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Reflections: One Last Checkered Flag

Friday night was the end of an era in the Borderland, as sure as the final baseball game at Dudley Field or the last frame of film shown downtown at the Capri Theater or at the Cinema Park 3 Drive In.

Friday night, September 2nd marked the end of racing at El Paso Speedway Park.

To some, that name means nothing. To others, its name means noisy Friday or Saturday nights and countless complaints to the county and officials. But to tens of thousands of others, it means home. And it means fun. And family.

For nearly 40 years,  the lights, the sounds, the damp clay and the smell of race fuel and BBQ drew countless El Pasoans to far-east El Paso, even before there were traffic lights, strip malls or even paved roads to the track.

The end was a familiar one, and one that’s claimed long lost speedways such as Rodeo Field and Evans Oval.  But to correctly view this track’s end, one must go back to the beginning…or the 2nd golden age of racing in El Paso.

In the 70’s, racing fans could choose from Sun City Speedway (formerly Sunland Speedway), either dragway in east or west El Paso, the Upper Valley Oval (when the owners felt the need to open) the old Optimist Speedway in Juarez and the mega-popular Horizon Speedway.

However the competition for fan’s attention would not last long, as inter-class grumbling over racing costs and rewards shuttered Horizon Speedway and complaints from residents of nearby homes and businesses doomed Sun City (aka Sunland) Speedway.

That was until former driver and businessman Willie Nunez followed in the tire tracks of Walter Gold and C.D. Evans.

On Friday July 13th, 1979 after nearly a year of frenzied construction, a name not seen on a racetrack since the 40’s was dusted off and re-introduced to Sun City race fans.  Stories and ads in both local papers trumpeted the first Sunday afternoon races at the brand new El Paso Speedway Park.

Willie Nunez designed Speedway Park to be both fan and driver friendly. Pits were located along the front straightaway, and the racers had bathrooms and a concession stand in the infield. As for the racing surface, not only were the turns banked, but the back straightaway was higher and slightly banked so that the fans could clearly see the racing action across the track.

The racing public reacted quickly, with Speedway Park’s attendance doubling, then tripling in the span of just 3 seasons.  While the grandstands were built to hold 3000 people, standing-room only crowds were the norm for most race nights.

Racing surnames such as Holden, Adams, Carney, Barnett, Lopez and countless others made the long treks on Friday and Saturday nights just to renew their rivalries.  Occasionally, an Unser or Foyt would drop in to watch and, sometimes take on the locals.

For the better part of the ‘Big 80’s, Speedway Park (and SunBowl Speedway) operated along a now-bustling Montana Avenue.  With El Paso Dragway racing on Sundays, the place for speed was far-east El Paso. But if racing history was any indication, trouble would not be far behind.

As homes, businesses and junkyard began to spring up around the speedways, so did the complaints. Development was now booming around Speedway Park and the Dragstrip and new residents and business owners cast disapproving glances toward the racing facilities.

While the racing in the Borderland was as good as ever, fan interest was uneven at best.  Some nights featured near sell-outs, others had just over 500 fans in attendance. Occasionally the media would come by, but not often enough; even the newspaper stopped running the all-important racing results.

By the late 80’s and early 90’s, Speedway Park began to show its age as well, the once-bright orange grandstands fading out and the wooden decks warping. Some billboards swayed in the breeze as cars zoomed by.

Meanwhile, the perceived decline of Speedway Park led a group of investors to begin making plans for yet another “state of the art, dedicated, multi-motorsport racing facility –  Rio Grande Speedway” just outside of city limits.

Undaunted, Speedway Park soldiered on as construction started on the new racing facility in the far, far west side of the Borderland. As the gleaming grandstands went up on the high-banked surface outside of Santa Teresa, new clay was brought to Speedway Park and the front stretch retaining wall was reinforced. The investment in the ‘old’ track was needed, but the feeling that the torch of Sun City racing was about to be passed was palpable.

