100 years later, Winchester Speedway going strong

At 37 degrees and said to be three-stories high, Winchester Speedway casts a historic shadow over the Indiana farmland it towers above in Randolph County.

From Tim Bigelow to Spider Webb, the paved half-mile track has left drivers and spectators alike in awe of its dangerous speeds and that breathtaking banking.

USAC sprint car legend Jack Hewitt, who earned his reputation sliding high around Eldora Speedway just inches from that unforgiving concrete wall, never felt comfortable duplicating that feat at Winchester. Bigelow, who grew up racing on flat tracks in Wisconsin, needed about four years of white-knuckle racing to work his way up the track.

Yet there are still those who come to the track thinking they can conquer the half-mile monster. Bigelow, USAC’s career wins leader in sprint cars, said Winchester is often a field trip destination for area seventh-graders. For some, the field trip turns into a tumble.

“They come out every year to the track and walk around. We always tell them you can walk up but do not try to run down,” Bigelow said with a chuckle. “There’s always that smart guy that’s gonna do it. They get about halfway and then their poor little legs are going too fast and away they go.”

About 40 drivers hope they can go the distance this weekend as Winchester Speedway concludes its 100th anniversary of speed today with its signature event, the Winchester 400. The super late model event brings the nation’s top short-track pavement drivers to the small town about an hour and 20 minutes northwest of Dayton.

The track started taking shape when motorcycle racers asked if they could use Frank Funk’s meadow to stage races. Once Funk realized there was money to be made in racing Winchester Speedway was born. Motorcycle races were held starting in 1914 and the first car race was held two years later. It’s now the third-oldest active track in the nation only to the Milwaukee Mile (1903) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1909).

Among its many did-you-know milestones about Winchester Speedway, now owned by Charlie Shaw:

NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. used Winchester as inspiration for Daytona International Speedway. He made a secret trip to Winchester in the 1950s to test his cars on its high banking. Daytona, with its 31 degrees of banking, opened in 1959.

Played host to Henry Ford’s Model A as well as the Harley-Davidson and Indian factory motorcycle teams. It was also a popular testing ground for Indy cars in the 1920s.

The track shut down for several years: Starting in 1942 for World War II and in 2004 for financial reasons.

Known for its popular non-wing USAC races, Everett Cox set the first track record in 32 seconds in 1919. Tracy Hines now holds the non-wing record in 13.964 seconds in 2009.

More recently, California driver JoJo Helberg set the world record for a half-mile speedway by ripping off a lap of 12.669 seconds (142 mph) in his winged 410 sprint car in 2012.

“As the banking started building up, we don’t know if that was intentional by Funk or not, he said he just kept pushing it up (the hill),” said Bill Holder, author of 100 Years of Speed: The Centennial History of Winchester Speedway. “A lot of people were afraid to run there. Hewitt said I hate the place, it’s scary. I drove my van around one time and I said I’m gonna roll down. You’re looking parallel down the track.”

Despite the dangers, the track still drew racing’s biggest names. Combined with Dayton Speedway and Salem Speedway the tracks were known as The Hills. They proved to be a training ground for Indianapolis 500 hopefuls. If you were successful at The Hills you were ready for the Indy 500. Among them were Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Pancho Carter and Gary Bettenhausen. NASCAR greats Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace also raced there as did sprint legends Rich Vogler and Don Branson.

“It probably took four to five years before I really felt comfortable going there,” said Bigelow, who started nine Indianapolis 500s. “You have to get right against the wall because it’s the fastest way around. It’s pretty hairy and it’s super fast.”

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