Friday Photo: Before It Became a Park?

Not many people would recognize this Minneapolis park property, which lies outside city limits and was acquired in 1928, twelve years after this photo was taken. There is some uncertainty about how much of this property is still technically owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, but the property is administered by another agency.

The Snelling Speedway in 1916. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Four-wide racing at the Snelling Speedway, 1916. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

This is the famous Twin City Motor Speedway, or Snelling Speedway, in 1916, the second year of its three-year life. The speedway was named informally for its location adjacent to Fort Snelling. The infield of the two-mile concrete track was later used as a landing field for airplanes — and eventually became Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners acquired the land in 1928 to develop it as an airport for the city. The task fell to the park board because it was the only agency of Minneapolis city government that could own land outside of city limits. (The law that permitted the park board to own land outside city limits was passed by the Minnesota legislature in 1885 to permit the park board to purchase land in Golden Valley for part of what eventually became Glenwood (Wirth) Park .) The park board built and ran the airport from 1928 until the Metropolitan Airports Commission was created in 1943, at which time the park board turned over administration of the airport. The park board had spent a significant percentage of its meager resources in those years developing the airport.

The enormous grandstands pictured left and center were built in 1915 to hold 100,000 people. The problem was that far, far fewer attended the few races held there. The first major race in 1915, a 500-mile race patterned after the Indianapolis 500, was widely promoted by the newspapers for weeks. The weekend of the race — the first weekend in September, just before the State Fair opened — the Minneapolis Tribune wrote that hotel rooms were impossible to find in the Twin Cities; hoteliers were referring unaccommodated visitors to private homes for a place to sleep. It was said to be the busiest weekend in the history of Minneapolis hotels with guests arriving from around the country. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company built a special spur track to the speedway to transport the crowds.

Unfortunately for the promoters, drivers, and the legions of workers who constructed the track and were not paid, attendance was much smaller than hoped. Society columns in the Tribune covered the rich and famous who attended the races and trumpeted this “innovation in divertisement” for the social elite, but the paper reported race attendance at only 28,000.

The 1915 race was a disappointment in every respect. The banked concrete track, heralded as the fastest and safest track in the world, was in fact extremely rough. The cars vibrated to pieces and the drivers didn’t fare much better.  The champion Italian driver, Dario Resta, was reported to have denounced the roughness of the track “vociferously” after his first test drive during race week. If you know any Italian curse words, you could probably translate the “vociferously”. He was prescient, because his car didn’t survive much more than 100 miles on race day. But potential race fans didn’t know that ahead of time.

Neither could they have imagined the snoozefest that the race became. It only takes a glance at the race results to understand how tedious the day must have been for spectators. With only twenty cars starting the race and most of them falling apart or dropping out for mechanical reasons early on — having a “mechanician” riding along, the second person visible in the cars, didn’t prevent mechanical failures — there wasn’t much action despite the nail-biting finish of the race, which was won by 1/5 of a second. The Tribune, which had promoted the race so breathlessly, could hardly contain its excitement proclaiming in its headline Sept. 5, 1914, “Cooper Wins Closest Finish in History.”

Here's the problem! (Minneapolis Tribune September 5, 1915)

Here’s part of the problem! 1915 500-mile race results. (Minneapolis Tribune, September 5, 1915)

An exciting finish didn’t make up for the rest of the race. The slow pace of the race, only 86 mph, dragged it out for nearly six hours, and the third place car was more than a half-hour behind the leaders. The Tribune blamed the pace on the fact that the cars of so many of the “most daring” drivers — “speed demons” — were incapacitated. Those drivers included the famous Italians Resta and Ralph De Palma and the American “Wild” Bob Burman.  Picture only eight cars spread over a two-mile track, none of them travelling much faster, and some not as fast as, ordinary traffic on 35W and think of what you’d be doing to amuse yourself as a spectator. As stirring as the finish must have been with Cooper and Anderson pushing their matching Stutzes to the finish (the Stutz company dropped racing the next year anyway), most of the barely awake spectators headed for the exits before O’Donnell’s Duesenberg, manufactured in Minneapolis, came anywhere near the finish lap in third place.

