By Ted Knorr
The Rensselaer Raceway was located at the Jasper County Fairgrounds, one mile west of Rensselaer, Indiana.
PART ONE - THE EARLY YEARS (1952 - 1969)
The first motorized racing on the big fairgrounds half-mile horse track took place in August of 1952 during the annual county fair. The program included two days of AMA sanctioned motorcycle racing. The big winners were Dick Klanforth of Ohio and Michigan’s Paul Goldsmith, who would later race in the Indy 500 and NASCAR/USAC. The races were a financial success for the Fair Board after many years of marginal losses with horse racing.
After the success of the Fair’s motorcycle events the Fair Board decided to schedule an auto race in the summer of 1953. The big cars (now sprint cars) of CSRA (Central States Racing Association) became the first auto races to run at the old fairgrounds. Dust and poor track preparation hindered the program, but it was again another financial success. To date, the results of that afternoon are unknown. The author of this piece talked with famous black racecar driver Joie Ray, of Indianapolis in 2004 and he recalled racing with the CSRA at Rensselaer that one time. Somewhere in my archives is a photo of the old wire wheeled CSRA big cars pitted in the infield in front of the covered wooden grandstand. I recall riding my bicycle from town to the fairgrounds to watch this big car race. My family had left earlier in the day for a family function in Chicago, but I was “not feeling well” that morning. Of course my dad asked me the next day….how were the races? I believe he also would have preferred seeing the big cars run since he had been a race fan as a youngster. He grew up in North Philadelphia and had hitchhiked numerous times to the nearby Langhorne Speedway.
I recall a lot of dust during that first auto race event, plus a racer flipping wildly out of a dust cloud in the backstretch. Not much else comes to mind except we couldn’t hear the announcer very well. The only sound came from a small truck parked in the infield with a couple of speakers on the roof. This was the same truck that drove up and down the streets of town the day before the race advertising “ the death defying big car races “ the next day at the local fairgrounds. The grandstands were packed with dust-covered folks.
Sometime during early 1953, Hoosier Racing Inc. (HRI), a stock car racing association that ran Saturday night races at the nearby quarter mile Monticello Speedway, informed the Fair Board that they could provide twenty or more stock cars for two weekdays of racing during the annual county fair. The purse would be a lot smaller than what they were paying for the AMA motorcycles. Thus, the stock cars of the HRI became the first group to sanction stock car racing at the fairgrounds with two afternoon events during the fair. Again, dust was a problem on the big half-mile. Crowd control and safety were another factor. I recall one incident when local driver Dewey “Cannonball” Biggs got upside down on the pace lap as the field came out of turn four. Fortunately there were no serious accidents and it was a given that something had to be done if auto racing was to continue at the fairgrounds oval.
The next summer, 1954, Joe McFarland of Demotte, owner of a construction business and two winning stock cars that raced at the Monticello Speedway (#73 driven by Chuck Brown of Crown Point and #74 driven by Bob Borman), gained the approval of the Fair Board to take over the race promotions at the fairgrounds. He was allowed to rebuild the ½ mile oval into a smaller track with lights. His construction company decided to split the half-mile horse track by cutting a turn thru the center (infield) of the track, but still use the existing south end turns. What he created was a unique 1/3-mile near circular oval with two half-mile size corners and two very short straights. The old north turns (3 & 4) of the half became the pit area for the new short oval. Some Fair Board members still thought horse racing could be a factor and did not want the half-mile oval changed, but horse racing was never again held at the fairgrounds.
McFarland also installed banks of lights so the races could start later in the day to help reduce the dust problem of afternoon racing. Water pressure was still a problem at the fairgrounds as the water truck had to travel one mile into Rensselaer to fill. The track was finally ready for the annual August county fair and for the first time racing would be ran under the lights. The two night events met with limited success. Under 20 cars were on hand because of the weeknight schedule and the early evening starting times. Beezer Humphries of Kokomo was the overall winner of the Fair races.
McFarland returned as promoter for the start of the 1955 racing season under the sanction of Hoosier Racing Inc. HRI was already involved on Friday nights at Lafayette, Saturdays at Monticello and Sundays at Kokomo, with an occasional afternoon show at Winamac or Bass Lake. McFarland decided to race on Thursday nights, but racing was discontinued halfway into the season because of low car counts and spectator turnout. The Chitwood thrill show provided the annual fair motorsports schedule in place of racing.
The 1956 season got off to a late start when local merchant Henry Jermyn tried his hand at promoting the fairgrounds oval. He chose Saturday night for his unsanctioned programs and after several events with too few cars and fans, he folded the tent and racing for the second year was discontinued. Again a traveling thrill show filled the annual fair schedule.
