By Diane Euston
When the Kansas Speedway opened to adoring race fans in 2001, residents in the metro were elated to finally quench their need for speed. The impressive 1.5-mile oval track stands as a clear landmark as cars whip down the highway in Kansas City, Kan. With seating for 48,000 fans, Kansas Speedway is a draw for tourism to the area and most incorrectly believe that this was the metro’s first professional racetrack.
Before the Kansas Speedway, there was the Kansas City Speedway.
With room for 60,000 fans, the Kansas City Speedway was surprisingly larger and likely louder (it was made of wood!) than the modern track we see today. When it opened in 1922, the city sincerely believed this would be the next big draw for tourists, motor car enthusiasts and daredevils. Unfortunately, its history was very brief. But luckily for us, it was very eventful.
The Rise of the Motor Car in Kansas City
When the motor car emerged from Germany and France in the late 1800s, Americans were geared up and ready to launch various automobile manufacturers. Before the top three automakers (Chrysler, General Motors and Ford) reigned supreme, thousands of companies selling these “motorized carriages” surfaced in every major city.
In its infancy, automobile manufacturers tinkered in steam, gasoline and (ironically) electric models. By 1907, Kansas City had established the Motor Car Dealers’ Association and an automobile club, the latter bringing car shows to Convention Hall. In 1913, Henry Ford chose Kansas City for his first auto assembly plant outside of Detroit.
In the early stages of car manufacturing, Kansas City had over 20 different companies making automobiles.
Edwin Ernest “E.E.” Peake (1879-1924) was one of the pioneers of safe roads for vehicles in Kansas City. He arrived in Kansas City from Detroit in 1910 to take over as branch manager of Regal Motor Co. In 1913, he was elected secretary of the Motor Car Dealers’ Assn. and was in charge of organizing the car shows. In fact, Kansas City hosted the third largest car show in the entire nation and showcased vehicles ranging from $395 to $10,000.
By 1914, there were approximately 6,000 automobiles in the metro area and downtown Kansas City’s streets were already congested with streetcar lines, horses and wagons. Adding the automobile to the mix made things quite interesting. Side roads were too narrow and “intended for slow going vehicles.” As the city moved south, there was another problem: there was no thoroughfare to reach downtown. The Paseo wasn’t completed this far south at the time and was east of the city. Gillham Rd. at today’s Hospital Hill was one route, but in rainy weather, vehicles with less-than-ideal tire tread would go skidding the whole way up and down.
“Sand boxes should be installed on this hill and the road should be sanded,” E.E. Peake from the Motor Car Dealers’ Assn. told the Kansas City Star.
Acting as secretary of the organization, Peake became an early advocate for rock roads and safe travel by automobile. He campaigned for what we would now call the modern highway system decades before it became a reality. By 1921, Peake could see the future of the automobile and proclaimed, “The motor car is no longer a possession of the classes. It is as much a household necessity and commodity as a stove or an article of furniture.”
Peake was right. In the 1920s, the amount of people who owned an automobile in the United States tripled. As more people purchased gas, steam and electric cars, the more competitive the market became for the most reliable and fastest vehicles.
They had a need for speed, and as the country came to embrace the automobile, they came to embrace automobile racing. Mind you, in 1920, the most popular vehicle on the road was the Ford Model T which could reach a top speed of 28 miles per hour.
Racing into Kansas City
As automobile manufacturers looked to expand their business, featuring their fastest models literally became a sport. One of the oldest races in the country, the Indianapolis 500, began in 1911. Forty cars qualified at an average speed of 75 miles per hour. Originally paved in brick, the 2.5-mile-long track quickly became the most important automobile race in the world.
Large cities across America looked for a piece of the racecar pie and tracks made specifically for automobiles were built. Reaching the highest speed became the number one priority.
Brick tracks like in Indianapolis were chosen by some cities while others looked further for tracks with inclines to help these early two-passenger racecars reach the highest speed. At the time, every racecar had to have a “riding mechanic” and a driver.
In Spring 1910, the first circular wood board track was designed by Jack Prince and built in Los Angeles at the cost of $75,000. Called the Motordome, this circular one-mile track became one of the fastest in the nation with speeds reaching 100 miles per hour. Within short order, Jack Prince’s wooden tracks were in high demand.
It didn’t take Kansas City’s automobile enthusiasts long to want in on the action. Spearheaded by many of the members of the Motor Car Dealers’ Assn., a group of men formed the Kansas City Speedway Association in 1921. E.E. Peake was elected secretary and general manager of the operation. He used his experience promoting car shows and became the active spokesman for the speedway.
