Ghost Riders in the Pines

By George R. Brinkerhoff

Posted: 01/04/2012

Atlantic City Motor Speedway
Pre-race activities in pit lane on the front straightaway in preparation for the first race ever held at the Atlantic City Motor Speedway, near Hammonton, NJ, May 1, 1926. Harry Hartz, of Pomona, California, driving the Miller #3 in the foreground was the winner of the event, in record time.
Photo from the Collection of Robert Benner

You’re not going to believe this. Once upon a time, amidst what is now a serene pine forest in South Jersey, race car driving legends from the dawn of motorsports once fiercely and loudly battled each other for supremacy at a race course that rivaled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

See, I told you.

To look at the site now, nestled in the pines, it’s nearly impossible to imagine. And the race car drivers who drove here were the greatest of their time. The same guys who drove at Indianapolis, as well as other top racing circuits, drove here — their generation’s Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt — all fighting for bragging rights and glory in the South Jersey pines.

The evidence is here, hidden in the woods near a main thoroughfare just outside Hammonton. A dirt road in the shape of an oval. Built in 1926, the Atlantic City Motor Speedway (aka, the Amatol Speedway, or simply the Atlantic City Speedway) was a marvel of 1920s era human engineering and industry. Four and a half million feet of lumber (brought in by 253 rail cars) created an oval board track of two by fours, 1.5 miles long and 50 feet wide with banked turns on a 45 degree angle (The boards were placed lengthwise, two inch side up, for the racing surface), and grandstands with a capacity of 40,000 people (there was room for another 250,000 in and around the track).

The place was built and financed by Charles M. Schwab, steel magnate and president of, consecutively, Carnegie Steel Company, US Steel, and Bethlehem Steel. It was heralded by newsmen of the day as a new Roman Coliseum.

It also was called “the fastest track in the world,” allowing for speeds up to 160 mph. In fact, the single lap track qualifying record of 147.7 miles per hour was established by Frank Lockhart in May 1927. (This single lap qualifying speed record would not be eclipsed again in competition until the 1960 Indianapolis 500, 33 years later.)

Harry Hartz
Harry Hartz, one of the top racers of the 1920s.

Board track racing truly was a mad idea. Cobbling together an incredible amount of lumber, fashioning huge, one-to-two-mile-long circular or oval bowls with steeply banked turns, with few or no guardrails, and allowing racers in motorcycles or open cockpit cars, without so much as a seat belt, to drive as fast as humanly possible, battling each other for the privilege of priority. And the board tracks themselves possessed many safety hazards including deterioration, holes in the racing surface, splinters propelled in the air from other vehicles, and road rash with splinters if you crashed and were thrown from your vehicle onto the track. Oh, and flammability. You know, gasoline and oil on wood? In 1928, for example, during a 30,000-mile endurance test of Studebakers, driver Norman Batten was stopped for fuel when something exploded under the vehicle, igniting both it and the track. Somehow the car was moved, the fire extinguished and both Norman and the track were spared.

Board tracks began in the late 1800s as wooden velodromes constructed for bicycle races. Wood was plentiful, cheap and easy to craft, so why not use it for the emerging automobile and motorcycle competitive battles? The heyday of the board tracks, or motordromes, ran roughly from 1910 to the early 1930s, with a few lasting into the 1940s. Many tracks were built all across America. Some were small, very high-banked affairs built for motorcycles only, while others were more lengthy with slightly more subtle banking suitable for both autos and motorcycles. Motorcycle races were especially dangerous due to the lack of brakes on the machines, the high speeds on the steeply banked tracks, and the absence of barriers between riders and crowds. Auto races were nearly as risky. The use of a wooden surface and steep banks meant the drivers achieved significantly higher speeds than on dirt tracks or the bricks at Indianapolis.

And so, the board track races led to both racer and spectator injuries and deaths, which generated negative publicity, which eventually spelled their doom.

It didn’t help that drivers had none of today’s safety features — seat belts, rollbars, or fireproof suits. They wore the thinnest of leather helmets (and neckties!). Their shoulders often extended above the cockpit, and they looked through goggles, not a windshield.

Atlantic City Motor Speedway
Atlantic City Motor Speedway was also used as an endurance testing ground for automobile manufacturers. One test was a non-stop, 20 day, 19 night, 30,000 mile marathon for Studebakers.
From the authors collection

Despite the risk, or maybe because of it, board racing was one of the most compelling spectator sports of its era. Newspapers anointed the drivers as “speed kings,” “human bullets,” and “daredevils.” They lauded the driver’s bravery and skills, describing in detail the incidents and crashes, the injuries and deaths. Such racing was fiercely defended as one of the boldest, most fearless and epic of human endeavors. In hindsight, that seems right.

