Salem Speedway
When the High-Banks were on the road to Indy

 by Steven N. Levinson
August 10, 2006

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The United States Auto Club's Sprints and Midgets will invade the fabled Salem Speedway on Saturday Night August 12 for the 49th running of the Joe James/Pat O'Connor Memorial. This race honors the memory of two of the great AAA and USAC stars of the 1950s.

Pat O'Connor August 1954 at Salem Speedway
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

The race first began in 1953 as the Joe James Memorial. A lot has changed since their unfortunate passings. During the 1950s AAA and USAC raced regularly at the treacherous high banked Salem Speedway four times a year.  It was a Fourth of July weekend staple for many years. For me, this will be a night of nostalgia and reminiscence of my trips to Salem in 1954, '55, '60 and '61. I doubt if many of the fans at this year's event know much about these two revered drivers or the history of the track. The rise of the monolithic NASCAR juggernaut has eroded much of Open Wheel's illustrious past

Joe James, was a native of Saucier, Mississippi, who resided in Van Nuys, California. James was the 1952 AAA Midwest Sprint Car Champion earning six victories. He was crowned Champion on October 17 at the annual banquet in Dayton, Ohio. Two weeks and two days later on November 2, during the running of the 100 Mile National Championship race on the one mile dirt oval at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, California, James was temporarily blinded by the sun on lap 47, failed to see the yellow flag and ran over Mike Nazaruk's rear wheel. James' car flipped and he sustained severe head injuries (not unlike those suffered by Roberto Guerrero and more recently by Cristiano da Matta). Three days later he succumbed to those injuries. He was 27 years old. In those days, medical science and technology were not nearly as advanced as they are today. Controlling brain temperature and inducing comas were unknown.

Pat O'Connor, was a native of North Vernon, Indiana, who began his career in Hot Rods and Modifieds in Indiana. He joined the AAA Midwest Sprints in 1952 and immediately became a force to be reckoned with by finishing 3rd in the championship. He was AAA Midwest Champion in 1953 ,1954 and USAC Champion in 1956. He also won two National Championship races at Darlington in '56 and Trenton in '57. He sat on the "Pole" at Indianapolis in 1957 and the next month raced at Monza in the "Race of Two Worlds".

O' Connor was handsome, soft-spoken and full of humility and grace. He was the epitome of the "Local Hero" and the "Good Guy."  He lost his life in that infamous first lap pile-up in turn three at the start of the 1958 Indianapolis 500. He was five months shy of his 30th birthday.

The Salem Speedway was completed in 1947, and joined the other "High Banked" tracks in the Midwest located at Dayton, Ohio, Winchester and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Collectively, they were know as "The Hills". They were dangerous beyond belief. A good Sunday afternoon was when every driver "cheated death" and went home alive.

Turn 4 banking at Salem Speedway in 1954
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

Salem Speedway is nestled in the lush green farmland and scenic hills of southern Indiana about one mile west of the town of Salem on Indiana State Road 56. The track opened on June 22, 1947 before 7,000 fans. In the very first race, on the very first lap, in the first turn, popular veteran driver Clay Corbitt of Dayton, Ohio locked wheels with Jack Schultz of Cincinnati and crashed over the banking. Corbitt was killed and Schultz became an invalid and died five years later of his injuries.

The track would later claim the lives of open wheel drivers Chick Barbo and Tommy Mattson on July 24, 1949 when they locked wheels, hurtled 100 feet through the air, striking parked cars and narrowly missing the grandstand; Charlie Ethier on July 15, 1951; Eastern Stock Car and Modified great Wally Campbell on Saturday July 17, 1954 in a practice session before the next day's race; 1955 Indianapolis 500 winner Bob Sweikert on June 17, 1956 ; Gil Hess July 5, 1970 and USAC Sprint Legend Rich Vogler on July 21, 1990.

Best buddies Bob Sweikert & Jerry Hoyt; March 20, 1955 @ Langhorne, PA. the very day that Larry Crockett was killed at Langhorne. HOYT was killed July 10, 1955 @ Oklahoma City, OK

Bob Sweikert's tragic death on June 17, 1956 sent shock waves through the racing world. Sweikert was one of racing's biggest names.  He not only won the 1955 Indianapolis 500, but also won the 1955 AAA National Championship as well as the AAA Midwest Sprint title. Sweikert was no stranger to the "High-Banks". He had a total of eight victories with six wins at Salem and two at Dayton. He knew Salem like the back of his hand. It was one of his favorite tracks. Somehow, tragedy always seemed to follow his career. His 1955 win at Indianapolis was over-shadowed by the death of Bill Vukovich. Less than two months later, his close friend, teammate and "employee" Jerry Hoyt would perish in an event at Oklahoma City, in which Sweikert participated.

