(originally published 9/19/20
The tale of Kansas City’s first but long-forgotten experience with big-time racing was too big to cover in one post. This week is the story of the track – how it came to be, it’s incredible construction and the spectacle of the finished Kansas City Speedway. The next post tells the tale of that first race in 1922, featuring home town heroes, thrills, tragedy, and the demise of the one-time hope of a city.
If you haven’t noticed, the old Bannister Federal Complex at 95th and Troost is completely gone. There are piles of rubble here and there, but what was once a 310-acre hub of industrial activity in south KC is no more. Over the course of developed life, that property has been home to a number of industries. The IRS was there until 2007. There have been lots of federal contractors, like Honeywell, and Allied Signal before that, and Bendix before that, and the WWII era Pratt & Whitney engine plant before that. Each has a piece of their history in those piles of rubble, layer on layer of industrial history.
And somewhere in there, about twenty years earlier than, and a few layers beneath, Pratt & Whitney, is the remnant of an automobile race track. Maybe. If there was ever something left of the track, it surely must have rotted away by now, seeing how that particular track was built of wood. That’s right. The actual track, the surface on which the cars drove at top speed for hours was made of southern pine.
Troost didn’t extend to 95th when the KC Speedway was built in 1922. Entrances were from Grandview Road on the east and Holmes Road on the west.
In the early 1920s, Kansas City was one of several towns in the sights of a duo peddling a new development scheme and the latest thing in the growing sport of motor racing – the board track.
Their promotion of the sport was sincere, and each man brought legitimate talents. Jack Prince was a former bicycle racing champ, who was translating that knowledge to the motor racing world. He understood all that a track needed to be to draw attendance. Art Pillsbury was an engineer, whose expertise was the design of the track itself, and understanding what that meant for the cars. Between 1915 when they started and the Kansas City track’s construction in 1922, Prince and Pillsbury had already sold about half of the 17 tracks they would eventually build.
Their business plan was a package of services – to design, build, and organize the operations of a board track – sold to businessmen prominent in their city, for somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. The businessmen would take over the operation once the track was built. The promoters pitched that automobile racing drew large crowds and out of town visitors, and that ticket sales, combined with healthy promotional opportunities, would make the venture not just feasible but lucrative. Promoters Prince and Pillsbury weren’t just blowing exhaust fumes, either. Auto racing had really taken off in the last decade, with asphalt tracks like the already famous Indianapolis Speedway, which opened in 1909. Indy was bringing in excess of 100,000 spectators
Kansas City bought in for $600,000. The purchasers were indeed prominent businessmen – prominent in the predictably related industries of car sales, real estate, finance, and the law. They financed the investment by selling subscriptions to their constituents, their customers, and the public at large, but what those subscribers actually received for their investment is not known. As is the usual practice of such endeavors, the owner organization – the Kansas City Speedway Association, Inc. – made investment seem a matter of civic duty in the pitches they made to subscribers.
The first announcement of the proposed track came in December of 1921. In a Kansas City Star article, “Plan Big Speedway Here,” the Speedway’s spokesman cites the importance of the rare, level grade of the proposed site, and its proximity to both the railroad and the city streetcar system converging at nearby Dodson. These would have been two criteria very important to the developers. A level site meant the cost of grading would be less, and the rail and streetcar access meant both an easy way to get materials to the site, and eventually a convenient way for patrons to get to the track.
This advertisement from the original program fairly illustrates the construction method of both the high banking in the turns, and boards laid vertically to form the racing surface. (Image courtesy Roger Hoyt)
That cost of getting materials to the site would be enormous, given that the project would take as much as four million board feet of lumber. The reason for the high number is in the design. First, a board track is not a flat track. They were often referred to as “pie plate” shaped. The Kansas City track’s outer rim rose up to form a 42 degree embankment through the curves at either end of the oval track, where the structure on those ends was between 40 and 50 feet high. The track surface was not like flooring, with the broad side of the two-by-four laid out horizontally. Instead, boards were laid on their short edges, lengthwise, resulting in a dense and rigid surface designed for maximum strength and stability. The “pie plate” track was anchored to pilings specially designed for the purpose, but resembling those for offshore drilling rigs. These pilings allowed the track surface to sway just enough to absorb most of the energy of a dozen or more cars traveling what was then the breakneck speed of 100+ miles an hour for at least a couple of hours. Maybe longer, depending on the number of breakdowns and wrecks during the race.
But while the track was wooden, the two grandstands that stood on the straightaways on either of the long sides of the track were made of steel. At the time, the Kansas City Speedway was the only one in the world featuring steel grandstands. Steel was chosen as the safest material, with sufficient strength to support the weight of the tens of thousands of spectators, and fully capable of resisting most fires. At 80-85 feet high, the grandstands offered spectacular views of the entire track facility and the surrounding countryside.
The track was technically advanced as well. It incorporated an electronic timing and scoring system. An electrified wire suspended about one inch off the track’s surface stretched across the track at the start-finish line. Every time a car drove over the wire, it temporarily broke a circuit that translated the break to a paper and ribbon system that marked the car’s timing.
On race day, a race facility is a city in itself. The track was just the centerpiece of the facilities and services required to operate the track and hold a AAA-sanctioned competitive race. The Kansas City Speedway had a force of 300 officers policing the track, about half from the Kansas City Police Department, and the other half from the Missouri National Guard. The facilities included its own jail for detaining the drunk and disorderly until after the race.
Fire protection, on the other hand, was less prevalent. Chemical apparatus were placed behind each grandstand and in the infield, a rather scant coverage considering the physical size of the track. The Speedway reminded race fans that the steel construction of the grandstands served as the best fire protection, which of course, it did not. There was also a team of medical professionals to staff the small but fully equipped hospital tucked under the main grandstand. The hospital was exclusively for the estimated 50,000 spectators.
The racing teams were on their own, apparently. But these were professional racers, most of whom were nationally known. They had national sponsorships, and support staff of their own. They traveled to all the major circuits, both asphalt and board. They competed at the top of their sport, and those who ran at the Kansas City Speedway included former Indy 500 winners, and some who would go on to win at Indy long past the board track days.
In order to attract that caliber of team and driver, the tracks had to offer significant prize money. While not at the top end of prize money, where the winners might get $20,000 or more, Kansas City held its own. The first race, held September 17, 1922, offered a top prize of $10,000. Most races featured a field of 15 drivers. Kansas City’s prize monies were awarded down to 12th place. The odds were with the drivers that they’d get at least some prize money.
That is, if they survived the race.
Next time: The Kansas City Speedway’s inaugural race
(Featured Photo: Half of a panoramic photo of an early race at the Speedway. The size of the place is made all the more impressive in light of the track being constructed entirely of lumber.)
Unless otherwise noted, all images were taken from “Board Track: Guts, Gold and Glory,” 1990. Dick Wallen, author and publisher. Photos within that publication are not assigned individual credit, but are generally listed as in the collection of the author, or the collections of others.