ALTOONA, Pa. (WTAJ) — On Labor Day Sept. 3, 1923, the Altoona Speedway in Tipton held its inaugural race on its high-banked and wooden board surface. Although the speedway is long gone, its legacy remains 100 years later.

In 2023, Central Pennsylvania is mainly populated with dirt tracks like the historic Bedford Speedway which held its first race in 1936. While racing on dirt remains king in Pa., the spectacle of auto racing looked quite different a century ago.

FILE – In this May 30, 1912, file photo, Ralph DePalma pulls his race car across the finish line after it broke down with two laps remaining in the Indianapolis 500 auto race in Indianapolis, Ind. Joe Dawson won the race. (AP Photo/File)

Eleven years before the Altoona Speedway opened, a man named George Long found a love for racing when he attended the 1912 Indianapolis 500. The experience would inspire him to bring racing to Altoona.

Blair County Historical Society Board of Directors Chairman Jim Lowe explained that Long decided to build a race track in Tipton using wooden boards.

“The entire track was built from board. About 5 million feet of board was used. In fact, spectators that came by during the construction period thought they were building a skyscraper,” Lowe said.

The Speedway was built using 2×4 boards that were turned on their side. Additional 2×12 boards were then used underneath the track surface along with a series of scaffolding.

During the 1920s, most racing facilities were built using wood because it was less expensive compared to brick or concrete. While it was more affordable, Lowe explained the boards on the track surface would often need to be replaced.

Image provided by the Blair County Historical Society.

“I always find it quite amazing that even during the races, they had carpenters repairing the track from underneath while the race was going on,” Lowe said.

After the Altoona Speedway held its inaugural race in 1923, it continued to hold two races per year. One on Flag Day and one on Labor Day. Altoona Speedway Memorabilia Collector Michael Halloran said the drivers who competed in the Indianapolis 500 would then race at Altoona.

“Indianapolis always raced on Memorial Day and that was a major race in the United States. Still is. The first major race after Indianapolis was in Altoona on Flag Day June 14th,” Halloran said.

The collector explained that the drivers considered Indianapolis as a proving ground that would allow them to work on their cars to help make them faster. As drivers traveled to Altoona for the Flag Day event, some would transport their race vehicles using railcars.

“The speedway didn’t have garage facilities like Indianapolis does. So, they would put those racecars in new car dealerships and prepare them for the race,” Halloran said. “A lot of times, the public wasn’t restricted from going in and seeing those cars being worked on.”

The Altoona Speedway would host 250-mile races consisting of 200 laps around its 1.25-mile track. The events could draw a crowd of 100,000 fans.

“Altoona helped put the roar in the ‘Roaring 20s.’ Racing was in its infancy but it was becoming sophisticated. At least mechanically. Safety wise not so much,” Halloran said.

Racing on the wooden speedway presented unique dangers to its competitors. The track would splinter from the wear and tear of the cars causing debris to fly through the air.

“The only protection the drivers had was a leather cap and a pair of goggles,” Lowe explained. “Safety features on the car were pretty much limited to a screen they put in place to protect the radiator from the flying splinters. Otherwise, there are no seatbelts, there’s no rollbar, no fire safety. It’s a pretty dangerous sport.”

The Altoona Speedway would become infamous for taking the lives of three Indianapolis 500 winners. Howard Wilcox in 1923, Joe Boyer in 1924 and Ray Keech in 1929.

Joe Boyer of Detroit, driving at 125 miles per hour in the 250-mile Speed Classic at Altoona, PA., on Labor Day 1924, hit the outer guard rail at the top of the bowl and received injuries that caused his death several hours later. Boyer was trying to catch Murphy the winner and was within sight of the grandstand when he hit the rail, pinning, him in the wreckage. This photo shows Boyer’s car on the rail and men removing him unconscious from the wreck. (AP Photo)

“It was just a tragedy in racing because of the speeds,” Halloran said. “The speeds that could be attained because of having a board track. The tires of the time couldn’t take those kinds of strains and even the speeds. I read one time where the tires could expand to the point where they would come off the rims.”

At the time, board track racing across the U.S. began to have a reputation for being too dangerous. This prompted race organizers to take action.

“The three A’s (AAA), which was the sanctioning body for the races, started to make regulations to try to slow the cars down,” Halloran explained. “They started out by trying to lower the cubic inches of the engine and they finally got the engines down to a 91 cubic inch engine. But the manufacturers of racing cars invented supercharging. Even though they had a lower cubic inch displacement, they could drive faster and faster because of supercharging.”

Louis Meyer, youthful California speed king, at the wheel of his racer after winning the 200 mile Labor Day automobile races on Sept. 3, 1929 at Altoona, Pa. This is his third consecutive triumph on the local track and gives him an added 400 points to his season’s total by which he wins the A.A.A. Speedway Championship for the second straight year. Meyer’s time was a little over 1 hour and 46 minutes. (AP Photo)

In 1929, the Altoona Speedway was in need of a renovation but efforts to rebuild the track were halted by a global economic crash.

“By the end of the 1920s, the boards were starting to deteriorate. And then the Great Depression hit,” Lowe said. “So, selling tickets became difficult and they ran into financial difficulties. The banks recalled their loans and eventually, they had to shut down their operation.”

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The Altoona Speedway held its last race on the wooden surface in 1931, which was the last board track championship held in the country. The speedway transitioned into a dirt track in 1935 and then closed for good in 1940.

In the years following the discontinuation of the speedway, an airport was built parallel to the site. When the airport closed, the remaining runway strip was used for drag racing. Today, an industrial park is located where the Altoona Speedway once stood.

Even though the sights and sounds of the wooden speedway became lost to time, its legacy lives on through the retelling of history.

“It’s a great legacy of the 1920s and how people lived during the 1920s,” Lowe said. “It’s not just the popularity of the board track racing and the fact that these major racecar drivers were coming to Altoona and stayed at the Penn Alto Hotel and went to dances at Nela Beach. They also participated in other activities here, dined at restaurants and really mingled with the hometown crowd. It was quite the opportunity for them. Plus they had some movie cameras at the track at the time and airplanes that you could get flights over the track. It was a really remarkable time period for all these new advancements of the 20s that are known as the Roaring 20s.”