By the time the 1998 season rolled around, racers again had a choice between two El Paso-area speedways. While the new management at Speedway Park lamented to the El Paso Times about the difficulty in promoting the track, Rio Grande Speedway quickly became a draw for the fans.

Despite the drive for most drivers and fans, consecutive sell-outs and close, quick races became the norm at the new west side track. Stung by the new track’s success, Speedway Park quietly closed mid-season, nearly 20 years to the day that construction started on the facility.

After just a year and a half of glorious, fast-paced and entertaining races, the lights in the middle of nowhere were cut for the last time and Rio Grande Speedway joined Desert Speedway (near Ft. Bliss ca 1940) as the two shortest-lived speedways. The drive, lack of water and the damage caused by the high-speed, concrete encircled oval brought new life to Speedway Park.

With the abandonment of Rio Grande Speedway, the final racing season of the 20th Century dawned at a re-born Speedway Park in 1999. The ’99 season would not only cap nearly 95 years of racing in the El Paso Southwest, but it would also set the stage for the next several seasons of racing in the Borderland.

And so it was on Friday night. A record crowd. A record car count. And an all-too-brief look into what was Speedway Park.  It was the racer’s equivalent of an Irish Wake, with the last race concluding sometime after 3 a.m.

Talk of another speedway abounds, and the most likely location halfway between Las Cruces and El Paso, to maximize car counts and crowd draw.  The Southern New Mexico Speedway is set to suffer the same fate as Speedway Park after next season, while the new track is built.

Until that time, it will be a long off-season. Many bench racing sessions will be held, with drivers now talking about Speedway Park in the past tense.  All who raced there are now the old men – even the teen or young adult who drove that surface – and will talk longingly of  ‘Ol EPSP.’

I, like many of you reading this, grew up at the speedway and grew with the speedway.  It taught me lessons, it brought me friends – and the odd rival or two.  It showed me how people from different backgrounds, when brought together by the shared love of a sport, could become a family.

It also taught me to never try and cut turn one too quickly or you’ll knock down a light pole and be called to the pit stand as a very embarrassed rookie.  And that putting a semi-truck loaded with thousands of gallons of water sideways is just as fun as a sprint car (Thanks, Alton!)

So now we wait. And we remember. Together.

Unless there’s a farmer out there that would like to not plant next year, cut an oval into his land and make a few bucks on the side.

Adios, Speedway Park.  Until we race again.

Speedway Park Start-Finish Line
Speedway Park’s start-finish line & flagman’s roost.

 

About Chris Babcock

Editor in Chief: El Paso Herald-Post, horizoncity.com Chris began his long journey in Journalism back in the early 70’s. Armed with a Bell and Howell 8mm camera and tape recorder. Chris would go on to document such events as the great plastic dinosaur attack on Tornillo, GI Joe’s dramatic rescue of Barbie from a backyard mud pit and a massive toy train derailment caused by Godzilla. FULL BIO

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3 comments

  1. Jerry Higginbotham

    Even the people from Albuquerque will miss that great place to race. I know that I will miss the getting to go there a couple time a year. The great fans and racer always made the trip worth while. RIP El Paso Speedway Park

  2. Robert H Christian

    I leased Speedway Park from Willie in the 90’s, progressing from Motocross to Off Road Racing culminating in the Stock Car Scene. From that experience I found that it was a lot easier to handle 45 volleyball teenage girls squabble than the petty squabbles of Race Car Drivers. It was an experience that completely turned me off to racing all together.

  3. My Wife an went there for our honeymoon, She went into the stands (women were not allowed in the pits at that time) I went into the pits because I was working as a crew member . My how time has changed the last race at El Paso Speedway Park, We all were in the pits My Wife, My Daughter, Her Husband two of My Grand daughters one of who’s Husband drives My Wife’s and My Sprint Car THANK YOU El Paso Speedway for the memories gona miss Ya

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