ray" Keech, born in Coatesville, Chester County, in 1900 died on June 15, 1929, just sixteen days after winning the Indy; and Joe Boyer suffered a fatal accident in the same year as his 1934 Indy 500 win. The risk led the press to refer to board tracks as "murderdromes." The New Jersey incident that killed the teenagers made the front page of the New York Times.

Barney Oldfield's new Golden Submarine after being unloaded from his private railcar. August and Fred Duesenberg inspect their competition as Charlie Johnson stands behind the car, second from right in 1917. from speedway kings by Marci Lynn McGuinness

Meanwhile other promoters were developing more conventional venues. In the Philadelphia area a one-mile dirt track was built at Point Breeze Park in 1855 as a trotting track for horses and by the early twentieth century became a popular venue for racing automobiles. It is generally considered the first dirt race track for cars in the Commonwealth. In 1906 Samuel L. Clemens, best known by his pseudonym Mark Twain, attended a race at Point Breeze and was treated to a ride around the track in a 1906 Oldsmobile driven by racer Ernest D. Keeler. Keeler died after being pinned under a car he was testing at Point Breeze, one day before he was to compete in the Quaker City race. At nearby Fairmont Park an eight-mile road course was constructed and a 1910 event attracted some 400,000 spectators. Automobile and motorcycle racing also debuted in the early years of the twentieth century at the York Fairgrounds.

By the early 1920s safety concerns surrounding board tracks and inevitable legislative bans had forced promoters to find safer venues for racing. The most popular alternative - often a dirt track in a farmer's field - may have been the catalyst for a significant increase in the number of racing sites throughout Pennsylvania. Most tracks were between one-fourth of a mile to a mile in length and were generally circular or oval in configuration. Some of the purpose-built race tracks later added banking in the turns, a change that increased the speed of the race cars and improved safety for the drivers.

Joseph Heisler, historian at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in York Springs, Adams County, believes the Commonwealth's agricultural heritage may have played a role. Many counties had fairgrounds to showcase local farm produce and livestock. Most of the local fairs featured horse racing on dirt tracks. It was inevitable that those same tracks would be used for automobile and motorcycle racing. "One of the reasons that auto racing was so popular in Pennsylvania was because of the number of fairgrounds," Heisler said.

A motorcyclist races on grass and dirt in a hill climb at Reifton, Berks County, called Old Maids Woods, circa 1920. Reading Motorcycle club

If there was a common denominator, it was the fact that race tracks across Pennsylvania were wildly popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans every weekend. "When transportation went from the horse to the horseless carriage, racing at the fairgrounds was a natural progression," said Lynn Paxton, a former race car driver from Dillsburg, York County, and president of the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing.

Typical was the Reading Fairgrounds which began hosting motorcycle races in 1911, sponsored by the Reading Motorcycle Club, and automobile races in 1924 on a half-mile dirt track. Over time the Reading track managed to attract throngs of spectators - and some of the nation's top race car drivers. The history of racing at the Reading Fairgrounds was addressed in a recent exhibit mounted by the Historical Society of Berks County in Reading. "It is an important part of our leisure history and certainly an important part of our business history," said Joshua K. Blay, historical society curator. The Reading Fairgrounds track closed in 1979, its demise the result of encroaching residential and commercial development.

In the Lehigh Valley, the Nazareth Speedway was built in 1910. The one-mile track was purchased by businessman Roger Penske in 1986. It eventually was relocated to make way for a shopping mall. The new track was paved and hosted several major events, including Indycars.

While local fairgrounds provided a venue for occasional local races, promoters followed the examples of Nazareth and began to build tracks specifically for automobile and motorcycle racing. In Hershey, for example, a stadium was built for racing in the 1930s.

The fully restored Miller-Schofield Special was an Indy Car of the late 1940s and is on display at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing. phmc/photo by don giles

One of the earliest purpose-built race tracks was the Langhorne Speedway near Philadelphia. Opened in 1926, the one-mile track gained a reputation as a fan favorite - and a driver's worst nightmare. The track configuration - a giant circle with no straightaways - meant that drivers had no time to rest. Each race was a constant left turn. The risk was further exacerbated by the practice of coating the dirt track with used motor oil to control dust. The result, wrote author Joe Scalzo, was that "drivers were putting their cars and lives at risk upon a slick witches' brew of toxic sludge." Despite the risks, Langhorne attracted many famous race car drivers, including A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Bobby Unser. The track closed in 1971 and a shopping mall occupies the site.

Just east of Carlisle, Cumberland County, the Williams Grove Speedway was opened in 1939, designed to cater to openwheeled, open cockpit sprint cars and their smaller cousins, midgets. As local fairgrounds tracks began to close for a variety of reasons, including driver and spectator safety, more facilities such as Williams Grove were built to accommodate the growing public interest in automobile and motorcycle racing. Clubs, including the White Rose in Jefferson, began promoting American Motorcyclist Association-sanctioned hill climbs for motorcycles. Initially the challenge was merely to ride from the bottom to the top of an incredibly steep and bumpy dirt hill. As motorcycles and riders improved, hill climbing events were timed so the winning riders were those who navigated the treacherous hills with the fastest times from bottom to top. The Reading Motorcycle Club was perhaps the first to organize motorcycle hill climbs, sometime around 1915 in Montrose, Susquehanna County. "In the spirit of the sport, it tested the mettle of both man and machine without the inherent dangers of high speed track racing," opined the club in a book documenting its one hundred-year history. The club also sponsored polo matches in the 1920s that required competitors to play the game aboard motorcycles.

