Cars once screeched around corners at breakneck speed on a South Sound raceway that rivaled the biggest and best in the world. All the big-name ¬racers of the day came to Tacoma to compete when the town was booming early in the 20th century. Cigar-smoking Barney Oldfield, the first man to drive a mile in a minute, was among the giants of auto racing who left rubber on the Tacoma Speedway. For a brief span of time, 1912 to 1922, nationally known racers vied against locals in front of enthusiastic Tacoma crowds. After the grandstands closed for good, the land was converted to other, tamer uses. The site later became an airport and a naval station. Now it is home to Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, a suburb just south of Tacoma.
"It was the most nationally known thing to happen to Lakewood, and now no one knows about it," commented speedway historian Wayne Herstad, who has collected items relating to Tacoma Speedway for the last 25 years and is still gathering material for a book about the track’s history. He has binders brimming with photos and programs organized year by year. "It was a great track," said Herstad. "Everyone got into the act."
The track opened in 1912 after a group of Tacoma businessmen led by Arthur Pitchard, president of the Tacoma Automobile Association, collected backers and built a five-mile, all-dirt track. The course ran around what is now Lakeview Avenue, where the grandstands stood, to Steilacoom Boulevard to Gravelly Lake Drive to 112th Street. The first races were held July 5 and 6, 1912.
"Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff, a well-known racer of the day, was set to headline the initial race, but he was kidnapped just days before the contest and held for ransom. It was rumored that he was confined in a Tacoma brothel, recalled Herstad with a grin: "When his bosses came to pick him up, he didn’t want to leave."
The track changed quickly in those first years, shrinking to a three-and-a half-mile course in 1913, then to a two-mile track in 1914. The shorter course more or less ran through what is now Steilacoom Boulevard and Gravelly Lake Drive to 100th, then back to Lakeview.
Renowned racer Earl Cooper won at Tacoma Speedway in 1913 and 1914. In 1915 he placed second; had he won that year, he would have been able to keep the revolving "Mountamarathon" trophy, which featured Mount Tacoma with race cars etched into its side. But after his 1915 loss, he was obliged to return it. The trophy came back to him, though, when he returned to Tacoma in 1929 - long after his retirement - for a promotional event. The defunct race track’s organizers still had the trophy and honored him with it during a banquet dinner. It now resides in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, to which Cooper donated it in 1955.
The grandstand shifted to Steilacoom Boulevard in 1914. A split-board track replaced the dirt in 1915. The two-by-four-inch planking was placed end to end, with the narrow side facing the ground. Gaps between each board were stuffed with gravel to economize on lumber. The track required 15 tons of 20-penny nails and two million board feet. Its corners were banked 18 feet to allow faster turns. Unfortunately, the track had constant problems with splinters and gravel shooting into the cars behind the leader and popping tires. "There was a saying that all board tracks were awful, and then there was Tacoma," Herstad noted.
There were countless race-related injuries to drivers and mechanics at Tacoma Speedway. The only fan fatality, however, was a spectator in 1914 who ran onto the track and was struck by driver Frank Brock’s car, which was going about 60 mph during a pre-race warm-up. The car was fixed and ready to run by race time.
Two racing fatalities marred a 250-mile race at the Tacoma Speedway that first year with a wooden track. According to the Tacoma Daily Ledger, Billy "Coal Oil" Carlson was fatally injured and Paul Franzen, his mechanic, was instantly killed on July 4, 1915, when a tire blowout on a steep curve hurled the car from the track, throwing Carlson and Franzen to the ground.
Carlson, Herstad said, was reportedly driving with used tires on his car because he thought they would perform better on the track than fresh ones. A tire blew, causing the rubber to be stripped from the wheel. The rim then caught in one of the ruts between the boards in the track. "That car went airborne," said Herstad.
The open-air cars did not have seat belts. Franzen was tossed from the car; he hit a stump and died instantly. Carlson died the following day. The only other driver fatality in the track’s career occurred in 1917 when Conrad Hanson, racing his Hudson around the track, crashed after also blowing a tire.