The first item of business was to choose a location. The organization was able to find 196 acres of land two miles south of the city limits that was “as level as a table.” The land spanned east of Holmes Rd. between 91stand 95th (Bannister Rd) Streets and was near the Dodson streetcar line as well as the Missouri Pacific Railroad. When built, it would be “closer to the heart of a city than any speedway in the country.”
The Kansas City Speedway Assn. crunched the numbers and felt it would work. Since 100,000 people had been drawn to Kansas City for the week-long motor show, the city could support a speedway. The Chamber of Commerce believed, “if properly managed,” it would become an attraction. And, Kansas City’s central location “was a geographical position attractive to the Speed Kings” who could stop off here on their travels east and west.
The Half-Million Dollar Speedway
The association paid $80,000 for the land off Holmes Rd. that was a cornfield and pastures for cattle and horses. They hired the Los Angeles Motordome designer Jack Prince who guaranteed he could build the fastest wooden track ever built. After the association visited tracks on the west coast, they made the decision to build an oval track made of wood that would span one and a quarter mile.
Grading began in May 1922; the main entrance was carved out at 91st and Holmes. Plans were to complete the entire speedway in three months.
The first race program announced, “In order to withstand the strain of the terrific pounding of racing motor cars, the board track must be smooth, strong, durable, and absolutely safe.”
Southern yellow pine (2’x3’) was selected for the track, and 175 carloads of it were dropped at the location. It took four million feet of wood to construct it, and the turns at 42 degrees were the highest built at the time. The curves allowed for cars to reach up to 120 miles per hour.
One hundred tons of steel made up the two grandstands built on either side of the track, and each grandstand could hold approximately 25,000 people and was 800 feet long. At the highest point, spectators would stand 80 feet above the track for optimum viewing. Five hundred men were employed at the Kansas City Speedway in order to ensure they made their deadline.
The first race, coined the First International 300-Mile Speed Classic, was set for Sept. 16, 1922. Advertisements boasted the race as “50 miles more than ever has been attempted on any of the modern board tracks.” About the distance between Kansas City and St. Louis, the race promoted, “It will be driven in less than three hours. Think of it!”
Tickets ranged from between $1 and $10, and the race was set to begin at 2 pm. Some of the racecars were put on display at Union Station to further promote the event.
The first entry to the race was millionaire Cliff Durant whose father was the founder of General Motors. Other well-known racers joined the fleet as excitement leading up to the races mounted. Durant planned to drive his aptly named Durant Special which was said to have a $100,000 motor.
Durant liked to arrive in style, so he opted to pilot his De Haviland plane from Oakland, Cal. to Kansas City. Around noon on Sept. 13, he arrived via-car “with a large bandage over his left eye.” Ten miles west of Leavenworth, his plane had engine trouble and, at 55 feet in the air, did a nosedive into the ground. He refused the three stitches he needed because he thought “it would disqualify him as a contestant.”
A test run required that contestants show a speed of at least 105 miles per hour to qualify and were open to the press and officials. Two cars made in Kansas City, called “Junior Specials,” cost $50,000 to build, were capable of reaching 120 miles per hour and were “said to be the most beautiful racing cars ever constructed.”
Racers praised the “Half Million Dollar Speedway” and were impressed by the steel grandstands. They were ready to compete for the $10,000 first place prize.
In the end, the Kansas City Speedway cost $800,000 to build.
First International 300-Mile Speed Classic
Rain delayed the inaugural race day, so racecar drivers and spectators had to wait until the next day – Sept. 17. Cliff Durant had to leave town, so he elected to have his 30-year-old riding mechanic, Roscoe Sarles race in his place.
Roscoe was a newly married amateur boxer whose biography claimed, “He has had more spectacular spills than any of the active drivers, yet despite his many mishaps has always escaped without serious injury.”
Other “famous pilots” included Peter de Paolo in one of the Kansas City built Junior Specials, Harry Hartz who ranks today as among the most consistent Indianapolis 500 race participants of all time, Missouri native Frank Elliott and Tommy Milton, who was the first two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500- and was blind in one eye.
Fifteen speed racers traveled 240 laps to complete 300 miles. The crowd was estimated at 56,000. The Kansas City Times reported, “It is the element of danger, according to the crowds’ reckonings, which makes racing the extremely exciting sport it is.”
The crowd certainly got what it wanted.
The first accident occurred on the southwest turn when two cars collided and went out early. One of the drivers was severely injured with a leg broken and a large cut on his face.
Eddie Hearne’s car rolled three times and threw his riding mechanic and him “high into the air in full sight of the crowd.” Hearne was bruised and his mechanic broke his right arm.