Both the White Rose and Reading clubs also sponsored trial competitions for motorcycles. The sport, which began in the United Kingdom immediately after the turn of the last century, requires riders to navigate slowly over obstacles on a marked course. It is considered one of the most challenging forms of competition, even though speeds are very slow.

The original forms made by Hiram Hillegass to design race cars from scratch are on display at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing. phmc/photo by don giles
Track development and racing itself came to a halt when the nation went to war. During World War II many tracks closed as drivers and spectators headed off to war. Some of the drivers and car builders returned to Pennsylvania in the mid-1940s with sophisticated fabrication skills they acquired while serving in the armed forces, particularly those who were in the Air Force. Car builders such as Hiram Hillegass of Allentown began to construct beautiful open-wheeled race cars built with hand-crafted aluminum bodies, reminiscent of fighter planes used during the war. "Those cars were absolutely works of art," said Paxton.

The craftsmanship of Hillegass and other like-minded builders typified an evolution in race car design after World War II. From the beginning of motorsports racing competing cars and motorcycles were modified versions of models available on the showroom floor. The evolution in race car design varied, depending on the type of racing. The first style of race car to benefit was the open cockpit, open-wheeled sprint, which is what the Hillegass shop in Allentown produced. Builders began to design and construct the cars from scratch, including most body and chassis components. Initially sprint cars used engines from production vehicles. Eventually companies such as Offenhauser began producing engines solely for sprint car racing.

The design revolution was a little slower for the stock car. Occasionally referred to as jalopy racing, the sport was generally considered less expensive for competitors than sprint cars, the style used at the Indianapolis 500. Through World War II and into the 1950s stock cars were often built from 1930s and 1940s Fords, usually rescued from local salvage yards. Fenders were trimmed, motors modified for more horsepower, and interiors fitted with roll bars and safety belts to better protect the driver. Occasionally some suspension components were replaced with heavier-duty truck parts for durability. Fords were favored because they came equipped with more powerful V-8 engines as early as 1932. Chevrolet did not produce a V-8 engine until 1955.

The unwritten reason for using inexpensive salvage yard vehicles was the reality of stock car racing - crashes. The close racing inevitably led to collisions, occasionally damaging the body and suspension components. Most competitors, using an acetylene torch and a variety of hammers, would merely pound out the dents and return to racing the following week. If the vehicle was damaged beyond repair, a local junkyard was the likely source for a cheap replacement. A mechanically-minded driver could build a race car for an investment of several hundred dollars, adding to the amateur lure of the sport.

Originally built in 1949, a 30 Model A Roadster was transformed using junkyard parts into a race car that was often a top five finisher at Williams Grove Speedway during the 1950s. It is on display at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing. phmc/photo by don giles

By the 1970s advanced engineering coupled with cost, already evident with open-wheeled sprints, caught up with stock cars. Most race cars were purpose-built, with little in common with production vehicles. The exception was the engine. Today most race cars use modified versions of production engines, most commonly from Chevrolet or Ford. The average cost to build a sprint or stock car approaches $75,000. With spare parts and a truck and trailer to haul the car, expenses can easily exceed $250,000.

Drivers and track owners also began to pay more attention to safety. After hundreds of drivers died in crashes and scores more were injured, race cars were equipped with features to help protect the occupants in the event of a crash. Drivers wore helmets and were required to wear fire-proof racing suits. In addition, race cars were equipped with special fuel tanks that would not burst into flames in a crash. In drag racing cars were required to be equipped with on-board fire extinguishers. Track builders began constructing stronger barriers around track perimeters to prevent race cars from accidentally catapulting into the spectator area. Tracks such as Pocono Raceway went one step further with energy-absorbing barriers that reduced the likelihood of a serious driver injury after crashing into the perimeter wall at speeds approaching two hundred miles per hour.

As the design evolution progressed through the post-war era Pennsylvania also witnessed some changes in track design and location. Drag strips used for straight line acceleration contests were built in Maple Grove, Berks County, and York. York County's U.S. 30 Drag Strip in Thomasville closed in 1977. Maple Grove remains in operation and annually hosts a prestigious National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) event.

Maple Grove in Brecknock Township began its life as an amusement park in 1923 when Alfred and Edna Stauffer bought a huge tract of land for that purpose, according to the Historical Society of Berks County. Initially a swimming pool and picnic grove were the primary attractions at Stauffer's Park. In the 1930s the couple added a half-mile stock car track. It was called the Brecknock Speedway and the first race was held in 1937. The track regularly attracted as many as five thousand fans at each event. World War II brought an end to stock car racing at the Brecknock Speedway. In 1957 the local Friendship Motorcycle Club sought permission to run drag races on the straightaway of the old stock car track. Eventually an eighth-mile section was paved because the drag racing motorcycles were kicking up rocks and dirt.

