They're plowing it under. The
second oldest speedway in the country... gone.
The Fair and other events were contained around its concrete perimeter. During the fair the walls were obscured by the midway and food concessions. The semi-permanent buildings outside of the first and second turns have been there for decades. Event parking during the rest of the year consumed the midway pavement behind the tall concrete backstretch wall and Armco that cast its shadow across the space. The tall roof of the large covered grandstand could be seen from this backstretch area, marking the location of the front stretch nearly a half mile away.
Just going to the fairgrounds brought me near the empty, quiet track but sight of the walls and the grandstand always triggered the images and sounds of the racing memories and the history of the place. I could not go there without taking a look even if it meant driving out of the way just to see the walls and tunnel and stands, to the recharge those memories.
I have been going to The Fair and the races since before I was born. One of my first memories of the track is as a little kid,walking along the pit fence with my father as we stopped to look between the tow vehicles and open trailers to see the shinny rounded bodies of the Champ Cars. I remember leaning against the fencing with fingers clawed around the wires looking at these mysterious cars designed only for speed. Black with gold leaf numbers and "The Something Special" lettered along the hood.
My father was awed by the mechanical design that was beyond understanding by anyone not born into racing. Everything was made special.. These were cars that had raced at Indy with drivers known from the headlines of newspapers across the country. Indy was the spectacle and pinnacle of racing in the US and we were 50 feet away from those cars and drivers, but that fence put us worlds away.
The other side of the fence belonged to the stars... real men who defied danger and wrestled The Big Cars on the big tracks. We were just normal small town people getting a glimpse of something very special and beyond reach. Driver introductions named the driver's hometowns... states too far away for regular people to ever see. The race must be important for them to come from such far distances. These were special people and the track announcer enhanced the legends.
Dad and I stood at the fence between three and four and looked over the cinder track to watch the best, rooster tail the turns and hug the inside rail, tails out. The way the cars and drivers worked the corners close up was more fun than seeing the whole race. The announcer steered our imaginations to fill in the images of what we couldn't see on the rest of the track.
The 100 mile Syracuse race was part of the points series for the USAC National Championship for Indy cars and drivers. The series started each year with the Indy 500 and toured the country with the cars and stars at one mile or larger paved and dirt tracks, a lot at fairgrounds around the country.
The Syracuse Champ Car race was originally on Labor Day, the last day of The Fair, and later on, the Saturday before with the stock cars on Labor Day. It was a local spectacle, enhanced by, the large crowds already at The Fair, and all the active midway rides, brightly colored banners and flags visible from the grandstands, over behind the back straight.
The architecture of the large fairground buildings imposed a backdrop of grandeur surrounding the track. For me the track was the center of the fair. A huge stage where these exotic cars ran fast and sideways.
The track was built when the fair was conceived in 1826, for horse racing. In 1903 the first auto race was run with the cars and stars of the day from the newly born Indianapolis Motor Speedway running this mile at 90 mph. Oldfield, DePalma and the rest christened the track and fifty more years of racing history was in place before I was first aware of the world around.
Also during The Fair, they held the stock car races. The coupes with flat heads raced for the New York State Championship with cars and drivers that competed weekly on the local short tracks.
These were the cars we'd see weekly at Brewerton, Weedsport, Waterloo, Oswego, Utica-Rome, and cars and drivers we'd only seen pictures of, with the stories in the racing papers from tracks we'd never been too. This was where all the best competed at speeds not seen anywhere else.
The big names whose legends were built from portfolios of wins at tracks far and wide would all show up. Once a year, there was danger and dust and noise and the vast size of the mile in a carnival atmosphere that made the racing very special.
This was The Fair, just a half hour away from home and the biggest racing show in in the northeast.
When I was in my early teens, a friend of the family was going to the Champ Car race on Saturday and took me along. My father had to work at his hardware store and wasn't able to go. That year, Dick Church tied a piece of plywood to the top of his station wagon and we headed to The Fair.
I remember him saying that he was going to tell the guy at the gate that he had to deliver the plywood to repair a concession stand and that's why he had to take his car on the grounds. He put some tools on the front seat between us. Normally you'd have to park in the lots outside of the fairgrounds. But once inside we made our way around and through the fourth turn tunnel and then over to the middle of the back straight infield where we parked.
