History in the Making By: Eric Zembower & Dave Harclerode
The Bedford Speedway, located at the Historic Bedford Fairgrounds, has emerged as one of the oldest active speedways in the United States.
The first racing event at Bedford was held in 1936 during the Great Bedford Fair. Racing only occurred during fair week until the mid 1960’s. These fair races were part of the championship open wheeled “Big Car” series, sanctioned by the AAA (American Automobile Association). The Bedford Fair Association commissioned nationally known race promoters Sam Nunis and George Marshman to promote these early fair races.
Some of the best drivers in the country participated at Bedford during the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. The road to Indy came right through Bedford. Indy 500 winner Bill Holland graced Bedford’s victory lane during this period. Other notable drivers during this time included 1952 and ’53 Indy winner Jimmy Bryan, Ted Horn, Paul Russo, Tommy Hinnershitz, Joie Chitwood, Duane Carter, Bill Schindler, and Buster Warke. Indy 500, Daytona 500, and Formula One World Driving Champion Mario Andretti even competed at Bedford in 1961.
The AAA ended their racing division in 1955 to concentrate on being just an auto club for the general public. From this point until the late 1960’s the United Racing Club (URC) open wheel sprint car division sanctioned the fair races. Friday night companion races were also staged with Super Modifieds and Semi-Late Models (forerunner to today’s Super Late Models).
Saturday fair races were a yearly ritual for many folks around the area. They would wait all year in anticipation of the races that accompanied “The Great Bedford Fair”. Race fans from that time still talk about the great childhood memories of attending the Saturday fair races and seeing some of the greatest drivers in the country. With a little research you might still be able to find video footage of the early racing at Bedford.
The 1967 fair race saw its first and only loss of life. Up and coming driver Joe Ciski (pronounced “Chicki”) was rounding turn 4 when he bumped wheels with future Indy 500 starter, Jerry Karl. Joe flipped end over end down the front stretch, landing in front of the flagman’s stand. Joe was pronounced dead at Bedford Memorial Hospital shortly after his arrival. Ciski’s death might have had a significant impact on the racing world. The sprint cars during this time were open cockpit with no roll cage, but shortly after Ciski’s death, roll cages similar to the ones in today’s sprint cars became mandatory nationwide in all sanctioning bodies. Ciski’s URC sprinter was also unique because it carried a 6-cylinder Ford Falcon engine, built by Ciski himself.
The end of the sixties marked the end of the fair races. They would be reinstated by the fair board in 1990, but the memories of those early races will live forever.
Weekly racing at Bedford did not start until 1965 when Breezewood’s Roy Morral became the promoter. Roy is credited with installing the first lighting system and opening up the Super Modified rules, which eventually turned the class into Winged Super Sprint cars.
The big winner during these years was Fredericksburg, Pa’s Ray Tilley. Driving the number 88 Ford Super Modified/Sprint, Tilley was the east coast leading feature winner with many victories at Bedford. Some of the other tracks at which Ray won were the prestigious Williams Grove, Hagerstown and Port Royal speedways.
Notable drivers from the Morral era included Kenny Weld, Gerald Chamberlain, Boyd Arnold, Milt Miller, Muss Weyant, Elmer Ruby, Mitch Smith, Bob Elbin, Jim Kennedy, Bryan Osgood, Junior Ritchey and many others. Future Hall of Fame drivers Turk Burket, Larry Wright, Miles Chamberlain and Jim Nave started their careers during this period in the Semi-Late division.
An interesting story from this time period was when a race started while the previous race winner was being interviewed on the front stretch. The year was 1965 and Lewistown’s Pete Swarmer had just won the Super Modified feature. During the post race interview, the Semi-Late Model class was getting lined up on the backstretch when someone turned on the green light and total mayhem transpired in front of the grandstand crowd. To this day nobody knows, or will tell who turned the light on.
Swarmer, who was fitted with a wooden leg, dove on to the hood of his car after seeing the cars coming out of turn 4 at race speed. Crew members, officials and fans did everything they could to get out of the way of the roaring mass of metal bearing down on them. The front row starters immediately started slowing down once they noticed Swarmer and the others were still on the track. The drivers in the back did not. They plowed into the front cars and into Swarmer’s car, with Pete and his wooden leg clinging to the hood. Unbelievably, no one was seriously injured, but there were a lot of bent up race cars and unhappy drivers and car owners.
