Life in the fast lane
The Story of Edmonton International Speedway
Originally published August 12, 2004
My earliest memory of the Edmonton International Speedway came in 1968. I was just a boy then, of course, but I’ll never forget the smells of fuel and burning rubber or the sounds – loud, exciting, invigorating. It was opening day May 18th and Don “Daddy” Garlits was challenging Jerry “The King” Ruth for top honours. I don’t recall who won but I remember the adrenaline of the crowd and the fascination of the sheer power that rumbled out from under those hoods and into my blood.
We lived just a mile from Speedway (now it’s 1.6 kilometres!) and all that week, as I walked home from school, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of rubber on asphalt. By the time the Victoria Day holiday weekend arrived, I was bursting with anticipation and a hundred eager questions for my beleaguered father.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was experiencing the Edmonton International Speedway in its halcyon days. The first chapter of this fascinating story of local automotive history was written in the early 1950s when Regnal Booth met Charlie Greenley, who once operated Pinecrest Speedway in Toronto. Booth got interested in Calgary’s Springbank race track and it wasn’t long before he convinced his brothers Percy and Russell and their friend Wilf Nottleman that they should pool their resources and open an automotive race track in Edmonton.
Speedway Park began operations in 1953 when the brothers converted an old dirt track to a modern quarter-mile asphalt oval. Called “a gleaming asphalt speed plant,” the facility north of 137th Avenue and west of 127th Street quickly gained a reputation as one of the best on the continent.
In 1957, the Booth brothers added a new grandstand, bringing seating capacity to 8,000. Total attendance for the year topped 50,000, making auto racing the third most popular sport in the city behind football and hockey.
In a May 1st, 1958 Edmonton Journal article, Percy Booth was quoted as saying: “Now that we’ve improved our track to top condition, I can hardly wait to have our racers reach a similar par. They’ve come a long step with the introduction of hardtops. Many of the boys were ready before this but it always takes some time for the flock to catch up to the leaders.”
The story quoted Sam Hanks, winner of the 1957 Indianapolis 500 who was in Edmonton for the 1957 Hawks Trophy race. He called Speedway the “smartest looking” he’d seen in the northwest.
In 1966, an ambitious expansion was proposed for Speedway Motor Sport Centre to transform it into the most complete auto racing complex in North America. To finance the work, the directors launched a public offering of 1.5 million shares at $1.15 a share.
An ad in the Edmonton Journal explained that the facility would include a two-mile sports car circuit, an eighth-of-a-mile Go-Kart track, quarter-mile and half-mile banked ovals and a one-third mile motorcycle course. There was to be a restaurant, lounge and large banquet room inside the Tower building, a soccer field within the racing complex and a 6,000-seat grandstand with 4,000 more seats at the start of the drag strip.
With portable seating and standing room, the 251-acre complex would boast a capacity of 30,000 spectators and room for 25,000 cars. The expansion was to give the facility the ability to host drag, modified sports car, midget racers, go-karts, motorcycle, stock car and Indianapolis type cars.
The work powered Speedway way ahead of its challengers. The National Hot Rod Racing Association sanctioned the drag strip and dubbed it one of the finest in the country. At 4,350 feet long and 60 feet wide, it was also one of the longest. The strip boasted Chrondek Electronics timing equipment capable of clocking cars within a thousandth of a second.
The Paddock area along the road course measured a quarter mile long and 500 feet wide - enough room for 30 pit garages. To a boy enamoured with cars, this was a place of wonderment.
Over the years, there were many more visits to Speedway, many more weekends in awe of the meshing of man and machine. And because the events always attracted interesting characters, watching the crowd was nearly as much fun as watching the cars themselves.
But the roar of engines wasn’t the only noise that the track generated. When the Speedway property was annexed by the city in a massive land grab in 1982, Castle Downs residents threatened legal action under the city’s noise bylaw.
I always shook my head at residents who complained so bitterly about the noise from the facility’s four major drag racing events a year. The track was there long before any houses -- and yet people chose to move in and then try to shut it down. Kind of like moving in next to the airport and then complaining about noise from low flying aircraft.
Well, those who wanted Speedway gone eventually got their wish in 1982 when increasing operating costs forced the closure of the track. The city’s tax assessment of $30,000 and a bill for $16,000 to cut weeds ensured that Speedway would be no more.
Edmonton lost a world class racing facility that injected millions a year into the local economy. But it was fun while it lasted. Boy, was it fun.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.