We were strategically located so our view of turn two was minimally obscured by the huge infield tree and three was not blocked by the nearby backstretch concession stand next to the third turn tunnel. We climbed on top of the plywood platform and watched Jimmy Hurtubise, Jud Larson and Don Branson battle out of two and into three.
I still have an image in my mind of that view, from that day. The sleek cars with aero tails, the driver exposed with no rollcage, a short, flared windshield, open face helmet, goggles and a scarf tied over the nose and mouth. Shoulders and arms working the big steering wheel in the open cockpit as the cars pitched against the loose cushion at the end of the straight and threw rooster tails of dirt and dust around the corner, the cars flickering between a wall of standing fans... the cars disappearing behind the crowd standing on top of their cars parked at the fence.
The high pitched sound of the Offenhausers and Chevys echoed off the surrounding buildings as they lifted, puffed a throaty backfire out of the long three inch tail pipe and got back on it in the turn, overwhelming the excited authority of the announcer on the PA. The smell of methanol and caster oil mixed with the smoke of frying hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage, onions and peppers from the concession stand nearby. It was enough to generate a lifelong love of The Mile and Champ Cars, Roadsters, Sprints and Midgets.
There was something special and majestic about the cars, and the legends driving them, especially at speed on the giant mile in front of a huge crowd.
Then in the 70's Glenn Donnelly changed the nature of racing at The Fair. The stock car racing that had continued for years was getting shabby, stale and out dated. The purse was small and the dust was blinding. The crowds were still strong but the racing business was changing and becoming diverse and someone needed to coordinate control.
Donnelly continued the Labor Day stock car race and added a 100 lap premier event in October in 1972.
Usac was in turmoil with Indy now converted to rear engine cars with European designers, engineers and mechanics. Old guard car owners that had changed over to the rear engine cars for Indy and pavement races still had a stable of Dirt Cars, but the new guard of Indy car racing had no connection to the history or interest in the antiquated design. At Indy, Usac was soon replaced by CART, a group of Indy car owners whose coup took control of Indy car racing and it's touring series.
Usac with left with the Champ Cars, Sprints and Midgets but lacked the Indy driver stars. Soon the World of Outlaws was created and established a rank of unbeatable talent. Where Usac had stars that were kept isolated from outside competition so as not to diminish their dynasty, the Outlaws invaded local competition and beat everyone at their own game on their home track.
Ted Johnson's Outlaws, Kinser, Swindell and Wolfgang and the rest were a group of purse bandits traveling from coast to coast showing fans that their local legends were not invincible. The strength of the Outlaw competition attracted crowds while Usac could only promote their history and reputation as their main strength.
The now old guard of Andretti, Unser, Foyt, Rutherford, Bettenhausen, had to move on with CART's rear engine pavement series and mostly left their front engine dirt car heritage behind. Soon, the Champ Cars (now called Silver Crown by Usac) were dropped from the Syracuse Mile.
Instead, Donnelly added sprint cars to the October event and brought them in to a few of the 4th of July races on the mile. Usac made some stabs at the mile with a couple of sprint car races and a midget race but they were not well attended and were dropped.
My father and I went to one of the sprint car events. The track had been heavily watered and was a sloppy mess. They weren't going to get it packed in time so Usac put the sprints on track and after a couple of laps, dropped the green. The cars were fishtailing back and forth down the front straightaway and we thought they were crazy. After a few laps, a groove was getting packed in and they qualified and raced the mile.
Another memorable time at the mile was watching from the grandstands, the amazing laps that Gary Bettenhausen put down in hot laps. He was driving a car with a double overhead cam Mosher Chevy that screamed like it was turning ten thousand. It was not the only screamer as Andretti and Unser were in the Viceroy cars with double overhead Foyt Coyote Fords. There may have been some Cosworths as well along with the Chevies. The story goes that Gary made a bet that he could run the mile without lifting. When he got on track he went to the cushion and blasted a rooster tail all the way around both ends.
