Dirt Tracks with Pavement Origins; A Narrative of USAC History

By RICHIE MURRAY

PLYMOUTH, IN – Dirt or pavement? The argument has raged on for ages for those who prefer one surface for racing over the other. But there are a number of racing venues which have had the unique characteristic of hosting USAC National events both as a dirt track as well as a pavement track.

Plymouth (Ind.) Speedway’s surface has been both at one point, from its 1952 inauguration as an asphalt track to its 2013 reincarnation as a dirt track which will host the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship this Friday night, June 26.

Plymouth Speedway itself was itself opened in 1952 as a 3/8-mile paved oval. It remained in that same configuration when it began hosting USAC Regional Midget races on a regular basis in the early 2010s. A 1/5-mile dirt track was added in the infield of the paved track in 2012, making for what was intended to be a unique doubleheader that summer – USAC National Midgets on pavement Friday and on the dirt track Saturday. Darren Hagen won the pavement portion on the opening night while excessive heat forced cancellation of the dirt race the following night.

In 2013, track management went all-in on dirt and covered the paved 3/8-mile with dirt. The new look Plymouth Speedway greeted the USAC National Midgets’ return in 2015 as well as its USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car debut in 2017.




June 26 Plymouth Speedway USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Race Tickets:
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Moving southbound to central Indiana and Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway) in Brownsburg, Ind. where the first two events held at the .686-mile track were, in fact, held on dirt. In 1961, A.J. Foyt won a late May USAC National Sprint Car event while Don White won the USAC Stock Car main event the following afternoon. Parnelli Jones won on the newly paved oval five weeks later in early July of 1961, the same configuration which has hosted 292 successive USAC events through the 2019 season.

The long-lost New Bremen Speedway in New Bremen, Ohio began as a half-mile dirt oval before converting to pavement for 1967 before returning to dirt in 1979, the last year in which the track hosted USAC events prior to its ultimate closing in 1981. New Bremen served as the showcase for USAC Midgets nine times on dirt and 11 times on pavement throughout its run with the last one won by Tom Bigelow in 1979.

New Bremen was well-known as a staple of the USAC Sprint Car trail beginning in USAC’s initial year of 1956, annually hosting multiple races each year until its demise, 59 races in all. At New Bremen, it proved a challenge in keeping up with the Joneses. Parnelli Jones won the first two races there during the first year of the combined USAC National Sprint Car trail in 1961 while Bubby Jones (no relation) won the final three in 1979.

Tri-County Speedway, later known as Queen City Speedway in Cincinnati, Ohio, was visited by USAC Sprint Cars a total of 17 times on both dirt and pavement between 1968 through early 1972 (dirt) and mid-1972-78 (pavement). From the cageless days of the late 1960s on dirt to the brief rear engine domination of the division on pavement in the early to mid-1970s, Tri-County witnessed USAC Sprint winners such as one-time winner Dave Roahrig and future 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva notching wins at the track just prior to the banishment of their machines.

Eight USAC Midget races were held at Tri-County, all on dirt, between 1968-71. Most memorable of those eight was Lee Kunzman’s 1971 comeback victory there less than a year following a devastating sprint car crash that broke his neck, right arm/wrist and entangled his left arm in the catchfence while permanently burning his face and neck according to Robin Miller’s recent article in Racer Magazine, of which he also wrote that when Kunzman pulled into victory lane, he was so tired he couldn’t even pull the car out of gear, nearly running down a couple USAC officials in victory lane.

As a dirt track, Ohio’s Mansfield Motor Speedway made just one appearance on the USAC National Sprint Car schedule, a race won by Sheldon Kinser during his third and final championship season of 1982. As a pavement track, Mansfield was the host of three USAC Sprint/Midget doubleheaders in the odd years of 2003-05-07. Of note, Bobby East was a force on the sprint car side of things at the ½-mile paved oval, winning all three of those features.

In Kansas City, Kans. there’s the “old” Lakeside Speedway and the “new” Lakeside Speedway. The “old” ½ mile dirt oval hosted seven dirt USAC Sprint events between 1963-81. However, a completely new version of Lakeside Speedway, with a different address, was constructed in 1989 as a 1/2-mile paved oval, which made its debut on the USAC National Sprint Car schedule in 1991, won by Jim Mahoney. In 1996, Dave Steele pulled off a rare feat, winning his first career USAC Sprint Car race in dominant “sweep” fashion after earlier posting the fastest qualifying time and winning his heat race.