Roy Morral ended is promoting career in 1966 and concentrated on being a car owner. Many drivers raced for Roy over the years, including Junior Ritchey, Smokey Snellbaker, Gary Howsare, and Keith Kauffman. Only special invitational races were held from 1967 to 1971, along with the fair races. These invitational races included Langhorne Speedway qualifiers and Late Model races, which were promoted by Mel Norris of Everett, Pa. This would not be the last we’d here from Mel Norris.
Bedford’s promoter in 1972 was New Oxford, Pa’s Hilly Rife. Hilly was also the promoter of Lincoln Speedway at that time. Super Sprints and Modern Stock (Late Models) were on the card for weekly Friday night racing, but with one catch: Everett’s Gayland Speedway (formerly South Penn Speedway) was also running on Friday nights with Late Models, Novice and Fender Bender divisions. Some of the best Super Sprint drivers of the day raced at Bedford in ’72. Kenny Weld, Jan Opperman (the Flying Hippie), Elmer Ruby, Rick Ferkel, Lynn Paxton, Keith Kauffman, Steve Smith, Milt Miller, Jim Edwards, Smokey Snellbaker, Gary Howsare and others were on hand weekly.
The Late Model division was another story. There were about 20 local Late Model drivers in the early seventies. With Everett and Bedford both racing on Friday nights, the locals were split. The Bedford Late Models featured local racers Gary Martz, Don Snyder, Gerry Price and Dave Hite. Featured out of town drivers were Charlie Johnson, Buddy Armel, Butch Devilbiss, Roscoe Barnes, Roland Cox, Gary Balough, Bill Rousch, and brothers Ron and Jim McBee. Everett had a very loyal following of Late Model drivers such as Turk Burket, Jim Nave, Mace Foor, Larry Wright, Burt Alberta, Red Vaughn, Jerry Claar, Miles Chamberlain and others.
There were a lot of racing politics going on with the two tracks that split the field. For instance, drivers were paid extra money to race at Bedford, and were often given bonuses for swaying another driver to race there. This, along with bad weather (Hurricane Agnes) and the fact that two tracks, within 10 miles of each other, raced on the same night led to the demise of both tracks.
The Everett track never regained from the blow and only staged a few races in 1973. The track closed for good after that. The Everett Elementary School now sits on the land that was once the Gayland/South Penn Speedway. The Hobby Auto Racing Association promoted the races at South Penn until the late sixties. Several others, including Galen Whetstone, also promoted at the speedway. Many area racing observers and fans cherish the great racing that took place in Everett. The well-known racing families Chamberlain and Cragan began their career there. Everett, Pa will always be known throughout the nation as a prominent racing town.
There have been high points and low points at the historic Bedford Fairgrounds, and the years 1974 to 1978 have been earmarked as one of the brightest points in the track’s history. Enter promoter Mel Norris.
Melvin Norris, former board member of the now defunct Hobby Auto Racing Association, became interested in bringing back weekly races to Bedford. A deal was struck, and the popular Norris began the 1974 season with weekly Wednesday night racing. One of the reasons for running Wednesday nights was the speculation of the Everett track opening back up. That never happened, but Norris stuck to his guns and kept the racing on Wednesdays. Huge crowds showed up to watch a large contingent of local drivers in the Late Model and Novice divisions. The Super Sprint cars, which had been the headline division, fell out of favor with local fans. Reasons for this included lower car counts due to the high cost of running a sprint compared to the defunct Super Modifieds, and the fall off of local sprint drivers.
Mel switched back to Friday nights in 1975 without skipping a beat. The only change was renaming the Novice class the Semi-Lates.
Norris was a great promoter. He had a great personality, and both drivers and fans liked him. He worked hard on getting the community to support the speedway. From local politicians to area businesses, everyone wanted to help him make racing go at Bedford. Mel was known for giving away many passes for free entry into the races. This, along with other promotional ideas established the Bedford Fairgrounds Raceway (BFR) as one of the most fan friendly tracks on the east coast.
Some of the best Late Model racing also occurred during this time. Local drivers included Turk Burket, Larry Wright, Jim Nave, Dave Hite, Gerry Price, Jerry Claar, Charlie Cragan, Miles Chamberlain, Veryl Felton, Gary Martz, Bob Elbin, Junior Ritchey, Milt Miller, Johnny Grum, Bobby Maiers and Tom Peck. Outside of the area drivers included Paul Fess, Dave Srock, Clate Husted, Buddy Armel, Frank Lewis, Bobby Goodling, Blackie Watt, Paul Wagner and others.
