Using my mad skillz at internet research the other night I stumbled across a reference to a piece of Minneapolis history that I was not familiar with. Having lived here now for 16 years, and taken an interest in learning the history of the Twin Cities I thought I knew just about all there was to know about the 20th century here in Minnesota. The Twin Cities Trolley Cars, the locations of the defunct baseball parks for the Millers and Saints, the tunnels under St. Paul, the cave of Pig’s Eye Parrant, and the lore of Minneapolis & St. Paul’s gangster years. So when I saw a reference to a 2 mile automobile race taking place on a concrete speedway in Minneapolis in the record books of Championship Car racing I assumed that the author had made a typo. I knew that the early 20th century racing in the Twin Cities took place at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, on the 1 mile dirt track, and that the author must have gotten his facts wrong. But on the odd chance he hadn’t I thought I’d do some googling. Low and behold, I give you the Twin City Motor Speedway…
Built in 1915, at the cost of $750,000 it was a 2-mile long monster of a concrete oval. It took 76,000 square yards of concrete to construct the track, and 3.5 Million board feet of lumber was used to build covered grandstands and bleacher seating for anticipated crowds of 100,000 people. This was no small country fair dirt oval. It was 2 miles in circumference, with 20 degree banking in the turns, and 60 foot wide straight-aways to handle large racing fields like the ones at Indianapolis. In fact, it was built to rival the recently opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway and serve as a bookend to the racing season. A 500 mile race was scheduled for Labor Day with A.A.A. sanctioning, and a $20,000 top prize in the hopes of drawing the top racers of the day.
Construction began in July of 1915, at a site near Ft. Snelling Military reservation, in what is now the suburb of Richfield. The first race was scheduled for Labor Day which left only 2 months to complete the speedway. 1,500 men worked two shifts to get the track completed in time. Concrete roads were still new technology at the time, and the only other concrete speedway in operation was the famous Brooklands track in England. Either due to a lack of expertise in the new construction methods, or the compressed construction schedule, the resulting track did not meet expectations.
The race drew some of the biggest names in Auto racing at the time. Barney Oldfield, Ralph De Palma, Eddie Rickenbacker, Bob Burman and Dario Resta were part of the field. But the turnout was disappointingly small. Only 14 cars took the start. The track surface was rough, and the machines took a beating, which resulted in several of the favorites dropping out early. The 500 mile distance made it a race of attrition, and the interest of the spectators lagged as the race stretched out over 6 hours. In the end Earl Cooper beat his Stutz teammate Gil Anderson to the line by only 30 feet, but the 3rd place Duesenberg of Eddie O’Donnell trailed in 30 minutes behind.
The race had been a financial disaster. The turnout of 30,000 people was far short of the 100,000 the promoters had hoped for. And the long distance, and few cars on the monster track had resulted in a race that did not live up to the hype. It did not help that the roughness of the concrete surface had caused the cars to run at slower than hoped for speeds. The track owners were deep in debt, and faced with the need to have the track surface ground, and smoothed at additional expense before more races could be held the next year. Concrete construction at the time was still experimental, and reinforcing rods had not been used in the construction. As a result, the frost heaves during the winter of 1915-1916 damaged the track surface further. The owners tried their best to pay back part of the debts incurred during construction, but ran out of cash. When a plea for additional investment by the lead investor Frank Wheeler, who was also part of the initial investors behind the Indianapolis track, to the board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not succeed, the end was near. Lawsuits by the unpaid construction firms followed, and the Twin City Motor Speedway fell into bankruptcy. The grandstands were dismantled and sold to repay creditors. The infield area was leased to local farmers, leading to the Speedway being derisively called “a 342 acre farm enclosed in concrete”. In March of 1917 the land was sold at auction.
By 1920, the land had been resold, and had become the property of Snelling Field Inc. The land was leased to the Twin City Aero Corporation, and became home to a local airfield. Hangers were built on the concrete straighways, but the track remained, and served as a wonderful visual for pilots orienting themselves to takeoff and land. Airmail service began in 1920, and in 1921 the state funded construction of three hangars for the newly chartered 109th Observation Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Guard. Development continued as Speedway Field became the defacto home of aviation in Minnesota. In 1923, the field was re-dedicated as Wold-Chamberlain field in honor of two Minnesota pilots who died in combat during WWI. Over the years the concrete track was dismantled as the airfield itself was re-paved and became the home of Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport.
As the late Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story…
The Minneapolis 500 by Noel Allard at MN Dirt Track Racing