The Track that Ate the Heroes

Courtesy: LLOAR

With all due respect to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and Ben Franklin, when I found myself with some time to kill in Philadelphia I was on the hunt for something truly historic.

The Track That Ate The Heroes.

While the rest of the motorsports media spent the weekend in Texas, St. Petersburg, and Las Vegas, I was on the road in Philly for the Opening Day matchup between the Braves and Phillies. (Can't tell you why, just keep an eye on The Mag in a couple of issues.)

But on Monday morning as I was stuck waiting for some afternoon interviews, I snatched up my map from the rental car place and hit the road north searching for Langhorne, PA. Forty-five minutes and one very polite old man later, I pulled up to the roadside at 1939 East Lincoln Highway and there it was. A simple roadside historical marker that read: LANGHORNE SPEEDWAY.

"That place was evil," Richard Petty told me when I recently suggested to him that I might go looking for it. His father, three-time Cup Series champion Lee Petty, won at Langhorne in 1952. "It just looked weird, you know. It was just one big circle. Not an oval. A circle. If you were racing, you were turning…for two hundred laps."

(Helpful hint: When reading Richard Petty quotes always say "hun-dird" instead of "hun-dred".)

No, the King is not imagining things in his old age. Langhorne, the first racetrack built in the state of Pennsylvania with the expressed purpose of hosting auto races, was a perfectly-shaped, perfectly-round one-mile dirt track.

In 1926 the directors of a pre-NASCAR sanctioning body known as the National Motor Racing Association purchased an 89-acre tract of swampland and had originally wanted to make it a true oval like the 15-year old Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the tight quarters created by the relatively small lot and the natural obstacles created by the wetlands led them to go the more circular route.

They opened the doors in June of that year and the very first practice lap run on the "New Philadelphia Speedway" clocked in at 94 mph, a world record for a one-mile circuit. Two months later Langhorne claimed its first victim, former boxer Lou Fink, killed when his car was tossed into the air by the track's ever-changing mudslide of a surface.

To make matters worse, promoters devised chemical concoctions to try and keep the mud, clay, and dirt from drying up and breaking apart, everything from recycled motor oil to crankcase sludge.

"And there were natural springs always popping up through the surface," Junior Johnson told me via telephone. "In the middle of a race you'd get these places kind of bubbling up in the mud. That or it was super dry and there was dust flying all over the place. And you drove it looking out the side window because you were in a big ol' broad slide the whole race."

When NASCAR held its first ever Strictly Stock (now Sprint Cup) season in 1949, Langhorne was one of the eight races on the calendar, won by Virginia wild man Curtis Turner. In all, there were seventeen NASCAR events held on the track drivers called the "The Big Left Turn". Indy Cars, Sprint Cars, Modifieds and nearly every other type of oval racecar also raced at Langhorne. The drivers who earned wins there included A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas and brothers Tim and Fonty Flock.

Just past the start-finish line, the track took a steep downhill dive that forced cars to develop such a head of speed that drivers experienced Blue Angel-like g-forces during their jaw-rattling entrance into Turn One. The racers called it "Puke Alley".

Sadly, it was not their biggest concern. Survival was. Fink's death had proved to be just the beginning. At least a dozen more drivers were killed at Langhorne, including 1958 Indy 500 champion Jimmy Bryan.

Thus the previously mentioned nickname: The Track That Ate The Heroes.

NASCAR left after 1957. The Indy Cars hung around, though, and embraced organizers' decision to pave the place and rework it into a D-shaped oval. But by 1971 suburban sprawl had surrounded the racetrack and it was eventually sold to developers.

Which brings us back to my trip there on Monday. Standing by the side of the highway in the pouring rain, reading a historical marker and looking over at the site where the world's most evil racetrack used to sit and seethe in all its muddy, swampy, oil and blood covered anger.

If I closed my eyes I could hear the roar of the Offy engines and the screams of the 40,000 fans that used to pack the surrounding hillsides. I could see teenage Richard Petty watching his daddy and a youthful A.J. Foyt doing battle with Mario, Big Al and Lone Star Johnny Rutherford.

But when I opened my eyes, The Big Left Turn wasn't there. Instead, a new vision greeted me.


The Strip Mall That Ate The Track That Ate The Heroes.