Monday, September 28, 2020

The Chemung Speedrome

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1950, while visiting an auto mechanic in Ithaca for repair work on his car, a Chemung County farmer was asked, “Do you have any land on your farm where a small quarter-mile dirt track could be built?” The auto mechanic, Karl “Blue Eyes” Beilou, was a driver and member of the Finger Lakes Racing Association, and his group was looking for a new place to race. The farmer he asked was Eli H. Bodine, a fan of auto races, operator of one of the largest poultry farms in New York State, and future grandfather to a trio of NASCAR Drivers. Bodine’s ‘yes’ answer was the green light the group was looking for.
The Bodine family moved from Wisconsin to the town of Chemung in the 1890s. Their son Milton was the first dairy farmer in Chemung, and other family members went into the poultry, dairy and beef cattle breeding business. Milton had nine children, including Eli. Eli attended Cornell University to study Agriculture and had a side hobby of watching car races. One of Eli’s ten children was Eli H. Bodine, Jr. known as “Junie.”

At twenty-two years old, after studying at Cornell University and just before he left to fight in WWII, Junie married eighteen-year-old Carol June Sechrist of Elmira. After his war service, he returned to his hometown.

In Chemung, Junie and Carol June ran the Pedigreed Leghorn Farm and the popular Dairy Bar. The young couple had two small children, a daughter Denise and son Geoffrey.

The day after Eli, Sr. answered Beilou’s question, eight or more members of the Finger Lakes Racing Association showed up at the Bodine farm, ready to roll. Using machines, they set to work laying out stones to mark and prepare a quarter-mile oval track. The location came with a nearby pond making it helpful to keep track dust down, and a hill where spectators could gather. They rigged lighting using poles from the woods and surplus generators. They named the track the Chemung Speedway and later called it the Chemung Speedrome. It opened for business in May 1951.
The quarter mile long dirt track had two nearby competitors: the Shangri-La Speedway had opened in 1946 in Owego, and there was a track at the Troy Fair Grounds, in Troy, PA. Each weekend from late spring to early fall, spectators gathered to watch auto races and cheer on their favorite drivers. By the 1960s, the Speedrome attracted close to 2,000 spectators each weekend. In 1969, the track lengthened to three-eighths of a mile and its surface was paved over.

In the US, dirt track racing is the most common form of auto racing held. Early stock cars have connections to Prohibition (1920-1933) when bootlegging drivers would modify small cars to make them faster and better handling. As a spectator sport, it caught on quickly, especially in the rural south. 

Racing stock cars on dirt tracks began just before WWI, and quickly gained popularity after the war. NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and is a privately-owned company founded in 1948. Their inaugural season began the following year, known as NASCAR Strictly Stock division. Factory cars with no modifications were eligible, and all races took place on dirt tracks. The only exception was Daytona’s Beach and Road Course, a paved four and a quarter mile track. Today’s Daytona International Speedway is two and half miles long.

In a 1967 race program, Eli Bodine, Sr. wrote that early days at the Speedrome welcomed “anything with four wheels,” and the whole thing often looked like “one, big demolition race.” Apparently, cars on the dusty track traveled every which way, with some ending up upside down, running backwards, or moving on only two or three wheels. It was not uncommon to have cars end up on the infield or over the banks.

It was a family business: Eli Sr. attended all Speedrome races; Junie was part-owner and promoter; his brother Earl raced, and his brother Milton was a top mechanic. Earl set early track records for the most consecutive wins at the Speedrome.

As they grew up, Junie’s children worked at the Speedrome too. They picked up trash or rode the grader to keep the dirt track in shape. When he was five, Geoffrey discovered the thrill of racing, finally allowed to race when he was eighteen. Known as Geoff on the motorsports circuit, he become a successful driver achieving many career highlights. His younger brothers Brett and Todd followed in his footsteps, and today the next generation of Bodines continue the tradition.

While proud of the Bodine achievements, the town had mixed feelings about the racetrack. There were complaints of crowd behavior, fights and bad language. In a May 28, 2002 Star-Gazette article, Geoffrey Bodine acknowledged this.

There were also at least two driver strikes at the track, taking place in 1963 and 1968. Both strikes temporarily halted the evening’s planned races. They seem to be “solved” by hasty negotiations with the striking drivers allowing the races to go on. Later, track management sent these same drivers suspension notices by mail. Other reports of financial and managerial problems surfaced in local papers and by the late 1970s the track was struggling. The Bodine family sold the Speedrome in 1978 and was it taken over by Chemung County a year later for back taxes.

Buying the Speedrome, one of the owners, Robert Stapleton, hoped to reopen it by the mid-1980s. His plans were blocked when the city of Chemung denied zoning changes. The city hearing brought out 400 people, and after heated debate, all changes were denied.

Twenty years later the track reopened in 2001. It continues to grow in popularity.
The Speedrome has just opened again. See their website for detailed information and racing schedules.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and photos! I wrote a similar article myself!

    ReplyDelete