The first dirt track auto race known was in 1876 with 8 cars in Cranston, Rhode Island and the rac’in craze has never stopped. Although this thrilling sport has come and gone from many areas of the world, it has never lost its popularity. Dirt Track Racing began in the United States even before WWI and in the 1920’s throughout the 1930’s, many fairgrounds welcomed the open wheels of dusty dirt track racing to their horse track ovals. The crowds came by the hundreds to witness the excitement and danger. The men wore their suit and tie and the ladies their dresses. It was a time when it was all about the thrill, the speed and the crashes but not about driver or spectator safety. During WWII, gasoline was rationed but the drivers and their owners would buy black market gas for $1.50 a gallon and that kept dirt track racing fever alive. By the end of WWII, gasoline was cheap and they could fill a 5-gallon tank for a buck!
The residents of Cheshire County were once lucky enough to have 2 dirt tracks right here in their own back yard: Safford Park Speedway (now the Cheshire Fairgrounds) and Hinsdale Airport Speedway. The track in Hinsdale was a crude ¼ mile dirt oval on Oak Hill Road that was built on the old Hinsdale airport property. It operated only from 1951 to 1953, but during those years it was so popular with drivers that the track would get 40 to 50 entries each race coming from NH, VT, MA, CT and RI. The track would also hold “powder puff races” for the ladies to show their stuff behind the wheel. David and Jackie Freitas of Hinsdale remember when they were about twelve years old and riding their bicycles over to the races to hang out and watch the dirt track action. They said there was no spectator grandstand or flag tower just a bunch of race cars and a dirt track in a big old field. The Hinsdale Airport Speedway is long gone and the land is now a trailer park.
Safford Park Speedway operated from 1935 to 1961. The track was originally built as a 1/2 mile dirt track for horse racing and like most fairgrounds they decided to add motorsports to the fair. Horse racing ovals were already laid out at most fairgrounds and that made it effortless to transition to car racing. The drivers and spectators soon discovered that racing a horse was quite a different skill from handling a race car. Racing really kicked off after the war when the Monadnock Stock Car Racing Association began to run organized racing on a regular basis. By the late 1940’s large crowds were drawn to the sport as it emerged as the place to be for open wheel dirt track racing action. A whole generation of dirt car racers were honing their skills and putting on shows of thrill and excitement at any carved out dirt track they could find. It was the era of “The Coupe” and young people who loved to drive fast. They knew how to make their cars go faster by modifying an engine and lots of practice racing. They developed their own nick names and became known as “hot shoes” to many. Safford Park was key in kicking off the professional racing in our area and set the pace for a lot of other tracks that would soon follow and share the drivers and racing schedule each week. In 1954, Safford Park added a 1/3 mile dirt track inside the ½ mile and ran both tracks at the same time. It operated: 1935 – 1942 and 1946 – 1961.
There were many New England Dirt Tracks in the area beyond Safford Park and Hinsdale Airport Speedway including Claremont Speedway (dirt track years 1950-1972), Manchester Motordrome, Franklin Motordrome, Canaan Fair Speedway, West Brattleboro Speedway, Devils Bowl Speedway in West Haven, VT, and another in Fair Haven, VT, Mallets Bay Race Track, Colchester, VT, Rutland State Fairgrounds Race Track, Lebanon Springs, MA, Rhythm Inn Speedway, Millers Falls, MA and many more farther outside the area.
Dirt track legends from our county were born from this groundbreaking era but sadly many of their stories have been lost with time. My father-in-law, Jim Thompson, was born in 1931 and has lived in Swanzey Center and Keene his entire life. He had several good friends that raced at Safford Park, including Ray and George Schnyer from Swanzey and Pappy Forsyth of Keene. He remembers it all so very clearly. Although legally blind, he closed his eyes and stretched his memory back in time about 65 years to 1956. I pressed the record button and he spilled details like it was last weekend...
