A century ago, Tacoma had a speedway that put the city on the map.
It lasted only 11 years, and is now forgotten by most, but in 1920 it was one of two top-rated tracks in the United States. The other was in Indianapolis, home of the famous Indianapolis 500.
The track – initially dirt, later wood – attracted some of the biggest names in racing, titans of industry and governors of other states to what essentially was a prairie in Lakewood, said Wayne Herstad, who has been piecing together the track’s history and collecting its memorabilia for more than 40 years.
The Lakewood Historical Society on Sunday will commemorate the centennial of the first races, which was earlier this month.
The track opened in 1912 after some Tacoma businessmen – led by Arthur Prichard, president of the Tacoma Automobile Association – gathered a group of backers, said Lakewood historian Steve Dunkelberger.
The $25,000 purse attracted some of the country’s best race car drivers to the speedway’s first five races, which capped the city’s week-long Fourth of July celebration, Herstad said.
Trains brought the cars to Tacoma, and horse-drawn wagons carried gasoline to the track in the Lakes District. The location was close enough to be called a Tacoma track, but remote enough to have space for a speedway, Dunkelberger said.
Though the prize money was hefty, the course was modest that first year. Races – up to 250 miles in length – were held on a five-mile track of dirt roads, with the start and finish along Lakeview Avenue Southwest, where visitors came to watch from the grandstands, Herstad said.
Theodore “Terrible Teddy” Tetzlaff took first that year. His philosophy was to “put the pedal to the metal, and if the car holds up, you only bring it up at the end of the race when you’ve won,” Herstad said.
Making the race was a bit of an ordeal for “Terrible Teddy”: He was abducted days beforehand.
“Everybody knew he was the man to beat coming to Tacoma, so he was kidnapped,” Herstad said
Rumor had it, Herstad said, that he was held at a Tacoma brothel and didn’t want to leave after the ransom was paid.
Races continued around the Fourth of July each year, but before long they were more than a festival feature.
“If I said in 1915, ‘I’m going to go to Tacoma,’ everyone would know what I was talking about,” Herstad said.
In 1914, the speedway moved off the roads to a roughly two-mile dirt loop on nearby prairie land where Clover Park Technical College stands today. It was rebuilt the next year as a wooden track, with 2 million board feet of 2-by-4s and 15 tons of 20-penny nails.
“In 1915, everything changed,” Herstad said. “It went to the boards.”
When Tacoma made the switch, there were about 11 other wooden tracks in the United States, but the prairie-land speedway was different.
Instead of laying the planks flat across the 50-foot-wide track, Tacoma put them on their narrow ends for greater strength and durability, with a 5/8-of-an-inch gap between each board.
The course was banked inward, with one side 18 feet higher than the other.
While the revamped speedway already was a national hub for racing, the annual competition wasn’t its only attraction. The track catered to a broad audience and had various sideshows, such as a race for women and another for men greater than 200 pounds.
“Not a lot of people were into racing per se,” said Dunkelberger, the Lakewood historian. “They did it for the entertainment, because it was something to do.”
In 1916, the track held a grudge race between Tacoma and Seattle, with one car representing each city. Tacoma won.
Seattle demanded a rematch but instead of racing cars, they smashed two trains into each other on a makeshift railroad track in the middle of the speedway. Seattle’s train was the least damaged and declared the winner, Herstad said.
The famous Eddie Rickenbacker won the longest race in the history of the track that same year. After taking first in the 300-mile competition, Rickenbacker went on to become the United States’ “Ace of Aces” in World War I, shooting down 26 German aircraft. He later refereed a couple of races at the track, Herstad said.
During its 11 years of entertainment, the track also saw tragedy. A hospital tent set up behind the grandstands treated injuries, which started the first year, Herstad said.
Driver “Smiling” Ralph Mulford was hit in the head by a rock kicked up by a car in front of his. He survived, and his mechanic took the wheel to finish the race. Mechanics rode in the cars at the time to check gauges and tires and serve as rearview mirrors, telling their partners what was going on behind them.
The next year, a race car hit and killed a pedestrian on the track.
But the real danger at the speedway were tire blow-outs that sometimes sent cars crashing.
“This is what kills people in these early races,” Herstad said.
“Coal Oil Billy” Carlson had two tires blow out at once in 1915. One of the rims fell into a gap between the track’s boards, launching the car and throwing Carlson and his mechanic from the vehicle. Both were killed.
Driver Conrad Hanson met the same fate two years later when one of his tires blew.
Splintering ends of the planks proved especially perilous. Driver Tommy Milton put it this way: “Driving on the boards was always terrible, and then there was Tacoma.”
The last race at the Tacoma Speedway was also its closest, Herstad said.
On July 4, 1922, driver Tommy Milton was in the lead, when he saw Jimmy Murphy slow as if he was going to switch out tires. Thinking he had time to do the same, Milton stopped.
That’s when Murphy accelerated and took the lead to win the race by about six seconds, fooling his competitor by never intending to actually change his car’s tires.
By that time, the track held just one race a year.
“Everyone was yelling about how great ’23 was going to be,” Herstad said. “Didn’t happen.”
The speedway ran out of money for prizes and much-needed repairs, making 1922 the track’s last year.
“It’s just about lost,” Herstad said. “There is nothing in Tacoma that rivals the Tacoma Speedway.”