Montpelier Motor Speedway: The History & Legend of One of America Oldest Racing’s Facilities
By Brian McEvoy
1903 – The Grand Opening of One of America’s Oldest Racing Facilities
The Montpelier track was nationally-known for its fast speeds, colorful drivers, and its equally colorful spectators, and the history of one of America’s oldest racing facility is filled with triumph, despair, success, and great loss that generations of families and race fans have experienced together. During the mid 1890′s in Montpelier, Indiana crude oil was discovered and money began to flow freely creating a “Gas Boom Town”. As a result the town’s population swelled to nearly 6,000 citizens looking to work and capitalize on the natural gas and crude oil fields. At the end of the day, the gas boom citizens were looking for much needed entertainment. In stepped local business man, Adolphus H. Bonham and his son Carl. The Bonham’s owned several local businesses including a shoe store along with a harness and horse supply store. In 1903, Adolphus and Carl opened the “Montpelier Track” with plans to not only race horses and host a yearly fair, but also to increase the necessity of their horse tack business.
The Montpelier 1/2 mile track was constructed at its present site along with horse barns and a complete covered grandstands. The railroad on the west edge of the property provided not only the necessary transportation for needed building materials and Kentucky clay for track construction, but the railway also served as a means of transportation for horses on race days. With the automobile still in its infancy, the railway frequently delivered packed train cars of thousands of race patrons on the doorstep of the racing facility while other patrons traveled by horse and wagon to take in the day’s races. The result was a huge success as tickets sales soared for the horse races nearly into the 7,000 mark while estimates were closer to 10,000-12,000 for actual race attendance.
The Early Years Surviving Success, Scandal, FBI Agents, and Tornadoes.
The July 11-14, 1905 races were surrounded by controversy while hiring legal and licensed bookmakers to handle gambling on the races, Governor Henley of Indiana, insisted that the track would not be allowed to host the race. The speedway threatened to host the race against the governor’s request, and the governor went as far to write a letter to the county sheriff demanding the race and gambling be stopped. The speedway threatened to go ahead with the race along with allowing gambling, however, in the end, the races were held but without any type of gambling. Many newspapers remarked that lack of gambling would end racing; however, it really had no effect on the growth of the Montpelier events.
By 1908, the crowd and interest in horse racing had outgrown the facility and makeshift tents were added to accommodate more race horses and the fair races swelled to four times the number of usual vendors and exhibits. The races and fair included entertaining exhibits such as a wild west show, trained animals, and the grand invention of electricity which marveled race fans.
The Montpelier Track was quickly recognized as the “fastest half mile clay track in the country” which is an honor that it held for many years in the harness racing community. The Montpelier track for four years held the world record for 4 1/4 for Pacers and 2.5 for Trotters on a 1/2 mile track. The Pacers connection lent its name to the Montpelier’s high school basketball team, and eventually was adopted by the NBA franchise Indiana Pacers.
The track thrived until 1913 when disaster struck as a tornado ripped through the grandstands destroying much of the property. The track was closed until it was rebuilt in 1915 by local businessmen who formed a new racing corporation. Following the rebuilt speedway, the first automobile race was scheduled at the Montpelier track on a Wednesday afternoon, May 4, 1915 by William Dowty and Charles Suddeth. The race featured motorcycles and automobile race that were timed and 5 to 10 miles in distance.
In 1916, the track was operated by the Montpelier Fair and Driving board and horse racing resumed at the speedway. Unbelievably in 1917, a second tornado hit the speedway destroying fencing, seating, the
A March 29, 1916 article announcing tornado damage that would shut down the speedway . Unbelievably the tornado occurred three years to the day of a first tornado that also destroyed speedway grounds. Promoting racing has always been a trying profession. amphitheater, and essentially every building. Ironically, the second tornado hit the speedway three years to the day of the first tornado. This time the damage proved to be too great and the track sat dormant being used as farmland for planting corn.
In the fall of 1923, H.L. Kelley and John Martz acquired track ownership from a receiver’s sale and began to build three grandstands along with restoring the 1/2 mile track for horse racing.
In the spring of 1924, the track was again set to host racing. In 1931, Harry Kelly, now the town mayor, and TC Peterson, the town lawyer, found themselves arrested on a national warrant when alcohol was discovered on the speedway’s grounds and concession areas during the national prohibition era. After posting a $7,500 bond and appearing in front of the United States Commissioner, racing at the speedway continued this time without alcohol. Unfortunately, only a few years after the reopening of the track the “gas boom” was over and the town’s population began to dwindle. Next, followed by the Great Depression followed by World War 2 which essentially brought racing to a standstill across America. Kelly and family soldiered on through the difficulties and operated the speedway until 1944.
