By Kathy Feist
John Thomas Pierce’ history novel The Million Dollar Speedway takes readers on a fast ride through Kansas City’s history, starting with Belgian settlers in 1852, a wooden speedway in the 1920s and ending in heatwave summers of 1979-81 when environmental pollutants sent blue collar families to the hospitals.
South Kansas Citianas will enjoy the history that spans the area, including the founding of the Dodson township near 85th and Paseo, the dairyland around it, its transformation into the much-heralded racetrack at 95th and Troost and eventually the government run Bannister Federal Complex.
While the The Million Dollar Speedway is the title of the book, the fun facts regarding the wooden racetrack’s short lifespan (1922-24), caused by humid climate, is a small part of the story. But it figures into an evolving mystery regarding lead poisoning among Belgian-built households in the East Bottoms.
The story primarily follows the fictionalized character named Racer, a young chemistry assistant at the University of Kansas City who races bicycles, gets a job with the Missouri Pacific railroad spraying herbicides along the tracks, and is instrumental in collecting air pollutant and lead poisoning data for the UKC toxicology lab.
Racer, one might say, is the embodiment of his author, John “Thomas” Pierce.
Dr. J. Thomas Pierce received a BS in Chemistry from Northwestern State University, an MS in Chemistry from Pittsburgh State University and both an MD and PhD in Environmental Health (industrial hygiene and toxicology) from the Unversity of Oklahoma. He began his career in occupational health and preventive medicine in 1975 at the University of Kansas City. Since then, he has authored several research papers and books regarding the effects of air and water contaminants on various populations throughout the world. He won the Rachel Carson Environmental Leadership Award in 2012. He has invented devices useful to infection and air pollution control efforts. Now retired, Pierce at the age of 71, who lives near the Plaza, is an avid bicycle racer.
And like Racer, he had a side job while getting his degree.
“I actually worked for the railroad before I got out of college,” he confesses. “After college, I was a clerk for the railroad. It was a vocation for quite a while.” His job ended when his employer the Missouri Pacific became Union Pacific.
He returned to his original passion.
“I was always fascinated with chemicals and what they did to people, whether or not they were drugs and if they helped people or were toxic,” he explains.
His career path led him around the country, researching, teaching or directing colleges at various universities, including the Virginia Commonwealth University, University of North Alabama, Indiana University, Oklahoma City University and the Navy Environmental Health Center.
Much like Pierce’s life, the thin book, only 158 pages, is packed with events, details, and characters. The story could have easily been fleshed out to three or four times its size for a complete and slow digestion.
“I didn’t want to paint big pictures, I wanted to paint little pictures,” he says, regarding each of his characters and their struggles.
As a researcher, Pierce knows where the little pictures, the details, lead. In the end, he would like readers to understand its bigger picture.
“I would like for people to have a different sort of understanding of what they share with people who have preceded them,” he says. “The real twist in trying to explain the succession that occurs over the course of The Million Dollar Speedway is how one generation of people influence the next, good or bad.”
The Million Dollar Speedway can be read in pieces on Issuu.com or can be purchased for $12.95 at The Telegraph, 13610 Washington St., Kansas City, MO 64145. An excerpt can be read at milliondollarspeedway.com.