There were three races in 1916. The first was on June 4. Seattle Stutz dealer and noted race car driver Jim Parson had just bought Earl Cooper’s famous car, the Stutz No. 8, the "most winningest" car in racing. Parson wasn’t so lucky with the car - it suffered a cracked piston when he drove it in Tacoma during an Independence Day race against the son of machinist and business owner J. E. Aubry of Aubry Wagon and Auto Works. Ulysses Aubry won the race in his custom-built "Tacoma Special." Herstad has the design specifications for the car that raced an airplane later that day in an exhibition event.
Also on the race card in Tacoma that July were: a "fat man" race, where men over 200 pounds ran a 100-yard dash, then sped around the track in cars; a women’s race; and a well-publicized grudge match between Tacoma and Seattle involving trains. The race organizers laid a mile of railroad track on the inside of the course and crashed two train engines together. The Seattle train stayed on the track and so was deemed the winner.
"Grudge matches were big back then," noted Herstad. But that crash wasn’t what people had come to see. Many of them wanted their money back because they came to see race cars, not trains. Race organizer Garrett Fisher’s solution was to schedule a rematch between Parsons and Aubry for August. But the race was not to be. Aubry died in a race in Rose City, Oregon, in late July.
With a crowd of some 7,000 spectators, famed driver Eddie Rickenbacker dodged around cars in his Maxwell to a first place finish in a race on August 5, 1916. It was a disappointing turnout since the grandstands were built to handle three times that many. Rickenbacker then vacationed, along with some 30 of his closest friends, at Oregon’s plush Crown Point Chalet to rest after the race and celebrate his victory. He later became known as the "the Ace of Aces," for shooting down 25 German planes during World War I. ¬Rickenbacker returned to the Tacoma track after the war to serve as a referee in 1919 and 1921.
The track went patriotic during the war years of 1918-1919. The famous Indianapolis race track shut down because of World War I patriotism, but the Tacoma course stayed open and ran "Liberty sweepstakes," with cars flying all the flags of the forces united against Germany.
The grand days of the Tacoma Speedway were short-lived after that. It was the only Class A track besides the one in Indianapolis, and when the stands burned down in 1920 - the fire was ruled an arson - its owners had no insurance.
"They thought that was the end of the races," Herstad said, "but they somehow pulled together enough money and started again." The new grandstands partially covered the seats following a $100,000 fund-raiser, but the track was losing money.
Over May 30-31, 1922, Wells Bennet set a new 24-hour motorcycle endurance record during a publicity event at the track. He rode 1,562.54 miles, averaging 65.1 mph on a stock Henderson DeLuxe, only stopping for fuel, oil checks, and brief rests, according to a history of engine maker Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & ¬Supply Company.
The last car race at the track was held July 4, 1922. The first multiple Indianapolis 500 winner, Tommy Milton, had won on Tacoma’s track in 1920 and 1921, and came in second in 1922 to Jimmy Murphy. Milton did pretty well for a man with only one eye. He had been blind in one eye since childhood. "It’s kind of a hidden story of racing, but it’s a fact," said Herstad.
The waving of the checkered flag that day marked the end of racing at Tacoma Speedway. The track officially shut down at the end of the year, a victim of falling gate receipts. Airplanes found that the grassy oval inside the racetrack made for a great landing field. The massive four-by-ten-inch posts used to frame the grandstands were later incorporated into a Pierce County barn, noted Herstad. He has sections of the grandstands in his basement. They are easily identifiable by the tell-tale V-shaped notches on their ends, which match perfectly with the V-shaped notches shown in photos of the grandstands in his collection.
The flat grassland eventually was built out as part of the Mueller-Harkins ¬Airport. Herstad has the actual letter signing over the Tacoma Speedway site to the airport backer and calling for a $250 down payment. The City of Tacoma used the airstrip, called Tacoma Municipal Airport, as its commercial field for a time, and national air shows were held at the site until World War II. The federal government then seized the property for use in the war effort. The seizure dispute wasn’t settled until 1944. The site served as the navy’s Pacific Naval Advance Base before shifting over to the State of Washington for use as an industrial park, according to Tacoma News Tribune articles of the time. The property was approved for use as a technical school in 1962. Some of the track area around what is now the corner of Lakewood Drive and Steilacoom Boulevard have become part of the hangar for the Clover Park Technical College’s airfield test strip.
Steve Dunkelberger is editor of the Business Examiner newspaper, a founding member of the
Lakewood Historical Society, and coauthor of Images of America: Lakewood.