Then in 1957, Ted Knorr, a successful Rensselaer businessman, stock broker and long time race fan decided to try speedway promotion. For the past two seasons he had been towing his teenage son’s stock car to various Hoosier Racing venues at Monticello, Kokomo and Lafayette. He had grown up near the Langhorne Speedway in PA where an uncle owned a bicycle repair shop in North Philly and on occasion would repair the damaged wire wheels of the big cars that raced during the early thirties. Ted had gone with his uncle to the tracks and race shops to deliver the repaired wheels. After moving to Chicago as a young man he got a job at Chicago’s Riverview Amusement Park. He managed to get a ticket takers job for the weekly midget races at the Riverview Park Speedway in the mid-thirties. He felt he had some idea of the operation of a track from this background and his business (sales) management skills.
Knorr selected Sunday nights for racing and helped a new stock car association get started. Kokomo (HRI) had gone to modified coupes with big engines and cut down modified bodies. He knew there were a lot of racers with the older stock cars with stock motors that had no place to race on Sunday nights. With the help of Monticello’s Dick Flynn and others, Racing, Inc. was formed and sanctioned the events at Rensselaer.
Through a skillful advertising campaign and several well-planned promotional ideas the Rensselaer Speedway began its successful run. One rather humorous (though unsuccessful) promotion involved the Chicago Bears. This happened in the late 50’s when George Halas would bring his professional football team to the nearby Saint Joseph’s College for their annual preseason training camp. Rensselaer (Pop. 7000) was not the most exciting place for the Chicago Bear players. On Sunday nights the sounds of the nearby speedway could be heard in Rensselaer and the college dorms, so several Bear players became Sunday night regulars. As I recall, after a trackside interview one night , linebackers Bill George and Joe Fortunato made the mistake of suggesting they would like to “drive one of those stock cars”. Ted jumped at this opportunity and it turned into a huge promotion billed as “See the Chicago Bears Race Nite”. He scheduled the big event for a few weeks in advance. With some lead time George and Fortunato ended up getting a half-dozen or so teammates to commit to driving one of the Rensselaer stockers. Meanwhile, Papa Bear went ballistic and sent a threatening cease and desist legal document to promoter Ted, basically stating that this race would not under any circumstances be run. Note: the race never happened!!
One hugely successful promotion that occurred that first year was on the 4th of July, 1957. Track flagman, former racer and president of Racing Inc., Dick Flynn talked Ted into an intermission stunt that had a car jumping over a full size greyhound bus. This was a pretty big deal back in 1957 and Ted realized the track needed something special. He wanted to capture the fans attention and let them also see the exciting, dustless stock car racing programs they had going on Sunday evenings. Dick Flynn and several of the drivers of Racing Inc. produced this dangerous stunt. The promotion worked, as the largest crowd to ever witness any event at the fairgrounds (up until that time) showed up. The standing room only crowd saw “Crash” Wilson successfully jump (he flew as high as the grandstand roof) a stock 1948 Chevy over the top of a former greyhound bus. I can still remember the stillness of the crowd when the car landed in a terrible crash, totally destroying the Chevy and several other catch cars. Most felt they had just witnessed someone die and the track had gone to far with this stunt. When a dazed Wilson was pulled from the wreckage the place went crazy. Perhaps one of the key moments in the early history of the speedway. The attendance of the weekly stock car races spiked for the remainder of the season……
And the success of the Rensselaer Speedway was underway.
Another problem the early track promoters faced were track conditions (dust control). Ted addressed this by selling the Fair Board on his idea. They should use some of the lease money he was paying them to install a well and large water storage tank in the old half mile infield. With the addition of this new water resource, the important track watering preparation problem became history. Knorr continued to promote the fairgrounds track (also the Monticello Speedway for a few years) until moving to Florida at the end of the 1965 season after a successful nine year run.
We would be remiss in this brief historical view of the Rensselaer Speedway if we did not acknowledge three racers who made the ultimate sacrifice while competing at the track.
1957 Deacon Morse, Michigan City, IN
1958 Harry Adams, Lafayette, IN
1963 George Wood, Rensselaer, IN
Also, longtime Rensselaer starter and showman, Dick Flynn was fatally injured at Henrys Speedway in 1968 while flagging a race.
From 1966 to 1968, Racing Inc. took over the management of the Rensselaer Speedway under the direction of Len Sanders of Hebron. The flathead coupe type stock cars were still very popular during this period and continued to provide many racing thrills on the tricky 1/3 mile fairgrounds oval. However, the interest of the fans was shifting from the older coupes to a newer later model with a more recognizable body style like the cars that they were driving.
In 1969, race fan and writer Buddy Pullins of Rensselaer and Bob Beuerman of Kentland (a former official with Racing Inc.) took over the promotion of the track. These men are credited with introducing the popular late model stock car division as the top class and moving the now modified coupes to a supporting class. For the first time, there were two separate classes and two main events each night of racing. Ironically, the first race winner in the new late model division was Ted Wilson in a 1957 Chevrolet # 3 convertible (the son of former promoter Ted Knorr). The season was troubled by numerous rainouts and the low car count of the now modified coupe class.