Speed & Motorsports: A Scrapbook of Local Passion

This community scrapbook has ample evidence to assert that a significant dimension of Mansfield’s identity—from both inside and outside the city—has been centered in speed and racing for 100 years.

Even before that—back to before the Civil War—the town was well-known as a horse racing center, so speed and racing were encoded in Mansfield’s DNA from the start.

But in 1910 it became a place for motorcycle racing, and in 1912 it entered the era of auto racing.

The Fairgrounds

All of the first motorsports events took place at the Richland County fairgrounds on Springmill Street, during the County Fair season. The grandstands seated 2,000 and the infield, which usually served as a baseball field, could accommodate enough for a crowd of 20,000.

It was largely due to the enthusiasm for motorcycle racing that Mansfielder Hugo Young developed a motorcycle side car that was flexible enough to maneuver race track curves at high speeds safely.  His invention brought about the Flexible Side Car Co. in 1913, which eventually evolved into the famous Flxible Company that manufactured transit buses for decades in Loudonville.

A close look at this sidecar shows an early Flxible product photographed in the winner’s circle at the Fairgrounds.

Mansfield’s first auto race took place in 1912.  For several years it had been hotly debated whether or not to allow autos to race locally.  City officials were hesitant to capitalize on death and destruction when cars speeding at 75 MPH were killing people.  It was compared to bullfighting.  Yet no one could deny that danger was a large part of the attraction after city cinemas were packed in 1911 showing movies of auto races and dramatic crashes.

In 1912, the town was crazy to watch motorcycle races and auto races, and if there weren’t enough competitors they’d mix and match cars versus motorcycles. This photo captures a weekend event at the Fairgrounds when Mud Gardner on his Harley raced against Charles Walsh in his Curtiss biplane. The newspaper coverage read simply: Great! Grand! Fine! Magnificent!
It was considered such a landmark event that the City Band opened the festivities on the Square downtown and then the excited crowd marched to the Fairgrounds alongside a military formations of Company M of Mansfield’s National Guard.

Without question, the first bona fide motorsports star from Mansfield was Mud Gardner (1893-1978) whose fearless pursuit of speed put him in headlines all over the Midwest racing motorcycles in the 1910s. He was the city’s best-known motorcycle dealer in 1917 when he enlisted in the U.S. Aviation Corps so he could get into biplanes.  “Yes,” he wrote, “motorcycle racing does seem a little slow after riding 150 MPH in the air.”
After the war, nearly every motorsports event in town was sponsored, promoted or judged by Gardner, who became the city’s Packard and Buick dealer.

It must be admitted that in the 1920s horse racing still drew far more spectators to the Fairgrounds than motorsports, but that changed around 1930 when the Sheriff banned horse race betting at the track.  It was around the same time that the annual Mansfield Sweepstakes dirt track auto event took off with 50-lap and 100-lap races.   It was advertised, Thrills-Chills-Spills: They Jeer at Death! They Laugh at Life!
From then on it was the “Gasoline Rodeo,” with competition between “Gasoline Steeds.” 

This 1939 racer was assembled from the pick of the parts at Cates Auto Wrecking on Park Avenue East.

How Loud is Loud?

It always was about noise.  Even in 1919, when the Mansfield Ministerial association tried to have Sunday races shut down, their argument had no particularly moral implications: they said quite plainly that people sitting in church downtown could hear the tumultuous growling of engines in the distance and wanted to leave early.  It was “contributing to the delinquency of society.”

So what is the noise factor?  When you’re in the middle of it—right next to the track where it is roaring like a thousand thundering cyclones—the noise fills your head and there is no room left in there for troubling thoughts, worries, or debilitating memories—there is only raw noise filling your skull and, quite simply, in the absence of bad thoughts you gotta feel good. 

It feels like unbridled energy racing through your synapses. 

The Airport Drag Strip

When the municipal airport was built north of Mansfield it displaced a segment of State Route 13 that had to curve out and around the runways.  This left an odd bit of unused, straight, highway-grade pavement.  To racing enthusiasts in the city it looked exactly like a drag strip.

So, they formed a car club called The Gents, and with sanction of the National Hot Rod Association they started racing there in 1954.

Their track was 1/5 of a mile, each car paid an entry fee of $2, and general admission was 50¢. The track record stood at 102.27 MPH.

Clipped from the Mansfield News-Journal September 13, 1954.

“Starter Sam Gentille flashes the starting signal to Gents Club president John Morrow, in a 1950 modified Ford housing with a modified Oldsmobile engine, and Virgil Cates, racing a Henry J with an Oldsmobile engine.” Mansfield News-Journal July 13, 1956.

The Gents Club was organized in 1953 by 15 charter members, most of whom were seniors at Senior High School.  They chose the name Gents to distinguish themselves from rowdy roadster cowboys who tore disrespectfully around the streets of Mansfield. By 1958 they had gained enough respect in the racing world to hold the Ohio Statewide Championship on a quarter-mile stretch of the airport runway.

From the Scrapbook of Shirley Thompson:

From the 1956 National Hot Rod Assn.: “Hot Rodding is a manifestation of the originality that is inherent in most young Americans.  It is indicative of the ever present desire to improvise and improve.  It is a mirror of the inventiveness and ingenuity possessed by so many American Boys.
“It is a reflection of the love of competition and, in that light, assumes many of the elements that buttress our cherished ideals of free enterprise.”