Though billed as the “fastest track in the world,” the Atlantic City Motor Speedway apparently suffered from less reported carnage than other board tracks, whose spectator seats lined the steeply-banked curves. Grandstands here were located in the long front straightaway. There were no reported deaths and only a few notable injuries, mostly to drivers.

If the injury levels were low at the speedway, the quality of racing was the best of the best. It included what is now referred to as open-wheel racing (lighter, faster, fenderless vehicles built exclusively for the race track); true stock car racing; motorcycle racing; and even airplane racing. By my count, no fewer than seven winners of the Indianapolis 500 competed here in South Jersey during the four years that the Speedway functioned.

In the very first race held at the Jersey venue in May of 1926, an open-wheel event, winner Harry Hartz, driving a Miller, set a new race record for 300 miles in 2 hours, 14 minutes and 14 seconds. The NY Times headline announced, “Six Auto Marks Fall; 80,000 Watch Race,” indicating six automobile speed records for various distances were set. The Times said Hartz clipped nearly five minutes from the 300-mile record and took $12,000 of the race’s $30,000 purse. (British-produced newsreel film footage from this very race can be seen at http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=25285. The newsreel indicates that the race was at “America’s Brooklands” in New Jersey. Brooklands was a major race track in England. Though the winner’s name is misspelled Harry Hart, the time and distance match, along with enough other details to allow me to confirm this was the inaugural Atlantic City Motor Speedway race. The film captures the spectacular scene: grandstands and infield buzzing with spectators; the speed of the flimsy-looking open-wheel cars; and the bravery of the “wheel twister” pilots hanging it all out on the ragged edge.)

This first race was an international affair, featuring both Count du Marguenat from France and Baron de Rachewsky, from Russia. Both a count and a baron, racing on a board track in South Jersey against the lowly American commoners — and the commoners beat them! (The count couldn’t start the race and the baron lasted only 11 laps.)

Atlantic City Motor Speedway
Racers zoom past the packed grandstands at Atlantic City Motor Speedway.
Photo from the Collection of George Koyt

A major event in honor the nation’s sesquicentennial (150-year) celebration lit up the track on July 17, 1926. Racing prizes of nearly $50,000 that day were called by The Hammonton News, “the richest financial plum the world of speed has ever offered.” Three 60-mile races and a 120-mile feature were offered, with Hartz again winning the main event.

At a May 1927 race, just 20,000 fans watched Dave Lewis win the open-wheel event and then witnessed a crash in the stock car event. The driver of a Stutz and his ride-along mechanic (standard practice for many races run at this time) were seriously hurt when they “rolled off the northern embankment and their car was smashed to pieces.” The driver in the following car jammed on his brakes and skidded down the track.

Due to increased publicity and lower ticket prices, some 75,000 fans attended the September 1927 stock car races.

Then, just two years after its inaugural race, the speedway launched what would be its final season of automobile racing on May 30, 1928, with great fanfare. The Hammonton News wrote about “the biggest board speedway in the east.” It gushed: “Motorcycle, airplane and automobile races will dominate the program, which will be embellished with parachute jumping acts and trapeze stunts thousands of feet in the air.”

Hopes were high but the year’s attendance figures begin to tell the story. The May 30, 1928, stock car races drew a respectable 26,000, considering it was on the same day as the Indy 500 in Indianapolis that drew many of the best drivers. Two of three auto races were won by the 1915 Indy 500 winner Ralph De Palma. The program also called for professional and amateur motorcycle races. “Wild” Bill Minnick, known for racing with his sidecar motorcycle, won the 20-mile professional race, besting another motorcycle riding star of the day, Joe Petrali.

At the July 4, 1928, race, the open-wheel race cars were back. This contest was won by Fred Winnai in a Duesenberg, and drew only 15,000 fans. For the final automobile race, a mere 2000 people watched as Ray Keech, the then owner of the world straightaway land speed record at 207.55 mph set the previous April, won the 100-mile event on September 16, 1928. The races scheduled for October were cancelled.

A last dismal event was held in 1929. Both professional and amateur motorcycle races had been scheduled. The spectators erupted in anger with cries of “Fake!” and “We want our money back,” and “descended on the ticket booth” when the professional racers refused to race because they had not been paid up front by the promoter. State police “quieted them in about twenty minutes after several tussles,” said one report. The amateurs did race, but the promoter was arrested.

Most of the track was eventually torn down, and in 1933 the Hammonton Fire Department burned what remained. The Atlantic City Motor Speedway of the Roaring Twenties remains a fascinating, if brief, page in the annals of both local and national motorsports history.

George R. Brinkerhoff is an attorney, a race fan and an avid outdoorsman, with an interest in unique local history.

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