The late Hal Lord of Pottsville after a heat race victory at the track many fans simply referred to as Schoentown.
Of all the tracks covered by Coal Region Racing, Anthracite may be the most popular among them. There was just something special about "going to Schoentown". Ask anyone who attended, raced, or worked there. They all have the same common sentiment, they loved being there.
Coal Region Racing is a group of local race fans dedicated to the historical preservation of the history of Schuylkill County, PA's dirt track racing past. Of the 15 dirt tracks that once existed in Schuylkill County, only 1 remains in operation today. It is our desire to document the history of not only these facilities but the people who made the history and memories possible.
These are the 15 dirt tracks that hosted automobile racing in Schuylkill County history and their years of operation: Schuylkill County Fairgrounds - 1918 - 1941 Brandonville - 1920's - 1960's Shenandoah - 1930's Ringtown - Exact years of operation unknown Mahanoy City - 1947 - 1952 Gold Mine - 1950 - 1953, 1962 - 1968 Fort Lebanon - 1955 Branchdale - 1955 Circle M Ranch - 1955 - 1958 Sparky's - 1950's Mount Carbon - 1956 - 1964 Lakeside - Approximately 1959 to 1961 Anthracite - 1966 - 1975 Big Diamond - 1972 - Present Little Diamond - 2013
The further back in time one looks, the more difficult it becomes to uncover the history of a subject. These race tracks are no different. A few of these tracks have little or no documentation on the events that took place. This endeavor is to try to discover and document as much as possible about them as well as the more recent racetracks. Many of the participants are no longer with us, their stories lost for all time. That is why it is so important to document these events. So they don't become lost for all time.
In the beginning of motorsports history in Schuylkill County, there were no facilities built for automobiles. The first time the roar of engines in competition against each other was heard in this area of the Anthracite coal region, tracks that were built for horse racing was the only logical choice. Those early racing machines were not designed with driver comfort or safety in mind. That only three drivers lost their lives in on-track racing accidents makes this statistic that much more remarkable.
While not being very powerful, they could still attain speeds only matched or surpassed by the steam locomotives of that same era. As progress continued on the internal combustion engine and the design of the cars advanced, so did the speed and excitement level.
This new and wonderful sport captured the hearts and minds of many who witnessed them. The feats of these brave souls who were willing to risk everything to go faster...to compete against other drivers who were just as addicted to speed as they were and to achieve the ultimate goal...VICTORY! Many would dedicate their lives to having one more chance to climb into a racing machine in a relentless pursuit of the checkered flag. Some would achieve that goal. Others would never be able to grasp that "brass ring".
The further back in time one travels to research their histories, the more difficult it becomes to find the answers to the county's racing infancy. Many of those involved from this by-gone era are no longer with us. Photographs, home movies, videos and artifacts are lost, tucked away in attics and basements or sometimes just non-existent. Worse yet, many priceless and irreplaceable items were thrown out as trash. Some records, photographs, and film was burned! As for the track's themselves, a few of those early tracks have been covered up and overgrown with tress and brush or built over erasing any footprint they once made.
Many European engine designs from the turn of the 20th century lead to American ingenuity and improved or ground breaking ideas for newer and better internal combustion engines. From the Miller's and Offenhauser's developed in the early 1900's through the flat head and 6 cylinders of the 1920's through the 1950's to the high horse power V8 motors, progress in making power evolved through the years before many of our residents eyes.
This is our attempt to briefly document the evolution of auto racing in Schuylkill County at all the known facilities that hosted the various forms of motorsports. Each racing facility had it's own unique story but most would suffer the same fate. From three tracks built nearly a century and a half earlier for horses, one of which would be erased from the landscape; to a track that would sacrifice it's ground so it could serve a higher purpose; to a number of tracks shrouded in mystery; to a track that would open and close multiple times before being silenced forever; to two tracks that would only survive one year; to a track that would be resurrected once a year; to a track built with a scenic view of progress only to be replaced by a different type of progress; to a track that would be lost to a sunken ship; to a track that would attain legendary status; to a track that would defy the odds through multiple management changes; to a track that would operate only four times.
The path that Schuylkill County racing took through time was as long and winding as the roads that led to those very same race tracks. A few of those racers who would venture along these very roads would in time become legends in this sport, their names being synonymous with greatness. Others would be lost in the shifting sands of time, their names only remembered by those old enough to remember them. This long and interesting journey through time begins here.....
Schuylkill County Fairgrounds 1918-1941
The first known facility to host an automobile race in Schuylkill County was held here. It has also been called the Pottsville Fairgrounds even though it was located between the boroughs of Schuylkill Haven and Cressona, PA. In the beginning, it is unclear what sanctioning body organized the events. It wasn't until the 1920's that the NMRA organized the racing activities. By the 1930's, the American Automobile Association, AAA, sanctioned "Big Car" races. These early forms of sprint cars were the first known class of racers to turn laps on the half mile track originally designed for horse racing. These machines were similar to the Championship type of racers that competed at tracks like the now famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the Indy 500 races are held.
It is ironic that internal combustion engines began to roar to life here. Only a few hundred yards away across the west branch of the Little Schuylkill River in the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Mine Hill and West Cressona yards, steam engines plied their trade in moving the largest commodity the county was known for in this era, anthracite coal. In just over 30 years, internal combustion engines would begin replacing those "Iron Horses" that billowed steam and smoke by burning a very different fossil fuel. This change in fuels would have a very drastic effect on the local Anthracite coal industry in the years to follow.
In the 23 year history of racing at the fairgrounds only 2 fatalities were recorded there. On July 4, 1935, 23 year old Wayne Schollenberger from Palmerton would lose his life from an accident on that day. Exactly one month later on August 4th, 29 year old Dave Harris of Staten Island, New York died from injuries received from an on track racing accident. Remarkably, these were only 2 of the 3 racing fatalities from on-track incidents in Schuylkill County's racing history. Fatalities in those incredibly hazardous early years of racing were not uncommon.
It is said, although records of the results are difficult to obtain, that a Berks County resident from the farming community of Oley would be the winningest driver in the tracks' too brief history. Early sprint car racer and National Sprint Car Hall of Fame member, the legendary Tommy Hinnershitz, is said to have captured the most feature race wins. Some of the greatest drivers of that era and arguably any era of racing in the Unites States competed here. Zeke Meyer, Russ Snowberger, Bob Sall, Chuck Tabor, Ted Nyquist, Johnny Hannon, Ammon Kelcher, Tommy McWilliams, Ted Kline, Tony Willman, and Mark Light are just a few of the early pioneers that visited victory lane here.
As the world was approaching the next great struggle against global domination by tyrannical foreign powers, the fairgrounds was demolished in the early 1940's to make way for a building large enough for the Federal government to produce tubing and a variety of extruded shapes for supplies and military vehicle production. These items were desperately needed in vast quantities for the war effort which thrust the United States of America into the Second World War. With the local work force and the means to transport the incredible amounts of raw materials required and finished products to where they were needed, this site was deemed to be ideal. It was considered such a great threat to the Axis Powers that Nazi Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler, wanted it to be sabotaged and destroyed! There were plans to actually bomb the facility which in actuality wasn't feasible as the German Air Force, the Fuftwaffe, didn't have the means to do so.
The U. S. government operated the huge facility from April 1943 until October 1944 until it was eventually used to reclaim returned ordinance by the Defense Department.
