Friday, June 16, 2000

Cincinnati has long racing history

By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Some think the new Kentucky Speedway signals the birth of auto racing in the Tristate. In reality, Cincinnati's first organized race happened nearly 100 years ago.

        Local racing history includes a 1917 race that, because of World War I, replaced the Indianapolis 500 that year.

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        There also have been several notable racers and families in Cincinnati. The Loveland-based Gus Hoffman family ran cars in the Indy 500 between 1973 and 1984. There are also the Allens, Glenn Sr. and Glenn Jr. of Lockland, with Glenn Jr. a NASCAR Busch series driver.

        Tom Konop, a Cincinnati auto racing historian, said the first organized auto races locally were in 1901 at the old Oakley Mile harness track.

        Konop said Cincinnati was the center of the auto racing world May 30, 1917.

        The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which ran its first 500-mile race in 1911, canceled its 1917 schedule because of World War I and was briefly used as an airplane repair facility. Cincinnati Motor Speedway, built on a 640-acre site in the Sharonville area, took Indy's Memorial Day date with a 250-mile race.

        “All the best drivers were there,” Konop said. “There were Gaston Chevrolet, Ralph DePalma, Tommy Milton and Dario Resta. All were past or future winners of the Indy 500.”

        The Cincinnati speedway was a 2-mile high-banked oval made of wood. The so-called “board track” had 34-degree banked turns and 6-degree banked straightaways to assure extreme speeds, Konop said.

        Louis Chevrolet, brother of Gaston, won the race and averaged 102 mph. He collected $12,500 prize money, a grand sum in those days.

        The wooden boards did not weather well outdoors, and the track closed in 1919. The last remnant of the track surface was a bartop for years in a Sharonville tavern, Konop said.

        In its early years, local racing mostly involved hills and roadways. A driver named Howdy Wilcox won a hill-climb up Stanley Avenue on the East side, cresting the hill at 75 mph. He became better known for winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1919.

        “When Wilcox ran up Stanley Avenue, they said all four wheels were off the ground,” Konop said.

        Konop, who has attended 56 Indianapolis 500 races, is considered a top authority on local racing. He has an illustrated map showing where each Tristate race track was/is located, and said he has more than 15,000 racing photos.

        Konop, who is in his mid-60s and lives in Hyde Park, also helped produce a Channel 9 racing spot that aired this week.

        He is pleased with Jerry Carroll's new Speedway.

        “The guy really exudes class, as opposed to asking taxpayers to do it,” Konop said. “He came up with the money, then hired the same architect that did the tracks at Las Vegas and Talladega. It looks like a first-class facility.”

        Carroll has a faint connection to one of the most notable events in local racing history.

        Two weeks before the first Indy 500 in 1911, Barney Oldfield set a world mile mark by driving over 60 mph at the old Latonia (Ky.) thoroughbred mile. Some 75 years later, Carroll bought the then-Latonia horse racing course and renamed it Turfway Park. Turfway Park is in Florence, several miles from where Oldfield set his record in the Latonia area near Covington.

        Other notable speedways in bygone days included the Cincinnati-Hamilton Speedway (1921-48) and the Cincinnati Race Bowl (Evendale, 1949-58), which was called the world's fastest quarter-mile track.

        Dick Hoffman, whose father, Gus, formed the family's race team in 1929, said all the country's Indy 500 drivers appeared at the Race Bowl in the 1950s.

        “A.J. Foyt raced there. So did Eddie Sachs and Troy Ruttman,” Hoffman said. “Back in those days, it was the midgets and sprints (cars) that were the main feeders for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

        The Hoffmans ran several cars at Indy in the 1970s and early 1980s, with drivers Larry Cannon, Jerry Grant, Spike Gelhausen, Jerry Sneva and Joe Saldana making the race. The family is still in the sprint-car business.

        Several current big-name drivers have local connections, too.

        Jeff Gordon, the Winston Cup star, once drove winged sprint cars at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway, about 30 minutes west of Cincinnati. The Hoffman race team once had Winston Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Kenny Irwin in its sprint cars. Plus, Gordon hopped into a Hoffman sprint car at age 18 in 1990, only to crash while practicing.

        The area's many racing venues have included Tri-County/Queen City Speedway (West Chester, 1968-87), where Foyt once ran stock cars. Queen City also was home to the Glenn Allen Sr. and Glenn Allen Jr. of Lockland. Glenn Jr. was the 1996 NASCAR Busch Grand National rookie of the year and still drives in that series.

        John Mugavin, a former champion at old Glen Este Speedway, said several other local drivers rate a mention on the list of stars: Bruce Gould, Chuck McWilliams and Ralph Latham were all champions on the ARCA and USAC circuits, he said.

        “With Carroll's track, we're all getting more publicity again,” Mugavin said. “There were some good shows at a lot of tracks here through the years. Hopefully this will get people talking about racing again.”

        Konop said Cincinnati has had nearly 40 racing venues in its century of racing. Today those include Lawrenceburg, Florence (Ky.) Speedway, and drag strips at Edgewater (Cleves) and Tri-State (Hamilton).

        Konop believes Queen City Speedway was the site of the last televised race from Cincinnati, a 200-mile ASA (American Speed Association) event in 1986 shown on TNN.

        That drought ends Saturday, when the NASCAR Craftsman Truck race is beamed live via ESPN from Kentucky Speedway.

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