“If you won at Bedford, you beat the best” was the saying back then. Business flourished for local car builders Gary Martz, Miles Chamberlain and the combination of Gerald Chamberlain and Gus Frear. Drivers from all over the east coast ordered cars from them. A Martz Chassis engineering car from South Carolina was the leading winning car in the country in 1979.
For unknown reasons, Norris stepped down after the 1978 season. Bedford did not stage any auto racing in 1979. Several interested groups looked into the possibility of promoting the track, but no deals were made.
The year 1980 started a new era. Piney Lasky and family became the new promoters of Bedford. It looked like everything was going to be all right even though the country was in a recession. The Lasky’s also promoted the Jennerstown Speedway in Somerset County, and some folks felt Bedford was the redheaded stepchild.
Piney’s second night of promoting in April of 1980 was the Piney’s Birthday Special. It was on this night that Lasky got on the P.A. system and announced to the fans that he was unhappy with all of the littering and beer drinking and promptly outlawed alcohol at the speedway. Mel Norris had allowed alcohol during his tenure. The fans were outraged with Lasky, and although the racing was just as good as it was in the past, the track would suffer.
Many fans disliked Lasky, but he always tried to give back to the Bedford community. From using local contractors to buying products at local stores, Piney’s money was good. Unknown to many, Piney would overpay the rent for the track to the Fair Association. Jake Hoover, former driver and then Fair President, would hold the check until conferring with Lasky. Piney would always say “Put it towards the Fair”.
During the Lasky era, Bedford and sister track Jennerstown were the highest paying Late Model tracks on the east coast. Hagerstown Speedway suffered the most from this since Promoter Jack Gunn was not interested in increasing his Late Model purse. In June of 1980 the Hagerstown drivers boycotted the track stating they would not race there until they were paid the same as Bedford and Jennerstown. Gunn didn’t give in to them and subsequently dropped the weekly Late Model races. Health problems forced Gunn to hand over his promotion duties to McConnelsburg businessman Frank Plessinger in 1981. Plessinger, Tom Peck’s car owner, gave the drivers a pay raise and Hagerstown has been a Late Model mainstay ever since.
After three seasons and a sluggish economy, Lasky turned the speedway keys over to national driving legend Gerald Chamberlain in 1983. By then, the actual look of a Late Model resembled a cheese wedge with sideboards and wings. A far cry from the stock appearing cars that raced just a few years before. The cars in ’83 were very similar to today’s Super Late Models. The cost to run a Super Late Model had just about doubled in 5 years. Chamberlain’s plan was to reduce the cost of racing. Along with Jennerstown and Winchester, the Super Late Models were dropped and replaced with Restricted Late Models. Also on the card at Bedford was the Street Stock division.
Reducing the cost of racing a Late Model wasn’t the only reason they were dropped. By 1983, the local Late Model driver roster was on a decline. Turk Burket did not have a full time ride. Gary Martz had retired. Dave Hite, Charlie Cragan and Jerry Claar had moved down to the Restricted Late Models. The only Late Model drivers left were Jim Nave, Tom Eriksen, Larry Wright and Tom Peck.
The Chamberlain plan was admirable, but the Bedford fans wanted Super Late Models. By Memorial Day, the Super Lates were back. Super Late Model drivers who competed at Bedford in ’83 included Jim Nave, Tom Peck, Jim Irvine, Jr, L.J. Dennis, Chuck Brannon, Tom Clise, Tom Eriksen, Ronnie Franklin and Lynn Geisler.
Restricted Late Model drivers included Frank Choura, Buddy Harbaugh, Dion LaSalle, Danny Hager, Dave Hite, Charlie Cragan, Stuart Shaffer, Dan White, Scott Rhodes, Jerry Claar and Butch Moyer. Highlights of ’83 include Kenny Brightbill getting disqualified for being light on the scales after a feature win, and Ronnie Franklin and Jeff Robinson battling for the lead with Robinson launching over the turn one wall after making some contact with Franklin. After a tough and demanding season for the Chamberlain’s, they decided not to return for the 1984 season. For the second time in 5 years, Bedford did not open for racing.
Jim Leidy, New Enterprise dairy farmer and former racer, signed an agreement to operate the speedway for the 1985 season. Leidy promoted Bedford for the next 3 seasons. He tried different promotional angles, including Late Models, Limited Late Models, Super Sprint cars, Slide Stocks and Enduros. The biggest contribution from Leidy’s tenure was the Enduro racing events that he held. The low cost of entering an Enduro type car (completely stock) attracted many new and experienced drivers. Even Turk Burket ran in an Enduro event. Many of these races started as many as 200 cars in 200 lap events. Many drivers got the racing bug and wanted more. Leidy did not have the desire to run weekly racing events, but Joe Padula and Doug Timmons did.
