By Mike Klingaman and Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
9:12 PM EDT, August 30, 2013
The race car — what's left of it — sits in a yard in Middle River, a rusty hulk entombed by weeds. The engine's gone; the tires rotted.
"It ain't very pretty to look at," Pete Kantorsky, Jr. said of the 1937 Ford. But one man's junk is another's treasure. Sitting by his old jalopy, which he drove at Dorsey Speedway in the 1960s, Kantorsky pats the side of the run-down stock car as a jockey might greet an aging racehorse.
"I see this car and I think about the good times and the bad," he said. Like the race in which he crashed into a fence and broke his shoulder. And the many races the Overlea native won during three decades of competing on dust-choked dirt tracks during the sport's heyday in Maryland.
Kantorsky, 85, is but one character in Maryland's long history with auto racing, a history that connects only tangentially to this weekend's third Grand Prix of Baltimore.
When it comes to motorsports, Maryland is no Indiana or North Carolina, states where major races are among the most anticipated dates on the sporting calendar. But since the early 20th century, pockets of local enthusiasts have maintained an under-the-radar passion for racing. Whether on a dirt track in Hagerstown or a drag strip in Mechanicsville, the sport lives among us.
Tim Mayer, the Grand Prix's general manager, said hardcore racing fans probably account for 10 to 15 percent of his audience. The event drew 131,000 over three days in 2012, and economic impact studies have found that about 75 percent came from Maryland. Organizers said they must market primarily to casual sports fans and festival goers.
"For the race to be successful, I cannot rely on a pure motorsports audience to be excited about it," Mayer said.
But he added that if the event remains in Baltimore for years, it could eventually create a new generation of fans, some of whom might funnel to the grass roots side of the sport embodied by dirt tracks and drag strips.
"I think it's a matter of time," he said. "You have to remember that the Indy 500 has been running for 100 years and the Daytona 500 for almost 60. But in Baltimore, the Grand Prix is the first major motorsports event of the modern era."
Pikesville resident Mike Levitas said he was surprised how many local fans he met once he started racing Porsches out of his TPC Racing shop in Jessup in the 1990s. He said he believes the Grand Prix can be a unifying event for Maryland gearheads.
"This area has got a huge amount of enthusiasm and club racers, and it has for years," said Levitas, who will drive his Porsche in the Grand Prix's IMSA GT3 Cup races on Saturday and Sunday. "The Grand Prix, and the camaraderie that goes along with it, could spark a lot more interest."
To this day, you can find live racing in the state just about any weekend between March and November, with some events drawing more than 10,000 fans.
A non-fan might assume the Grand Prix — which puts some of the planet's most talented drivers and most painstakingly engineered cars on local streets — would be manna from above for the state's racing lovers. But not necessarily. Motorsports encompasses many genres, and the walls between mom-and-pop racing and the high sheen of IndyCar are not always permeable.
"Probably a very small percentage of my audience would go there and vice versa," said Royce Miller, owner of Maryland International Raceway, the drag strip in St. Mary's County's Mechanicsville. "It's like sheepherders and cattlemen. They're both working with livestock, but that's where the similarity ends."
Racing in Maryland
Maryland's fascination with racing is nearly as old as the automobile itself. No sooner had cars hit the market than races were being run on horse tracks like Pimlico and two nearby ovals, Gentleman's Driving Park and Electric Park.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1900, in a two-auto race thought to be the first in Maryland, Thomas Goodwin of Baltimore climbed into a Locomobile steamer and chugged over the half-mile track at Electric Park in 3 minutes, 17 seconds.
"This, everybody must admit, was 'some going,' " The Sun wrote, though horses went faster.
In 1906, a five-mile event featuring the celebrated Barney Oldfield drew nearly 6,000 people to Pimlico. Two years later, six international drivers gathered at Old Hilltop for a 100-miler, but tragedy struck before the race began. During a test run, world record-holder Emmanuele Cedrino of Italy was killed when thrown from his Fiat Cyclone after a front wheel collapsed.
As a witness, patrolman Martin McGuire, told The Sun: "I was walking along Belvedere avenue when I saw an automobile leap at least 20 feet into the air. It turned two somersaults and a man shot out of it as if he were a piece of wood. The man fairly flew into the air, turned over and over and landed on the ground. I ran to the scene. The man was dead. Blood was pouring out of his head and his brains were lying on the ground."
The race went on. Cedrino remains the only known auto racing fatality in the Baltimore area.
Crowds suddenly flocked to the thoroughbred tracks as much to see horsepower as horses. Laurel Park, which opened in 1911, cashed in on the craze in its inaugural season, staging a novelty race featuring two cars, two horses and two foot runners.
Primitive machines caused mishaps. In 1922, a steering wheel came off during a race at Gentleman's Driving Park, sending the car hurtling through a fence at 60 miles an hour and injuring nine in the crowd of 3,000.
"A special match race for women was called off," The Sun wrote, "as the drivers lost their courage after the accident."
Not every race was legit. At dawn on July 22, 1920, two cars sped off down the Frederick Pike (Route 144) from Frederick en route to Ellicott City in a match race, traveling the 37-1/2 miles in 34 minutes and scaring the wits out of residents and livestock. Reportedly, more than $20,000 was bet on the outcome.
