This week, Utica, New York is welcoming fans of all ages to the 107th Running of the World’s Most Famous Half-Mile Racetrack. Known as the Utica Rome Speedway, this quarter-mile dirt oval has been the site of some of the most famous races in American sports history, including the 1994 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season finale and the 2007 IndyCar National Championship. It is, in other words, one of the most important and historic sports venues in the country.
But how big is it really? Let’s examine the seating and facilities at Utica Rome to get an idea of how much space there is available for spectators, and how much room there is for participants to roam around during races.
The History Of The Track
The first organized motor-sports competition in New York took place in 1914, more than 50 years before the creation of the modern Indianapolis 500. An early version of the Indy 500, which was first held in 1909, was won by Barney Oldfield in a speedboat. The following year, a new type of racing was born when Louis Meyer, a newspaper editor and businessman, proposed a race that would combine road- and water-based elements, similar to motorsport events that were popular throughout Europe at the time. The result was a race that would last half a mile on a dirt surface and use boats to cross the Ohio River. Thus, the name “Rome Speedway” was given to this early version of the Indy 500. The first officially sanctioned Indianapolis 500 was held at the newly renamed, and now historic, Sports Arena in 1924. Since then, the race has been held there every year (a tradition that continues to this day).
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the term “half-mile” became commonplace when referring to the Rome Speedway. Back then, aircraft had replaced cars as the primary mode of transportation, and a few aviation-related events were still held at the airport at the time. As a result, the pavement was only 50 yards long, and all the cars were on the race track for the duration of the event. In other words, this was basically a quarter mile with a 10-yard buffer zone on either end.
The Geography Of The Track
The Indianapolis 500, as well as other races at the historic venue, are staged inside a horseshoe-shaped grandstand, which was built in the 1950s and expanded in the 1990s. The stands are primarily made up of wood, metal, and concrete, which I guess you could describe as “midcentury modern.” Over the past several years, the top of the stand has been covered with aluminum foil and tinted windows to cut down on the heat island effect created by the pavement and lights. Around the track, there are also a few other grandstands that were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s along with a section of track known as the “island,” which was added in 1967.
These are the only two stands that are located on the same level as the spectator area, which occupies most of the rest of the track. Due to its semi-circle design, it doesn’t take very many seats to wrap around the entire oval. For those who can’t make it to the main stand, they can still catch the action from various locations around the track, including the “island”, “grove”, and “valley” areas near the exits. Finally, a word about the bathrooms…they used to be pretty bad. During the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t a lot of restroom space, so crews had to break down tents and other buildings or use portable toilets. These days, the bathrooms are pretty much up to modern standards, but there are still only a few and they’re not very luxurious. If they don’t have a shower, attendees are usually expected to head to the nearest carwash to wash off before heading to the track.
The Layout Of The Track
Like everything else at the venue, the layout of the track has changed a lot since its early days. When it first opened in 1924, there were no fences, guard rails, flaggers, or groomsmen. Back then, the track was open to fans, workers, and participants. The main reason for this is that the cars would often spin out or flip over during the events, so having the track open to outsiders was simply a matter of course.
At some point during the 1940s, a 15-foot dirt wall was erected around the track (the size of the wall is still the same today). This not only served as a protective measure but also as a grandstand, isolating the spectators from the elements and creating a more intimate atmosphere. At this time, the wall was also used to herd livestock away from the track during events, which was a common practice at the time. Finally, a few light stands now dot the track, providing some visual interest and keeping the participants at the right distance from the spectator area.
Even with all of these changes, the basic design of the track hasn’t changed much. When the wall was built, the horseshoe curve at the far end was trimmed off, and a few more turns were added, slightly increasing the track’s circumference. Today, the turns aren’t too challenging, and if you’ve never driven a car on a dirt surface before, it can be pretty tricky to navigate. Plus, there have been a few accidents involving fans and participants (mostly teenagers) due to this being a popular spot for them to walk and have fun. So the wall now serves a dual purpose: keeping people out and preventing accidents.
The Scenery And Surroundings
Let’s discuss the scenery and surrounding area now, because this part is pretty important too. Most people who attend the Indianapolis 500 aren’t exactly from “the urban community,” as it were, and they usually travel quite a distance to get there. This year, as a result of the Covid restrictions, fewer people are likely to be traveling there regularly, so it is crucial that everyone feels that they are getting their money’s worth. As such, it is essential that the grounds are spot on and that every amenity is available. This includes everything from the food and drink at the various roadside shacks to the cleanliness of the bathrooms.
Most of the shops and eateries nearby are seasonally-based, and while some remain open all year round, it’s best to check the local regulations before you visit. As mentioned, the rural area in which this track resides is mostly agricultural, with a large portion of land dedicated to growing tobacco. While this is still a major part of the local economy, things have changed a lot in the last 70 years and it’s now possible to find some snacks and beverages available at the track itself during events. This is a massive improvement over the days when attendees had to search for snacks and drinks, and some of them were likely to be expired, as there was no such thing as a “convenience store” back then.
The Buildings And Structures
The main building on the grounds is the grandstand, which was originally constructed in the 1950s and later expanded. As mentioned, this is where most of the action takes place and where the majority of the seats are located. There are currently 2,000 seats in the upper deck and a further 3,000 in the lower deck. The main advantage to having both decks is that you can use the one facing the other way to take a break from the sun (or to catch some rays), while still being able to see everything that is going on.
There is also a large pavilion behind the grandstand, which was originally built in the 1960s and had a roof added in the 1990s. It is here where the media conferences take place and where some of the other important activities that involve the drivers and their teams happen. There are also two buildings on the backstretch near the exit, which are used for the practice sessions that take place there. Finally, there is a small shed where the owners and workers of the track live, which is a popular stop with photographers who want to get a good shot of the “common people” working at the track. Behind the shed is a walkway that leads to another popular location: the bus parking lot. This is where the crew members and guests are picked up after events and driven back to their vehicles. They also bring supplies to the track and keep things clean. Even though a lot of these people work hard to maintain the track, it still needs lots of supplies, so at least once a week, a big truck will drive up and deliver fresh fruit, ice, and other essentials.