FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Racing is in the blood of many Hoosiers.
The Indy 500 has helped fuel a love for the sport unseen in many other places, but its history in the state derives much further north than the hallowed bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Fort Wayne Speedway built in 1928 by Frank Funk was once one of the most vaunted tracks in the country.
Its danger and legacy has recently been chronicled by former North Side High School history teacher Dan Heath who wrote a book about it titled “Big Track Little Track.”
“I want younger people today not to forget the heritage of racing in Fort Wayne,” Heath said. “I knew there were a lot of drivers that thought this whole thing had been forgotten.”
And so he set out with his book to interview those drivers and once again restore meaning to the name Speedway Drive and Grandstand Way.
Those two roads in Fort Wayne are the last signs that the speedway had ever been in city limits at all. They stand exactly where the track used to.
And while now you can drive go-karts on the intersection of those roads, it was a lot more dangerous to drive there between 1930- when the track opened- and 1964, when the track was sold.
“Many drivers would say this is a scary track, it’s a car eater, it’s a man killer,” Heath said.
Before it closed, Heath said 9 drivers died behind the wheel while racing the track’s high banks.
High banks that caused much of the danger the track posed.
Heath said the banks were so high it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see a car fly off the tracks and out into the woods, or onto the highway.
In fact, Kenny Barr- who wrote the foreword for Heath’s new book- still passes down the story he was told of a racer named Cliff Setser who fell off the track.
“I do know the story of Cliff Setser flying over the bank onto California Road and a guy stops to help him and both look at each other saying, ‘how did you get here?’” Barr said.
Barr said those who raced on the speedway were some of the bravest racers in the world.
In addition to being the most dangerous 5/8th mile track in the county, Heath said it was also the fastest.
“In 1937 they paved the track, that became the point when it became the fasted 5/8th mile track in the country,” Heath said.
Those superlatives drew some of the sport’s biggest stars, including eventual NASCAR founder Bill France.
“I wonder if this is the place where it germinated in Bill’s mind to build the Daytona Speedway because after all the Fort Wayne Speedway for all practical purposes was the first superspeedway in the country,” Heath said.
France would win a 200-lap race on the track July 28 1940, the same month he captured a win at Daytona.
According to Heath, stars like France would regularly sell out the 10,000 capacity grandstand, but tickets back then would only run a race fan one dollar.
Ultimately, the track’s danger would cause its downfall.
Racers no longer wanted to brave a track that was infamous for drivers flying off.
The South Anthony Speedway was becoming more popular, and in 1964 Baer Field opened and the Fort Wayne Speedway shut down.
In 1967, the Washington Township Fire Department decided to burn down the grandstand as part of a training exercise.
The dry wood that had been sitting for years went up in flames in nearly 45 minutes as onlookers mourned the former home of racing in Fort Wayne.
“I hear it was kind of a sentimental journey to watch,” Heath said. “There was a hush in the crowd when the heights of the flames were at their peak. It was like all the memories of the track were going up in smoke.”
While the Fort Wayne Speedway’s history may not saturate the state like the famous Indy 500 milk bath does to its winner, for a time the track’s grip on racing was indisputable.