In 1946, the Aluminum Company of America, Alcoa, would take over and operate the facility as the Cressona Works until 1977 when it closed the facility due to labor disputes which, again, would have devastating effects on the local economy. The facility would reopen in 1979 as the Cressona Aluminum Company until being acquired in 1996 by Alumax Semi-Fabricated Products Group and was renamed as Alumax Extrusions. Alcoa acquired Alumax in 1998 and renamed the site Facility Alcoa Extrusions. Alcoa merged with Sapa in 2007. October of 2017, Sapa merged into Norsk Hydro resulting in its current name.
Today, Hydro occupies the massive building and nearly 100 acres that was once the site of the genesis of auto racing in Schuylkill County.
Present day image of the Schuylkill County Fairgrounds site
Brandonville - O'Hara Anthracite Speedway Late 1920's to the early 1930's 9/8/1935, 1950's, 1960's
Originally built prior to 1875 as a trotting track for horses, this track was of the typical length of a half mile that was popular around that time for such purposes. It may have been the creation of Nelson Brandon who was the founder of the little village based on his name. Little could he have imagined what would become of this track.
It was also the first Schuylkill County track to have Anthracite in it's name.
Located in the mountainous region south west of Hazelton, this track apparently was not immune to the auto racing fever that was sweeping across the country. That would lead it to evolving from horses to racing equipment that was of the common type of racers of the day. It was said to have hosted a variety of classes including "big cars" or early sprint cars, midgets and even early forms of go-karts. A few color photographs of early sprint cars in action on its big, sweeping turns are known to exist. These images appear to have been taken in the 1950's. Find information on it's exact first year of auto racing and what class of race vehicles competed there has not been forthcoming. These details continue to elude researchers.
One source relates that a driver named Gabby Croop mentioned that he and some other drivers from Selingsgrove had raced there. Also, there are unconfirmed reports that Buster Keller may have been involved in promoting events held here. Mr. Keller was rather popular at Selingsgrove. He may have been able to get many of the Penn Eastern racers and drivers from Honesdale, where he also promoted events, to race at Brandonville.
With the popularity of drive-in movie theaters that were becoming all the rage from coast to coast, the owners constructed a projection booth/concession stand and the large metal movie screen in the infield. It was built in the mid 1950's as apparently the popularity of the speedway was beginning to wane. It would be another form of income for the owners who's names are not known at this time. No doubt this was done to bolster declining profits as the early forms of automobile racers were becoming increasingly more costly to build and maintain. Stock cars were more readily available and less expensive to build and maintain. All the while, other forms of entertainment and possibly its location were cutting into the viability of using the race track for that exclusive purpose.
One source indicates that loosely organized go-kart races were held there in the mid to late 1960's, possibly on a smaller inner oval that may have used part of the drive-in movie theater area.
Sometime in the late 1960's is when all forms of racing ended, An exact year has yet to be found. It isn't known at this time when the drive-in movie theater ceased to operate as well.
Today, from aerial photos, the second turn outline can still be seen. The contour of the drive-in movie theater and the remainder of the race track are barely evident. From ground level, the area is almost completely flat with only a few mounds of dirt in what was the infield and small, thin trees growing on and among them. Time, man, and progress are quickly erasing most signs of the former activities that once occurred there.
Present day image of the Brandonville race track site.
Finding information on this 1/2 mile dirt track that would eventually be called Shenandoah Speedway is difficult if not impossible to obtain. There are few if any photographs, racing results, articles, or artifacts from the track's years of operation. The exact years of operation are unclear as the year of the first event held has not been discovered yet of the year of the final race. Even this track's location has been cause for speculation. One noted racing historian believes it was situated in the north-west corner of the borough under the present day athletic field of the local high school in West Mahanoy Township. Another feels it was located in the opposite corner of the borough in the south-east section along present day Pennsylvania Route 54 in Mahanoy Township. This location is the most likely site as it appears to be supported by an aerial photograph.
One source indicates that this was originally a horse trotting track much like Brandonville which was located over the mountain 3 1/2 miles north-east of Shenandoah. The close proximity of Brandonville running the same type of race cars may have contributed to the track's closure.
This was another dirt track that held AAA sanctioned Big Car events. It was also said to have hosted midget sprint cars as well. These racing activities ceased in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II after 1935. Also, it's location, much like that of Brandonville, may have played a part in the track's demise. No reason for the track discontinuing operation or who the operators were has yet to be uncovered.
What is known is that one of the best of his era, Ted Nyquist of Lebanon, PA, raced and won at least one race held there. An article from an unknown newspaper reported he won there on October 12, 1935, just 3 years prior to the only known aerial photograph.
Sometime before 1938, the northern and eastern turns were obliterated due in part to a surface mining operation nearby. All the material above the coal seams was hauled to the site the track occupied and was dumped there away from the operation.
Today, any visible signs of this track's existence is impossible to find. From comparing the 1938 aerial photograph to a recent one shows that motorists are actually driving over one set of turns on Rt. 54. The remainder of the track is buried under millions of tons of dirt, rock, and now trees as decades of dumping the over-burden, which created a modest sized hilly area, from a nearby strip mine operation covering the site.
Present day image of the Shenandoah race track site.
Ringtown Years of operation unknown
Trying to find any information on this track is extremely difficult to find as there is very little to uncover. Newspaper articles, photographs, and race results seem to be non existent. Aerial photographs show the track did not exist before 1938 but was built prior to 1958 as an aerial photograph confirms. With the United States entering World War II in December 1941, it appears the track wasn't built until after the war ended in 1945 when restrictions on events like auto racing were lifted. It also appears on a 1971 aerial photograph with every indication as an active racing facility.
The size of the track seems to indicate it was approximately a 1/4 mile oval, possibly smaller, perfect for midget sprint cars or even go-karts. The 1958 aerial image shows a very narrow track making full size race cars rather unlikely. The track that appears on aerial photographs today is located right next to it to the east but appears to be about a half mile in length. The new, bigger track doesn't seem to have replaced it but merely was built right next to it to be used for a different reason, possibly for training race horses. There are numerous stables located on the hill above the original, smaller oval.
A closer examination of different angles of the current day aerial photographs shows a very discernible outline in multiple places were the track actually was. To the north side of the track is a small hillside that may have been used to aid in viewing the cars on the track and may have had a small grandstand above it. One of the eastern turns is outlined by a split rail fence. In both the 1958 and 1971 aerial photographs, there appeared to have been a curved set of bleachers along the western end of the track on the outside of these turns. Eight corrals, seven square and one round, now occupy the racing surface and infield.
The new, bigger track has a large pond in its eastern end that appears to have been the result of natural drainage. It is completely surrounded by a split rail fence that conforms to the natural landscape and possibly property lines.
When automobile racing began and ended for whatever classes competed there is uncertain at this time.
Today, viewing the track from ground level, one would never know a race track ever occupied this location. It is private property so venturing onto the property is not recommended.
Present day image of the Ringtown race track site
Mahanoy City 1947 - 1952
This facility was located on the west end of the borough of Mahanoy City at the bottom of the Mahanoy Valley. This valley was noted for rich coal deposits with numerous coal breakers and many miles of railroad tracks. This stadium had multiple aliases along with multiple uses including the 1/4 mile dirt track. It was also known as the West End Stadium, Mahanoy Stadium, Mahanoy City Speedway, Township Stadium and Mahanoy Township Speedway.
This stadium of many names would even be known to host early Joie Chitwood automobile thrill shows as well as Charlie Williamson's "death defying" roll-over shows. It was also where some local racing legends began their racing careers such as Charlie Bubeck, Hal and Bill Lord and Lauden Potts.
