If you’re driving southbound on the I-75, you’ve probably noticed an ominous looking billboard that looms large over the highway. The billboard carries the image of a racing car and the words “Deer Creek Speedway” emblazoned across its facade.
The billboard marks the entrance to what is effectively the country’s largest racetrack. At well over 500 acres, Deer Creek Speedway is larger than any other standard road racetrack in America. With a running track sprawling for more than eleven miles around the outer perimeter of the property, there’s truly something for everyone.
Established in 1947, Deer Creek is located in Willoughby, Ohio, a small town about thirty miles south of Cleveland on I-75. The racetrack’s original name, “Dixie Speedway,” comes from an era when NASCAR was a regional sport, and a time when the South held sway over motorsport. Today, the town of Willoughby is best known for its annual antique car show, which draws thousands of visitors to the small streets each spring.
Though NASCAR left the scene in the late 1940s, a new crop of motor sports fans came to the racetrack, and the venue’s name was soon changed to match its new audience. These days, Deer Creek Speedway is best known for its ARCA racecar series, as well as its tri-oval and high-banks oval racing configurations. The track continues to expand, adding amenities like paved bike lanes and parking garages.
And then there’s the business side of things. Just north of the main entrance, you’ll find offices, shops, and commercial spaces that lease for a combined total of nearly $6 million per year.
It’s fair to say that this isn’t your usual kind of place. Indeed, you might wager that the kind of person who would frequent a place like this actually has some fairly unique tastes. Perhaps they enjoy high-octane racing and giant slushies, or maybe they have a penchant for antique cars. Whatever your interests, you’re sure to find something to indulge your passion at Deer Creek.
Why Is Deer Creek Famous?
Deer Creek Speedway has long been a hub for motorsport culture in Northeast Ohio. This past year, the track’s website tracked more than 25,000 unique visitors, and its social media channels saw over 200,000 interactions.
Though NASCAR left the area in the 1940s, fans keep the tradition alive with many coming from far away places like Nashville and Indianapolis to support their local racetrack. The speedway also earned a spot on Sports Illustrated’s prestigious 50 Most Influential Sports Venues list, which included the likes of Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of Deer Creek is its illuminated arches. The lighted arches run for more than one mile along the backstretch, and have been a striking feature of the track since its opening night in April 1947. Though the arches are a source of some confusion for race fans and passersby alike, they’re a unique symbol of Deer Creek that draws visitors year after year.
Other than the lights, the most recognizable feature of Deer Creek is likely the barns. The first one you’ll pass as you enter the grounds is the horseshoe-shaped grandstand, which still hosts the annual Willoughby Grange Farmer’s Open Day during the summer months. Continuing on for a few minutes, you’ll come to the grandstands that were originally built for horse racing, which continues today as a source of community pride and nostalgia. From there, you’ll spot the twelve-story pagoda-style grandstands, and the fifteen-story administration building. Finally, you’ll reach the backstretch, where the most modern and famous of the barns stand, some even rising thirty feet. These barns are a testament to the track’s expansion, and its ongoing commitment to keeping up with the times.
The Topography Of Deer Creek Speedway
Located in Willoughby Township, which is in the heart of the rust belt, Deer Creek Speedway is a testament to the region’s auto industry. Before you step outside the front gate, you’ll notice the large, bulbous overpass that stands sentry over I-75. The overpass provides a pedestrian crossing for those in the neighboring townships, as well as an iconic photo op for visitors.
From the overpass, it’s a short walk to the main entrance, where you’ll find a huge metallic blue sign that reads “Welcome To Deer Creek Speedway.” To the right of the sign, you’ll see a wide driveway that leads to the grandstands. At the far end of the grandstands, you’ll find a large paddock where the horses and other farm animals are stabled during the week.
The asphalt roadway that leads from the overpass to the entrance splits into three, creating a T-junction at the front of the track. To your left, as you come in, is a long, low concrete building with a large metal dome. This is the administration building, which currently houses offices for the Willoughby Township Police Department. Past the administration building is a short driveway that leads to the right-hand turn of the tri-oval. A couple hundred feet past that is the start/finish line of the oval track.
On the opposite side of the entrance is a long, straightaway that leads to the left-hand turn for the backstretch. Past that is yet another long, straightaway. Finally, you’ll make a right turn and come to the main track, where the twelve-story grandstands await.
There are many more turnings and intersections beyond these locations, but that would take us well beyond the scope of this article. Better to keep this brief than wander down every road and alleyway that leads to a corner.
A Brief History Of Deer Creek Speedway
The history of Deer Creek Speedway can be traced back to the late 1940s, when Willoughby mayor Frank Schenk hired a retired racecar driver named Bill Holland to help restore the town’s racing heritage. At the time, Holland was a successful car owner and dealer, having previously founded and operated Holland Automobile Company in nearby New York City.
Though Willoughby enjoyed a successful auto industry in the early 20th century, which produced brands like Hudson, Nash, and Essex, the town had long been deprived of its racing culture. With the creation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (or NASCAR for short) in 1948, the town’s auto enthusiasts could finally come together as one.
When the track’s construction permit was initially granted in 1947, the estimated cost was $125,000. The final price tag was closer to $275,000. Much of that money came from a local businessman named A.C. Gilbert, who donated generously to ensure the success of the project. The track’s first race was held two months later on April 21, 1947. More than 1,500 spectators came out to see the drivers, including a few celebrities like Richard Deane (son of actor Harold Deane) and Ethel Merman.
The early years were rough, and the racetrack struggled to make ends meet. Local boys and girls would line up outside the gates on Saturdays, hoping to snag a ticket to see a race.
The track’s first home was an old military base known as the Willoughby Aerodrome. The field was located just south of town, and a road connecting it to the venue was named Airport Road. In its first year, the track averaged less than five car races per week, and barely broke even.
In 1951, NASCAR allowed the track to hold its first invitational auto race, which was modeled after the Indy 500. The following year, the track saw its first 500-mile race, which was won by Junior Johnson.
In the years following, the track expanded steadily. In 1955, construction began on the twelve-story police station that still stands today. That same year, one of the first shopping malls in the area opened its doors, and the next year, the mall’s anchors were joined by a 14-story office building. The speedway also saw the construction of the 6,000-seat wooden grandstands in 1957, which were originally built for an auto show that never happened. The show was canceled due to the ongoing Korean War. After the grandstands were used for several years as a warehouse, they were moved to their current location and have been used ever since.