The area's first auto track — the Baltimore-Washington Speedway — opened near Laurel in 1925. Though short-lived, it was a wonder. Built entirely of two-by-fours, the 1-1/8-mile track banked on the curves at 48 degrees, then the steepest incline in the country. Dubbed the Laurel Pine Bowl, the $400,000 speedway staged two 250-mile world championships for which it drew 50,000 total fans, then went bankrupt.
"It was the one of the most impressive tracks ever built," said Maryland racing historian Larry Jendras, of Sykesville. "As the story goes, the dismantled wood was used to build horse stables at [Laurel Park]."
More modest was the Pikesville (nee Milford) Speedway which, at one-half mile, was the area's first dirt track constructed for stock car racing. Built in 1930 near what is now Sudbrook Middle School, it opened on a Sunday, in violation of the state's blue laws, struggled for five years and closed.
The post-World War II era triggered a racing boom in a region stuck with the minor-league Orioles and then-woebegone Colts. Dirt ovals popped up almost overnight, from Ritchie Speedway (Glen Burnie) to Dorsey (Howard County) to Condon (Eldersburg).
"Guys coming back from overseas wanted something to do, for fun, and racing fit right in," said Thomas "Buck" Guilfoy, 80, of Hebbville, who first competed in 1949. "Every corner gas station and every garage had a race car. You raced for bragging rights but for very little money.
"We loved (tinkering with) those cars. You'd see an old '39 Ford sitting on the corner, buy it for $25, take it home, rebuild it in a week and head to the track."
Early on, Guilfoy's safety gear consisted of a tank helmet from World War II and an army cartridge belt, minus the ammunition. He raced over parts of four decades and was a regular at Westport Stadium, a Negro League ballpark on Old Annapolis Road which added a tricky one-fifth mile track in 1950. Westport's crash rails were telephone poles laid sideways, which didn't stop Julius "Junior" Tauber from once spinning into the dugout.
"When they pulled my car out, the front end stayed (on the bench)," said Tauber, 88, of Linthicum.
Westport's hairpin turns helped groom Johnny Roberts (Brooklyn Park) and Ken Marriott (Baltimore), who went on to be NASCAR national champions. Roberts, who died in a crash on a Pennsylvania track in 1965, was also a deft mechanic, said Tauber.
"When my car started losing power on turns, Johnny looked at it," he said. "He took the top off of the carburetor, grabbed a spring and threw it away. The car ran fine after that."
Come Saturday night, as many as 7,000 fans flocked to Westport to see ordinary Joes square off in souped-up sedans with snazzy graphics, guys like Charles "Pee Wee" Pobletts of Randallstown and Marion "Ace" Canupp of Millersville. For several years in the 1950s, WAAM (Ch. 13) televised the races. Accidents were a given.
"Once, after a wreck, Ace came home with a piece of his car in his pocket but no idea how it got there," his wife, Janie Canupp said. "The Lord has taken care of him."
Eventually, stock car racing ran its course due to land development, noise ordinances and the like. Declining attendance led Westport to close in 1963. Dorsey lingered until 1985 and celebrated its passing with a 100-car demolition derby.
But men like Kantorsky, Guilfoy and the rest gather annually to talk of old times.
"It wasn't dog-eat-dog like today," said former driver Chuck Talbert, 80, of Owings Mills, referring to the Grand Prix. "Some of those cars racing in the Inner Harbor must cost nearly $1 million. If we had $1,000 in our cars, it was a lot."
That some of those 80-somethings have kept their old heaps isn't surprising, said Al Torney of Annapolis, director of the Maryland Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame.
"Their cars are their scrapbooks," he said.
Keeping racing alive
Listen to the men and women who keep Maryland racing alive these days, and the stories aren't so different. Some caught the bug from their fathers, others when they were teenagers, speeding around in search of girls to impress.
"Your car was like a peacock," said Miller, owner of Maryland International Raceway. "Your social status was very much tied to the set of wheels you had."
He got his first job at a Northern Virginia service station when he was 14 and raced his '69 Camaro at local raceways.
"And now I own a racetrack," he said, laughing as he reflected on a life that has taken him all over the country as a drag racer.
Miller's Mechanicsville track will host 108 days of racing this year, everything from jet-powered skateboards to a mechanical dinosaur that can pick up a car and bite it in half. He expects a total attendance of around 200,000.
"We might not have the broad percentage interest that you have in Charlotte, North Carolina or someplace like that," said the 58-year-old track owner. "But we have enough population here that we can do pretty good numbers."
Lisa Plessinger inherited management of the 66-year-old Hagerstown Speedway from her father, Frank. She remembers racers speeding around the red clay surface in the era when there were no guard rails and they might careen into adjacent Conococheague Creek.
The technology is better these days, but she'll still attract 3,000 people on a good night, with more coming from Pennsylvania and West Virginia than from Maryland. Her fans remain loyal to American brands such as Chevy, Ford and Dodge and she can't imagine many trekking to Baltimore to watch open-wheeled racers that resemble rocket ships as much as everyday sedans.
"It's almost as big a difference as, I don't know, football and lacrosse," Plessinger said. "Most of our fans, they're not as interested in something they haven't had their hands on."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun