Street stocks in action at Salem Speedway. (Neil Cavanah Photo)
Street stocks in action at Salem Speedway. (Neil Cavanah Photo)

75 Years For Indiana Ovals

Mauri Rose won the AAA-sanctioned Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1947 and the popularity of open-wheel racing was on the rise.

Two tracks were built in Indiana to answer the demand. The first to open its gates was Salem Speedway, which debuted in June 1947. The second was the Sportsdrome in Jeffersonville. Both have survived 75 years of competition and changing racing trends.

These tracks served as career builders for future Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR drivers.

Salem, the oldest by a couple of months, was built on the outskirts of the town on State Road 56. The turns of the .555-mile oiled-dirt oval were banked at 33 degrees. James W. Summers and Everett “Foxy” Roberts of Salem Speedway Corp. opened the track for the first race on June 22, 1947.

Seven-thousand fans were on hand for opening day. It was a tragic beginning as two drivers lost their lives. Nine more drivers were killed there over the years with sprint car driver Rich Vogler the most recent in 1990.

The inaugural 25-lap feature was won by Tommy Hinnershitz, driving a car owned by Joie Chitwood. Hinnershitz won two more features at Salem that year. In the 1948 Indianapolis 500, Hinnershitz finished ninth. The track was paved in 1949 and a young Troy Ruttman turned the first lap under 20 seconds at 19.91 seconds.

One of the iconic features of Salem Speedway was the pedestrian bridge at the exit of turn four. The bridge was removed in 1977 by then owner Sherman Armstrong, who said the supports made entering the pits unsafe.

The bridge was saved and is still used over Brock Creek by students going to and from Salem High School.

The storied track battled many different pitfalls, including ownership changes, bankruptcy and a windstorm.

One of the most difficult obstacles was the 1981 windstorm. It shut the track down for six-and-a-half years. The storm removed the roof of the grandstand and caused approximately $200,000 worth of damage.

The track reopened in 1987 and was operated by new owner Don Gettelfinger until it was seized by the IRS.

In 1995, Owen and Beverly Thompson bought the track and completed an extensive renovation. Improvements included an 11,600-square-foot, three-story structure that housed hospitality suites, a press box, track offices, concessions, a gift shop and restrooms.

Other upgrades such as better lighting, additional concrete walls and improved grandstand seating were also finished.

In 2010, to the disappointment of many longtime fans, a quarter-mile track with Figure-8 layouts was added in the center of the high-banked oval. The infield, once a picnic and playground area for fans, is now partially covered with asphalt.

The custom was to locate your favorite vantage point for the day — away from people — and kick back. The infield quarter-mile track adds flexibility to the speedway’s possible programs. The present-day owner is Bill Kniesly, who brings a business  background to the track.

Some 35 miles down the road in Jeffersonville is the Sportsdrome. The quarter-mile asphalt track’s first race was on Aug. 28, 1947. It was a major event in the area with three mayors — Jeffersonville, New Albany and Louisville — showing up for the opening ceremonies.

Free bus service ran every 15 minutes starting at 6 p.m. to the track from the Charlestown bus station on Wall St. The fans on the 22-acre plot were gleaming with anticipation. Midget racing was on the card that night as 26 cars showed up from all over the Midwest. According to the local “Evening News,” 11,577 fans filled the grandstands.

Robert L. Fisher, of Louisville, was president of Sports Inc., which promoted sports in the Kentuckiana area and oversaw the debut of the Sportsdrome.

Owner/promoter Michael Gibson can trace his lineage back to one of the leaders, A.C. Mac Petrali, his grandfather. So the “Drome,” as locals like to call the track, has been in the same family for 75 years.

The opening program in 1947 called for a trophy dash for the four fastest qualifiers, followed by four 10-lap heat races with the top four transferring to the feature, then four from the 20-lap semi feature wrapping up the 20-car main event.

Jackie Holmes, of Indianapolis, dominated the feature and his heat race.

The Sportsdrome has survived competition from several local tracks that have now closed, including Fairgrounds Motor Speedway, , Charlestown Motor Speedway and Louisville Motor Speedway.

Both tracks have adapted to the trends of race fans; first the hardtops (stock cars), school buses, big rigs and on many occasions sprint cars and midgets.

Steel and concrete walls have replaced the white wooden fences around both tracks. The 2021 schedules for both tracks are filled with a variety of special and exciting events. 

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