1940′s and 1950′s – Auto Racing Comes to the Montpelier Speedway 1/2 Mile
With World War 2 coming to a close, young GI’s returned to America with mechanical knowledge and skill and the result was the birth of hot rodding and the rise of grass roots auto racing across America. In 1944, the Montpelier Racing Company was formed and began operation of the track, now known as the “Montpelier Speedway”. The company followed national trends in the mid 1940′s and began to host automobile races and thus Montpelier’s connection to stock car racing on dirt was born. Typical Montpelier classes were “Big Cars” or essentially Sprint Car/Midgets hosted by the United Speedway Association, Hard Top Races with Hoosier Hardtop sanctioning along with unsanctioned events, and Modified Stocks. Cost to take in the spectacle of auto racing on 1/2 mile was $1.50 including tax for adults while children could attend for $0.50.
The track itself still featured the wooden grandstand that was often filled to capacity with 3,000-5,000 fans on race day. An announcer, scoring, and flagman was placed in the infield and a tree near turn 1 was used to mount the speedway’s speaker system. The speed of the cars on the 1/2 mile thrilled spectators, but for racers the track was not for the faint of heart as the tree line on the south side of the speedway and throughout both turns sat dangerously close to the race track and at times proved to be fatal. Also, adding to the excitement was a track surface that was often maintained with oil. The speed of the cars on the 1/2 mile thrilled spectators and the drivers that competed became legendary in the racing community.
There were numerous legendary drivers that competed at the Montpelier Speedway. Popular and legendary hardtop racers Audie Swartz, Don Hewitt, Bill Holloway, Bob Pratt, and Dick Pratt all found success at Montpelier while Wilbur Robinson, Ray Duckworth, Bill Earl, George Renfro, and Bill Quigly were big names in the Big Car division. With racing often being held on Sunday and even on Wednesday’s, it all but guaranteed the areas best racers would be on the Montpelier 1/2 mile for competition.
By the 1960′s, horse racing again returned to the Montpelier Speedway along with auto racing on a more infrequent basis. Portland, Indiana mayor Ted Montgomery brought the speedway back to its large crowds with horse racing. Unbelievably, a 1969 storm destroyed the covered wooden grandstands for a third time in the track’s history and was never rebuilt. 1970 saw the last horse racing event, and the track, now in disuse, started to fall into a neglected state making the return to racing very unlikely.
1980-1990′s – Auto Racing Returns To Montpelier Speedway 26 Years Later on New 1/4 Mile Track
During 1985 an important group of business men formed a corporation and began plans to reopen the Montpelier Speedway in 1986. The group was successful in getting horses back into the barns to use the 1/2 mile for training. A 1/4 mile race track was formed inside of the old Montpelier 1/2 mile, and the “Montpelier Lion’s Speedway” was set to reopen. Spectators walked across the Montpelier 1/2 Miles still being used for training horses to the 1/4 mile track. Several of the original horse barns still stood while concrete five tier grandstands replaced the once luxurious wooden covered grandstand.
The speedway boasted fan favorites of Late Models, Hobby Stocks, and Pure Stocks. Racing returned to Montpelier initially on Sunday afternoons with an eventual switch to Saturday night’s. The speedway again began to fill with good crowds and car counts. Eventually with Late Model cost rising and car count declining, the introduction of a newer and more economical class, the UMP Modifieds replaced Late Model racing at the speedway and has since been a track staple along with the stock cars..
Since the reopening of the speedway in the mid 1980′s, the speedway has seen many famous visitors including Jeff Gordon (Sprints) and Tony Stewart (UMRA TQ Midgets) who both have competed at the speedway. Proud fathers Parnelli Jones (Indy 500 Winner) and John Andretti have both visited the speedway watching their sons compete while Al Unser Sr. has also visited the speedway.
The early 2000′s saw the sale of the track to new ownership and soon followed 5 different promoters in a 10 year period. The speedway classes varied as well through the different promoters. UMP Modifieds and stock car classes remained a staple for the speedway, but Late Models (2002), Non-Wing Sprint Cars (2003), and touring sanctioning bodies featuring 410 Winged Sprint Cars, TQ Midgets, Mini-Sprints and Crate Late Models all found time on the Montpelier 1/4 Mile.
In 2009, Harold and Lori Hunter stepped in as the next set of track promoters, and in 2011 became the new track owners and the next chapter of the speedway’s history was set to begin. Soon speedway improvements began to restore the facility back to its former glory. Patrons could now find the addition of larger seating, a new restroom, track drainage, track reconfiguration, flag stand, souvenir stand, and finally the cars began to return to the speedway.
In 2012, a strong damaged the speedway’s equipment, fencing, building, and lighting system making this the fourth occasion a storm or tornado had caused major damage to the speedway. This time rebuilding took approximately three weeks and racing was restored at the Montpelier Motor Speedway.
The speedway celebrated its 110th year of racing during the 2013 season, and thanks to the support of the racing community racing at one of America’s oldest racing facilities continues to thrive while the tradition of the historic speedway is legendary, heartbreaking, but most important ongoing every Saturday night!