Everyone was watching him as the motor screamed past the grandstand going into one where everyone else had long ago let off, to enter one on the rail. About the third lap in, Bettenhausen's right rear tire popped off the bead and dropped the wheel into the cushion. The car launched high into a number of nasty snapping barrel rolls that became end over end leaps. The car headed out over the first turn wall and punched a hole, nose first, in the roof of the vacant concession stand and then the car fell down to the track setting on the tail tank, leaned against the wall and aimed toward the sky like a rocket ready to take off.
Gary messed up his arm pretty bad in that crash. Some years later I remember driving past him on the outside, going into three during the October Outlaw race on the mile.
Donnelly unified the rules for the modifieds and went through an evolution with the sprints. The first sprint races at the October race were wingless and open to the Oswego super modifieds. The intent was to draw enough cars and the open wheel fans to the track for the Saturday race.
The first wingless race was won by an Oswego converted, old Indy roadster with Bentley Warren aboard. The wingless days created some disastrous crashes. I made friends with Randy Wolfe at the hospital after he climbed the right rear of Paul Pitzer when Pitzer's driveshaft broke coming out of two. The car launched out of the obstructed view of the second turn, high in the air, easily seen flipping from the grandstand. He came down in a pack of cars that scattered into the wall and each other. Randy's car came back to the pits with only the seat, engine and steering box but the cage was intact.
One year I was working with Van May the day he got clipped in the middle of the front strait by a spinning Steve Goia in a super. Van's car pivoted straight toward the outside wall and started a series of high speed snap rolls ending right side up against the outside wall in the first turn. Van shook it off and reached up to grab the cage and pull himself out and there was nothing there. The cage broke off just above the hood and at tank level and was gone in one piece. Post mortem talk on the car was that old Ben Cook had gotten a bunch of structural chromemoly tubing that was not condition N and it snapped instead of bending during the impact. That set back Cook's immaculately welded racecar business for several seasons.
Soon, Donnelly changed to the Pennsylvania rules of 3x5 wings and had a large field of cars with guaranteed starters from qualifying races around the east. It was about this time that I showed up to race. In my early races I was back in the pack but adapted well to the mile and started to do well.
After a couple of years it was an Outlaw sanctioned race with the big 5x5 wings. One year a hood strap broke and the hood slid up and blocked my vision while running 6th. I continued watching the inside guard rail and wall for clues to lift and turn in and hoped nothing happened in front of me. I ended up 13th.
Another year I started 25th in the B main and finished 5th in 12 laps and then started 36th in the A main and was up to 12th when Kenny Jacob's car clipped my right front and sent me in a straightaway long slide in the inside mud that ended in turn one. I literally was sideways and locked up from pit entrance in four, past pit exit at turn one. It was a long slide and luckily the car didn't get bite and flip but I did clip the inside guard rail just before it stopped. We changed the left front tire and ran 5th in line for the rest of the race but a lap down in 19th.
I liked the mile and traveled to the Springfield Illinois mile to run 6th in an Outlaw race there after blowing a motor in the preliminary, the day before, while running second to Sammy Swindell with two to go.
I quit racing in the late 80's to help Dad with the family business and stayed away for a number of years. It would be like watching your girlfriend have sex with someone else and I couldn't watch. During the 90's the speeds got higher as the cars locked down and ran flat out with Billy Pauch turning a 144mph average in qualifying to retake the one mile dirt world record back from Springfield.
The spectacle of sprints at Syracuse had faded for the fans as admission costs got higher and the outlaw purse had exceeded the promoter's return. The speeds had also gotten dangerous and sprint racing on the mile was dropped. Eventually the Modified Stock Car Labor Day and 4th of July races were dropped and the October race was the only auto racing on the track. The rest of the year, the track was used by harness racing horses for training. Buildings in the fourth turn were the barns and stalls for the horses and equipment.
But October Super Dirt Week continued to grow with the modifieds and then they brought back the Usac Champ Cars for Saturday. Other stock car classes were added and the event filled day and night for five full days.
Weather always messed up a day or two and would make the already full schedule tighter. The last race was run on October 11, 2015. The final 200 lapper ran long past sunset. Greg and I decided to go to the Saturday race on the 10th to see the Dirt Champ Cars and the 150 lap race for small block modifieds.
We could leave the place Saturday night without leaving at the end. We knew there would be another race tomorrow and that would be like the place would still be there after we were gone, if only for a day.