When the series returned to Lakeside in 2001 for a two-night doubleheader, Tony Elliott and J.J. Yeley were the victors on a 4/10-mile dirt track and the track remains on USAC’s schedule to this day, or at least it was until cancelled due to COVID-19 regulations in early 2020.

Michigan’s Berlin Raceway continues in operation to this day as a paved surface that, on special occasions, pours dirt over the surface of the 7/16-mile. For the first eight USAC Midget races it hosted, Berlin Raceway was a dirt half-mile. Beginning in 1966, the track was paved and reconfigured into its current setup of today. The second USAC Midget race ever held on the pavement version of Berlin served as Mario Andretti’s one and only career win with the series.

Berlin most recently hosted a USAC Silver Crown race in 2010, the first career series win for Tanner Swanson. His older brother, future five-time Silver Crown driving champ Kody Swanson was seeking his first career win at the time but had to settle for second that night.Few tracks have as legendary of a status as Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania, the one-mile dirt circle which had a portion of the track affectionately known as “Puke Hollow,” just to give you a hint of its treachery. The most legendary of the legendary won there in USAC Sprint Car and Championship Car competition – A.J. Foyt, Don Branson, Jim Hurtubise, Roger McCluskey, just to name a few. But, in 1965, the place was paved, and USAC Championship racing continued competition annually there until its demolition in favor of a shopping center at the conclusion of the 1970 season.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Nazareth Speedway has a tricky history. Constructed in the mid-1960s as a 1.125-mile, five-turn dirt track, it welcomed USAC Championship racing 1968 and 1969 with two of the biggest stars in the history of the sport, then and now, finding victory lane – Al Unser and Mario Andretti, respectively speaking. In 1971, Nazareth hosted the very first USAC Silver Crown event, won by Jim McElreath.

After shutting down shortly thereafter, the track re-emerged as a slightly shortened dirt track, with Keith Kauffman winning the only Silver Crown race ever held in the month of December, in 1982! Gary Bettenhausen won the Silver Crown opener there in 1983, and in the summer that same year, it was Jimmy Horton batting 1.000 by scoring the victory in his first and only career start with the series.

Once again, Nazareth would close shortly after, but the track would reappear again as a paved one-mile tri-oval after being acquired by Roger Penske in 1987. USAC made it back there in 1999 with the Silver Crown series and would routinely make the scenic trip out east for Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown until Nazareth Speedway was shuttered for the final time in 2004.

I-70 Speedway’s long-winding history includes the USAC Sprint Car debut there on the high-banked half-mile paved oval in 1970, incidentally enough, the same race that the previously mentioned Lee Kunzman was seriously injured in. That race at the Odessa, Missouri venue was won by Gary Bettenhausen, the first of five series events held there. In the early 1980s, the asphalt was covered with dirt by none other than 1967 USAC Sprint champion and new track promoter Greg Weld, just in time to greet Jeff Swindell for his first, and still only, USAC National Sprint Car feature victory.

Once new ownership took over I-70 Speedway in 1989, the track was converted back to pavement and USAC made two more visits each with the Sprint Cars and Midgets, with the last such visit coming in 1998, a Midget race won by Jason Leffler.

Oregon, Wisconsin’s racetrack has undergone a slew of name changes and surface changes over the past half-century. When Larry Dickson won USAC Sprint Car race there in 1970, it was a 1/2-mile paved oval. The next trip to the track by the series came in 1987 where it was then a ½-mile dirt oval known as Impact Speedway and served as “The Pup” Kevin Huntley’s first career series victory.

The next series’ visit to the track came in 1997 where it was now known as Madison International Speedway, but had reverted back to its ½-mile asphalt configuration – the sprint race was won by Dave Steele and the midgets by Jimmy McCune. Each of the last two seasons, the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series has inhabited the track, which still resides as a ½-mile paved oval, both races of which were won by Kody Swanson.

Friday at Plymouth, the grandstands open at 4pm Eastern with hot laps set for 6pm. Along with the Sprint Cars, the event card also features 600cc non-wing micros and 4 Cylinders.

Tickets are available for the event exclusively on www.usactickets.com. Adult grandstand admission tickets are $25 for adults, $10 for children ages 6-12 and free for kids age 5 and under. Pit passes are $35 for apiece.

The event at Plymouth will be held with the capacity held at 50 percent. You must order tickets in advance from www.usactickets.com. Please bring your QR code receipt to be scanned at the gate. The receipt can be either printed or displayed on your phone.

All USAC National events can be seen LIVE exclusively on FloRacing.