The Bronson Speedway in Burlington, Iowa, is one of the first places that comes to mind when you think of a racetrack. It is the epitome of the smaller, “pennysaver” tracks that cropped up in the United States after World War II. If there’s one place that you would expect to find a glimpse of Midget car racing as it was in its heyday, it would be Bronson Speedway.
For decades, the 1/3-mile oval was the home of legendary car-racing drivers such as Frank Jue, who won the 1970 AAA Championship, and Scott Kalish, who won the 1971 Midwest 300 and finished second in the 1971 AAA Championship.
Today, Bronson is a shadow of its former self. The track is still open, but it no longer stages major events. On Tuesday, June 25, 2015, the last day of practice before the start of the AAA Eldora Tourist Truck Race, there were no cars on track.
After a nearly 50-year run, the Bronson Speedway closed down in 2014. The track was on the brink of financial collapse, and it owed more than $800,000 to the banks.
The story behind the track’s closing is quite the Hollywood one. It was originally opened in 1951 by Bob and Rose Bronson. Bob wasn’t exactly your average Joe. He raced cars as a hobby, and was also a successful real estate developer who owned and operated the local Ford dealership. In 1960, he purchased the 1/3-mile oval in Burlington and turned it into a drag strip. With the addition of a few trailers, he began hosting weekly drag strip races on Sunday afternoons. His goal was to make the track a destination for drivers from all over the Midwest. More importantly, he wanted to attract enough spectators to the track so that it could become self-sufficient and pay back the bank loans.
While the weekly races were a hit with the locals and drew large crowds, it wasn’t enough to save the track. After three years of struggling, the Bronsons sold the track to a limited liability company named Central Iowa Auto Racing, LLC (a group of local businessmen) in 1968 for a whopping $275,000. The new owners had to be content with hosting the occasional local track race and car show. The crowds at the tracks dropped off, and the money started flowing dangerously slow. If the track isn’t able to pay back its loans by next month, it will be forced to close its doors.
Since the track became a public nuisance and people were driving cars there all the time, the city of Burlington requested that the state shut it down. The Iowa Department of Transportation stepped in and took over track operations in an effort to keep the historic oval open. They established a new weekly schedule of events, which included a Saturday night midget race from which the Eldora Tourist Truck Race is derived, a weekly motorcycle race, and a youth football program.
Although they never gave up hope of reopening the track, the owners knew they had to make some drastic adjustments. They started by switching to a Friday night schedule (previously, it was a Thursday night race), and then moved the race to a Saturday night. The effort seemed to be paying off as they established a new track record for car counts with 10,000 people coming out for the first event.
Unfortunately, the momentum was short lived. With only four weeks of the season gone, the track had already lost more than $150,000. The owners knew that in order to recover, they had to switch to an even more bankable night; Wednesday, June 24, 2015, was their last chance to pull something off.
That day, they promoted the race as ‘Historic Day at Bronson Speedway‘ and announced a special VIP day pass for $5 that allowed admission to the track before the race and two hours of pre-race entertainment. The owners also brought in big-name racers such as Tim Flanders, who drove for Chrysler back in the day, and the Feld Motor Company duo of Bob and Doug Feld.
Unfortunately, the novelty of the special day didn’t translate into huge profits, and the track’s owners were faced with the difficult decision of either declaring bankruptcy, or shutting down permanently.
They chose the latter. On June 25, 2015, less than a month after their ‘historic’ day, the track officially closed its doors for the last time.
Future of Bronson
Despite its short history, Bronson has left an indelible mark on the motor racing scene. The track was born out of the post-war economic boom in the U.S., and it was one of the first tracks to truly embrace the Midget car world. The track maintained its 1/3-mile layout, but added several turns and strategically placed grandstands to create a more intimate atmosphere for the drivers and fans. Today, the track holds a special place in the hearts of motor racing fans.
The story of Bronson is one of perseverance, and it was definitely no easy feat to keep the track open for 50 years. The fact that the state and local authorities got involved and worked to keep the track open shows that there is still a place in American racing for tracks like Bronson, which embrace the spirit of a bygone era. Now that the track is over 50 years old, it is definitely time to find a new venue for Midget car fans to congregate and celebrate the greats of the past.