“George was over the house and he said “you gonna race tonight?” and Ray said, well I don’t know. He said, “well were go’in, I’ll take you ova. So on the back of their barn, ya had a ramp and he went and backed up to the side of it, put the tail gate down and put the car right in the dump truck. I said, how the hell are you gonna get it off when we get to the fairgrounds? He found a bank’in somewhere. I don’t remember how Ray did that night though. That’s when Maurice Forsyth showed up. He was a tricky guy, he was damn good! He was the track champion at Berry Vermont, Thunder Road. What he use to do, that sun of a gun, he would get there late. Ya see they always ran a consi back then and the guys that couldn’t qualify weren’t that good anyway. Forsyth knew damn well he could beat um, so he’d come in and run the consi then go out and win the race. There was a guy from Connecticut that came though; Georges’ car wasn’t there one night and he wanted George to drive it. George raced all over, he was good. I remember George got in and he drove his car and after the race his hands were start’in to blista; it handled so rotten he said try’in to hang onto that wheel, but he said he’d never saw so much power in his life! It’d throw him right back in the seat when he accelerated! But he said it couldn’t handle worth a damn! That might have been the night that a guy from RI was there. There was a Don Rounds from Apponaug, Rhode Island and he come with a six cylinder and he beat every damn V8 down there! One guy had a Chrysler, it was called the beast had a 440 cubic inch in it. John Bisson raced down there too, oh yah in the 6 cylinder class. I don’t know how he kept that engine together it screamed, he was turn’in that 6 cylinder somthin’ wicked. A guy from Keene went down and bought it but it never went like that again! George drove the 33 for Jack Gurnsey from Keene before Art Cody drove it. Claremont was bad back then, if they didn’t like you they’d throw rocks at you when you went by! There were no seat or nothin they just set on the bank there.”
While searching for information I found out just how accurate my father-in-law was on his memory. Moran “Sonny” Rabideau, a veteran stock car racer from Brattleboro, VT known as the “Fly’in Frenchman” had 71 documented feature wins driving many car numbers including the widely photographed DN3 “Beast” at the Hinsdale Airport Speedway, Safford Park and many others. Don Rounds, a veteran stock car racer from Apponaug, RI started his racing career in a souped-up 1937 Ford Coup and was one of the dirt car drivers in New England with the most wins. Roy M. “Pappy” Forsyth of Keene had a racing career with high points that began at Safford Park and then nearby tracks like Rhythm Inn in Millers Falls, MA.
RumTown Speedway in Wentworth, NH is the only Dirt Track in the state today. It was formerly called Legion Speedway and owned by the American Legion. According to Wikipedia, Dirt Track Racing is now the single most common form of auto racing in the United States with over 700 dirt oval tracks in operation. The International Motor Contest Association, or IMCA, is the most common sanctioning body in the dirt track industry and has been operating since 1915.
There are 11 Lost Tracks in New Hampshire that I am aware of:
1. 106 Midway Raceway, 1/5 mile dirt track, Loudon, operated: 1960 – 1963
2. Brookline Super Speedway, ¼ mile track, Rte. 13 Brookline, operated 1957-1966
3. Bryar Motorsports Park, 1/5 mile and 5/8 mile, operated: 1965 – 1988
4. Canaan Fair Speedway, 1/4 mile, Orange Rd., Canaan, operated: 1981 – 1984, 1987 – 2013
5. Franklin Motordrome, 1/5 mile, Hwy. 127 Franklin, operated 1950-1952
6. Granite State Parkway (renamed Dover Speedway), 1/5 mile, New Rochester Ed. Somersworth, operated : 1934 - 1942; 1946 – 1961
7. Hinsdale Airport Speedway, ¼ mile, Oak Hill Rd., Hinsdale, operated 1951-1953
8. Manchester Motordrome, 1/5 mile, Grenier Field Rd., Manchester, operated 1947-1962
9. Newmarket Speedway, ½ mile, Norton Lane, Newmarket, operated 1927-1942; 1952
10. Plymouth State Fairgrounds, ½ mile, Fairgrounds Rd., Plymouth, operated 1947-1957
11. Safford Park Speedway, ½ mile & 1/3 mile, Hwy. 12, Swanzey, operated 1935-1942; 1946-1961
Special Thanks to Facebook’s Lost Dirt Tracks, ProNyne Motorsports Museum, Northeast Motorsports Museum and Catamountstadium.com for the information and photos on both Safford Park and Hinsdale Airport Speedway and to my father-in-law for his amazing memory.