It was originally built for sporting events such as football and baseball games along with track and field events. Exhibition baseball games included such legendary players as Connie Mack and Babe Ruth. During one of these exhibition games on October 26th, 1923, Ruth hit four home runs over the center field fence! Track star and 1936 Berlin Olympic Silver Medalist, Glenn Cunningham, also made an appearance. The athletic track that ringed the grassy field would become the narrow racing surface that the race cars would navigate before the large concrete grandstand. There were even reports that ARDC midgets were promoted by Frackville native Charlie Williamson. In all likelihood these racing machines created a fair amount of dust!
When the midget racing began in 1947, the events took place on Thursday nights at 8:30 P.M. under the lights. Admission was $1.40 which included tax and free parking. At this time, the track was known as Mahanoy Township Speedway. Many of the biggest names in midget racing made the journey to compete here. Red Redmond, Steve Yannigan, George Marshman, Wally Campbell, John Favinger, Jimmy Forte, and Charlie Miller are just a few of the best of their era to compete here.
The third known on-track racing fatality in Schuylkill County would occur here. On July 24, 1947, the midget driven by Philadelphia native Steve Jars was struck by another midget driven by Wally Campbell of Trenton, New Jersey. Jars passed away early the next morning at Locust Mountain Hospital in Shenandoah. The accident occurred in front of the main grandstand during their 20 lap feature event at the end of the evening.
As the decade of the 1940's was ending, so was the midget craze as this form of auto racing was out-pricing itself. This would lead to less expensive classes of racing equipment like flat head powered stock cars gaining in popularity. These easy to find and build race cars would become very popular and could be found at any race track in every part of the country. Many returning World War II veterans needed something to try and take the place of the adrenaline rush of combat and the camaraderie of fellow soldiers. Racing quickly filled that void. So did the mechanical skills that many had acquired before and during the war. These mechanics would be the pioneers of creating speed long before speed shops and catalogs made buying speed the norm. Mahanoy Speedway may be considered the beginning of racing as we now know it in Schuylkill County. That would eventually lead to where we are today.
By 1951, The track changed names again. It would now be known as Township Speedway by the new race promoters, Schuylkill Racing, Inc., and change race nights to Tuesday evenings. Gone were the midgets, now replaced by the much less expensive and easier to build stock car classes that were becoming popular. After switching nights to Sundays and losing a few races to rain, the track closed after 12 scheduled events. Enter Buster Keller. He switched nights again, this time to Friday and changed the name to Mahanoy City Speedway and operated under Keller Racing Inc. with the August 31st event run by the Penn Eastern Stock Car Racing Association.
The following year of 1952 saw another change. The Valley Race Drivers Association promoted by Maurice Hoffman and the Penn State Racing Enterprises took over the operation of the track. After 3 of the 6 events were lost to rain, the races were cancelled due to a lack of cars. Jack Maeder would then take over promoting with events run by the Twin Valley Racing Association. After at least one scheduled race, the remainder of the season was cancelled, due to all things, Jack Maeder being drafted into the U. S. Army. This was during the Korean Conflict. Auto racing would never return to the Mahanoy Valley.
Throughout it's tenure hosting automobile racing, multiple racing organizations sanctioned races at this structure at the west end of Mahanoy City. The Reading Stock Car Racing Association, Schuylkill Racing Enterprises and the Penn Eastern Stock Car Racing Association of Bloomsburg are a few of the racing organizations that brought automobile racing to the Mahanoy Valley.
During this era of racing, oil, not water was used to keep the dust under control. From automobiles to electrical transformers, this was the most popular way to try and keep the surface from becoming a nuisance to the drivers, fans, and especially the neighbors! It was also reported that the auto racing was creating problems for the athletic activities also held here, especially the track events.
The stadium was demolished in the mid to late 1970's to make way for the present day high school complex.
Today, all traces of the stadium are completely gone as it now is the site of the Mahanoy Area High School.
Present day image of Mahanoy Township Speedway.
Gold Mine 1950 - 1953, 1962 - 1968
Hidden in the woods on a back road on the outskirts of Tower City lies the remains of a track that opened and closed on two different occasions, with two different sets of promoters and slightly different names.
It was first named Gold Mine Raceway and operated on Sunday afternoons beginning in 1950. The track was originally built and opened opened by Fuzz Watkins and Charles Raudenbush on adjoining pieces of farmland they owned. Bob Weaver and Sam Cox were also partners in the ownership and operation of the track. They would chose the flat head powered Sportsman stock car class of racers which were very prominent at that time. These cars were easy to find, convert to race vehicles, and relatively inexpensive to own and operate would turn laps around the 1/4 mile bullring. The track would remain operational until 1953 when this promotional team decided to dissolve their partnership and close the track down. The reason for this decision is open for speculation as varying stories have circulated over the years.
The track would sit idle until 1962. That year, after making some improvements, the track reopened under Bumper Warlow, Jack Murray and Jim & Bob Watkins who were the sons of Fuzz Watkins. They would also to run on Sunday afternoons. The flat head Sportsman returned as this was by far the most numerous type of race car of this era of local racing along with a new class of racer, the Hobby Stock division. This new type of racer was meant to be an economical entry level class and appears to be the first track in Schuylkill County to run this division. That is also when the track would receive the name change. It became known by its most familiar name, Gold Mine Speedway. At the end of 1966 the track would close down but this would only be temporary.
By 1968, the track would reopen again with a slight change in operators. The track would eventually enter into an alliance with a pair of other tracks. In 1968 it would also begin to host 30 x 90 "Bugs", an early form of sprint car. This would create a 3 night circuit with Fredericksburg racing on Friday nights, Silver Spring on Saturday night with Gold Mine on Sunday afternoon. It would close for the final time at the end of 1968 due to declining car counts and attendance.
In early photos, some might think the 1/4 mile dirt track was a bit primitive as logs and tree trunks were used for guardrails long before they were replaced with steel guardrails when it reopened the second time. A drain pipe was also visible in the infield which drained outside of turn 3. A look at the grandstands shows what was very common for the times, cinder blocks standing on end with planks laid on top of them for seats. It did have a modern appearing announcers tower and concession stand lining the top of the small hill used for viewing the action. There were also small wooden structures used as ticket booths. There were some whispers that some of the locals "borrowed" some of those cinder blocks for their housing projects.
The flat head powered sportsman stock cars during the first 2 sets of promoters and drew many of the top talents of those eras paying one of the best purses anywhere. Lauden Potts, George Speck, and Whitely Kerschner are some of the drivers that competed when the track first opened. When the tack reopened, drivers such as Wayne Leitzel, Ears Maberry, Drick Hendricks, Chicker Nelson, Fran Purcell, Sr., Jerry Katz, and Russ Smith were just some of the drivers that raced there. Hal Lord may have competed in both eras of Gold Mine.
During the "Bug" era, Butch and Gary Kreiser, Ron Motter and Bobby Weaver were among the drivers to race that last year at Gold Mine.
At one point, the track attempted to put up lights for night racing. There are stories that debris was dumped into the fuel tanks of the generators powering the lights to sabotage any attempts at night racing.
Today, the outline of the track is still there as are many of the cinder blocks used for seating. The cinder block base for the flag stand is in ruins as is its concrete floor. The infield resembles a small forest with many pine trees reaching skyward. If you look closely you may see an occasional railroad tie poking up from the outside of the turns, some with a small piece of metal guardrail still attached. Some of the tires that were half buried to mark the inside of the turns can still be found. Since 1968, the track has remained silent with the exception of a curious fan or two and sometimes an occasional four wheeler...
