Close to an Indiana city known for the largest single-day sporting event in the world, waits another legend of motor racing. Winchester Speedway is world famous for a lot of things. Located in Randolph County about 90 miles northeast of Indianapolis, it’s the second oldest purpose-built track in the United States -and the third oldest active track in the country. Some of the most famous racers in the world have competed there or prepared for that largest single-day sporting event in the world on the course -the Indy 500- including Jeff Gordon, Sarah Fisher, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and William Houston.
The Winchester Speedway is known for its steep banks that drivers take at lightning speeds and is regarded as the “world’s fastest half-mile.” Some say American race car driver Dick Trickle once compared watching a race at the Winchester to watching “jet fighters in a gymnasium.” Alas, this wasn’t always the case. It takes years of dedication for the creators of the Speedway to, quite literally, build it from the ground up out of clay.
Made of Clay: The Funk-y Years
The idea for a race course business strikes Winchester Speedway founder Frank Funk like lightning after some local motorcyclists ask permission to use his cornfield for a racing tournament. With dollar signs in his eyes, Frank goes to work drawing up plans.
Construction takes a laborious two years before the Winchester Speedway opens in 1916 under its original moniker, Funk’s Speedway. The track isn’t paved with asphalt. Instead, it is made of clay. While this may sound technologically primitive, it would prove to be a unique asset and help reshape racing as a sport later on.
Lofty Goals for the Track & Road-Building
In those early days, Frank stumbles upon an unexpected pattern. He realizes spectator interest and attendance is almost directly correlated to the height of the banked turns on the track, which increase the speed at which drivers have to take those turns. This is the birth of a near obsession for Frank. Because the track is made of clay, he can easily heighten the embankments anytime he wants. Throughout the tenure of his ownership, he continues to dig out the earth around the turns to increase the gradient of the banks, which reach as high as 25 feet by 1932. That’s when drivers start getting a little frightened of driving it. They feel like they’re going to roll right down the bank. Meanwhile, Funk’s Speedway seats 6,000 excited spectators in the grandstands alone, while the grounds have room for 12- to 14, 000 more people.
Frank also dabbles in the mixture of the clay used on the track, looking for a way to increase traction and remove dust – at one point, he considers mineral oil. He invests a lot of his earnings back into the track infrastructure, recognizing the successful promotion of racing events means he has to offer the best opportunities for spirited competition to spectators. Eventually, his work inspires highway engineers, who begin to use the track as a staging ground for new road-building technology.
Asphalt Garden: World’s Fastest Half Mile
Frank does quite a bit to remove the dust and increase the speed on the surface of his Speedway. When a new set of owners come on board and replace the clay track with asphalt, drivers achieve even higher speeds very quickly. The newly named Winchester Speedway suddenly becomes known as “the world’s fastest half-mile.”
Secret NASCAR Connection
In the 1950’s, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. develops a secret fascination with the Winchester Speedway. Without the knowledge of many, especially the press, he begins using the track to test his cars. As the Daytona International Speedway is being designed, Bill insists architects borrow elements from the Winchester – most specifically, the high banking Frank Funk develops years earlier.
The Winchester 400
Now that the venue is famous among its contemporaries, the first annual Winchester 400, an annual 400-lap stock-car race that occurs every fall, is held for the first time in 1970. Dave Sorg wins in an Oldsmobile Mercury. During the early years of the Winchester 400, Michigan racer Bob Senneker would set a record that remains unbroken to this day with a five-win streak. The race, originally sanctioned by the American Speed Association, is taken over by NASCAR in 1992. In 1999, the race again changes hands from NASCAR to Kendall Late Model Series, which would become known as CRA in 2003. That’s when it becomes known as one of the big four events of the late seasons. The Winchester 400 earns a reputation as a lush garden that allows new stars of the sport to blossom and is often given credit for cultivating the careers of greats like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Mike Eddy and Ted Musgrave.
Winchester Speedway Today
The track is currently owned by Charlie Shaw, and the modern bank is 37 degrees at the apex -the steepest banking in the U.S. and one of the steepest in motorsports. It is three stories high … and right in our own backyard.
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