In the 110th lap, Roscoe Sarles’ Durant Special and Peter de Paolo’s Junior Special, crashed on the north turn. Roscoe’s car plunged over the side of the racetrack, fell 40 feet and burst into flames. His riding mechanic, Christopher Pickup (raised in Kansas City) tried to jump out but fell with the wreckage; he was badly burned and bruised.
Most of the crash was hidden from patrons by a clump of trees, but the smoke billowing above the broken segment of the track’s wall quickly alerted people to a serious problem. Witnesses who tried to get Roscoe out of the car claimed he was alive “and pleaded for aid.”
Unfortunately, no one could get past the roaring fire; Roscoe Sarles didn’t survive.
In a twist of fate, Roscoe had told a friend before the race, he had promised his wife to quit racing. “After today, I am through with the game,” he muttered.
Missouri native Frank Elliott was in the lead until he was forced into the pit for a new tire. Three laps later, Tommy Milton took over the lead and was able to hold it for the final 36 laps to clench the win. He finished in two hours, 46 minutes and 52.96 seconds.
Out of the 15 racecars that started, only eight remained at the end. One death, two critically injured and five others in the hospital rounded out an exciting opening day.
One of the race starters stated, “This is the most savage races I’ve ever seen.”
The Second and Third Races
The first being a success, the Kansas City Motor Speedway Assn. set to plan the next race- this time 50 miles shorter. Likely due to some financial issues, E.E. Peake resigned and L.J. Smyth took his spot as general manager.
Wanting to encourage drivers at the Indianapolis 500 in May to stop through Kansas City, they planned a July 4, 1923 race. Several of the speed demons included Cliff Durant, Tommy Milton and Eddie Hearne.
Eddie Hearne took first place in his Durant Special with an average speed of 105.6 miles per hour; he wouldn’t pause for the cameras until he had a chance to light up a celebratory cigarette after wiping dirt and oil from his face.
The Kansas City Speedway Assn. seemed pleased with the attendance that came in just at over 40,000, and the next race was quickly planned for Oct. 18, 1923- during the fall festival and Priest of Pallas celebrations.
The crowd at the third race was a serious disappointment. Only 25,000 people showed. “This was one of the biggest sporting events of the year, held on one of the finest tracks in the country,” general manager L.J. Smyth lamented. “We should have had a much greater crowd.”
Just one week later, a headline in the Kansas City Star read, “The Speedway is Bankrupt.”
Due to the bankruptcy, all events except for the July 4, 1924 race were canceled and L.J. Smyth was allowed to arrange the details. A $25,000 prize list was released and prices to attend were slightly reduced.
Past race winners were all present along with Pete de Paolo and Frank Elliott. But as the 18 competitors raced around the track, there seemed to be a serious problem arising.
As early as the 40th lap, officials eyed several holes emerging along the track that were causing some major tire issues as racers tried dodging them. The Kansas City Times reported, “Speed that literally tore up the board track of the Kansas City Speedway forced an abandonment of an exciting race at the end of the 150th mile.”
A race official threw up the flag and, wanting to avoid a great tragedy that was witnessed in the first race, decided it was time to call it.
Jimmy Murphy was declared the winner with an average speed of 114.43 miles per hour.
An inspection after the race showed that there were dozens of gaping holes, most being on the east turn “which was so dotted with holes it appeared almost impossible for one to miss all of them while driving at a high rate of speed.” Upon further examination, some boards were loose and some were rotting. Some holes along the east incline were said to have been 12 to 15 feet long and up to two feet wide.
30,000 fans walked away from the Kansas City Speedway that day, likely unaware they would never return to a racecar track in the city in their lifetime.
Remembering the Track Today
Other track owners across the country were approached to purchase the Kansas City Speedway, but there were no takers. Between 1910 and 1928, 24 wooden racetracks were opened. By 1931, all of the board tracks were gone.
The site was finally sold for $97,500 to former Kansas City Speedway Assn. president, J.B. Reynolds; ironically, he was the president of Kansas City Life Insurance Co.
The wood was sold off while the grandstands remained even as farming resumed in the 1930s on the site. The old “Timers and Scorers” box was converted into a vegetable stand for farmers to sell products to passing cars.
By 1942, the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine plant moved in and destroyed what was left of the old speedway. In 1949, the facility was used by Bendix and later Allied-Signal Aerospace Co. to make parts for nuclear bombs. It remained in operation, commonly known as the Bannister Federal Complex, until 2017. Today, all of the buildings have been razed.
Men such as E.E. Peake pioneered one of the largest car shows, advocated for safe roads for automobile owners and spilled into an ambitious project to bring speed and thrills to Kansas City. The Kansas City Speedway was like one of those fast-moving cars along the wooden racetrack; it was here one minute and vanished around the corner faster than anyone could have ever imagined.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com