Tacoma Speedway, 1912-1922

  • By Steve Dunkelberger
  • Posted 3/06/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5639
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During its years of operation between 1912 and 1922, the Tacoma Speedway, located in Lakewood, hosted some of the big names of racing, rivaling the best in the world. The “Who’s Who" of races -- "Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff, Earl Cooper, Barney Oldfield, among others -- left rubber on that track. Others left their lives. The grandstands closed in 1922, and the site is now (2004) home to Clover Park Technical College. Lakewood is a suburb of Tacoma.

Lakewood's Claim to Fame

"It was the most nationally known thing to happen to Lakewood and now no one knows about it," said speedway historian Wayne Herstad, who has collected items relating to Tacoma Speedway for the past 25 years for a book he is writing about the track's notable history. He has binders of photos and programs organized by year just waiting for someone to ask about his collection. "It was a great track. Everyone got into the act."

The track was built by a group of Tacoma businessmen led by Arthur Pitchard, president of the Tacoma Automobile Association. They collected backers and built a five-mile, all-dirt track, which opened in 1912. The track ran around what is now Lakeview Avenue, where the grandstands stood, to Steilacoom Boulevard to Gravelly Lake Drive to 112th Street. The first races were held on July 5 and 6, 1912.

Terrible Teddy

"Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff, a famous racer of the day, was set to headline the first race that year. He was kidnapped days before the race, however, and held for ransom. Rumor has it he was held in a Tacoma brothel.

"When his bosses came to pick him up, he didn’t want to leave," Herstad said.

The track changed quickly in those first few years. It shrunk to a 3.5-mile course in 1913, then in 1914 to a two-mile track. The shorter course was roughly what is now Steilacoom Boulevard and Gravelly Lake Drive to 100th, then back to Lakeview.

Winners and Splinters

Famed racer Earl Cooper won at Tacoma Speedway in 1913 and 1914. He came in second in 1915. Had he won that year, he would have been able to keep the revolving “Mountamarathon” trophy that had Mount Tacoma (Mount Rainier) with race cars etched into its side. But after his 1915 win, he was obligated to give it back for use in the next race. (Cooper later got to keep that Mount Tacoma trophy anyway, when he returned to Tacoma in 1929 for a promotional event long after his retirement. The organizers of the now-defunct race track had the trophy in storage and honored him with it during a banquet dinner. That trophy now sits in the Racing Museum in Indianapolis, to which Cooper donated it in 1955.)

The grandstand shifted to Steilacoom Boulevard in 1914. A split board track replaced the dirt in 1915. The two-by-four planking was placed end-to-end -- not flat on the ground -- and the gaps between each board were stuffed with gravel to save on lumber. The track used 15 tons of 20-penny nails and took two million board feet. Track corners were banked 18 feet to provide for faster turns. But the track had constant problems with splinters and gravel shooting into cars behind the lead car and popping tires.

"There was a saying that all board tracks were awful, and then there was Tacoma," Herstad said.

Injuries and Fatalities

There were countless race-related injuries to drivers and mechanics at Tacoma Speedway, the only fan fatality, however, befell a spectator in 1914 as he ran onto the track while driver Frank Brock entered his view. He was struck while the car was going about 60 mph. during a pre-race warm up. The car was fixed and was ready to run by race time.

Two fatalities marred a 250-mile automobile race held at the Tacoma speedway in that first year with a wooden track, according to 1915 Tacoma Daily Ledger newspaper reports. Billy “Coal Oil” Carlson was fatally injured and Paul Franzan, his mechanic, was instantly killed when a tire blowout on a steep curve hurled the car from the track, throwing Carlson and Franzen to the ground on July 4, 1915.

Carlson was reportedly driving on used tires because he thought they would do better on the track than new ones. A tire blew, causing the rubber to be stripped from the wheel. The rim then caught in one of the ruts between the boards in the track, and the car went airborne. The open-air car had no seatbelts. Franzan was tossed from the car and hit a stump and died instantly. Carlson died the following day.

The only other driver fatality in the track’s history came in 1917 when Conrad Hanson raced his Hudson around the Tacoma Speedway. His tire blew as well.

Because Tacoma was a booming town, all the big names of the day raced around the Tacoma track. The cigar smoking Barney Oldfield, the first man to drive a mile in a minute, left rubber on the course.

