Speedway gas stations have been around for more than a century and were initially designed to serve the fast cars that roamed the streets in the early 20th century. These stations were often placed strategically on the outskirts of town, at the ends of stretches on the tarmac.
But over the decades, traffic has dwindled and these gas stations have sat idle, gathering dust. Today, there are only a handful of these historic gas stations scattered across the United States, and none remain in New Jersey – the home of NASCAR.
We took a trip back in time to retrace the evolution of the speedway gas station, from their humble beginnings to their modern-day obsolescence. What we found was both fascinating and heartbreaking. Let’s take a look.
The first of the so-called “speedway” gas stations appeared in New York City around 1902. The design was inspired by early 20th-century racetracks like the Indianapolis Speedway, where the first speedway races were held. These tracks were characterized by long, straightaways interrupted by a handful of turns – kind of like a NASCAR track today.
The designers at Higbee’s Chemical Company took their inspiration from the racetracks and implemented it into a street corner design. They called it the “corner gas station.” And from that point on, the gas station was an essential part of the neighborhood.
The Transition To Residential Space
Even before the advent of the automobile, gas stations were considered an unsightly eyesore. The design wasn’t meant to be pretty – it was supposed to be functional. In the early 20th century, gas stations were typically located on the outskirts of town, away from the bustle of the city. They had to be, since a gas station’s main purpose is to pump gas and serve drivers.
As time passed and more and more families moved into the suburbs, the demand for gas dropped and so did the number of customers at gas stations. As a result, gas stations became a less attractive nuisance and were permitted to be built closer to residential areas.
The transition from gas station to residential is evident in places like South Miami, where gas stations are dwarfed by the enormous glass and steel skyscrapers that house expensive apartments.
The Decline Of Urban Gas Stations
The 1960s and 70s were a grim time for gas stations. The oil crisis of the 1970s hit petroleum-dependent cars and gas stations hard, and the industry began a steady decline. The high costs of setting up and running a gas station made it unprofitable for many gas station owners. Many closed their stations and abandoned the ghost rides that they once serviced.
In the 1980s, gas stations went through a renaissance when gas prices dropped and drivers came back to the fore. But it wasn’t meant to be. The trend toward more fuel-efficient cars and trucks has forced gas stations to close their doors for good. Today, there are only a handful of urban gas stations still in existence. Some have been converted to other uses – like a bank or restaurant – but most are just left to rot.
Even the ones that haven’t been razed still struggle to generate revenue. It’s difficult for gas stations to find a market, since fewer and fewer people are driving to work these days.
But the decline of the gas station is by no means the history of the American oil industry. We could write an entire book on the subject, detailing how gas stations have evolved, as well as the people and events that helped shaped the industry.
The Remnants Of An American Icon
While much has changed over the years, there are still a few gas stations that survive in New York City. They’re there to remind us that even though much about the modern American oil industry has changed, one thing has remained the same: the importance and influence of the gas station.
More than anything else, the gas station is a symbol of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is a living, breathing testament to the fact that even in the 21st century, nothing stays the same forever. Even gas stations have to evolve to stay alive.