Present day image of Gold Mine Speedway
Fort Lebanon 1955
Approximately one mile from Route 895 on the outskirts of Auburn was built a 1/4 mile dirt track that only operated for one year and only once the following year. Some events may have been held before the end of 1954 but this has not yet been confirmed.
Built by Doc Reichert, Joe Hendricks, Jack Trumbo and Hermy Baver, construction began in 1954. Doc Reichert and Joe Hendricks were the promoters of this facility which took it name from a colonial militia fort built in 1755 during the French and Indian Wars. Built on farmland leased from the Reed family, over the course of its brief existence, the property was transformed from an open field into a highly competitive facility. It was constructed with a sturdy scoring tower built from railroad ties and a very modern concession stand even by the standards of the day. The flagman would start the racers from the track surface and run for cover as the coupes, coaches, and sedans would rumble toward him! Although it lacked grandstands, the only known video of the racing action shows very large crowds of spectators sitting on the gently sloping grassy hillside behind the flag stand or sitting on their vehicles overlooking the track.
The first known race was held on March 27, 1955 with the final event of the year taking place on September 18th. At least one race was held on April1, 1956. Admission for the Sunday afternoon events was only 25 cents and the racing began at 2 P. M. as the track never had lights. Those that didn't want to pay the admission price climbed the trees along the back stretch so they could watch for free. There is a story of an errant racer running off the track and striking one of the trees. It's occupants fell out and tumbled to the ground. At one point, so many people came to witness the action that the state police had to monitor the traffic congestion as Route 895 East led to Rt. 61, then known as Rt. 122, which was only a two lane highway.
The first feature race was won by co-owner and co-builder Joe Hendricks's son Earl who would race using the name Drick. At only 22 years old, he was racing a 1937 Ford at the time. His own long and successful racing career that would garner him legions of loyal fans would begin here. His racing exploits would make him a local legend. Fort Lebanon would also be the first track where another racing legend, Russ Smith, would begin his racing career at the age of 19 and win it's very first and only point championship.
A few of the other drivers to take the tacky but dusty rural track were Ears Maberry, Charles Bailey, Ed Renninger, Pete Strunk, Wally Schwank, Art Ferrebee, and C. H. Thompson. Jack Trumbo and Hermy Baver, who helped build the track, also competed at Fort Lebanon.
Competition from nearby Circle M Ranch and the Berks County oval of Berne Township Speedway, just south of Hamburg, would lead to it's demise. Incidentally, Berne Speedway would also have a very brief tenure and today not a trace of that race track exists. Despite large crowds, the track had difficulty drawing enough cars to continue operating and never made a profit! After the only known recorded event on April 1st, 1956, the track would close forever. The ground that once reverberated with the rumble of flat head motors would go silent and become fallow, eventually be reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees. Auto racing would never return. With the exception of the families who built it, the locals walking through the woods or the local kids riding bicycles and later motorcycles, snowmobiles and eventually all-terrain vehicles on its surface, the track would slowly fade from memory.
Today, nearly every clue that a race track once covered this piece of property is gone. With the exception of the very slight banking in the turns, the built up banking supporting the outside of the turns and a few decaying pieces of railroad ties sticking up from the ground, one would never know what took place here. The property is now owned by a gun club, ironically from Lebanon, for the sole purpose of hunting for its members only and is heavily posted as such.
Present day image of Fort Lebanon Speedway
Branchdale C. 1955
Perhaps this is the most mysterious track to ever exist in the county. This local track that virtually all state and national racing historians have never even heard of has been difficult to obtain information about. If not for the year a local racing legend"s first year behind the wheel of a flathead Sportsman race car that was typical for the era, it's year of operation would be in question.
Located approximately a half mile from Route 209 in the tiny village of Branchdale, most information on this racing facility is now only in the minds of the locals who frequented the track. It's exact location is somewhat of a mystery. Many hours of research indicates it was situated near the end of the dirt covered and overgrown Cherry Lane in close proximity to a large barn. A known aerial photograph shows it's approximate location and that it may have been close to the standard 1/4 mile oval that was typical of that era.
The name of the local farmer who owned the land has yet to be confirmed or if he indeed was the promoter of the actual racing facility.
Following the end of World War II until the years just before the Viet Nam Conflict, many race tracks opened and operated from a few years to just a single event. These racing facilities were constructed in various types from farm fields to county fairgrounds. With many having only a brief existence, researching their history is difficult at best. Those circumstances is what makes finding information on them difficult because in many cases it is non-existent or lost forever.
What is known is that Branchdale native, racer, and car owner, the late Fran Purcell, Sr., began his racing career here. As legend has it, Fran was racing around a farmer's field when the farmer stopped him to ask if he liked doing that. When Fran said he did, the farmer told him to come back in a week. When he did, the farmer had cut out the outline of the race track.
A few other local racers are said to have started their racing careers here which have yet to be confirmed with any degree of certainty. A list of driver's names who competed here has been difficult to compile.
While photographs and records may be difficult to find, it is still remembered by some of the local and nearby residents. One source indicates that a local family has a photo album from when the track operated. The images inside that priceless piece of local history may be the only pictures of the events that took place there. There has also been some discussion if it was ever open to the public, had any type of facilities, or if more than one car raced on it at a time.
Today, after more than 60 years, the current land owner appears to have the area well kept. One aerial photo shows what might have been the outline of the track. Please keep in mind that this is private property and to respect the wishes of the property owner by not trespassing.
Present day image of Branchdale Speedway
Circle M Ranch 1955-1958
,Driving through the borough of Auburn heading west on Route 895, situated between two hillsides, was the creation of Eddie Mates. Mr. Mates, owner of Circle M Construction Company, wanted to build "one of the finest dirt tracks in Pennsylvania". It was the only county track to be built for cars first before being used by horses for rodeos.
Built with his sons in less than a year, not many tracks could boast about having seats from an old movie theater but Circle M could. The seats from the old Hippodrome Vaudville theater in Pottsville were placed in the grandstands after the old theater was torn down. With a perfect, unobstructed view with an almost amphitheater type of setting, the hillside grandstands were frequently packed as the flat head powered sportsman racers made laps around the 1/4 mile dirt oval. Initially built to seat 2,000 fans, it would soon be expanded to 3,000 seats the following week because of the large amount of fans that turned out for the first race.
Admission for the Sunday afternoon races was 50 cents with children under 12 admitted free. With the installation of a new 200,000 watt lighting system, the first night race was held August 24th, 1955 with an 8 P.M. start time. From that point on, racing was held Friday nights and Sunday afternoons for the rest of the season. Those lights would also be utilized on Wednesday evenings for rodeos.
Pictures taken from the small hill above the backstretch facing the flag stand showed a very neat and organized grandstand area with a large concession stand and bathroom facilities. There are even photographs of the track's own ambulance.
The late Hal Lord, who was one of the best drivers in county history in the flat head days, won the very first feature at Circle M. That first feature race was held on Sunday May 8th, 1955 with Hal driving the number 49 owned by Jack Moerder from Tamaqua. Over the course of Circle M's history, the late Charlie Bubeck from nearby Schuylkill Haven would win the most features.
In 1958, Fred and Ken Hurley, who at one time both raced at Circle M, would lease the track for that season. No one could know this would be the track's final season, closing because it could no longer compete with the bigger tracks outside the area that were paying larger purses. The track would be left sitting idle and overgrown with trees and brush for the next 5 decades.