Mansfield Raceway

Drag Strip Racing necessarily had its limitations, and local motor fans were eager to expand their race cards, so in 1959 an oval dirt track for stock cars was built on Crall Road called Mansfield Raceway.

The 3/8 mile track had bleachers to seat 3,000 fans.

The car seen below, number 174, actually entered this world as a 1935 Buick (seen above) before it was split down the middle and side to side and then welded back together as a “straight eight” that raced in 1961.

A victory lap for the innovative sprint car sponsored to show off Dill’s Welding.

Mansfield Raceway evolved through the years: in 1972 the grandstands grew to seat 5,000 and the track expanded to ½ mile.
A 1998 remodeling had the track paved and the name modified to Mansfield Motorsports Speedway, enough of an upgrade to attract the NASCAR Truck Series in 2004 and host the event for five years—known around the country as the Ohio 250.

Dart Kart Speedway

In the early 1960s, for thousands of Karting fans across the U.S., Mansfield was the racing heart of the nation

Rupp Manufacturing was turning out thousands of racing machines that set the pace for Kart racing, and built a track near the airport that attracted the best in the sport.

For more background, check out Rupp Red & 60’s Cool: The Mansfield Dart Kart Revolution.

The Go Kart Club of America’s National Championship in 1961, held in Mansfield at the Dart Kart Speedway, started with 435 karts that were eliminated through time trials and heat races. 

Mid Ohio Sports Car Club

The 1950s saw a new brand of motorsports locally that was competitive but not oriented toward speed.  These were drivers of little foreign sports cars who gathered on weekends for what was called a Rally.

The local enthusiasts officially organized in 1955 to call themselves the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Club.  While the fad lasted they could be seen all over the county in Rallies, Hill-Climb events, and other precision driving competitions.

Up to 100 cars would set off at clocked intervals onto a drive through the countryside, and points for their performance were measured by the accuracy of their following directions to various checkpoints in order to arrive at an undisclosed destination in a predetermined amount of time.

Clipped from the Mansfield News-Journal June 2, 1957.

“The enthusiasm for foreign sports cars following WWII has been making strong headway in Mansfield during the last few years.  This almost phenomenal growth of the small but extremely powerful and maneuverable cars is due chiefly to their promotion by returned servicemen who drove or saw them in Europe.”  (1956)

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course

Exactly 50 years after the first auto races in Richland County, the local concept of motorsports made a quantum leap into the consciousness of the global racing universe by inaugurating a world-class motor track rated among the best in America.

On a 200-acre farm outside Lexington the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was given the blessing of the Sports Car Club of America to open in 1962, and in abundant validation of the dream fully 10,000 race fans and 200 drivers showed up the first time they opened the gates.

The further proof of Mid-Ohio’s stature in the estimation of the racing world is found in the records of American racing itself: for 12 years, the SCCA National Championship was held here—close enough to Mansfield that even downtown they could hear the noise.

A drawing board concept of early Mid-Ohio development.

This view, taken from Sports Car Magazine September 1962, shows the 2.4 mile layout under construction.

The absolute first event to take place at Mid-Ohio was a two-week training school. Before student drivers were allowed to start their engines, the instructor walked with them around the entire course pointing out the challenges.

The Mid-Ohio rolling terrain has 8 left turns and 9 right turns, requiring a driver to brake 9 times and shift 10. This shot captures a curve in a 1970 Formula 500 race.

So how respected is the Mid-Ohio venue? In 1974 Mario Andretti said, “There is no room for mistakes on this course.” This is a 1972 can Am race.

Scanned from a page of Winning-The Racing Life of Paul Newman, 2009, this is a shot of Mid-Ohio in 1982.

Want to take a lap around Mid-Ohio in a car with a view? Hang on.

NASCAR in Mansfield:

The heart of Mansfield is filled with motorsports. During the five years when NASCAR brought America to Mansfield Motorsports Speedway, the downtown Race Fest let fans get really close to the drivers, crews and equipment.

A Defining Passion of Mansfield

If you want to gauge how much auto racing identifies this city, all you have to do is see how Mansfield was defined by a Broadway play in the 1970s.  John Bishop, the New York playwright and Hollywood screenplay author who was born in Mansfield, had a play on Broadway that actually takes place in Mansfield.

The main character, upon whom the entire drama focuses, is a stock car race driver.

During the decades when Bishop was growing up on Arlington Avenue, and particularly when he was at Senior High, auto racing was an integral part of teenage social aspiration.  The sports heroes from local teams included racers who drove stock cars at the Fairgrounds.

It means something that the city was presented on the cultural stage of our nation through the eyes and values of motorsports.

The Trip Back Down by John Bishop played in New York at the Longacre Theatre in 1977; and in Los Angeles at the Whitefire Theatre in 2014. The rights for motion picture option were purchased by Paul Newman.

Thank You!

Images, information, and inspiration for this article came from Shirley and Joe Thompson, Cleo Redd Fisher Museum, Bob Carter, the Mark Hertzler Collection, North Central Ohio Industrial Museum, Jeff Sprang, Lisa Bishop, Peter Cary Peterson, Will Harmon, and Chris McKinniss.

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