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Chestnut Avenue Speedway

Chestnut Avenue Speedway

Newport News, Virginia

 

By John Nelson, June 7, 2018

 

            A little known episode in Virginia stock car racing took place at Chestnut Avenue Speedway in Newport News from 1951 to 1953. Allan Brown does not list this track, nor do any other published and Internet sources that I have researched. However, until it was undone by questionable application of zoning laws, Chestnut Avenue enjoyed two and a half successful seasons. The Daily Press of Newport News, accessed on www.newspapers.com, published nearly complete, week-by-week racing results from Chestnut Avenue Speedway. The following narrative and the accompanying table of week-by-week racing results are based entirely on that source.

            In early summer of 1948 Joe Pinnell built a speedway for motorcycle racing on the west side of Chestnut Avenue just north of 50th Street. The track was a half-mile, flat dirt oval shaped like a paper clip with long straights and narrow, tight turns. Occasional motorcycle races and auto thrill shows took place at Chestnut Avenue Speedway from September 1949 through the summer of 1951. Among the top riders was future NASCAR star Joe Weatherly of Norfolk, who won an AMA main event at Chestnut Avenue on October 23, 1949.

            In August of 1951, a Mr. Walker and Mr. Curry purchased Chestnut Avenue Speedway from the Tidewater Motorcycle Club and prepared the track for stock car racing. The track was widened and banked, its surface was oiled to reduce dust, seating capacity was increased, and lights added for night racing. Fonzo Stewart and Tony Wells served as promoters. The Chesapeake Stock Car Racing Association was established, racing for the larger of $700 or 40% of the gate. This would be about $7,000 in 2018 dollars. The Chesapeake club raced with a “straight stock” formula, in which few, if any engine modifications were allowed. Engines were regularly torn down for inspection, and apparent winners were disqualified on several occasions. Otherwise, the race cars shown in news photos were typical stripped-down late 1930s and 1940s coupes and sedans. The weekly program comprised time trials, heat races, a consolation race, and the main event. Occasional novelty events such as Australian pursuit and “powder puff” races spiced the program. 

            Lacking NASCAR sanction, Chestnut Avenue did not attract big-name local drivers such as Joe Weatherly, Ray Hendrick, or “Runt” Harris. Among all the drivers named in race reports, the only name familiar to me was Gene Lovelace, who later successfully raced NASCAR Sportsman and Modified cars. Lovelace was a three-time Modified champion at Langley Speedway during the 1960s and competed in a single Grand National race at the same track, coming home 11th. Racing economics were probably rather favorable for those who made Chestnut Avenue their home track. With a weekly purse of at least $700 and ranging up to $1,500 for extra-distance races, a team could probably recoup the cost of a racing stock car with two or three feature wins. However, earning repeat wins was not easy because feature starting fields were completely inverted according to current point standings.  

The 1951 racing season commenced on Sunday, September 2 and continued weekly on Sundays through the second week of December. Bill Cooper won four of the first five feature races, but reached the top-five only once thereafter as Carroll Smith, with three feature wins, earned the season championship. Capping the season on December 9 was a Christmas charity race, in which no purse was paid and the total gate receipts of $544 went to purchase Christmas gifts for poor children.

Sunday stock car racing resumed at Chestnut Avenue the first week of April, 1952 and continued through the final week of November. In addition to stock cars, the speedway hosted motorcycle races on two occasions and sometimes added novelty events and auto thrill shows to the weekly races. Dwight Smith, brother of 1951 champion Carroll Smith, claimed the 1952 Chestnut Avenue points title. Held on November 16, the Christmas charity race raised $613, compared with a mere $66 from all other individual and corporate donors.

For 1953 the turn banking was raised 6 feet and the fences and crash barriers were improved. The Chesapeake club continued with its “straight stock” cars, as before. Most weeks Chestnut Avenue drew 1,500 to 2,000 spectators and full fields of cars. Bo Jones became the 1953 season champion.

The zoning dispute that would undo the speedway first surfaced in July of 1953. A number of residents who lived near the track complained to city officials about the noise of the weekly races. Apparently, a critical issue was whether the speedway had been built before or after October 1948, when the area was zoned residential. The Daily Press was not entirely clear on this point, although their articles indicate that the track was built in late summer of 1948 but was not used for racing until 1949. In any event, Chestnut Avenue completed two seasons of motorcycle racing and two and half seasons of weekly stock car racing without the zoning law being invoked. Nonetheless, the city ruled in October 1953 that racing must cease immediately and the promoters would be arrested if they continued to operate the track. When a court appeal failed, the promoters defied the zoning edict and staged the October 25 season finale – which would have been the last race in any event. The races proceeded without police interference. The promoters were later arrested, but in April 1954 they were acquitted in court.

Chestnut Avenue Speedway appears on the 1958 edition of the Morrison, Virginia U.S. Geological Survey topographic map. Sometime in the 1960s the area was redeveloped for housing; no traces of the track remain. 

As a coda, the Chesapeake Stock Car Racing Association resumed racing in 1954 at a new venue called Suffolk Speedway in a western suburb of Norfolk. Stock and Sportsman cars competed, apparently racing together for separate purses and points. Some of the drivers from Chestnut Avenue raced at Suffolk, but most of the names were new. Suffolk Speedway was active from July through October of 1954. Location isn’t known with certainty, but it likely was at a horse track off White Marsh Road on the southeast side of Suffolk, visible in a 1953 aerial image. This may be the Suffolk Fairgrounds or Four County Fairgrounds, where Allan Brown lists racing. In an aerial image from 1968 the site is a residential neighborhood.  


                                 


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Fred Voorhees,
Jun 12, 2018, 5:22 PM
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