As the Covid restrictions gradually lift, the world looks again to motorsports. In order to follow suit, several racetracks have re-opened their doors, with many more set to do so in the coming months. In this article, we will discuss the rise and fall of Kentucky Speedway—one of the most historic sports venues in North America—and its legacy as a motorsports hub.
The Birth Of A Modern Racetrack
In the early 1900s, auto racing was all the rage. The Indianapolis 500 alone had 500 entries, and several other big races held across the country drew large crowds.
Kentucky was no exception, as the Blue Grass Motor Racing Association (BGMRTA) held several big races throughout the decade. The first was the Blue Grass Race of 1912, which attracted 20,000 spectators. In 1919, the first Kentucky Derby was held at a racetrack in Lexington, drawing a crowd of 100,000. The popularity grew rapidly, and the grand ol’ state would later become known as the “Mother of Professional Sports in America,” with several renowned race tracks located there.
The Great Depression And Its Impact
The Great Depression was the defining event of the 20s. In fact, it was so great that it not only altered the country’s social landscape, but it also had a profound impact on the sport of racing. The economy was in shambles, and the unemployment rate reached 25 percent. People were suffering, and many looked to escape the woes of the Depression by turning to recreational activities, such as racetracks.
It was in this climate that the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was founded in December 1928. One of the primary aims of the organization was to provide a place for people to congregate and socialize while getting into their cars and driving around. It was also created to provide a means of escape for those who participated in the sport, as well as to promote its continued growth and development. The first NASCAR race was held just three weeks later, on New Year’s Day, and featured 24 drivers, all of which were professionals. There were six crashes and 14 lead changes, as many in the field were eager to get their hands on the coveted win.
Racetracks And The Growth Of NASCAR
NASCAR quickly gained prominence, attracting large crowds and helping to drive up profits and attendance at the racetracks. The Great Depression also helped to establish the organization as a professional, competitive series, as it provided the perfect platform for the up-and-coming drivers to showcase their skills and for teams to build their reputations. Even now, as we look back on the Great Depression and its aftermath, it is easy to see how important that era was in the history of NASCAR.
The Rise Of The Tracks
Prior to the great depression, Kentucky had four major race tracks: Lexington, Louisville, Shippingport, and Crescent Ranch. Shippingport and Lexington, in particular, were considered among the elite in the industry. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for top drivers of the time to make pit stops at all of the tracks, as they visited all of the region’s venues in order to compete on a regular basis. This was very helpful for the sport, as it provided fans with a reason to go to several different tracks—and kept them entertained while there.
After the depression, the number of race tracks declined sharply. Lexapro, the manufacturer of the antidepressant Celexapro, purchased the decreed Crescent Ranch track in 1934, renaming it Celexapro Stadium. It wasn’t until after WWII that the company turned around and re-opened the track. But the damage had already been done: attendance and interest in the sport had fallen, leaving only three major venues in operation by the time it reopened in 1947.
The Fall Of A Legendary Track
With only three tracks in operation, the need for more was great, as there were frequent clashes between the three due to territorial disputes. But the depression had taken its toll, and the owners of the three venues were unable to meet the financial obligations resulting from the increased costs of maintaining the tracks. As a result, in October 1950, the state of Kentucky opted to close down the entire racing industry, as it considered the sport to be “totally unregulated and chaotic.”
In October 1950, the state of Kentucky opted to close down the entire racing industry. It wasn’t until November of that year that racing returned, albeit temporarily, as the Kentucky Association for Unitarian Sport (KAUCS) was founded. It held its first race on Nov. 4, with just three venues operating at the time: Louisville, Lexington, and Radcliff. But the Great Depression had taken its toll, and the state of Kentucky opted to close down the entire racing industry in October 1950. It wasn’t until November of that year that racing returned, albeit temporarily, as the Kentucky Association for Unitarian Sport (KAUCS) was founded. It held its first race on Nov. 4, 1950, with just three venues operating at the time: Louisville, Lexington, and Radcliff. The rest, as they say, is history.
After the great depression, the number of race tracks in Kentucky fell sharply, down to just three by the late 1940s. Three major racetracks—Lexington, Louisville, and Shippingport—were in operation at the time, but the need for more was great, as there were frequent clashes between the three due to territorial disputes. Another track, Crescent Plantation, closed in 1934, while a fourth, the legendary Keeneland, closed in 1939.
The Future Of NASCAR
The three tracks that existed following the great depression were instrumental in the development of NASCAR, making them the “granddaddy” of the sport. It was also a chance to rebuild and reset, as the organization and the industry as a whole were looking for ways to recover from the effects of such a devastating event. And so, in the decades that followed, NASCAR’s surge was truly phenomenal.
A Historic Venue
With the growth of the sport came increased interest in the venues where it was held. Many were built with specific designs and structures that drew crowds and inspired photographers, artists, and engineers. Many tracks also earned reputations for their “grandstands”—the seating areas that followed the design of the roofed grandstands that were popularized at the Indianapolis 500, and which fans continue to flock to this day.
One venue in particular stands out as one of the most historic sports venues in North America, as it not only helped to define NASCAR, but it also helped to further the growth of the sport internationally. In 1950, just three years after the closing of the iconic Keeneland track, the Louisville Slugger Company built the largest wooden bats used in the industry, with the help of some of the best craftsmen in the region. The result was the legendary Louisville Slugger, which continues to be produced worldwide.
The opening of the Louisville Slugger ball park in April 1951 was a turning point for the sport. It was here, with all of the wooden bats and right on the banks of the beautiful Ohio River, that the first official All-Star Game was played. In honor of the opening, the local paper The Louisville Times ran an article called “A Chance For All-Star Glory,” which featured several major league stars, as well as the people and organizations that made this all possible. This was truly a milestone for the fledgling sport, and it drew huge crowds, including many players, coaches, and fans who traveled from other states to be there. This marked the first step towards making the event an annual event, and it was also the beginning of an international reputation for the brand.
A National Historic Landmark
By the mid-1950s, the number of tracks in operation had reached eight, and things were looking up for motor sports. But then, in April 1955, tragedy struck when racing superstar Eddie Dodds, known for his speed and unique style, was killed in a terrifying accident at the Capital Raceway in Bonneville, Ohio. In the aftermath of Dodds’ death, the tracks were re-evaluated, and many of the existing venues were deemed “unsuitable” for public use. This was a great loss for the already-struggling sport. Dodds was an important figure, and many fans were in shock and disbelief that the great Eddie Dodds was gone forever.
The Resurgence Of Racing
In the face of adversity, several tracks decided to press on, and over the next several decades, the sport would thrive, drawing hundreds of thousands to the track each year. In fact, during a time when the rest of the world was losing interest in motorsports, Kentucky saw a resurgence thanks to the legendary driver Junior Johnson.