Some of the drivers who competed at Circle M were Drick Hendricks, Jerry Katz, Charles "Pappy" Bricker, Don Loder, Jack Rudy, Carl "Boots" Podjed, Wally Schwank, Dick Snyder, Harlon "Cat" Fisher, Art Ferrebee, Pete Strunk, Whitey Kerschner, Billy Wertz, Charlie Bailey, Ed Renninger, Russ Reber, Johnny Snyder, Mitch Zajzc, Paul Blatt, Bob "Harp" Wink, Sam Moyer, Smokey Dengler, Bick Bickelman, Joe "Lefty" Kaiser, Walt Himmelberger, Wayne Leitzel, Allen Wertz, Irvin Blatt, Bill Linchorst, Hal Reifinger, Warren Mutter, Smokey Stover, Porky Wolf, Larry Valeriano, Claude "Fatboy" Bitting, Blackie Reider, Shorty Kerschner, Bobby Blatt, Ed Halderman, Mel Kreiser, and Glenn "Little Abner" Yocum. As one can see, many driver nicknames were common. A few of the racers who also turned laps here went on to become legendary in the sport. Dave Marberger, Dick "Toby" Tobias, Sr., and Lauden Potts went on to fame at tracks outside of Schuylkill County as well as Leroy Felty who went on to sprint car fame.
After the track closed at the conclusion of the 1958 season, it would sit silently for 50 years until a fateful decision was made. Following an exhibition event in 2008, the Mates family decided to clear the overgrowth and reopen the track for a once a year event.
Today, to the delight of many race fans young and old, this event continues to grow in popularity each year and has become a must-see for racing enthusiasts. Even Leroy Felty has returned to race around his old stomping grounds over 60 years later! Because of this yearly event, the story of this dirt track continues.
Present day image of Circle M Ranch Speedway
Sparky's C. 1950's - 1960's
Information on the existence of this dirt track has recently been discovered. The owner of this track was said to named "Sparky" Yorty. The facility's exact name isn't known at this time.
The configuration of this little track had an almost baseball diamond shape which it may have been at one point in time. The location of the start/finish line isn't known but in an aerial photograph there appears to be a grandstand that is parallel to a long building and the highway next to the track. No two turns were the same. It has a large, sweeping turn, a dog leg and two 90 degree turns. Each straightaway appears to be different in length.
This track was said to have hosted micro midgets or go-karts in the 1950's and '60's. It may have operated as a private club. No information on any sanctioning groups or organizations is available at this time.
The exact years of operation have yet to be discovered but the property was sold in the late 1960's to very early 1970's. It is unknown when any type of racing ceased.
The property would eventually be purchased by the late Mickey Pritz for the used car dealership and car wash he would build on this site. in the mid 1970's, he would become a Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth dealership known locally as Pritz Dodge.
One of the turns was actually the road that went around to the back of the car wash alongside the auto body shop that was also established here. Hillcrest Hall, which is owned by St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Minersville, parallels one of the straightaways. The church owned hall, originally built as a quonset hut, not only remains but has been enlarged to it's present size thus changing it's appearance drastically.
A look at an aerial view from 1958 the distinct footprint of the track. The borough of Minersville is to the right side of the photograph with Minersville/Llewellyn highway running directly in front of it. To the north-east, this road leads into Minersville where it is called Third St.
Additional information about this lost speedway is pending at this time.
Today, Mike Watcher's Used Auto Sales car lot is located at this site.
Present day image of Sparky's Speedway
Mount Carbon 1956 - 1964
Situated along the edge of a hillside overlooking the Schuylkill River and two of the major railroads in the area, the Pennsylvania and the Reading Railroads, was Mount Carbon Speedway. This dirt track was bordered by a cemetery behind it with its namesake borough beside it. At one point in it's existence, the track could be seen from Route 122, now known as Route 61. There are also some references that called it Pottsville Speedway.
This dirt track, that overlooked a highway that helped bring about the demise of those two railroads, was operated by at least two individuals, one of which was Bob Leininger leased the property and constructed the race track. According to one source, a woman named Ora Kulp helped finance this operation. This same source can only remember the property owners surname, Hess.
Current records indicate this was the first county track to have a small oval track built inside it's infield for quarter midget sprint cars.
One source reports that mostly all of the photographs, video, driver rosters, and racing results were burned in a domestic dispute, lost for all time. Anything of this nature that does exists is in private hands and personal collections, possibly tucked away in some long forgotten locations.
It also attempted to host night races which was held on Friday evenings. This was made possible by bringing temporary lighting in from Fort Indiantown Gap. According to one source, co-promoter Bob Leininger and Harvey Moyer who many have also been part of the ownership group.
It is interesting to note that the first race of 1957 was won by Leroy Felty on April 14th, Easter Sunday. Other Schuylkill County tracks may have also raced on this day but Mount Carbon is the first one that can be verified. It seems the track wasn't encumbered by the "Blue Laws" that were pushed by many religious leaders of this era to not hold any type of activities like racing on Sundays let alone Easter Sunday. This is besides the facts that it didn't have lights and would have had to operate on Sunday, anyway.
Many of the top local drivers of this era turned laps on this dirt track. As legend has it, if you weren't sure where the track was, just look for the dust cloud hovering above it! It was also said that if you went over the back stretch split rail fence, you would land on top of the Capital Bakery at the bottom of the hillside! The track also survived challenges from other dirt tracks that operated during it's tenure but ultimately couldn't draw enough cars to continue to operate. Its closure would, however, may have been responsible for helping to create the legendary track that would follow it.
Some drivers who would become legends in the sport turned laps here. Among them were Charlie Bubeck, Hal and Bill Lord, and Ears Maberry. Some of the drivers from outside the county who would become legends in the sport competed here. Legendary Lebanon residents Dick "Toby" Tobias, Sr., Bobby Gerhart, Sr., Bobby Hauer, Carl "Boots" Podjed and Leroy Felty raced here as well as a few legends from Berks County such as "The Reading Rocket" Russ Smith, Whitey Kerschner, and Joe Dissinger. Bick Bickleman from Annville, Bobby Blatt from Reading and Johnny Crawford, Sr. from Bloomsburg were also drawn to Mount Carbon.
1964 would be the final year for this hillside race track with an impressive view. It would close at the end of that season and never reopen. It is possible the property was sold to clear the way for a housing development. Also, the borough dump was located near the track where they hauled their residential garbage and ashes from the homes that used coal for heat.
Today, like many other doomed race tracks, all visible signs of Mount Carbon are gone. It is now buried under a housing development known as Forest Hills.
Present day composite image of Mount Carbon
Lakeside C. 1959 - 1962
What may be the most unique race track in Schuylkill County history was located on the eastern side of a curve in the road along Rt. 54 in Barnesville, PA. This piece of property that at one time would be used for a wooden roller coaster would end up being used for another form of thrill ride. And, not only was it the smallest track but had the most distinct surface.
It all began on a November morning in the late 1950's after the winds of a severe tropical storm damaged and knocked over part of a large wooden roller coaster that was situated in front of the Lakeside Ballroom. Parts of the wooden roller coaster were actually blown across Rt. 54. This location is not to be confused with Lakewood Ballroom and Amusement Park that was located across Rt. 54 on the western side of this same curve in the road.
At some point, local businessman, Wilbur, "Will" Connor, who operated Scrafford's Service Station on the present day site of the McDonald's in Hometown alongside of Rt. 54, met with an individual from California. This unidentified person had 7 or 8 quarter midget cars or go kart type of racers along with one that was made to look like a "pace car" with a fiberglass body that resembled a 1954 or '55 Ford. It is unclear what horsepower these Clinton engine machines were equipped with. During this time, Clinton Engines produced their 1952 model engines which varied from 1.1 to 3 horsepower. For uses such as quarter midgets or go karts, the 3 HP engines seems the most likely choice. An agreement was reached and the racers were purchased. Now, a track was needed to race them on.
