KC’s Board Track: Part 2- The Price of Speed

(originally published 9/26/19)

Last time, in Part 1, we looked to 1922, and the latest civic endeavor to put Kansas City on the map. The Kansas City Speedway, a racing complex to rival the best tracks in the country, was one of only a couple of dozen in the country where the racing surface itself was made entirely of wood. This time, we look at the look at the inaugural race how that event did put Kansas City on the map, for reasons both welcomed and repulsed, and the fate of the great wooden “pie-plate” near 95th and Troost.

On September 17, 1922, the Kansas City Speedway, the country’s latest “board track,” held its first race, just nine months after the plan had first been proposed. All 50,000 seats in the grandstands were filled, and in those less safety-conscious days, there were hundreds more standing near the guard rails on the front straight, and more in the infield. Being the inaugural race, the audience included the usual political and business dignitaries, but also some big names in racing. Most famous was Barney Oldfield, known world over as an early pioneer of racing and the first man to exceed the 60 mile-an-hour time on a race track. The rain that had delayed the race a day was long gone, and it was a beautiful near-autumn Sunday afternoon.

Race fans started arriving early in the day, to take in the whole spectacle of the track, the cars and their hero drivers. By then, the teams had been in town for about two weeks, preparing their cars for the race, particularly important with a new track like this one. Then there were qualifying heats to establish starting position on race day, followed by more tuning up and repairs. The die-hard race fans and young boys would have found a way into the track in those two weeks, and would likely have hardly left the place, so fascinating were these race cars to this generation of fans.

Inaugural race, September 17, 1922. Drivers and mechanics, dignitaries and race fans,all line up for photos at the start-finish line. Cars are on the grid and ready to go!

The ramp-up to the race time didn’t take two weeks, but to fans in the grandstands it may have felt that way. From noon on, they were treated to a series of “salute bombs” (fireworks) every ten minutes or so until the race started at 2:00. There was a procession of dignitary activities, including loading them individually into sponsorship cars for a pre-race circuit of the track so they could wave to the crowd, and have the crowd wave back. The governor of Kansas made a speech, the governor of Missouri having been called back to Jefferson City on state business at the last minute. Kansas City’s mayor made a speech, and then he and the commander of the American Legion set out for one last hand-waving lap of the circuit. Then the race cars came out and took their place on the grid.

Among the drivers in the field that day was Bennett Hill on the pole, and Jimmy Murphy, who had just won the Indy 500 in May. The great Tommy Milton, starting 8th, had won the Indy race the year before and would do it again in 1924. Right behind Tommy, in 9th position, was Roscoe Sarles. Known as one of the “clowns of the sport,” Roscoe seemed to have more fun in racing than any other driver. He was an overall athlete, known for his skills at boxing, golf, swimming, hand ball and marksmanship. The souvenir program noted that Sarles “had more spectacular spills than any of the active drives, yet despite his many mishaps has always escaped without serious injury.”

Further back in 12th position was Kansas City native Eddie Hearne, destined to win the sport’s overall championship the following year. And bringing up the rear, in 15th place, was Peter DePaolo, a relatively new driver though he came from of family of distinguished drivers, who was three years away from his first Indy 500 win.

In those days, two men rode in each car – the driver and his mechanic. No fancy pit lanes back then, with lightning fast crews. If a car broke down on the track, you had your mechanic with you. Maybe he could fix it, maybe not. But when the car was running, the mechanic was just so much dead weight in the car, a powerless passenger. Sarles’ mechanic was the aptly named Chris Pickup. Peter DePaolo’s mechanic was accompanied by his mechanic, Harry “Cotton” Henning, from Independence, Missouri.

Cotton & Speedy: Harry “Cotton” Henning, circa 1934, with his dog “Speedy” in matching race uniforms. Henning was the riding mechanic for Peter DePaolo in the Speedway’s inaugural race.

So, with the preliminaries dispensed right on schedule, at 2:00 the field of fifteen cars took the starting flag for the 140 lap, 300-mile opener.