Modern stock cars race at the Pocono 500 in 2008. phmc/photo by don giles

In 1952 the strip was lengthened to the standard one-fourth mile length and the Stauffer family entered into a sanctioning agreement with NHRA. Through the 1980s the family continued to invest money in improvements, including lighting for night races. The first NHRA national event, the Keystone National, was held in 1985 and attracted some of the top competitors from around the country. The event now brings tens of thousands of spectators annually to the region and is watched by a national television audience that reaches millions of viewers. The fastest race cars can cover the one-quarter mile track from a standing start in less than four seconds, achieving speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour.

Although Pennsylvania was always a magnet for some of the top race car drivers in the country, two stock car tracks, Nazareth and Pocono Raceway, elevated racing in the Keystone State. NASCAR and Indy Racing League sponsors were able to secure major contracts to broadcast races on national television. Both tracks, part of that broadcast agreement, were positioned to capitalize on national exposure.

Roger Penske purchased the original Nazareth Speedway and relocated the venue to a location several miles away. The new track opened as Pennsylvania International Raceway in 1987 and was renamed Nazareth Speedway in 1993. It featured huge grandstands and hosted nationally televised NASCAR and Indycar events prior to its closure in 2004.

After Nazareth closed the drag strip at Maple Grove and a track in the resort region of the Poconos, Monroe County, were the only two racing facilities in Pennsylvania that remained in the national broadcast spotlight.

The start of the annual Indy Car Race at Williams Grove Speedway on July 21, 1959. The Grove was the only half-mile track until 1959 for fifty-lap races. Eastern Museum of Motor Racing

Pocono Raceway is a superspeedway in Long Pond, Monroe County, 2.5 miles long and triangular in configuration. It was opened in 1971, the brainchild of Philadelphia dentist Joseph Mattioli. He initially agreed to build the facility as a silent investor but then decided to take over full ownership, assuming responsibility for construction and management oversight. Despite his inexperience at race track management, Mattioli managed to attract an Indycar race in 1971. After meeting with NASCAR President Bill France in the early 1970s, the track's biggest coup may have been to secure an agreement to host an event for the national stock car series. It was one of the first NASCAR events to be staged outside of the South.

"That was the biggest success story of the track," W. Jack Kalins, owner of the nearby Split Rock Resort and Golf Club in Lake Harmony, Carbon County, told the Pocono Record when Mattioli retired in 2011 at the age of 86. The track, now run by Mattioli's family, annually hosts two races in the prestigious NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Today's tracks such as Pocono and Maple Grove attract several hundred thousand spectators and millions more watch the racing events on television. More than fifty local stock and sprint car tracks and eight drag strips remain active in Pennsylvania, attracting tens of thousands of spectators weekly. Drivers compete for an array of cash prizes, ranging from several thousand dollars for a first-place finish at local tracks to purses in excess of $1 million at facilities such as Pocono and Maple Grove. Even though the major tracks, including Pocono and Maple Grove - and, occasionally, smaller venues like Williams Grove - attract professional drivers and major sponsors like Budweiser, Quaker State, and Home Depot, racing in Pennsylvania today remains, largely, an amateur hobby.

Although race cars can cost more than $75,000 to build and thousands of dollars to annually maintain, most of the local tracks also have entry-level competition classes that considerably reduce the investment, making it more affordable for many competitors.

Thomas P. "Tommy" Hinnershitz (1912–1999) was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1975 and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1990. His garage, originally located in Oley, Berks County, has been relocated piece by piece to the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, York Springs, Adams County. Eastern Museum of Motor Racing

Along the way, Pennsylvania has produced its share of well-known drivers at the national level. In the early days, Pennsylvania drivers Bill Holland and Ray Keech both won the prestigious Indianapolis 500. Holland and Tommy Hinnershitz were Automobile Club of America champions when the AAA was sanctioning sprint car races. Hinnershitz cars are currently on display at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in York Springs and the Historical Society of Berks County. Pennsylvanians Johnny Hannon, Eddie Sachs, and Bobby Marshman competed in the Indianapolis 500.

More recently, motorcycle racers Tony DiStefano, Chris Carr, Ryan Young, and Shayna Texter have achieved prominence in racing at the national level. Transplanted Pennsylvanian Mario Andretti of Nazareth may be one of the most famous race car drivers in history. Andretti's Pennsylvania-born son, Michael, also has been successful in Indycar racing, first as a driver and, currently, as an owner.

From the Uniontown hill climb at the turn of the last century to NASCAR and NHRA racing in the current era, Pennsylvania has been a haven for race car and motorcycle fans and competitors alike.

"Racing is big in Pennsylvania. Always has been and always will be," says former driver and president of the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, Lynn Paxton.


The editor thanks Marci Lynn McGuinness, author of Yesteryear at the Uniontown Speedway and Speedway Kings, and Randy "Razz" Ravel of the Reading Motorcycle Club which recently published History of the Reading Motorcycle Club, for their assistance with providing images. The Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, York Springs, Adams County, was invaluable in allowing us to photograph displays and borrow historic and vintage images for publication.