Sometime after the wooden roller coaster remains were removed, Will Connor contacted his good friend who owned the property, Mahanoy City native John McGraw. The close friends created a mutual agreement whereby the former boarding platform site for the coaster would become one end of the 1/8th mile track that Will Connor envisioned. The uniqueness of this paper clip shaped track was that the turns were macadam with rubber tire shavings covering them and hay bales for outside walls while the straightaways were covered in clay.
This little track didn't have a flag stand for the head starter or bleachers for the fans. Blankets and folding chairs were brought by the fans to sit on to watch the races. It isn't clear if any organization or sanctioning groups were involved in the race proceedings. A sign located at the edge of the road advertised the Sunday racing events. The admission was free but a common practice for the era, 'passing the hat' among the crowd, was utilized. The attendees that wanted to race them may have been the actual drivers. This meant they would have to pay a fee to basically drive them, much like at most amusement parks.
One of the misconceptions was that there was a track located on the western side of Rt. 54 from Lakeside Park at Lakewood Park that operated in the 1930's to 1940's. No records indicate any type of race track ever existed at Lakewood which was famous for bringing in big name celebrities from that era like Eva Gabor and Dick Clark along with performers like Chubby Checker, Guy Lombardo, and Lawrence Welk. Lakewood would also host a variety of annual ethnic festivals such as the Bavarian Festival and Lithuanian Day. Aside from similar names, both recreational facilities could boast of having large swimming pools with high diving platforms.
Unfortunately, the Connor family didn't photograph any of the racing activities or save any memorabilia from the track's brief lifetime.
Of all the reasons for a track closing, the story of Lakeside is the most interesting, intriguing, and unusual in Schuylkill County history. After a few years of investigation and litigation into the exact cause, an opportunity arose for Will Connor along with a group of salvagers to dive on and try to recover the wreck of the Italian luxury liner, the Andrea Doria. The Andrea Doria was struck by the Swedish vessel, the Stockholm, on July 25, 1956 off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts and sank 11 hours later the next day. Mr. Connor then decided to liquidate all his assets, the service station and race track included, to invest in the recovery process. After months of dive attempts on the wreck, he and the others involved were removed from the salvage operation as they were told their 'permits were not in order'. It was a huge financial loss for him and his family.
This tiny facility would only operate for 2 or 3 years before closing and never reopening. Curiously, an aerial photograph from 1958 doesn't show any sign of a race track but a 1971 image does which clouds the track's actual dates of operating.
Today, the only traces of a race track existing here are the macadam turns which now are being reclaimed by mother nature as grass is growing up through the cracks in the former surface.
Present day image of the Lakeside mixed surface track.
Anthracite 1966 - 1975
Schoentown. Merely saying the name evokes an almost magical response from the fans who once attended the events there. Located in the hilly section above Port Carbon, this small 1/3 mile oval has attained legendary status. The faithful who spent countless hours competing there or watching from the hillside grandstands enjoyed being part of what many consider to be part of their extended family, their racing friends. Those of all ages who spent countless hours there still consider this piece of ground to be sacred. The attraction this track had on Schuylkill County residents was rare and is basically unheard of anymore. Never has one single track become such a part of folklore of an area or a generation as did Anthracite.
Built by the late Joe Sidella, Joe Kuperavage and his late brother Bernie Kuperavage, this track has passed into local racing legend and made heroes of the drivers that once competed there. This track with the second longest tenure in Schuylkill County history left an indelible mark on those who competed there. Many former drivers claim it was their favorite track to compete at, that the promoters treated everyone fairly and they enjoyed themselves. Many of these retired racers have stayed friends with each other, the promoters and the fans from their time spent at Schoentown. Some of their fondest memories in racing were created here. They also agree that they were never told, "If you don't like it here, go race somewhere else!"
The track name says it all as coal was such an integral piece of its existence. Many of its racers and fans worked in the various coal mining occupations of this natural resource as well the Kuperavage brothers. Even some race car numbers had their origins because of this industry that is unique to just three regions of Pennsylvania.
Built using it's terrain to it's full advantage, the grandstands were constructed on a small hill overlooking the track which sat below in a shallow depression. Originally using wooden telephone poles before they were replaced with planking material, boards were nailed to them to create the seating. The announcers tower, concession stands and bathrooms were built above the seating area. Originally, the pits were located in the infield but as the car counts increased, it was moved outside of turns 3 and 4 in 1971. More than one car cleared the fence in 1 and 2 with at least one ending up in the pond below. One of the distinct features was the back stretch hill. Many a driver tried to use that banking to gain momentum as they approached turn 3. Most of the time their efforts were unsuccessful with at least one racer making it all the way up the bank and into the trees!
When Hurricane Agnes cut a swath of destruction up the east coast, Anthracite wasn't spared her wrath. Nearly 19 inches of rain fell on Schuylkill County on Friday, June 23rd, 1972, which flooded much of the county, and turned the infield into a pond.
During the track's 10 years of operation, the Limited Sportsman were the headline division with the Hobby Stocks in a supporting role. In 1975, the VW Sprints were also added to the weekly racing schedule. It was also during Anthracite's tenure that the evolution of short track racing developed. When the track first opened in 1966, mostly all of the racers were powered by flathead motors. These motors and parts were still widely available but the overhead valve motors were becoming plentiful and very expensive to purchase. Having the advantage of extra horse power also drew many racers to switch over to the more modern engines.
The cars themselves have their own evolution as well. Going back again to 1966, the pre-World War II Detroit production vehicles were converted into both the Limited Sportsman and Hobby Car classes. But with dawn of the 1970's, the Sportsman class began replacing their coupe, coach, and sedan bodies with the much lighter car bodies that were becoming available. Thus began the era of the Mustang, Corvair, Falcon, and Vega skinned cars. Eventually, Chevette, Chevelle, Pinto and one of the most popular race car bodies of all time, the Gremlin, started to appear. In the Hobby Car class, every type of pre and post-War era Detroit built vehicle from Chevrolet, Ford, Lincoln, Pontiac, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, Plymouth, and even Nash, Studebaker, and Hudson had their car models represented in this least expensive form of racing. These would be replaced by all makes and models from the 1950's through to the mid 1960's. When the muscle cars of the mid 1960's and early 1970's became available, these too were striped down to the basics and turned into racing machines.
Every aspect of these two classes of race cars developed from their humble beginnings at Mahanoy City right through to Anthracite. From the very narrow, bias ply tires to wider, harder race tires that in many classes had to be hand grooved to the large "drag rubber" used in the track's final year. Even the chassis changed. What began with stock production frames from highway vehicles morphed into the very early stages of chassis produced from various types of shaped tubing as we see today.
There was no shortage of talent that competed at Anthracite. Across both the Sportsman and Hobby Car divisions were some of the best drivers of their time. It would be almost impossible to list all of the talented and popular drivers that competed here. From both classes were the likes of: Drick Hendricks, Chicker Nelson, Jerry Frank, Wayne Leitzel, Bill Arndt, Jr., Russ Smith, Stan Weitzel, Larry Moore, Jim Somers, Ears Maberry, Danny Starr, Aaron Brommer, Wilmer Weiss, Joe Bluis, Kenny Harris, Dennis Ochs, Fran Purcell, Sr., Eddie Dee, Tom Wiley, Jack Trumbo, Hal Lord, Bob Emerich, Roy Wiest, Jim Steele, Fred Theil, Don Zerbe, Kenny Brennan, Bill Quinter, Dave Schoffstall, Hank Wellbank, Charlie Eckert, Don Leymeister, Jerry Katz, Vern Dockey, Doc Miller, Smokey Warren, Billy Schinkel, Jr., Andy Fayash, Sr., Weldon Turner, and Danny Weaver are just some of the drivers the fans cheered on wildly through the years.
