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Wilmington Speedway

Wilmington Speedway, Delaware

 By John Nelson

February 5, 2018

 

There were two Delaware tracks named Wilmington Speedway. The first was a 1/3-mile dirt oval, active only in 1950. The second, much better-known speedway had a 1/3-mile asphalt oval and operated from 1952 to 1955 and in 1958. Information for this narrative and accompanying table of feature race results comes chiefly from the two Wilmington daily newspapers, the Morning News and News-Journal, accessed on www.newspapers.com. paper copies of Illustrated Speedway News, National Speed Sport News, and NASCAR Record Books also were consulted. I can account for all but 6 of 105 Modified features at the second Wilmington Speedway, and some of the missing results might represent rain-outs.

The first Wilmington Speedway began weekly stock car racing on Sunday, May 11, 1950 under promoter Paul Short. Sanctioning body (if any) is unnamed. According to Illustrated Speedway News, Erving Streets won at least four main events in 1950, while Frank Baker, Bill Hill, and season point titlist Charlie Downs also took feature wins. Advertisements in the Wilmington Morning News and News-Journal (accessed on www.newspapers.com) locate the track “at Rose Hill, ½ mile off New Castle Highway.” Aerial images from 1954 through 1970 on www.vintageaerials.com show the track as indicated, due south of downtown Wilmington and north of Lamson Lane. This is about 1½ miles east of the second Wilmington Speedway, which is visible on the same images. The site of the first Wilmington Speedway is now a warehouse and trucking terminal for Leonard’s Express.

The second Wilmington Speedway was built by Mel Geller and Sam Taustin, who owned a drive-in theater and a small amusement park on the DuPont Highway (U.S. 13) southwest of downtown Wilmington. Sparing no expense, they built a masonry grandstand seating 5,000 and a 1/3-mile asphalt oval track. The track was patterned after Wall Stadium, having 12-foot banking and a 5-foot concrete retaining wall topped by a 15-foot wheel fence. Red Crise, owner of Lanham Speedway in Maryland and part owner of Dorney Park Speedway in Allentown, PA, was brought in as racing director. Nat Kleinfield served ably as track announcer. The grand opening took place on a blistering hot Sunday, June 15, 1952, with NASCAR Modified and Sportsman cars before a crowd of 4,900.

            The 1952 season was a huge success. Season attendance topped 100,000 on October 5 with three shows to go. The overflow crowds were treated to racing by many of the top NASCAR Modified and Sportsman drivers in the country. Leading the field was Frankie Schneider of Lambertville, NJ, who captured 6 feature wins, the track championship, and the NASCAR National Modified title. Offering stout competition were 1950 national champion Charlie Dyer of North Bergen, NJ; 1951 national champion Wally Campbell of Trenton, NJ; future national champion Ken Marriott of Baltimore; and Jim Delaney of Lyndhurst, NJ, who would win the 1952 National Open at Langhorne. Another notable figure was Ralph Moody, who in later partnership with John Holman became a major force in the NASCAR Cup Series.

            Following usual NASCAR practice, Modified and Sportsman cars raced together at Wilmington in 1952. The normal program comprised three heat races, a consolation race, and a 25-lap feature. There is no record that Wilmington ever staged time trials. During the middle part of the 1952 season, Sportsman cars ran a separate 15-lap feature race.

            NASCAR Modified and Sportsman cars continued for 1953, without a separate Sportsman feature. Attendance did not match 1952 numbers, but exceeded 3,000 most weeks and occasionally topped 4,500. At least four programs were lost to rain. Racing regularly at Wilmington for the first time, Parker Bohn of Freehold, New Jersey won three features en route to the track Modified championship. In the Sportsman Division, Johnny Roberts of Brooklyn, Maryland copped the track championship together with Delaware and Maryland State titles and the NASCAR National title. Roberts went on to become the NASCAR National Modified champion in 1960 and 1961.  

The 1954 season included 26 complete Modified-Sportsman programs without a rain-out. Jack Choquette won six feature races and the NASCAR National Modified championship, but Lou Johnson captured Wilmington’s point crown. Also winning features in 1954 were Frankie Schneider (4), Lou Johnson (3), Ed Lindsey, Pee Wee Pobletts, Parker Bohn, and Tommie Elliott with two apiece; and Sonny Hutchins, Erv Streets, Ken Marriott, and Joe Haas with single victories. On the down side, spectator attendance dropped off, following national trends as the novelty of stock car racing wore off and other activities (notably television) competed for entertainment value. Only a few programs drew more than 3,000, and front gate numbers dropped below 2,000 in September. Extra-distance races and specials did not draw noticeably larger crowds than regular shows. 

