Old Dorsey Speedway, not downtown, was once the site of auto races

Elkridge track used to be one place to find racing thrills

August 14, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

It's one of the more crackpot civic katzenjammers in recent years: How come the so-called cash-strapped city can find the $5.5 million needed to prepare streets for the Grand Prix next August, while officials resort to tambourine rattling to keep public swimming pools from closing?

The three-day Grand Prix event to be held on a 2.4-mile course around the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards promises, the mayor and other officials say, to bring more than 100,000 people to the city and keep cash registers ringing. The bonanza has been estimated as high as $70 million for various services, from food and lodging to whatever else visitors can find to waste their money on.

Wouldn't it be a lot easier and a lot less expensive to close the Jones Falls Expressway for a portion of a couple of days and run the race out to the Ruxton Road exit or clear up I-83 all the way to York, Pa.?

While not quite Le Mans, the JFX has a lot of wonderful twists and turns to excite even the most seasoned turbo-charged driver, not to mention the spectators who could line the right-of-way to watch them pass.

As far as I'm concerned, it's already a racetrack and sure seems like it when I traverse its length twice a day, so why not make it an official Grand Prix course?

Maybe the city could save that $5.5 million and put it toward improving city schools. Wow, now there's an idea!

It used to be that Baltimoreans seeking automotive thrills and chills hopped into the car on Friday nights and drove south on U.S. 1 until joining long lines of other motorists waiting to get onto Dorsey Road, where they gathered at Dorsey Speedway for an evening of stock-car and motorcycle racing.

It wasn't uncommon for 10,000 racing fans to jam the stands to see such legendary drivers as Bill Brown and Ronnie McBee, "Dizzy" Dean Renro and Old Don compete in souped-up Hudson Hornets, Mercurys, Chevys, Pontiacs, Fords and Oldsmobiles.

The original Dorsey Speedway was built in 1950 at the intersection of Dorsey Road, Route 176 and U.S. 1, and was a fifth of a mile long.

It lasted for one 25-car race before drainage problems forced the construction of a second track at the same site. It was a bit longer, at a quarter-mile.

The second track saw its first crowd on April 18, 1951. Visitors took seats in a cinderblock grandstand.

Dorsey featured a Friday night, seven-race card. Fans went to the old Westport Speedway in Baltimore on Saturday nights. Westport closed in 1960.

Speeds never topped 60 mph or 80 mph, Bruce Ehlers, an auto mechanic, told The Baltimore Sun in a 1985 interview, "so you could never get a big fireball type of accident."

Spectators who went looking for thrills were seldom disappointed. Spin-outs in races were common, and the highlight was the demolition derby, where drivers kept ramming one another until only one car was left operable.

A sensational off-track event in 1953 was the discovery by revenuers of a still that was pumping out moonshine.

For female fans, a "powder-puff derby," featuring cars driven by women, was an absolute delight.

The evening's finale was the figure-8 race, in which drivers shot through the intersection at speeds more than 70 mph, coming within inches of one another.

Oddly enough, in this competition of competitions, collisions were rare, which says something about the prowess and skill of the drivers.

"I like to set a fast pace if I can, especially in heavy traffic. When I get out in front, I like to stay there and let them try and catch me," McBee told The Sun in a 1985 interview.

Dorsey Speedway was sold In 1984, and its last racing event, held on Sept. 28, 1985, was — fittingly — a demolition derby.

Less than a year later, the old speedway was well on its way to becoming a memory as an industrial park rose on the former racetrack site.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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