Speedways are gone but not forgotten

Fans recall long ago races at Westport Stadium and Dorsey Speedway in e-mails, letters and phone calls

August 21, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Last week's column on the now-demolished Dorsey Speedway brought out the stock car racing fans en masse, who e-mailed, sent letters or called over the past week.

Even though the checkered flag has long been furled at these legendary tracks, readers recalled their fondness for the evening races at the Dorsey Speedway and Westport Stadium, where the racetrack atmosphere always reeked of exhaust, hot oil and grease, burnt rubber and the sounds of throaty, coughing engines barking into the early evening air, in anticipation of a possible win.

All of this was mixed with the aroma of grilled hot dogs, kettles of corn-on-the-cob and chilled soft drinks, which anxious fans devoured during the evening's motorized thrills and chills.

Joe Wagner, director of marketing for the Whitmore Group, recalled in an e-mail driving with his family from Randallstown during the 1950s to attend the races at Westport Stadium and the Dorsey Speedway, and always "going home covered in what appeared to be red clay" that had been kicked up into the air by the speeding cars.

Westport Stadium, which was on Old Annapolis Road between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Patapsco Avenue, had been a baseball park for the old Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues.

After the Elite Giants moved to Nashville, Tenn., in 1951, owners converted the baseball field into a 1/5-mile dirt oval track where racing prevailed until 1963, when it closed and the old stadium was torn down.

In two handwritten letters, Joe Smith recalled that he "spent many evenings at Dorsey, Westport and the Beltsville tracks and also went to the Pennsylvania tracks." He listed a few local fan favorites at Dorsey and Westport during those years.

"There was Johnny Roberts, who went to the big-time races and lost a leg in a crackup," Smith wrote. "Another was Ace Canupp, who drove for Kahler's Crab House in Rosedale."

He added: "They were the good old days. Sorry the young people of today do not know real fun and enjoyment."

Ted Lingelbach, a retired WFBR news writer and a 1958 City College graduate who compiles the school's necrology, watched the races from the comfort of his parent's Hamilton living room.

"When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, we always looked forward to Saturday nights on TV because we had the stock car races from Westport followed closely by 'The Jimmy Dean Show' live from Washington sponsored by Gunther Beer," he wrote in an e-mail.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Lingelbach said he thought the races "aired over Channel 13."

"We watched them every week because in those days, there wasn't much on TV to watch," he said.

Joseph B. Ross Jr., a retired Anne Arundel County firefighter whose book, "Arundel Burning: The Maryland Oyster Roast Fire of 1956," was published last year and who is completing a book on the 1968 Baltimore riots, wrote to say his first "stock car race experience was at the Westport Stadium in the early 1960s."

Ross, who was 12 at the time, said he had begged his father, who was not a stock car racing enthusiast, for weeks before he finally agreed to take him to the races.

"The Westport track was not your standard racetrack with straightaways and four turns — it was somewhat oval. Since the stadium was set up for baseball, the clay track followed the inside perimeter of the outfield fence and grandstands," Ross remembered in a lengthy e-mail.

"It was a weird oval with the tightest turn located at home plate. The race announcer would say, 'So and so or car number so and so slides through home plate,'" he wrote.

Ross said he was surprised that his father knew all about Johnny Roberts when the announcer called his name and his car, which was adorned with a No. 7.

"Apparently, Roberts' family was from Brooklyn and they owned a two-story building at the corner of 11th Avenue and Ritchie Highway, caddy corner from the fire station," he wrote. "The first floor was a restaurant and apartments were located on the second floor. I think the building was torn down in the late 1950s."

In 1965, Roberts lost his life two days after hitting a wall during the first lap at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pa. He was 41.

As a volunteer firefighter with the Linthicum Volunteer Fire Department, Ross would join other firefighters from the Jessup Fire Department and an ambulance from the Laurel Rescue Squad. They parked their vehicles in the middle of the Dorsey Speedway.

The firefighters and ambulance crew watched the races from a makeshift perch on top of several railroad ties and dirt.

"Because we were high up and wearing our firefighting gear, we believed we were protected from an accident, but if a wheel or engine part would have gone airborne, I have my doubts," Ross wrote.

Whenever there was a wreck, the firefighters would run over with their CO2 fire extinguishers.

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