Chandler and the great Barney Oldfield were still on the track — with no one in the stands and the sun about to set — plodding along more than an hour from finishing when they were mercifully flagged off the track in the dusk. The most notable thing about the Oldfield performance was that his relief driver — the drivers took breaks during the race — was the later World War I flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

It’s no wonder that the Tribune concluded the next day, in a heroic effort at understatement:

“The crowd could not be called enthusiastic, the length of the grind and the heat probably preventing continuous hilarity.”

Prospective ticket buyers probably didn’t imagine the downside of what was then endurance racing. The greater problem was the cost of the tickets. Ticket prices were widely acknowledged as being much too high — the lowest ticket price was $2 and that didn’t include a seat, which cost another $2.50, the equivalent of what the park board paid workers for an 8-hour workday then.

(For more detail on the 1915 race, go here.  Noel Allard reconstructs the race, and the era in racing.)

Lower Prices, More Hilarity

The speedway’s promoters realized that they had to reduce prices as well as the tedium of a 500-mile race the next year. For the 1916 Fourth of July race, admission to the bleachers was cut to $1.00 and prices for seats in the grandstand began at $2.00. In hopes of more hilarity, even if not continuous, the race was shortened to 150 miles. A full day of racing was also to feature races of 50, 20 and 10 miles.

The roster of drivers was much the same as 1915: Resta chose to race in Omaha and Burman had crashed and died two months earlier in a California race. Oldfield returned, but only in capacity of referee, while his former relief driver, “Rick” Rickenbacker, had his own car to drive. (I’m no expert on race cars of the era, but it’s possible that Rickenbacker’s white Maxwell is on the far left in the photo above.) St. Paul’s own Tommy Milton, known then for his success at state fair races, but who would win two Indy 500s in the 1920s, entered in a Duesenberg. The Tribune predicted the largest race crowd in Minnesota history.

It was not to be. While I haven’t found an attendance figure for the race, there couldn’t have been many fans buying tickets because the total gate was only $8,000. We know that because at the time the flag was supposed to drop on the first race, the promoters had not yet posted the $20,000 in prize money for the races and the drivers, obviously noting the sparse crowd, refused to race until the prize money was in trustworthy hands. After a two-hour delay that caused the 50-, 20-, and 10-mile races to be scrubbed, the promoter turned over the entire gate receipts of about $8,000 and wrote a $12,000 personal check to cover the rest of the prize money for the 150-mile race. And off they went down the stilll-rough concrete track, bouncing like the promoter’s check.

Ralph De Palma won the race by a 12-minute margin in a time of just under an hour and a half, or an average speed of  a bit over 91 mph. He was one of only seven finishers, with Tom Milton finishing fourth.

By 1930 the Minneapolis park board had begun the transformation of the old speedway into an airport, but a segment of the old 2-mile oval still remained. The Mendota Bridge is upper right. Note the NWA hangar among the airport buildings. The landing strip was not on the old concrete race track, which was too rough. The landing strip was on the grass in the infield of the old race track. (J. E. Quigley, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

By 1930 the Minneapolis park board had begun the transformation of the old speedway into an airport, but a segment of the old 2-mile oval still remained. The Mendota Bridge is upper right. Note the NWA hangar among the airport buildings. The landing strip was not on the old concrete race track, which was too rough. Airplanes landed on the grass in the infield of the old race track. (J. E. Quigley, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

That was essentially the end of the Twin City Motor Speedway. Within two days the speedway had declared bankruptcy and never recovered. The speedway that cost more than $800,000 to build went into foreclosure in August of 1916. The owner of the Indianapolis Speedway, who was also a stockholder in the Twin City Motor Speedway, declined to purchase the track.  By the spring of 1917 the track property was already being mentioned as a possible site for an airfield or training ground for the navy aviation corps. Both Dunwoody Institute and the University of Minnesota had proposed to begin training military aviators and a site was needed.

