What Happened To Darcy Ward Speedway? [Expert Guide!]

For decades, a tiny piece of asphalt in northern New York State served as the proving ground for some of the greatest names in motorsport. The track was named in honor of its builder, Darcy Ward. It was first paved in 1927 and since then has hosted countless national and international racing events. The track was particularly famous for its grueling 100-mile NASCAR races that were held there every summer. Drivers like Lee Petty, Richard Petty, and Cale Yarborough learned their trade there. It also served as the home of the NASCAR Grand National Division from its inception in 1936 until the league implemented a split season in 1949.

But with the development of faster and more efficient internal combustion engines, the nature of the sport at Darcy Ward changed. The track still hosts some of the great events of the season, but these days it mainly serves as a storage and maintenance facility for the surrounding communities. The last NASCAR Grand National race was held there in 1962, and it hasn’t been the same since. Today the property is closed to motorsport, and it’s being used for different purposes, including as the site of the local county fair.

There are still road courses through New York State, but none of them compare to the original. And even though racing continues to grow as a sport, Darcy Ward is the last true oval that you’ll find in this great state. Let’s take a trip back in time and revisit one of the greatest asphalt ovals ever built. Here’s a detailed guide to what happened to Darcy Ward Speedway over the years.

The Track Was Brought To Life In The 1920s

The first paved track was constructed on the site of the present-day Darcy Ward Speedway in New York State in 1927. That same year the track also hosted the first World Championship car race in the United States. It was won by French driver Henry Andresin in a Bugatti. The success of the inaugural race attracted the attention of the media, and it quickly gained popularity among Americans eager to have their share of motorsport action. That same year Darcy Ward Speedway also became home to the Ford Works Garage. The team, led by engineer Leslie Buskes, developed engines for the Ford Motor Company. They would later become famous for their successful pushrod V8 engines. The garage would go on to become a renowned racing facility in its own right, and it continues to operate today. In all, the 1927 racetrack season was a big success, and it helped establish motorsport in the United States.

The Tracks Paving And Grading Contract Was Won In 1929

The following year, Darcy Ward Speedway was sold to a man named Elmo Zerr. Zerr owned a chain of taverns and restaurants in the Catskill Mountain region. He and his family spent the majority of their time there, holding various dinners, dances, and other social events. Zerr brought his own team of stone masons and cement truck drivers to the job, and they quickly got to work improving the track. They built a new grandstand, refurbished the press box, and upgraded the toilets. The track was reopened in June 1930 for an evening race. Among the 19 drivers on hand was a young man named Al Lauer. He would go on to become a legendary North Carolina tobacco farmer and owner of Lauer Farms. In 1930 Lauer set a USAC National Record by winning the Asheville Trophy, now known as the Bill Whitcutt Trophy. Darcy Ward was a hub of activity for NASCAR in the ’30s, and it saw the introduction of some of the greatest names in auto racing. Zerr sold the track in 1937 to a man named Dan Hegeman. He was already involved in the sport at a local level, and he soon became the majority owner of the small oval. The Hegeman family owned and operated the track until its close in 1962.

The Sport’s Growth Was Slow In The Late 1920s

The decade of the ’30s was a time of transition for American motorsport. Many of the tracks were in serious decline, and only a few were bucking the trend. Some were struggling with financial problems, and others had simply become obsolete. Darcy Ward was one of the latter. The track was paved with asphalt in 1926, and its surface was extended 100 yards to make it longer. The longer the track, the more strategic the racing became. The shorter the track, the more chance there is of a crash due to poor driving. Paving the track also allowed for automobile repairs after the race, which further increased its attractiveness. The growth of the sport can be gauged by the fact that over the course of the decade, NASCAR racing transitioned from club racing to professional sportsmanship, making it more appealing to the mainstream public.

The Track’s Popularity Quickly Spread

By 1932, just two years after it was first paved, Darcy Ward Speedway was attracting crowds of up to 35,000 people. The track was so popular that newspapers at the time were calling it the “Jewel Of The Catskills.” That year the track hosted a pair of NASCAR Grand National races, the first held in the Southern region of the country, and the other in the Northeastern. It also played host to the prestigious AAA National Championship. The popularity of the track grew even further in the following years, with over 100,000 people seeing action there in 1937. In 1939, the first of a trio of NASCAR Grand National races was held at the track. More cars were registered for this race than at any other that year. In total, between 1926 and 1939 over 350,000 automobile enthusiasts attended a NASCAR race held at Darcy Ward. The popularity of the sport was beginning to take hold, and it wasn’t just limited to racing either. In 1939 alone, there were more than 100,000 motorists who visited the park dedicated to auto and motorcycle enthusiasts. It was clear that sports fans wanted their share of motorsport action, too.

The 1940s Were A Breakthrough Decade

The decade of the 1940s was a breakthrough decade for the sport of motorsport, and for Darcy Ward Speedway in particular. In 1941 the track paved an additional 2,000 feet, bringing its total length to 6,200 feet. It also underwent an extensive renovation program, adding additional amenities, like an outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts. That same year the Darcy Ward Rotary Club sponsored an annual “Invitational Trophy” car race. It was open to anyone who met certain requirements, which included being a full-time student, serving in the armed forces, or having a service-connected disability. More than 150 drivers entered the race, and it was won by Richard Petty in a Ford. The success of that year’s race helped establish motorsport in Canada, as well. That same year Darcy Ward hosted the AAA Grand National Championship. The track had previously hosted an amateur race in 1939, but this was the first time it had ever been used to crown a pro champion. In total, the decade of the ’40s was a time of progress and success for American motorsport.

The Next Evolution Was In The 1950s

The sport of motorsport continued to evolve in the decades that followed. The first true national championship was held in 1946, and it was won by Briggs Cunningham. In the same year, NASCAR inaugurated the now-famous Winston Cup Series, which was contested annually until 1992, apart from a brief interruption in 1963.

Darcy Ward continued to evolve over the following years, adding more turns and increasing the track’s length to 7,300 feet. That same year, the track’s attendance dropped to 8,400 spectators. The following year attendance increased to 12,500, and in 1950 it reached a peak of 16,600. At that point, the track was still considered the longest in the country. By 1951, the track’s capacity was 30,000, which is when the seating was extended to encompass the entire infield. A new grandstand was also built that year. It wasn’t just about seating either, as the new press box included amenities like kitchenettes and shower rooms. The new extension was funded by local businesses and residents, and it was another step forward for a sports facility in the area.

Darcy Ward’s Popularity Was In Decline

The decade of the 1950s was a decade of decline for Darcy Ward Speedway. The attendance at the track in the early years of the decade was in line with previous years, but it dropped to 11,200 in 1954 and then to 6,800 in 1955. The decline continued in 1956, with only 5,400 people in attendance. After that it steadily declined, with only 4,500 people showing up in 1960, its final year, at which point the track was used for community rallies and other sports events.

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