One of the myths surrounding Anthracite's closure was a driver's strike. This simply isn't true. In actuality, Joe Sidella was beginning to loose his eye sight. Bernie Kuperavage wanted to get out of race promoting because of interests outside of racing. But, Joe Kuperavage wanted to continue promoting which led him to joining the promoters at Big Diamond in 1974. At the conclusion of the 1975 season, the track would close forever.
Today, the track remains basically as it was left after the last race was held with the exception of a few pieces of equipment being moved off the property. It is also very overgrown. Many of the structures have fallen down over time or were knocked down and removed. It is also private property which means DO NOT, under any circumstance, try to visit what remains!
Present day image of Anthracite Raceway
Big Diamond 1972 - Present
The only track remaining in Schuylkill County is also the one with the longest tenure and the last new track to be built. It's story began in 1971 when race car owners and coal mining operators D. B. Muscara and Fritz Roehrig decided to build a track for the their '57 Chevys numbered 15-A and 88-B to practice on. Designed to fit the surrounding landscape much like its future sister track of Anthracite Raceway, the 1/3 mile track was completed in 1972. Thus was the birth of Big Diamond Raceway.
The first feature races were held on August 27th, 1972 with two local drivers being the first to enter its record books. Drick Hendricks won the sportsman feature while Doc Miller captured the hobby car checkered.
From its humble beginnings, the track continued to grow and in 1974, Joe Kuperavage joined the promotional team. It was 1983 that problems arose with Cass Township over a proposed amusement tax of 10% that prompted the decision to close the track early that year before the season's end. This situation would rear its ugly head again in the future. Still, this trio would guide the Forestville oval together until 1984 when D. B. Muscara left to pursue other interests at the conclusion of that season. Joe Kuperavage would not return as the co-promoter following the 1986 season leaving Fritz and Joann Roehrig as the sole operators of the track.
Another change took place in 1994. A planned expansion was moved ahead by 3 months to enlarge the track to a 3/8th mile. The project began the very next day after the July 8th program was completed. Work continued on this major endeavor that involved moving the 3rd and 4th turn along with the back straightaway outward. Just days before the reopening on August 28th, the new 3rd and 4th turn guardrails still weren't installed yet. Somehow, though, the track was ready for that Friday night's activity.
Many local fan favorites and a few high profile drivers would compete at the track that's just a few miles from Minersville. Many of them would attain legendary status, not just with the local fan base but with racing historians as well.
As with any business, Big Diamond went through prosperous years as well as lean ones. Beginning in the early 1980's, soring car counts and some big name drivers helped the bottom line through the 1990's But with ever escalating costs in racing and the downturn in the economy in the early to mid 2000's, racers and fans began to dwindle to the point where a drastic decision was made.
Before the racing season was completed in 2005, Fritz made the decision to close the track down following the Friday night, August 19th event, just weeks before the big year ending event, The Coal Cracker. This decision caused many negative feelings among race fans.
But that wasn't the end of this track. Enter another trio of businessmen who wanted to give race track promotion a try. Buddy Beiver, Barry Bashore and Dave Dissinger leased the track and began a major remodeling of the aging facility that December and continued right up until the first race of 2006.
This group would operate the rural dirt track until a mutual decision among all parties involved was made to end their lease one year early at the end of the 2010 season.
When the gates swung open in 2011, a familiar face was once again at the helm of Big Diamond. After many rounds of litigation, Fritz Roehrig would begin his second stint as track operator but with a slight name change. Gone was the word Raceway. The track would now be known as Big Diamond Speedway.
The year 2011 saw the return of another issue, the Cass Township amusement tax. After nearly 4 years of legal wrangling, the amount agreed upon at 5% that was grandfathered back in 1983, was put back in place, apparently settling this dispute once and for all.
But there was yet one more change on the horizon for the future of this track. When the 2012 racing season dawned, yet another promotional change would take place. Jake Smully, Fritz's step-son, former racer and track employee, and his wife Jasmine would become the new promoters.
In the beginning, the limited Sportsman was the top division utilizing small block overhead valve motors. During this era of racing, any motor under 350 cubic inches was considered a small block. A variety of supporting classes also appeared there on a weekly basis through the years. There was even a demolition derby but these events can leave the surface littered with car debris which can wreak havoc on tires during the regular weekly events. Even the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show would make appearances through the years. As for regularly scheduled supporting divisions, the Late Models and Hobby Cars were first to appear beginning with that initial opening day. The Hobby Cars were dropped at the end of 1976. The Limited Sportsman received a name change about this time, now becoming the Sportsman Modifieds. The VW Sprints appeared in 1977 but only lasted for that season before being dropped. The following year of 1978 brought the Street Stocks to the weekly card. When the 1982 season ended, the Late Models disappeared from the weekly schedule. 1984 brought a very entertaining new class, the Slide Stocks. With new engine rules for the headliners starting in 1985, they would eventually change from being called 320 cubic inch powered cars to 358 cubic inch motors. They have since been called 358 Modifieds. In 1990, the Slide Stocks were replaced by the Road Runners. The Street Stock class was dropped due to low car counts after 1996. Two new classes were added in 1997 called the Sportsman and Pro Trucks. The trucks, which had no other tracks to race at, lasted only 2 years and were gone at the end of 1998. The Late Models, now with 358 motors, made a return in 2014 but low car counts forced them out again after only one year. A new year, a new division. Actually, an evolved version of an old classic. The Street Stocks came back in 2015. At the moment, the 358 Modifieds, the Sportsman, the Street Stocks and the Road Runners are the regular divisions at Big Diamond.
Many different classes and types of racers made appearances through the years. URC 360 Sprints, Big Block Modifieds (sanctioned by MODCAR, DIRT, and Race of Champions), 410 Big Block Sprints, Big Block Late Models, KARS 358 Sprints, ARDC Midgets, Legends, Short Track Super Series Modifieds (with different engine combinations), Xcel 600 Modifieds and various sub divisions of Enduro cars have been scheduled, first on the 1/3rd mile version and the current 3/8th mile, at Big D.
From the day the track opened, the list of driving talent that competed at Big Diamond is staggering and almost inconceivable. A number of the former competitors would start in one of the regular divisions and go on to other types of racing machines. Some would go on to have Hall of Fame careers, being enshrined in Iowa, New Jersey, and New York as well as Pennsylvania. A few would even become race track promoters. Since that first race in 1972, some of the drivers that competed there are, beginning with the very first car on the track; Kenny Harris, Russ Smith, Don Zerbe, Drick Hendricks, Jerry Katz, Ears Maberry, Hal Lord, Wayne Leitzel, Fran Purcell, Sr., Eddie Dee, Doc Miler, Roy Wiest, Chicker Nelson, Wilmer Weiss, Terry Peters, Smokey Smith, Mark Weaver, Tom Wiley, Bill Arndt, Jr., Dick Maberry, Dave Schoffstall, Billy Schinkel, Jr., Aaron Brommer, Smokey Warren, Dennis Ochs, Butch & Gary Kreiser, Jim Somers, Dennis & Randy Bailey, Charlie Eckert, Dennis Somers, Pete Damiani, Paul Koch, Fred Rahmer, Paul Lotier, Terry Houser, Tom Mayberry, Ray Swinehart, Rick Schaffer, Don Kreitz, Jr., John Heydenreich, Craig Von Dohren, Scott Haus, Kenny Brightbill, Billy Pauch, Sr., Meme Desantis, Jack & Mike Follweiler, Bobby Gerhart, Jr,. Keith Prutzman, Jim Bernheisel, Duane Howard, Richie Tobias, Jr., Doug Hoffman, Jeff Strunk, Keith Hoffman and Earl Paulis. This partial list is constantly growing as the seasons race by.