Padula and Timmons came on in 1988 and brought back the weekly racing. Crowd support was good and car counts began to grow. Several interesting developments occurred during the Padula years: Rick Eckert’s road to stardom, the Semi-Late class and the large contingent of Enduro drivers moving up to the Street Stocks and Semi-Late divisions. Padula was at the right place at the right time.
Rick Eckert and his father Junior made the trek to Bedford each week from their York, PA home. His all out driving style brought many fans to the track. Battles on the track, most notably with Tom Clise, brought the fans to their feet. With multiple track championships during the ‘90’s at Bedford, Eckert moved on to the national touring series STARS and UDTRA. Rick was crowned the 2001 and 2002 UDTRA champion.
The Semi-Late class in the late eighties and nineties evolved from the early to mid eighties Street Stock class. This division at times also included former enduro and Late Model racers. The top winning drivers was a who’s who list of the best local talent which included Jack Pencil, Brian Weyandt, Dion LaSalle, Jim Deneen, Eric Zembower, J.R. Keifer, Miles Chamberlain, Rodney Sweitzer, Tom Eriksen, Chuck LaSalle, Mike Altobelli, Brain Musselman, Kevin Smith and Todd Ritchey. The division began to fade because of the lack of continuity with other tracks, and the division was dropped in 1997. Jim Deneen won the first Padula era Semi-Late race in 1988, and Eric Zembower won the last one in 1997.
The Late Model division during this period got stronger as time went on. There were only several local drivers in 1988. However, by 1999 over half of the field came from within a 50-mile radius. Fan favorites included Eckert, Mike Hess, Bob Salathe, Scott Haus, Chris Harr, Wayne Johnson, Ken Dickson, Junior Eckert, Jim Bernheisel, Tom Clise, Bob Wearing, Jr., Larry Wright, Tom Myers, Kevin Smith, Tony Flanagan, Pork Sell, Will Rowe, Scott Rhodes, Rick Singleton, Andy Fries and Randy Kimmel. Drivers Mike Altobelli, J.R. Keifer, Jack Pencil, Dion LaSalle, Todd Ritchey, Eric Zembower, Rodney Sweitzer, Dave Hoover and Shane Beegle all moved up to the Late Models during this period.
As the new millennium grew near, local Late Model driver Bob Salathe realized he’d like to try his hand at promoting. At the last race at Cumberland Raceway in 1999 it was announced that Salathe would be taking over the promoting duties from Ben Evans. Evans, a former racer, brought the Cumberland oval out of its grave in 1991 and returned racing to the Cumberland, Md. area.
The following year, Salathe’s Rock Entertainment group took over the reigns at Bedford. In 2000, Salathe announced that the two speedways would switch race nights. Cumberland would race on Fridays, and Bedford on Saturdays. Many fans were upset with the move and by the 2001 season, the tracks were back to running their original nights. Salathe succeeded in dotting the schedules of both tracks with high profile Super Late Model and Super Sprint races that brought great racing to both venues.In November of 2001, Salathe announced that he would no longer be promoting the Bedford Speedway and would concentrate solely on the Cumberland track. After Salathe’s announcement, it appeared that racing would never happen again at the Bedford Fairgrounds Speedway. Many people couldn’t believe that racing might be over at the speedway. One man, former track champion J.R. Keifer, knew that something needed to be done immediately.
Keifer, along with late model driver Ken Dickson of McVeytown, PA and Jim Maybury of Lavale, Md signed an agreement to operate the historic track in January 2002. The trio dubbed themselves D.K.M. Racing, Inc. They knew they had a lot of work to do in order to be ready for an April starting date. With massive support from area fans and businesses, D.K.M. and Bedford Speedway had a very successful rookie season.
After several years of gradual improvements, the Bedford Speedway is a far cry from the track that almost closed. Ken Dickson stepped away from his promoting duties to concentrate on his son’s racing career, and Dr. Dave Horne came on board late in the 2007 season to keep the promoting staff a trio. Racing today is better than ever at Bedford, with an aggressive schedule bringing in talent from all over the country, and an excellent local driver roster to keep racing healthy and prosperous in Bedford for years to come.