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Tuckerton Speedway - Tuckerton, NJ

 

Dirt oval (5/30/50 - 10/21/51)

 

Located about eight miles from the Manahawkin Speedway.

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THE TUCKERTON SPEEDWAY

By Jon H. Clifton

 

As most race fans know, racing really started to take off in the early to mid 1950's when several small dirt tracks around the country started springing up almost everywhere you looked. If someone had enough property to carve out a dirt circle in his or her cornfield or back yard, he was often approached to become a "partner" in the racing industry. These tracks were the grassroots of racing and just about everybody has their favorite memory of an early track they attended. Some of the noted grassroots tracks were the Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, Georgia, the Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina and the Legion Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, California. But one of those little known grassroots tracks was the Tuckerton Speedway. Below is a story on that humble little track, situated in the Pinelands of Southern New Jersey that was built by men with nothing more than axes, a broken down road grader and a desire to race.

The first automobile race in the United States was run on November 28, 1895, from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois. J. Frank Duryea won the race, covering the 55-mile distance at an average speed of 7.7 MPH. Ten months later; the first oval dirt track race was run at the Rhode Island State Fair in Cranston, Rhode Island. Not long after that, the first racetracks consisting mostly fairgrounds and horse tracks, began holding various types of automobile racing as an added attraction to the main event. But automobile racing caught on and by World War 2, more than xxx racetracks were in operation. By 1950, close to xxx racetracks were hosting automobile races in the United States alone. But in Southern New Jersey, there were only two tracks south of the capitol of Trenton that were running weekly stock car races and neither of these were near the area of a little southern New Jersey town called Tuckerton.

GETTING STARTED

In early 1950, racing enthusiasts Tom and Bill Resch, Bob Dawson and Bert Courtney, all of Tuckerton, decided to build a track in their hometown. As fast as the idea was thought up, they started the ball rolling and by March 3, 1950, permission was secured from Little Egg Harbor Township for the group to use an old gravel pit next to the city dump site on North Green Street. Local race fans Henry Johnson and Harry Engle were appointed to serve as a temporary committee until an organization meeting could be held. Anyone interested in becoming a member or working on the track was asked to report for work at the site on Sunday, March 12th. Each man was asked to bring an axe.

The response was overwhelming. In just one week, having accomplished the major part of chopping down trees, burning the brush and clearing out the trash from the proposed site, plans began to start grading and laying out the course. When the track was laid out to where it was going to be, there was only one problem. The road grader that was to be used was broken and wouldn't run. But the men would not let this minor problem stop them. A tractor was borrowed and with the help of a very heavy chain, the grader was pulled around the track until it was smooth.

On Friday, March 24, 1950, the Tuckerton Stock Car Association was formally organized. James Spivey was elected President, Bill Resch Vice-President, Harry Rulon Jr. Treasurer and Bruno Furca, Secretary. The TSCA announced that its main goals were to promote better safety on the highways, provide an outlet for unspent energy, stage a show for the public and back any good recreational ideas for juveniles. Rules were going to be rigid and strictly enforced. Cars could be no newer that 1939 with metal tops, heavy braces (there's a good description for a roll-cage) and safety belts and helmets would be required. Back then, a helmet was no more than a plastic football helmet with the face guard removed and safety belts were anything from a clothesline to a cut up truck inner tube. Two pants belts tied together was another "safety" belt.

OPENING DAY

After 12 weeks of consistent work, the Tuckerton Speedway was ready to go. Opening day was Memorial Day, 1950. Some 2,500 spectators turned out to see the first ten-race program on the new 1/4-mile dirt oval. This was a pretty good crowd since the population of Tuckerton in 1950 was only 1,332. The first casualty was Vice-President Bill Resch, who flipped Sam Spraggs #1-1/4 car. Remembering that day, Resch said, "We didn't know how the people were going to react to the races. So to create some excitement, Bob Dawson and I decided to flip our cars. This is how I became the first casualty, then Bob flipped his". The races were so popular that the local movie house in Tuckerton and one in Toms River showed films of the races". It was then decided to run races every Sunday at 2:00PM.

During the second meet on June 11th, Alvin "Hot Shot" Hosier set the first track record when he turned the final lap in the first heat in 23 seconds. The quest for more speed continued. But after just 2 meets and 17 races, the track suffered it's first problem; heavy dust. The safety of the drivers was in jeopardy and spectator visibility was poor. The management decided to resurface the track with a solid layer of packing loam. The loam was then treated with a chemical solution to keep the dust down. The drivers and fans alike praised the new surface. Time trials were the fastest at the track to date. A week later, Hot Shot lowered his own one-lap race record to 22-3/4 seconds. Not to be outdone, Bill Resch went out and blew Hot Shots record away with a lap time of 22 seconds flat, driving him and his brother Tom's number 33. This record stood until the day the track closed, although Hot Shot tied it on July 16th of that year.

