Circuit type: Permanent oval course
"I raced all over the world, and that was the most dangerous, most treacherous, most murderous track there ever was. Nobody liked it, and the ones who said they did were lying." So reckoned Bobby Unser and few would disagree with his assessment of Langhorne Speedway, at least in its original dirt oval form.
The term 'oval' was a more accurate description at Langhorne than most other tracks; rather than the usual elongated layouts with straights between the banked corners, Langhorne in its original form was one continuous, murderous corner. Quite why it was shaped that way is lost in the mists of time – presumably the square plot of land it was laid out on had some bearing on its unique layout. The result was a course that earned the nickname 'The Big Left Turn'.
Before Langhorne, auto racing in Pennsylvania had been confined to dirt tracks created from the various horse racing facilities around the Commonwealth. Starting in 1899, oval races were held first at Belmont Driving Park, near Narberth, and then a succession of other courses. The new sport proved extremely popular and also profitable,so it was inevitable that organisers would start to think of creating a permanent, purpose-built venue.
In 1926 the National Motor Racing Association (NMRA) set out to create just such a facility, choosing a plot of land near Langhorne in Bucks County, close to the main road between Philadelphia and Trenton. The location was aimed to capture as much passing trade as possible from the sesquicentennial celebrations further down Route 1 in Philadelphia, though being swampland was not necessarily ideal to build on. A course was fashioned into the dirt, with a large grandstand overlooking the start/finish area. Being a true oval, there were no separate corners as such, so instead the course was divided up into quadrants and each of these came to be referred to as Turn 1, Turn 2 etc.
The Philadelphia Speedway, as it was initially known, was due to open on May 31 but rain postponed the event to June 12. Freddie Winnai of Philadelphia qualified in 42.40 seconds (85 mph), which was claimed as a new AAA world record for a one-mile dirt track. This was in fact a bit of marketing spin; with no electrical timing equipment, records could not be officially recognised at Langhorne and in any case the AAA record was 42.24 seconds, set by Tommy Milton at Syracuse in 1923. Nevertheless, it did establish Langhorne's credentials as among the fastest tracks in the land. After qualifying had slimmed down the considerable entry to 24 starters, the inaugural 50-lap contest was duly won by pole man Winnai in his 1920 Duesenberg Straight 8.
While the crowds were initially big, problems soon surfaced. Close racing was a given, but danger was never far away. On August 7, 1926, former prizefighter Lou Fink became the track's first fatality when his car crashed near the main stands. The track itself seemed keen to battle the racers, with underground springs and shifting subsoil all contributing to an extremely tricky surface. The first 100-mile race in October saw the racers have to dodge rocks, potholes and numerous crashes, while the dry surface soon threw up a dust cloud that made visibility a nightmare.
Often the dust was worst between Turn 1 and Turn 2, where the track broke up into a badly potholed washboard as the cars passed through a dip. It soon earned its infamous nickname of 'Puke Hollow', supposedly after an offhand comment made by a spectator who observed Russ Snowberger being overcome by the combination of humidity, dust, bumps, and fumes from his straight-eight Miller. "He's throwing up there in Puke Hollow", came the comment, and the name stuck.
The NMRA continued to promote races at Langhorne Speedway (as it became known from the last event of the 1927 season onwards) but the 1928 season proved extremely difficult, as the powerful cars were making the track surface treacherous and the dust was so bad spectators began to drift away as they simply couldn't see the action.
Things came to a head the following year when the speedway neared the brink of bankruptcy and the future looked distinctly uncertain. Then, in 1920, noted promoter Ralph "Pappy" Hankinson took over and began to turn the fortunes around. To solve the problem of the dust clouds, Pappy dug up the track and treated the soil with 30,000 gallons of used motor oil and crankcase sludge. This had the added benefit of holding the soft spots in the track together (though was a rather dubious move from an environmental perspective!). Soon he was able to promote Langhorne as the "Indianapolis of the East."
Pappy brought in AAA Championship 100-lap races and continued to stage shorter sprint car races. The 100 milers were true feats of endurance – the oiled surface did little to help the grip, so each race became a full-on battle to hold on to the cars for the entire race length. Hankinson also diversified by staging one of the first stock car races in the northeastern U.S. in 1940; Roy Hall of Atlanta, Georgia was victor in the 200-lap event. Crowds of up to 40,000 were not uncommon during the years that Pappy promoted the events.