Jimmy Reece absolutely refused to run "The Hills."  He said it was too dangerous and called it the "Idiot Circuit."  Ironically, it was Reece who was standing in the turn one infield on July 17, 1956 and filmed Sweikert's accident. Tragically, Reece would lose his life on the last lap of the 100 Mile National Championship race at Trenton Speedway on September 28, 1958.

These were the painful realities of not only Salem Speedway but of auto racing in the 1950s. It didn't matter whether or not it was in the United States. Grand Prix and road racing in Europe was just as perilous. That was the nature of motor racing in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

AUGUST 8, 1954

That's me at the top of Turn 1 at Salem Speedway in 1954

I first went to Salem Speedway on August 8, 1954 when I was 11 years old. I remember arriving at the track. It was a bit surrealistic with the track in the midst of a beautiful countryside and rolling hills . There was the twelve foot high wooden sign post: "SALEM SPEEDWAY...AAA SPRINT CARS AUGUST 8 OCTOBER 3". There was a typical white fence that enclosed the track property. The grass parking lot was packed and there were even cars parked on Road 56's grassy shoulder. Amidst this pastoral setting you heard the thunderous roar of mostly Offy powered sprints cars barreling around the track during pre-race practice.

Finally, you saw those "old covered grandstands" and the track in a bowl like setting. It would have been "love at first sight" but for the absolute terror I felt inside. The AAA Midwest Sprints. No roll bars, nothing. The single guardrail was made of white painted wooden planks.

Ed Elisian
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

All the regulars were there. Pat O'Connor, Bob Sweikert, Eddie Sachs Duane Carter, Mike Nazaruk, Larry Crockett, Jerry Hoyt, Ed Elisian, Andy Linden, Jimmy Daywalt and Don Freeland. Bob Sweikert won the 30 Lap feature.

Does it get any better than this? Yes, after the race we went down to the pits on the inside of the front straight and I got to see my "HEROES" up close. Pat O'Connor, Bob Sweikert, Mike Nazaruk. I even talked to Larry "Crash" Crockett who was the 1954 Indianapolis 500 "Rookie of the Year". He asked me my name, I said "Steve"; he replied, "you're the ugliest kid named Steve, I have ever seen". Naturally, my sensitive 11 year old feelings were hurt. Sadly, Crockett would lose his life in a Sprint Car seven months later on March 20, 1955 at Langhorne, Pennsylvania's mile dirt track.  He was 28 years old.

AUGUST 7, 1955

Don Branson at Salem
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

My next trip to Salem was almost one year later on August 7. Larry Crockett, Mike Nazaruk and Jerry Hoyt were among the missing. They all met their fate on "Dirt Tracks". Crockett and Hoyt were the wholesome "HOOSIER" types, while Nazaruk was more of a street talking barroom kind of guy. Nonetheless, all my "HEROES."

The feature race was won by Pat O'Connor. It will forever be remembered by seeing Andy Linden lose control coming down the main straight after being lightly tapped by O' Connor at the start of the race. Linden spun around backwards and was heading toward the inside pit lane. He narrowly missed a dirt embankment that served as a makeshift hoist. It was frightening. Linden remained crouched in his car for several seconds after it stopped. He was probably "dazed" and in serious contemplation of what just occurred. He could have easily struck that dirt embankment, and careened back onto the track in front of oncoming cars or gotten airborne. Linden was very lucky; Salem was KIND that day. Linden lived to race another day until a November 3, 1957 crash in a Midget at Clovis, California ended his racing career. Linden, the ex-Navy boxer, with forearms like "Popeye the Sailor Man" died in February of 1987.

JULY 31, 1960

Eddie Sachs in 1960 at Salem
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

This was the fifth year of USAC's sanctioning of the Midwest Sprint Car series, and the only remaining big name AAA stalwarts were Eddie Sachs, Gene Force and to a lesser extent Elmer George.

The new decade brought change. In 1961 there would only be a "National Sprint Car Championship". The Old Guard of the 1950s AAA were replaced by A.J. Foyt, Don Branson, Roger McCluskey, Jim Hurtubise and the blindingly fast California newcomer, Parnelli Jones. Jones stormed into the Midwest and immediately took half of a twin 50s at Milwaukee on June 26. On July 3, in his very first race at Salem Jones led most of the way. Victory was thwarted when he was caught in traffic and finished second to Don Branson. He then reeled off four successive wins at Dayton (July 17), Salem (July 31), New Bremen (August 7) and Dayton (Aug 14).

Roger McCluskey
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

The USAC regulars, running their 220 cubic inch four cylinder Offy's were simply no match for Jones' Hank Henry constructed #51 Fike Plumbing Spl. powered by an eight cylinder 305 cubic inch Stock Block Chevy. The handwriting was on the wall, as the Chevy would soon become the engine of choice.

I was eager to see Jones in action. I had gone to the Dayton Speedway two weeks before and witnessed his dominating performance. July 31 at Salem further enhanced his reputation as the "New Kid on The Block", the new "Master" of the high banks.