Two months later on August 3, new management took over the track with Bob Dawson’s brother, Hilliard, the new man in charge. A tower was erected for a starters stand, white posts were placed on each side of the start/finish line and the track was properly graded, oiled and sprinkled. J. Simpkins of Green Bank won the first heat on the new track. Hot Shot won the first feature and took home the top prize of $5.00 and an inner tube donated by local Sunoco dealer Watson Spragg. Prize money back then was great for the time but not by today's standards. For example, during one meet in August, Hot Shot won the feature. His prize money was $5.00 and turkey dinner at the historic New Gretna House. Bill Resch, who finished second, received a car polishing kit and third place finisher Bert Courtney received two gallons of oil. Mel Holloway received $2.50 and a can of Wonder Luster cream for winning the consolation race. But there was one race that didn't have a winner. On August 6, three cars started the fourth race. Two of them flipped and the third one was disqualified.

By now, the track was not only drawing the local top drivers but also a lot of outsiders. Cars from many surrounding towns were making the Tuckerton Speedway a weekly stop on their schedules. The men to beat were Bert Courtney, Chappy Wagner, Chippy Chipman, Al Tart Jr., Floyd Clark and Michael "Boots" Zimmerman. In just two meets, Boots racked up an incredible ten wins and one second place in just eleven races. No other driver ever equaled this record in such a short period of time. Throughout the 1950 season, there were good times and bad. Good times when the pits were filled with cars and people lined the banks to root their favorite driver on to the checkered. The track was built in a way where you could park on the banking and watch the races without ever getting out of your car. Bad times when Mother Nature would not cooperate and rain washed out the day’s activities or when the drivers had mechanical troubles or crashed their cars beyond repair. By the end of the first season of racing on December 3, 1950, a total of 177 races had been run where 35 different drivers visited victory lane. .

A NEW YEAR

Hot Shot Hoiser won the first race of 1951 but Manahawkin’s Boots Zimmerman took five of the eight races run. (For you Wall Stadium fans, Boots is the father-in-law of modified driver Tom Michel). A week later, fans saw seven races won by seven different drivers. Competition was getting better and better. Drivers were now racing for a point fund. The driver with the most points at the end of the season would receive the Whealton Trophy, a beautiful engraved trophy offered by local jeweler Eugene Whealton. July 4, 1951 saw the first women race at the track. Following Chippy Chipman’s win in his #313, the ladies powder puff race was run and Chipman's wife was the winner. All agreed that 1951 was going to be the year that the Tuckerton Speedway was going to put "Tuckerton on the map".

Thirty races into the season, 26 year Bob Dawson announced that the August 5th race date was going to be his last as a driver. However, nobody suspected that this statement would actually turn out to be an omen. The day came, and on the last lap of the feature, Bob was running wide to pass another car when his car hit a rut in the track and catapulted into the air, flipped over and landed back on the track. Driver Bert Courtney, who had been running right behind Dawson, was the first on the scene and found that Dawson's safety belts; goggles and helmet were all in place. He was carefully removed from the car and attended to by Dr. L. E. Hess of Absecon, who performed first aid. An ambulance was called (there was no law at the time that there had to be one at the track) and transported Dawson the Atlantic City Hospital but, with that uncanny prediction he made about this being his last race, Bob died soon after reaching the hospital. The track immediately closed but reopened ten days later for one special benefit race with all proceeds going to Dawson's widow and daughter. Bert Courtney won the race and the track closed. In October, the management again wanted to resume racing and the track re-opened on October 21st. But with the close knit town still shocked over the death of Bob Dawson poor attendance, coupled with a number of the top drivers now in the military and others losing interest, this brought about the demise of the Tuckerton Speedway.

Today, after fifty-four years, 209 races with 52 different winners, the track still sits behind the Little Egg Harbor Elementary School. Fully overgrown with weeds and trees, the only noise heard today is the wind and the sound of birds. Racing in Tuckerton is history. A recent trip to the site was a bit unsettling. Standing on one of the old banks, I heard a strange noise. It wasn't the wind, birds or a visiting deer. The sun played strange shadows over the trees and brush as I strained to see what was making the noise. Maybe it was Joe Pullen's number 18. Or Vern Simpkins triple zero. One more look might find Bert Courtney coming down for one more checkered flag. Or maybe Bill Resch had come out of retirement for one more final lap. But as much as I wanted to see it, none of these were true. Sadly, the last checkered flag dropped at the Tuckerton Speedway on October 21, 1951. The noises I heard were only wishful thinking- the sounds of stock cars racing in Tuckerton again.

I would like to thank Bill Resch, Bert Courtney, Al Tart Jr. and the Tuckerton Beacon for their invaluable help in making this story possible.

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