Hankinson sold the track in 1941 to stuntman Earl "Lucky" Teter after a falling out with the AAA. However, Teter's tenure only lasted until July 5, 1942 when he was killed while attempting his Rocket Car leap stunt in Indiana State Fairgrounds. World War Two quickly intervened the same month when the U.S. Government banned all forms of auto racing due to their entry into combat. Hankinson died of natural causes in Florida less than a month later, creating a huge void for racing.
Langhorne sat idle for four years and finally reopened in 1946, this time under the ownership of John Babcock, who staged the first post-war race on June 30. In the 1951, Babcock sold the track to racing promoters Irv Fried and Al Gerber, under whose direction Langhorne achieved its greatest popularity. There were some new additions to the course as well. A 1/4-mile oval using part of the front "straight" operated briefly beginning in 1950, and was called Yellow Jacket Speedway, in honour of the earlier Midget track of the same name in Philadelphia. A 1/8-mile dragstrip was also laid out in the infield in the late 1950s.
From 1956 to 1970, the United States Auto Club sanctioned open-wheel races at Langhorne and the track entered its finest era. Famous names as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, and Gordon Johncock all competed here – arguably it was at Langhorne that Andretti carved out his early reputation. There were constant reminders of the dangers, however. Jimmy Bryan was killed in an aerial wreck at Puke Hollow in 1960, while Hugh Randall died at the same spot two years later. In 1963, Andretti was standing at Puke Hollow watching the sprint car race when Bobby Marvin clobbered the guardrail, flipped end over end, and burned to death in front of him.
In a bid to make the track safer, in 1965 Fried and Gerber reshaped and paved the track into a roughly D-shaped configuration, with a new back straight added and various other corners lightly reconfigured. Puke Hollow became a victim of the repave, however, with the now smooth surface eliminating the notorious dip once and for all. Many felt the new Langhorne lacked the challenge of old, but undoubtedly it was faster and safer too. There were still plenty of gruesome wrecks - Mel Kenyon lost the fingers on his left hand in a fire in the first Champ Car race after the track was paved - but there were no more fatalities.
In its new guise the circuit continued to prosper, though it was not popular among many drivers. With the rising speeds of the rear-engined cars, Langhorne became an exercise in hanging on as the lateral G-forces punded car and driver, making for an uncomfortable ride. An oversteering car was the only quick car to have, but this meant that any mistake would soon see you hard into the wall. "They just screwed it up when they paved the track," was A.J. Foyt's blunt assessment.
While the crowds still turned out in good numbers, the drivers increasingly made their feelings know. One by one the major series dropped Langhorne from their schedules. Sprint cars, midgets, motorcycles, and stock cars abandoned the place over the years. Inbycars raced on until 1970 and the track was again included on the USAC schedule for 1971. However, at a secret meeting following the Trenton race, the drivers voted to boycott Langhorne and, despite the protestations of Fried and Gerber, the race was cancelled.
The writing had been on the wall for several years. Facilities – never luxurious at the best of times – had deteriorated around the course considerably, while the circuit increasingly found itself surrounded by suburban growth. The offers from developers became too tempting to refuse and Fried and Gerber actually announced the sale of the property to mall developers in 1967, though racing continued through five more seasons. The final race held at Langhorne occurred on October 17, 1971, with Roger Treichler claiming the chequered flag at the National Open for Modified stock cars.
Almost as quickly as the last cars had left the bulldozers arrived and Langhorne Speedway was soon converted to nothing more than memories. A shopping mall occupied most of the site, though the rear quarter of the plot was left undeveloped and it is still possible to see some of the earthworks from the original dirt course amongst the undergrowth. Today there is only a historic place marker to commemorate the site's rich place in motorsport's history – though that is only a relatively recent addition, being enacted in 2006.
Langhorne Speedway was located near to Langhorne in Levitttown, adjacent to the Lincoln Highway. The plot was at the corner of Lincoln Highway and Woodbourne Road, where now stands a car dealership, a Kmart and a Sam's Club store. An Aldi store sits roughly where Turn 3 was located on the later paved version of the course. The site is not to be confused with the nearby Oxford Valley Mall, whose circular perimeter road often gives rise to confusion that it was the location of the speedway.