Parnelli Jones at Dayton in 1960

Years later I talked to Parnelli at Laguna Seca. I told him that I had seen him win at Dayton and Salem in '60 and '61 and marveled at his skill and courage. He answered, "you know, we didn't have roll cages, we had to duck. The main thing that I learned was how to hold my breath for thirty laps". Precisely! Parnelli showed his absolute respect for the "banks" and didn't feel it necessary to hide behind any macho facade. He appreciated the dangers and after capturing the USAC Title in 1960, 1961 and 1962, he drastically reduced his Sprint Car schedule in 1963 and retired after the 1964 season to concentrate on Indy Cars, Stock Cars and later Trans Am.

It was also in this event that Bill Kimmel, father of multiple ARCA Stock car Champion Frank, went over the backstretch wall.........and survived. Jim Packard's blown engine dumped oil on the track. Kimmel, following closely behind, slid through the oil. When the car sped over the dry asphalt, it lurched violently, tore the steering wheel from his hands and he careened over the wall, and through the trees.  The trees mercifully slowed the car and cushioned its flight. The car landed upside down with Kimmel pinned in the car and "praying that no one was smoking a cigarette," as fuel was pouring all over him. Apprehension and silence descended over the crowd, until the safety crew signaled that Kimmel was not injured.

AUGUST 6, 1961

Main straight at Salem Speedway in 1960
Steve Levinson/AutoRacing1.com

During "hot laps", prior to qualifications, I stood on the overhead bridge at the beginning of the front straight (See photo to left). I was able to peer down into the cockpit of the cars as they exited the fourth turn onto the main straight. It was incredible, as the drivers were constantly wrestling for control of these high powered cars. It was at once exhilarating, and "scary" and strengthened my appreciation and respect for anyone who drove the banks at Salem, Dayton or Winchester.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dayton, Salem and Winchester were the road to Indianapolis. This was "THE TRAINING GROUND". When Wally Campbell went to Indianapolis in 1954, he was advised that he lacked the necessary experience and was told to go and run the "High Banks."  He lost his life in that pursuit.

As to the differences between those tracks, I asked Steve Chassey, a track record holder at all three tracks. He responded as follows:


    AJ in 1965 at Indy.  He was one of the greats to conquer the high-banks
    Fords Archives

    Dayton was symmetrical with both ends nearly the same. Maybe the third and fourth turns are slightly shorter than one and two. The banking was even and good at both ends. The turns are bigger than either Salem or Winchester, and the straights are shorter, even though Dayton was 210 feet longer than a half mile. The transition from the straights to the corners are very good. It had a "Railroad Curve," i.e., a gradual spiral increase of the banking into and off of the corners. There were no abrupt "ups and downs" like the other two tracks.


    This was the "FASTEST" of all three tracks.  It was also the shortest. All four turns are different. Turn one is the most difficult in that it required more "braking" and "turn in". However, once you turn into it, it has an even radius and banking. You must exercise caution exiting turn two, because if you drift too high, you will collide with the back straight guardrail. Turn three is the fastest corner, as you enter from near the fence and "DIVE" into it until your "heart stops beating". Then as soon as you can catch your breath, you get right back on the throttle and are wide open out of turn four down the main straight. This ultra fast exit from turn four, and the speed carried down the main straight is what makes turn one so difficult.


    Mario Andretti won at Salem driving the Gapco Sprinter in the Pat O'Connor Memorial in 1964 and it helped propel him to a full-time Champ Car ride in 1965 - Photo of Mario in Midget taken at Stafford Speedway

    Salem is bigger than Winchester in that it measures 0.555-miles, and has the slowest lap times. Turns one and two have a "Great Railroad spiral curve" (gradual entry and banking) and the exit of turn two has less banking than the entry to one. Turn three is the tricky corner. You need to enter from just off the guardrail, turn toward the middle, and then let the car find its own way up the banking just before the middle of the corner. Then you can come off turn four from the middle and blast down the main straight into turn one.

For me, Salem Speedway is hallowed grounds........... Sacred Turf. A special place in the history of American racing and a monument to the dreams and aspirations of the heroic drivers of the '40s, '50s, '60s who were determined to race at Indianapolis. It also served as a testament to their absolute courage and bravery. The races held at Salem during those years are now deeply enshrined in the history and folklore of American racing. I was fortunate to have been an eyewitness to these historic races.

Acknowledgments: Salem Speedway News; The Salem Leader/The Salem Democrat, The Indianapolis Star; USAC Sprint History 1956-1980 (Carl Hungness); Special thanks to Stephen F. Chassey, Carmel, Indiana and Roger D. Zellner, Hayden, Indiana; and Mark Cipolloni

The author can be contacted at SteveL@autoracing1.com

Go to our forums to discuss this article


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