Why Did Pennsboro Speedway Close? [Fact Checked!]

On May 25, 2019, Joe Mansfield was at home in his garage, sorting through old race vehicles and trying to make space for the upcoming weekend. With only a few days to go before the Memorial Day weekend racing season opener at Virginia’s Richmond Raceway, it was time for the annual spring cleaning.

Mansfield was the general manager of the unopened Pennsboro Speedway, a dirt oval that had been the site of several memorable races in the 80s and early 90s. The track was in a bad state, with a lot of the grandstands and most of the infield littered with weeds, and there were rumors that the track had been sold to a development company for reuse.

Mansfield still harbored hopes for the track, which as a child had held his interest when other racetracks failed to do so. But at 54 years old, time was quickly passing and he knew this was probably the last chance he’d have to see the track in action.

This week on The Racer’s Pulse, we take a look at why Mansfield and others in the motorsport community were so attached to this piece of dirt, and what will happen to it now that it has closed its doors for the last time.

The Last Hurrah?

It’s been a tough 18 months for dirt ovals. First, there was the unexpected closure of the legendary Riverside International Speedway, followed by the even more devastating news that was soon to follow. But even before those two events, dirt ovals had begun to struggle. While the early 2000s had seen a bit of a revival thanks in large part to the legendary International Speedway Corporation, the last few years have been tough for the once-popular form of motorsport.

The main issue, as with so many other racing venues, was the lack of investment. It wasn’t just the lack of investment that made it so difficult for dirt ovals to resurface either. With grass being such a popular alternative, tracks were forced to become increasingly reliant on artificial drying devices and gas-powered blowers, costing them money and raising concerns about the environment.

A 2018 article in Popular Mechanics noted that dirt track racing wasn’t going away, but it was definitely in a state of change. The article cited a decline in participation and a rise in popularity of other motorsports, such as drag racing and road racing. Could it be that the last hurrah for dirt ovals had arrived?

The Last Hurrah? (Part 2)

While most tracks switched to turf or concrete surfaces, a select few have chosen to embrace a more traditional layout. Take, for example, the Pennsylvania Derby. Since its inception in 1911, the Pennsboro Speedway has been a hub of motorsport activity, attracting famous race drivers like Fred Agnew, Ned Jarrett, and most recently, Bob Jenkins.

After going through multiple ownership changes, the track was purchased by Mansfield in 2014 and promptly reopened with the intention of maintaining its historical character. Most of the cars from its heyday have been preserved and taken out for nostalgic looks on the weekends, attracting a large audience of race fans who remember the great times at the old track. While the track is in a picturesque location and the crowds seem to enjoy themselves, it isn’t drawing the same number of paying customers as it once did.

Even the legendary Watkins Glen International, the most populated dirt oval in New York, has decided to put a stop to its annual tradition of adding another dirt oval to its schedule and is focusing on its road courses for the foreseeable future. The upstate New York venue has been around since 1929 and is considered the father of all-weather racing, holding a unique place in motorsport history. Unfortunately for fans of the historic race course, attendance has declined by roughly 20% since 2014 and efforts to revive the tradition have failed. Like so many other historic tracks, it appears that Watkins Glen is ready to move on to the next big thing.

Historical Landmarks

If there’s one thing that dirt ovals have going for them it’s their historical charm. From their humble beginnings in the early 20th century to their status as iconic American racing venues, dirt ovals have a special place in the hearts of motorsport fans. Just check out Twitter on any given day and you’ll see plenty of photos and videos celebrating these historic tracks and their many wonderful moments. It’s more than just nostalgia though, as the stories behind these venues often provide an insight into how racing used to be done, and the personalities who graced the tracks with their presence still resonate today.

It’s not just the historical aspect of these venues that makes them so appealing to fans either. Racing at these locations provided a unique opportunity to witness the passion of the fans who showed up to cheer on their favorite drivers. It was common for the crowds at these types of venues to get physically involved with the sport, holding up signs and shouting encouragement as the cars took off for the finishing line. These are the types of signs that drivers saw in the distance and took into consideration when making a decision about where to leave the track and where to go next – that’s how important these types of venues were back then!

The Grand Finality

With the possible exception of Daytona, where they hold motorcycle and car races in the same venue, dirt ovals have always been considered the grand finale of the racing season. This is in part due to the fact that they were the last chance for drivers to get a leg up on the season, but it’s also because they were the final chapter in a long line of competitions leading up to the big race. Some of these races were held well before the creation of NASCAR, meaning that they predate the modern form of American racing, and continued well after NASCAR’s inception. Interestingly, several of these early races, like the Indianapolis 500, were run on dirt roads rather than concrete or tarmac asphalt.

These days, it’s rare to see a dirt oval in a NASCAR Series race, with the exception of the occasional Camping World Truck Series or ARCA race, where the terrain can play a part. Dirt ovals are still around, but for the most part, they’ve been replaced by other formats, like the aforementioned road courses and drag strips, which are more common around Europe and Asia due to the fact that they’re more prevalent there. It’s easy to see why NASCAR hasn’t invested in these types of venues, as the cost of repairing the tracks after every race is something the sport can’t afford. It would be nice to see some of these tracks survive though, as they have so much historical importance!

A Place For Fans

It’s always been a place for fans. From the roaring crowds that packed the stands at Riverside to the passionate individuals who showed up at the small tracks of the Midwest, dirt ovals have always been about the fans. This is probably because these types of venues had the misfortune of being located close to where they played. It wasn’t easy to keep track of what was going on due to the nature of the sport, which meant that fans had to make the most of what little information they got and piece it together, like a jigsaw puzzle.

It wasn’t always easy for fans either. Take the case of Ned Jarrett, who holds the distinction of being the first driver to bring a jet engine to the track. The engine blew up on his plane just moments after he landed it, but that didn’t stop him from racing at the site for the next few hours before the engine was finally removed.

One of the things that made Riverside so special was that they were accessible for everyone. When you were a kid, you probably got the sense that whatever your interests were in life, there was a track somewhere that you could attend and have fun.

Another Chapter

While most of the historic tracks have chosen to retire, others have chosen to continue racing. Take the case of the famous Orange County Raceway, which was built in 1961 and still draws race fans from all over the world thanks to its unique blend of country club and casino. This week-long music and sports festival features top names in entertainment and athletics, making it one of the most anticipated events of the year. It also marks the start of a new season for the track, which will run through mid-June.

The fact that these tracks have chosen to continue gives us a sense of hope for the future of dirt ovals – at least as far as spectator sports go. While it’s always been about the fans, tracks like these give us hope that the sport can still attract new audiences and retain its traditional fan base. Could this be the start of a comeback for dirt ovals?

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