As a competition, the race was likely uninteresting. Tommy Milton, the favorite, led all but a handful of laps, and ended up taking the checkered flag. But for the fans of thrills and chills, crashes and even death, the race was astonishing and unforgettable

Early on there was a two-car crash between Murphy and another driver, Joe Thomas, that injured both men and their mechanics, although Thomas’ broken leg was the worst from that collision. Later, in a single car incident, local son Hearne spun and flipped, throwing both driver and mechanic from the car. It happened just as the car was headed down the front straight. Everyone in the main grandstand saw the two men thrown from the car. Gasps turned into cheers, however when both driver and mechanic were able to leave under their own steam, Hearne with only a broken arm.

There were no cheers for the horror during lap 114, but neither were there gasps, at least at first. The accident happened in turn three, the only part of the track obscured from view by a small grove of trees in the infield, and so the wreck was out of sight of almost everyone there. Heading into turn 3, Roscoe Sarles was gaining places, with his eye on passing the third place driver just ahead. Then something in the car snapped. Powerless to direct the car, the Sarles car bumped into DePaolo, and the impact forced the cars in two directions. DePaulo and his mechanic Henning were thrown clear of the car as it crashed into the turn 3 infield. Sarles’ car headed straight up the turn’s steep embankment, crashed through the upper railing and disappeared behind the track structure. It wasn’t until a column of black smoke rose from behind the track that anyone suspected the worst.

Behind the grandstands in turn 3, after Roscoe Sarles’ fatal crash. The break at the top edge is evidence of Sarles’ crash through the guard rail, landing below.

Later it was determined that the steering knuckle on Sarles’ car broke, leaving him helpless to avoid Paolo or his own fiery fate. Sarles’ mechanic, Chris Pickup, was trying to jump clear when the car went airborne, but was still partly with the car when it landed. Sarles was not so lucky. Pickup tried to reach him in time, but Sarles burned to death beneath his car’s wreckage.

It may seem surprising that such a spectacular collision, such a tragic death, was not the Kansas City Star’s headline for the day. While the tragedy was covered in some detail, there was much more ballyhoo about the enthusiasm for the new track from fan and driver alike, and the fact that the famed Tommy Milton took home the 1st place prize for the inaugural Kanas City Speedway Classic. But then, the death of Roscoe Sarles was just another in a now regular stream of casualties the sport and its fans seemed to take for granted.

The Speedway hosted a motorcycle race in the fall of 1922, the only cycle race in the track’s short life. The wooden construction of the track surface is more evident in this photo.

The Kansas City Speedway operated for another two years, and only hosted four competitive motor sports races. It presented a motorcycle race later that fall, and then repeated the summer Classic in 1923 and 1924. While board tracks would continue to be built until the late 1920s, and a very few managed to stay open into the 1930s and 40s, the Speedway’s short life was not unusual. In fact, most board tracks lasted an average of just three years.

Track owners and race teams were coming to terms with the problems with board track racing. Some of the early tracks had been built quickly and poorly. But even the best of them – Kansas City included – had no effective way to deal with the cost of maintaining such a large wooden structure, a structure so vulnerable to termites and the vagaries of sun, wind and rain. And the racing surface itself became a hazard. Speeding cars would suddenly chip out slivers and shards of lumber in the middle of a race, and injuries from flying splinters became as common as bruises, but more dangerous. In the final year of the Speedway, drivers were reportedly having to dodge large holes in the track surface.

The Kansas City Speedway declared bankruptcy in October of 1923, but didn’t close its gates until after the 1924 race. The property was sold for development, and then nothing happened for another decade, while the once spectacular structure rotted away. The Kansas City Times ran an April 1934 article describing how the land was finally being cleared for a community garden to feed families hit by the Depression.

In the following years, there were many small, mostly dirt tracks built around the Kansas City area, most notably Lakeside in the Wolcott area of Kansas, and I-70 Speedway in Odessa on the Missouri side. But it would be almost 80 years before another Speedway was built. Kansas Speedway, built in 2001, is a quarter-mile longer than its early predecessor, but at 20 degrees its corner banking is significantly less. But it’s made of asphalt and concrete, and having opened in 2001, has long since beaten the Kansas City Speedway in terms of its lasting impact on the community.

(Featured Photo: While the KC Speedway would play host to many highly ranked drivers and teams, in his day no single person would have been more famous or more respected than Ralph De Palma. A native Italian, De Palma raced the world’s great tracks, and by the time of his Kansas City appearance, had already held both the US and International Titles as best driver, and scored his first win at the Indianapolis 500.)

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.

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