A group of race car drivers led by Louis Chevrolet — yes, that Chevrolet — organized a final race at the track in 1917, which the Tribune called a “revival” race. The patient was too far gone to be resuscitated, despite a victory by Ira Vail in the 100-mile race at the much-improved average speed of more than 96 mph. Less than three months later the Tribune reported that the receiver for the bankrupt speedway had rented a portion of the grounds to a hog farmer who was fattening 500 pigs by feeding them Fort Snelling garbage. The speedway was finished, but the land was about to be given over to the service of a whole different kind of speed — and eventually the Minneapolis park board.

David C. Smith

© 2013 David C . Smith


7 comments so far

  1. […] it fell to the park board in 1928 to own and operate the municipal airport on the site of the old motor speedway next to the Fort Snelling military reservation. The park board operated and developed […]

  2. Joe Bissen on

    Someone associated with the old Rich Acres Golf Course in Richfield told me that chunks of asphalt occasionally emerged from the earth and became golf-course nuisances, and he thought a racetrack had been there at one time. I’m not familiar with exactly where Snelling Speedway was. Was it in the Rich Acres vicinity, which seems like it might be close to the area mentioned in the posting but still not “adjacent to Fort Snelling”?

    • David C. Smith on

      Hi Joe, good to hear from you. (Joe’s writing a book on “lost” Minnesota golf courses, which I’m looking forward to seeing.) I’m not sure where Rich Acres Golf Course was; was that the course next to Cedar Ave.? When I wrote that the old Snelling Speedway was “adjacent” to Fort Snelling, I was referring to the old military reservation, which was quite a bit larger than the actual fort. I believe those grounds included the present Fort Snelling Golf Course. And the speedway covered a few hundred acres — imagine a piece of land big enough to hold a two-mile oval along with grandstands and everything else that went with it. It’s also possible that Rich Acres was a dumping ground for the excavations at the Airport when new runways were built by the WPA in the late 1930s. That’s why debris keeps popping to the surface at Pearl Park; the old lake there was filled with debris from the airport renovations, too.

  3. Daniel Lavello on

    Goog morning,Im writing this reply to because twin city spped way played a major infulance in my life..Not having a dad around and a dis interested mom as a kid I was so lost it was scary to face life it self.But at age 14 woring on the west Highschool Work program,wasjing dishes for powers lunchenet down town,I had a life changeing or should I say a life saving event hapen.It was the car !!! I save my few dollars made their at the restraunt and at age14 I bought a 1949 olds mobile and finially had some to live for.I begain raceing at the speedway every week with new found frends.What a blast it was to try and jump the Flag man Starter and not get disquaified and win the race,I won mamey troffies and maney races and after the race We would cruse the bulavard with the trofy pro[p up in the back window of the car,and cruse to the burger joints and show off to the other kids from school that were their parents woldend allow them to work because they had to go to school,lucky Me

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for your comment, Daniel. A time when our car culture and teen culture were so different than now.

  4. Michael 'Fish' Kaye on

    I read somewhere that when they tore the speedway bleachers down they used the wood to build Richfield and that if you poked your head up in the attics of houses there you would notice the rafters were painted green.
    Don’t know if it’s true or not but certainly seems plausible.

    • David C. Smith on

      That’s entirely plausible, but I don’t know the story myself. The houses would have to be pretty old. I think we have a couple of Richfield historians who read regularly, so maybe they can answer more definitively. The Minneapolis Tribune wrote on September 4, 1918 that the speedway had been bought for $56,000 for “speculative purposes.” The purchase included the concrete track, 300 “tillable” acres and “several million feet of lumber in grandstands and fences.” I would imagine the buyer put that lumber on the market. It stands to reason that some of it would have gone into houses. Good story. Thanks, Michael. Everyone in Richfield, check your attics for green lumber.

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