The Ascot of the East
Roy Richwine bought the character that is now known as Williams Grove Speedway in 1937. It was formerly known as the Grangers Picnic Fairgrounds. The first race was held on May 21, 1939. Joey Chitwood Sr set the fast time on that day by finishing a lap in 26.03 seconds. Tommy Hinnershitz won the forty lap characterize, winning $400. The Flying Farmer won 19 sprint car races at the track, competing into the late 1950s! He also won 7 Eastern sprint car championships and enjoyed a top ten finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The only NASCAR Cup race at the Grove took place on June 27, 1954. It was won by Herb Thomas, leading 150 of the 200 laps, in a 1954 Hudson. Leading the other 50 laps and finishing in second was pole winner Dick Rathmann, Hershel McGriff was third. Other notable drivers were Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Dizzy Dean, Ralph Ligouri and Hilly Rife.
July 29, 1951 became known as Black Sunday. Two drivers, Cecil Green and Bill Mackey, were killed in back to back qualifying runs at Winchester, Indiana. Also that day Walt Brown was killed at the Grove. He spun in the second turn while qualifying his car #29. It rolled over and Brown died at the Carlisle Hospital later that day. Eleven other drivers, in addition to 1 official and 1 spectator have lost their lives at the track.
The Grove has a connection to the Indianapolis 500. The latest connection is that of driver PJ Chesson, who participated in the event. Indy winners with sprint car wins at the track include George Robson (1946), Bill Holland (1949), Johnny Parsons Sr (1950), Troy Ruttman (1952), Pat Flaherty (1956), Jimmy Bryan (1958), AJ Foyt (1961, 64, 67, and 77), and Parnelli Jones (1962). Jan Opperman, Joey Chitwood Sr, Johnny Thomson, Duke Nalon, Duane Carter Sr, Eddie Sachs, Rodger McCluskey, and Elmer George (whose family nevertheless owns IMS) have sprint car wins here. Ted Horn won 14 sprint car (then known as big car) races here in addition to 3 National Driving Championships (1946-48)! He was killed at DuQuoin, IL in 1948 but had enough points to win the title.
Jack Gunn was the track announcer and then took over as the promoter. He additional Selinsgrove, Penn National, and Hagerstown to his list of promotional efforts. Gunn, whose last name was truly Gunnells, attended the Milton Hershey School for orphans along with brother Trim. Trim owned a garage business in Lebanon, PA and was a car owner at the track for many years. Jack won the Promoter of the Year in 1979, and passed away in 1980. Gunn is responsible for bringing in the nations best drivers to race in central Pennsylvania. He is in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
Since sprint car racing began on a weekly basis in 1967, Fred Rahmer has become the most successful driver, winning 83 races. Lance Dewease has 75 wins, Donnie Kreitz Jr has 54 victories, and Keith Kauffman enjoyed 51 wins. Kauffman has the most wins in a season with 13 in 1984!
The speedway has long straights and tight turns. It was presumably modeled after the Legion Ascot Speedway in California. It is also known for its spectator bridge which reaches over the backstretch into the infield. There is a tunnel under the track at the first turn which connects the frontstretch fans to the infield. Long gone are the infield starters stand and the covered frontstretch grandstands. Did you know at one time there was a landing strip for airplanes outside of the backstretch of the track?
Williams Grove Speedway is referenced in a Hollywood movie. The 1949 movie is called The Big Wheel starring Mickey Rooney as driver Billy Coy. After getting into trouble on the west coast tracks, he heads east. A newspaper headline is shown with him winning at the Grove. He later makes it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.