The Races of 1916

There were three races in 1916. The first was on June 4. Seattle Stutz dealer and noted race car driver Jim Parson had just bought Earl Cooper's famed car, the Stutz #8, the “most winningest” car in racing. For Parson, however, the car wasn't so lucky. He later suffered a cracked piston in that “winning car,” when he drove it in Tacoma during an Independence Day race against the son of machinist and business owner J. E. Aubry of Aubry Wagon and Auto Works. Ulysses Aubry won the race in his custom-built “Tacoma Special.” Later that day the car raced raced an airplane in an exhibition event.

Also on the race card in Tacoma that July was a “fat man” race, in which men over 200 pounds ran a 100-yard dash then sped around the track in cars; a women’s race, and a well-publicized grudge match between Tacoma and Seattle involving trains.

For the grudge match, race organizers laid a mile of railroad track on the inside of the course. Two train engines covered the track in opposite directions, crashing when they met. The Seattle train stayed on the track and was deemed the winner.

But that crash wasn’t what people had come to see. Many spectators wanted their money back because they had come to see racers not trains. Race organizer Garrett Fisher quickly scheduled a rematch between Parsons and Aubry for August.

That race was not to be. Ulysses Aubry died later that month during a race in Rose City, Oregon.

Famed driver Eddie Rickenbacker dodged around cars in his Maxwell car during a race in Tacoma on August 5, 1916, with a crowd of some 7,000 spectators. It was a disappointing turn-out since the grandstands were built to handle three times that number. The race spanned 300 miles, and Rickenbacker won.

Rickenbacker then vacationed, along with some 30 of his closest friends, at Oregon’s plush Crown Point Chalet to rest after the race and to celebrate his victory. He later became known as the "the Ace of Aces," for shooting down 25 German planes in World War I. After the war, Rickenbacker would return to the Tacoma track to serve as a referee in 1919 and 1921.

The track went patriotic during the war years of 1918 and 1919. The famous Indianapolis race track shut down because of World War I patriotism, but the Tacoma course stayed open and ran "Liberty sweepstakes," with cars flying all the flags of the united forces against Germany.

The Last Races

After that, the grand days of the track were short lived. The stands burned down in 1920. The fire was ruled an arson. The track had no insurance. It was the only Class A track besides the one in Indianapolis, and its grandstands were now cinders.

"They thought that was the end of the races," Herstad said. "But they some how pulled together enough money and started again."

The new grandstands partially covered the seats following a $100,000 fundraiser, but the track was still losing money. Its last year of racing was 1922.

On May 30 and 31, 1922, Wells Bennet set a new 24-hour endurance record on a motorcycle during a publicity event at the track. He rode 1,562.54 miles, averaging 65.1 m.p.h. on a stock Henderson DeLuxe, stopping only for fuel, oil checks, and brief rest.

The last car race at the track was held July 4. The first multiple Indy race winner, Tommy Milton, had won on Tacoma’s track in 1920 and 1921 and came in second in 1922 to Jimmy Murphy. Milton did pretty good for a man with only one eye. He had been blind in one eye since childhood. The waving of the checkered flag that day marked the end of racing at the track. The track officially shut down at the end of the year, a victim of falling gate receipts.

From Race Cars to Airplanes to Education

Aviators found that the grassy oval inside the racetrack made a great landing field. The massive 4 x 10 posts used to frame the grandstands were later incorporated into a barn in Pierce County. Tacoma Speedway researcher Wayne Herstad also has sections of them in his basement. They are easily identifiable as being from the grandstand because the V-shaped notches on their ends match perfectly the V-shaped notches shown in photos of the grandstands. The flat grassland eventually was built out as part of the Mueller-Harkins Airport. A letter signing over the Tacoma Speedway site to the airport backer calls for a $250 down payment. The City of Tacoma used the airstrip as Tacoma Municipal Airport for a time, and national air shows were held there until World War II.

The federal government then seized the property for use in the war effort. The seizure dispute wasn’t settled until 1944. The site served as the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Naval Advance Base before shifting over to the state for use as an industrial park.

The land was approved for use as a technical school in 1962. Part of the track land around what is now the corner of Lakewood Drive and Steilacoom Boulevard became part of the hangar for an airfield that was used as an airplane test strip for Clover Park Technical College.


Steve Dunkelberger interview with Wayne Herstad (researcher and historian of the Tacoma Speedway), December 2003, Tacoma, Washington; "Durant Takes Sweepstakes at Tacoma," Motor Age July 11. 1918; "Tacoma Races Draw Record Crowd," Ibid., July 24, 1919; "Ten Drivers Invited to Race at Tacoma in 1920," Ibid., November 27, 1919; "Principal Events of 1919," Ibid., December 25, 1919. See also Steve Dunkelberger, “Tacoma Speedway: Ten Years on the Auto Racing Circuit,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer 2008), 6-8.

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