Saturday was a happy/sad day for Greg and I. I bought tickets for us to sit in the stands for the last time at the Syracuse mile and watch the last Dirt Champ Car race along with the last 150 lap small block modified race plus now all the racing that had been rained out on Friday. The new Saturday schedule put cars on the track at 8am and had Champ Car practice at 9am so we got up early to take in the full day.
As we arrived and parked, we could hear the engines of cars idling around the track. As we walked near the fourth turn tunnel we could see it was the Champ Cars so we walked over to the fence. Where we ended up standing was at the hauler's track crossing gate which was about waist high. It was a thirty foot long break in the wall with a low open steel-frame gate.
We stood there, too close to the track, and they dropped the green and we watched the cars run through four and on to the straight. We were sure that security would chase us away but no one seemed to be bothered by the dozen of us standing right at the edge of the track. The surface was fresh and had bite and a wet loose cushion.
Drivers were running the bottom, middle and cushion. Tails hung out with tires spinning and standing tall like dragsters, grinding bite out of the smooth, flat corners. It was the classic view of drivers hard on the throttle, tail wide, against the background of the crash chunked concrete wall with Armco fencing above and fairground buildings beyond.
Never again will we see this. I realized it will soon be a piece of history kept alive only by digital capture and story-telling as the great fairgrounds miles are slowly disappearing in the name of progress and finances. This mile was built in 1826 and added auto racing to this horse track in 1903. The second oldest continuously operating race track in the country had seen all the greats. I watched Hurtubise, Unsers, Andretti, Foyt, Bettenhausen, Reakes, Kotary, Swift, Reutimen, Johnsons, Kinser, Swindell, and Wolfgang race at this track, the last three I watched from the cockpit.
The mile is special... the speed, the sounds of an engine's long wind echoing off the far fairground's buildings, the grandeur of size, the dedicated crowd. If Cathedrals were built to inspire awe in the religious faithful.... fairgrounds dirt miles are the Cathedrals of Speed and this will be the loss of one that I've grown up with. It leaves a hole that can only be filled with memories, pictures and stories.
While we stood watching the Champ Cars at speed, hearing the echoing power and smelling the exhausted methanol, we were happy and awe inspired. I took pictures and video to remember that short time when we were as close as could be to the action at the end of a mile. I had tears from excitement and tears from sorrow and a lump in my throat.
When the cars slowed Greg and I watched as the pointed tails rolled into the pits and we headed to the grandstand for our last overview of a full day of racing at 'The Fair', just like we did with our fathers since we were in strollers.
I would have loved to take a few more fast laps on that track but I would have to settle for the 5/8 down the road, another track where my father and I spent many nites and one that was almost lost over bumbling management. Through a contortion of failed ownerships, The Wheels is now owned by the new Glenn Donnelly corporation that also owns the half mile track he is building to host Super Dirt Week next year just a mile from my home.
Glenn sold Dirt and Dirt Week and his interest in Rolling Wheels nearly 10 years ago and now has The Wheels and Super Dirt Week and a new facility back under his control. People got tired of his control before but now are glad to see him in charge again because they know that he can make it work next year, but on a half mile.
The rained out Friday schedule was added to the Saturday schedule and we watched continuous racing on the mile from 9AM to 7PM. The huge grandstand was full, the pits were bloated to fill the inside of the first turn and fourth turn as well as pitting cars outside the track next to turn one and turn four.
Campers were packed into the infield, on the midway area behind the back straight, in the outside parking area beyond the third turn and all over the fairgrounds as far as you could see. It was wall to wall people, racecars and campers... and the mile, at its center, seemed smaller by the enormous congregation that surrounded it.
But it was the same old mile, mud, clouds, and bright sun, fast, dry, dusty, loose cushion, dirt on everything, view of two and three obscured, a hole in turn one, hard to pass, new and old cars, fresh paint and lettering, special mile cars, too expensive to run there, too important to miss, excitement and despair, disastrous to crash, a 17 car crash in a 25 car race, 11 cradled in, big names, rookies, legends, history, loud sounds of power, far off sounds of control, long winding motors, sound reflections and echoes, pillars in your view, the smell of methanol and hot dogs, the grandeur of the space and the size and the buildings, stories and memories , joy and disappointment, and tears for the end of a moody friend..