Adding variety to Wilmington’s first three seasons were special events, topped by 200-lap races for NASCAR’s Short Track Division. This series featured the same new-model cars and many of the same drivers who raced in the Grand National Division, forerunner of today’s Monster Energy Cup. In fact, the local papers incorrectly billed these events as Grand National. Defending series champion Roscoe “Pappy” Hough was the apparent winner in 1952, but a recheck of score cards bumped Hough to second place, a lap down to Charlie Dyer. The media barely covered the 1953 Short Track race, naming only the winner, Ray Duhigg of Toledo, Ohio. In addition to his Short Track career, Duhigg made 54 Grand National starts, including 12 top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes. A fatal crash at Salem, Indiana cut short his career. Winning the 1954 Short Track race at Wilmington was Paul Pettit of Danbury, Connecticut.

Other special races at Wilmington in 1952-1954 involved Midgets, Big Cars (Sprint Cars), and sports cars. The American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) Midgets were scheduled for July 4, 1952, but no results made the papers. Founded in 1940, the ARDC is still active. NASCAR had its own Midget Division during the 1950s, and these cars made four appearances at Wilmington. The National Auto Racing Association (NARA), a Sprint Car club that ran both on dirt and asphalt, raced at Wilmington on July 4, 1953. Sports cars competed on the oval on September 20, 1953.

Providing a rare behind-the-scenes look, News-Journal sports editor Al Cartwright interviewed leading Modified driver Lou Johnson for the July 9, 1954 edition. Johnson complained of Wilmington’s small purses, claiming that on one occasion the drivers were canvassed and reported collecting only $850 instead of the advertised $1,100. Despite resurfacing prior to the 1954 season, “the track is full of ruts and holes”, destroying axles and tires. Most of the top drivers, including Choquette, Elliott, Marriott, Roberts, Schneider, and Streets, boycotted the July 4 100-lapper, leaving the field largely to travelers. Several of the drivers were said to be frequenting “outlaw” tracks in preference to Wilmington’s NASCAR program. The following week, Geller and Taustin boosted the weekly purse to $1,250, and most of the fugitive drivers returned. However, 1954 would be the last season Wilmington raced with NASCAR. The 1954 track points champions were Lou Johnson (Modified) and Bob Hill (Sportsman).

Early in 1955, Taustin and Geller sold their drive-in theater and amusement park, retaining only the speedway. Meanwhile, many of the top regional drivers, including Jack Choquette, Tommy Elliott, and Frankie Schneider, left NASCAR to form their own organization titled National Association of Drivers and Car Owners (NADCO). Recognizing the importance of star drawing power, Geller and Taustin dropped NASCAR and picked up NADCO for 1955, as did Atco and Vineland Speedways and Wall Stadium in New Jersey. Thus, Wilmington continued to draw outstanding Modified and Sportsman drivers from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Joining standouts of the previous seasons were Ken Marriott, Don Stumpf, and Al Tasnady. However, spectator attendance continued to slip, seldom topping 2,000. At least six rain-outs worsened the financial situation. Track champions for 1955 are unknown.

Wilmington Speedway lay silent through 1956 and 1957. Geller and Taustin tried to lease out the property in 1956, but there were no takers. Finally, in July 1957 Georgetown promoters Charles Herbert and Craig Mellinger signed a lease, but plans to resume racing in 1957 were scotched when owners of the adjoining drive-in filed suit against the speedway.

            Following numerous spring rain-outs, Herbert and Mellinger finally reopened Wilmington for racing in June 1958. They had invested $40,000 to resurface the track, erect new fencing, and build a new grandstand to replace the original lost to fire. The Inter-State Racing Association sanctioned competition at Wilmington and several other area speedways this year. The Bell Non-Ford club raced as a support class. During the two years of idleness, many of the top drivers who formerly raced at Wilmington had found other places to race, leaving less competition for Frankie Schneider, who won 10 out of 16 Modified features, including eight straight. The “Wild Man” Elton Hildreth, Steve Elias, Harry Moore, Dick Havens, and others did their best to keep Schneider honest. Attendance figures were not publicized, and at least six dates were lost to rain. The final checker fell on Sunday, October 19.

            No serious attempt was made to revive Wilmington Speedway after 1958. Air photos show the oval track remained intact through 1970, but was removed by 1981. The Bayshore Ford dealership now occupies the site on the northwest side of the DuPont Highway (U.S. Route 13) just south of I-495.  


Click the links to view the history of the Wilmington Speedway: Wilmington feature results.xlsx   Wilmington Speedway All Time Win List.xlsx

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Fred Voorhees,
Feb 17, 2018, 3:05 PM
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Fred Voorhees,
Jan 31, 2019, 10:23 AM
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