We've seen the padlock close and the lights click off. The images of the abandoned, desolate speedway can be a truly haunting site. The weeds grow with time and the clock causes memories to fade. As the epidemic of "Lost Speedways" continues to grow across America, there are very few feel-good stories and comebacks. In the quiet town of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania, a racing resurrection is about to take place.
After five years, the weeds are gone. The sound whirling winds and flagpoles clanking will be replaced by the sounds of the American Stock Car as Jennerstown Speedway re-opens its gates for the first time since 2009. The season opener takes place tonight, Saturday May, 10th.
The resurrection story starts with three men, Bryan Smith, Robert Beck and John Taylor. Just after this past Thanksgiving (2013) they negotiated and purchased the track from former owner David Wheeler.
Jennerstown may have only been closed since 2007, but in just a handful of years, father time and some vandals took its toll on the Speedway.
“The condition of the facility was horrible,” says track owner John Taylor. “Although the track was the actually best part of it. It was repaved in 2006 and only had one race season on it. All of the copper wiring for the electricity was stolen. People actually climbed 80-foot towers to take it. That was a major expense to replace. The rest of the facility was vandalized. There were kicked in windows and doors. Someone took the syrup from where the soda machines were and dumped it all over. It was a lot of cleaning. We scrubbed the buildings, fixed what needed to be fixed and Replaced roofs. It takes a lot of paint. We just finished painting walls and most buildings have had a new coat of paint.”
The .522 mile oval, once considered one of Short Track Racing's most modern facilities is coming back in exciting fashion. The Super Cup Stock Car Series opens their season at the Western Pennsylvania speedplant. Speedway officials have planned a big opening weekend full of festivities culminating with the 75-lap feature event. From a parade through downtown, to Monster Trucks, support racing and fireworks, the community will band together to welcome back its long-lost friend.
“The community support has been astronomical,” says Taylor with a sense of pride. “Friends family and so many from the community have come out to help. We’ve had volunteers and also a couple of businesses in the area brought equipment and got behind the effort. Some donated supplies too. It was a big community effort.”
In many instances, the political world can work to the detriment of a Speedway. In the case of Jennsertown’s rebirth, the local government is supporting the effort. They’ve even agreed to shut down a busy section of highway to have a parade to kick off the track’s Grand Re-Opening.
“The highway going through this part of Pennsylvania is Route-30. It’s first time they’ve closed a major section of it in around 15 years. It was a major undertaking for them to do that. From mayor to local level government we’ve had great support. Even Carl Metzger, our state representative Congress is planning on attending. We are happy to have the support.”
The hard work will culminate this weekend at Jennerstown. But why the effort? Why resurrect this Pennsylvania track? Taylor says the answer was simple.
“We are passionate about racing. The three of us are officers in SCCA racing and have held autocross events here. We just kept saying to each other that we cant believe an iconic racetrack like this in the state of Pennsylvania is shut down and nobody’s doing anything about it. So we tossed the idea around about asking Mr. Wheeler about buying it. We contacted him and started the negotiations and came to an agreement.
Jennerstown Speedway began its first life in 1927 as a ½ mile dirt oval and was originally known as Jenners Fairgrounds. The oval has seen a few changes in its time but none greater than when it was paved in 1987. This change brought major Motorsports events like ASA Racing, NASCAR Touring Series Events and the old Hooters Pro Cup Series to J-town. Infact, former Hooters Restaurants owner Bob Brooks and Late Model racer Steve Peeles were one of the many who once owned the Jennerstown facility.
Fast-forward to 2014, after after seven year hiatus from racing, a new chapter to Jennerstown’s storied history is about to begin.
“I think the key for Jennerstown is that it was closed long enough that everyone remembers it but not long enough that everyone forgot.”
The emotions will be high for many when the green flag is waved over a pack of cars at Jennerstown this weekend.
“It will be emotional for sure,” admitted Taylor. I can tell you so far the emotions for me have ranged from anger and stress to joy and disbelief.”
Jennerstown is a comeback story that is rarely seen across the modern day American landscape. A few racing facilities have recently been resurrected, but a far greater number have locked up their gates as the epidemic of Lost Speedways continues to grow. Racing fans and the locals of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania have a renewed hope. Like the saying goes; “sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got, until it’s gone.” The fans and racers aren’t taking this comeback for granted.
“The most touching moment for me came when we opened up for our first practice about three weeks ago,” explains a Taylor. “The first driver that rolled through the gate had tears in his eyes. He said he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get to do this again and was so happy to come through these gates.”