Today, Big Diamond Speedway appears to be stabilized. This only remaining, sole surviving dirt track has, over the years, hosted a variety of special shows and divisions of dirt track race cars. Most of these special built machines can trace their roots back to the very beginning of auto racing. Their mechanical ancestors once turned laps at the tracks in this county which no longer exist. Only Big Diamond Speedway remains......
Present day image of Big Diamond Speedway
Little Diamond 2013
The last track in Schuylkill County to be built also had the shortest tenure. It was also the second track built on this piece of property and the last one to be constructed inside another existing track, Big Diamond. The only other track that fits this criteria was Mount Carbon which had a quarter midget track located in it's infield. Ironically, a young driver who's father competed in the very early years at Big Diamond had a perfect winning percentage on this mini dirt track.
This small track was unique in that it had four separate turns and four separate straightaways. The approximately 1/8th mile track was designed to fit inside the infield of the 3/8th mile dirt track which explains its unusual shape. The other amenities from the big track, the grandstands and pit area, provided all the other elements needed for its operation. The entire concept was to better utilize the property. It was hoped that possibly using the smaller cars as a feeder division for younger racers would create more interest in the sport in general and the tracks in particular.
Only three classes of racers ever competed on this tiny track. The 270cc and 600cc Micro Sprints and the Slingshots were the machines of choice.
With so many small car tracks operating within a reasonable driving distance and the lack of local cars to draw from, Little Diamond suffered from low car counts. It's Thursday night schedule may have also played a factor in its very brief history. Only four events were held in 2013 before all racing on this inner track ceased forever.
Alex Schoffstall, son of local Hobby Car, Late Model, and Sportsman Modified legend Dave Schoffstall and his wife Shaun, who is Billy Schinkel's sister, won all four of the Slingshot features held at Little Diamond. This easily gives him the single highest recorded winning percentage at any track in any division of racing in Schuylkill County history!
After all racing ended on Little Diamond's surface, it was basically left as it was after the last race event held. Slowly, over time, it began to disappear and fade from memory. It's banking from both sides of its four turns, especially on the front stretch, have at times contributed some additional excitement to the regularly scheduled races when errant cars were forced into the infield area.
Today, the basic shape and outline can still be seen from the grandstands of Big Diamond.
Present day image of Little Diamond
Then Until Now...
In less than 100 years, automobile racing has developed from the early , almost primitive gasoline engines, many of which had their basic designs from European manufacturers, to the American ingenuity and creativity of the high performance engines in use today.
None of this could be possible without the early pioneers of the sport. Not in their wildest dreams could they ever have imagined how the sport has changed. This rough and tumble county in the Anthracite coal region produced many of those pioneering local racers with those very same attributes.
In the earliest years, the cars lacked even the basics in safety equipment. Short sleeved shirts and coveralls have been replaced by double and triple layer fire suits. Goggles and early leather football type helmets and engineer caps have been replaced by the latest Snell approved helmets with clear tear off plastic sheets over the lens to aid in visibility, many with ventilation and fresh air systems. Wooden boards and baker truck seats were replaced by aluminum full containment seats. From no restraining types of any kind to bull rope, to army surplus "submarine belts" that evolved into 5 point nylon seat belts and even arm restraints. Specialty built cars, like those made by builders such as Kurtis Kraft for midget and "Big Car" racing, were replaced by home-built Detroit production framed vehicles with heavy coupe, coach, and sedan bodies. These bodies gave way to Mustang, Pinto, Chevette, Gremlin, and other production line bodies until sheet metal creations replaced them to the point where we are today. All the chassis, steering, suspension and body components today are specially made which can be considered a throwback of sorts to the very beginning of the sport. In between these eras, all manner of these parts were salvaged from junk yards to be used and even "re-engineered" into whatever the creators of the race cars needed them to be. The average street vehicles used for some form of racing, which are rapidly dwindling, will eventually be replaced by some type of purpose built equipment for competition.
Racing has changed dramatically through the years and will continue to change...at a cost. While the sport has been made safer then ever, the cost to build, buy and maintain mostly every form of race vehicle continues to climb. That is the biggest reason for declining car counts everywhere as the average person just cannot afford this hobby. Hopefully, changes can be made to correct this before it's too late.
For the fans, there have been improvements also. While some will say those improvements haven't kept pace with race car development, conditions are still better than they had been in the past. That too, will take time to upgrade which in the end depends on a track's success.
As for Schuylkill County, the coal mining that was at one time the leading source of employment and wealth have caused, in places, an almost foreign landscape that bares the scars of decades of both deep, underground mining and open pit surface mining commonly known as strip mining. This pursuit of hard coal has changed this area and left some places barren. In some locations, permanently. It obliterated one race track completely. Ironically, it also helped to create jobs that many local fans and racers relied upon to pursue their love of this sport.
Today, Schuylkill County has only one race track remaining that was actually built by a group of local coal miners with a love of dirt track racing. The mining of coal encircled the entire area surrounding this sole survivor. In the 1970's and '80's fans attending the races on Friday nights actually saw the strip mining process take place all around them. Even just beyond the 3rd and 4th turns of this track. The Forestville track of Big Diamond has seen many transitions through the years but has defied all odds and continues on, keeping the racing tradition alive for the next generation of race fans.
Tracks That May Have Existed Or Hosted Auto Racing
As with any research project involving the past, there are always questions that evade answers. In the case of Schuylkill County's racing past, there are questions about at least 4 different locations that may or may not have hosted automobile races or if they even existed at all.
The original Schuylkill County Fairgrounds was located in Orwigsburg which at one time was in consideration for being the county seat. An aerial photo from 1938 shows the remains of a large oval track the may have been a mile in distance. Facilities like this built in the late 1800's and after the turn of the 20th century were used for horse racing. No evidence of any auto racing taking place there has been found.
A place called Carson's Park was said to have hosted auto racing. It's location was listed as being 2 mile south of Pottsville with a date of 1935. This puts it approximately in the same general area of the Schuylkill County Fairgrounds in the same time frame. No evidence of a race track existing in this area has been found or that there was even a place called Carson's Park. The possibility that it was another name for the Fairgrounds is the most logical conclusion.
Lakewood Amusement Park in Barnesville was listed as having a dirt oval operating in the 1930' and 1940's where the competitors raced around hay bales. Lakewood Park was an extremely popular destination for many years with patrons arriving by train in the early years of it's existence. It also hosted many local ethnic events and was well known for it's lake and ballroom where many famous bands performed through the years. The amusement park itself closed in 1984 and nothing remains of it today. Reportedly it is now a pond next to Route 54. No evidence of any race track or reports of any types of racing has been found.
Another story has circulated about a dirt track in West Penn Township that supposedly operated in the 1950's and 1960's. Research has turned up no information about a racing facility in this area. There was, however, a 1/8th mile drag strip called Kel-Reca operated northwest of Hometown in an area known as Still Creek that began operating in 1964 into the early 1970's. This endeavor only covers the oval tracks in Schuylkill County.