This century-old Indiana race track refuses to slow down
It’s boilerplate knowledge that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the oldest purpose-built circle track in America. Pop quiz: What track is second?
Winchester Speedway is the second-oldest purpose built oval in the U.S. In 1914, Frank Funk began building a clay, half-mile oval in Randolph County, Indiana, about 90 miles northeast of Indianapolis. After two years of construction, the track, then called Funk’s Speedway, hosted its first automobile race.
Funk noticed that attendance increased as he increased the banking. During his years of operation in the early 20th century, he continued to dig out surrounding soil to pile up on the banks like a kid building a sandcastle. Crowds surged to more than 5000. Following suit of many successful ovals during the mid-century, the next set of owners eventually paved over the clay oval. The asphalt ushered in a new era of speed at Winchester and instigated a rivalry with another race track in Tennessee.
Since the pave job, there has been an intense battle between Winchester and another iconic oval, Bristol Motor Speedway, for the title of “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” An obscure record, yes, but hotly contested, considering the amount of half-mile short-tracks in the U.S. And a title like that is a promoter’s dream.
Last weekend, wingless sprint cars returned to Winchester for the first time since 2011. I’ve attended races at Bristol since I was a kid, so this was an opportunity to make my own judgements about the speed comparison between the two tracks.
From the top row on the giant aluminum grandstands, the high-banked short track looks like a relief carving into Indiana farmland. The banking is a 37-degrees at the apex (also a record: steepest banking in the U.S.). When drivers enter the corner, they plunge from the relatively flat straight down into the bowl. Visually, the pace is noticeably faster than a typical short track. A low-slung wall (plus the lack of catch fence between racers and trees along the backstretch) showcases the breakneck speed.
The announcer belts out time through a staticky loudspeaker and affirms the eye-test; sprint cars were circling around the track in less than 15 seconds, averaging over 120 mph.
I venture into the pits for a driver’s perspective and find Kyle O’Gara, an up-and-coming star and driver of the number 67 Speedway Customs sprint car. “Winchester is a track you have to do more mental preparation for than anything else,” he tells me. “I don’t think I’ve gone that fast since running Indy Lights.”
This little oval’s tie to the big Indy Speedway is strong. For years, one path to competing in the Indianapolis 500 ran though the Indiana bull-ring. Six Indy 500 winners, including A.J. Foyt, have raced at Winchester. NASCAR stars like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart sharpened their skills at the track too.
Winchester’s speed and history make for an alluring ambiance, pulling drivers from across the country to compete at the tiny oval in rural Indiana. “It was a dream of mine to race the high banks,” O’Gara says.
A dream indeed. One that’s more than a century-old, still vibrating with the energy of racing, fueled by rising stars and racing royalty alike.
Your move, Bristol.