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Harrington/Del. State Fair


                                                                                                              Harrington, Delaware

Kent and Sussex County/Delaware State Fair 

By John Nelson

February 23, 2018


            A group of men gathered in the Harrington railroad station in 1919 hatched the idea of a fair serving the southern two of Delaware’s three counties.         The plan rapidly gathered momentum, and the Kent and Sussex County Fair was incorporated in January 1920. Shortly thereafter, thirty acres of land were purchased and a grandstand and half-mile racetrack were built. Opening on July 27, 1920 for a four-day stand, the first Kent and Sussex County Fair drew 15,000 attendees for activities that included motorcycle and horse racing.

The first auto races at Harrington took place on Thanksgiving Day of 1920. Fifteen cars entered the five-event program. Results of these races and the name of the organization that presented them are not on record.

            Except during World War II, the annual Harrington fair featured auto racing every year from 1921 through 1999. Information on races during the 1920s is sketchy. The National Motor Racing Association of Philadelphia presented the races in 1926, with Russ Snowberger of Denton, Maryland winning the main event. Beginning in 1928, Snowberger made fifteen consecutive starts at Indianapolis, earning the pole in 1931 and finishing in the top ten of five occasions.

            By 1932 and probably earlier, auto racing at the Kent and Sussex Fair entered the top echelon under AAA sanction. Although the 1930s were a difficult time for many state and county fairs, the Harrington fair maintained strong attendance, as many as 20,000 thronging the grounds to witness the races. After hiatus during the war years, AAA Big Cars returned to the Fair in 1946. They continued through 1955, when the AAA withdrew from auto racing.

            Stock car racing made its debut at Harrington in 1947. Initially stock cars raced outside of Fair week, but by the mid 1950s NASCAR Modified and Sportsman cars were added to the Fair program. An added benefit stock car race for Camp Barnes, a summer camp run by Delaware police agencies, took place for several years. Camp Barnes Benefit races continue today at Delaware International Speedway. 

            When the AAA pulled out of racing, the United Racing Club (URC) took over the Sprint Car events at the Kent and Sussex Fair. Founded in 1948, the URC initially catered to Sprint Cars with automotive engines as opposed to purpose-built racing engines, such as Offenhausers. Although the club mainly raced on dirt, paved tracks were on the schedule until the late 1970s. Roll cages became mandatory in 1970 and wings were allowed beginning in 1971. The URC continues today with winged 360 Sprints that race exclusively on dirt. At Harrington, the URC peaked during the mid 1960s, when they raced on opening and closing nights of the Fair. They were cut back to a single race in 1969 and discontinued after 1973. From that year forward, nearly all the auto racing at Harrington involved stock cars.

            In 1962 the Harrington fair officially became the Delaware State Fair, which had been dormant since it was last held in 1924 at Elsmere, a suburb of Wilmington. As State Fair, the event enjoyed continued growth and gradually expanded its program to ten days.

            With the end of Sprint Car racing in 1974, the Delmarva Auto Racing Association brought in 6-cylinder Sportsman and V-8 Modified cars for two nights during the annual Fair. The Delmarva club also sanctioned weekly racing at Georgetown and Delaware International Speedways. However, in 1979, Georgetown co-owners Harold Wingate and Walt Breeding disbanded the Delmarva organization and continued the Harrington Fair races with local cars and drivers. As many as five divisions of stock cars: Modified, Late Model, Limited Late Model, Street Stock, and Mini-Stock, crowded into the pits. Jack Whitby, a car dealer from Dover, posted a trophy and cash prize for the Fair racing champion based on total points accrued.

            Although the State Fair continued to break attendance records, the auto racing program declined during the 1990s. By 1994 the races were reduced to one night and a single class of cars, Modified. Shrinking fields of race cars may have been a factor. Speaking of Harrington’s track, driver Bobby Wilkins told the Wilmington News-Journal on 7/21/95, “It’s made for horses, it’s not made for automobiles. It’s very abrasive and very loose. It makes it very hard for your car to adhere to the surface. So it’s not who has the most horsepower, it’s who can be the smoothest.” Wilkins must have had the touch, because he won that night’s feature. However, his words proved prophetic. On January 13, 2000, Fair vice president W. Leroy Betts told the News-Journal that auto racing at the Delaware State Fair was being discontinued because the track had been changed to make it more compliant with the needs of horse racing. “The stone dust works great for harness racing,” Betts told reporters, “but it has a tendency to shift when fast moving cars race on it. It comes to the point where auto racing at the Fair is just too dangerous to continue.” 

Harrington and Delaware State Fair Results.xlsx

Fred Voorhees,
Jul 17, 2018, 1:35 PM