Thousands of people drive along part of a once-grand racetrack used by some of the top race car drivers of their era – and don’t even know it. The Tacoma Speedway’s legacy is largely lost to history since nothing of the track remains. That is, except for the track’s route, which loops through what is now Lakewood’s commercial core.
The Tacoma Speedway operated between 1912 and 1922 on a track that raced from the grandstands that is now Steilacoom Boulevard before then turning onto Gravelly Lake Drive, over to 112th Street and down Lakeview Avenue back to Steilacoom Boulevard. It rivaled the best tracks on the circuit because it offered the largest purses in hopes of drawing top racers to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.
News and race results from Tacoma Speedway once splashed across newspapers around the nation. It was a national attraction that has all but disappeared from the public’s collective consciousness.
“There are even Lakewood people who don’t know about it,” Lakewood Historical Society board member Glen Spieth said.
The Lakewood History Museum has displays telling the story of the once-famous raceway, complete with a scale model of a section of track, blueprints, and photos of races and iconic drivers who left rubber on its roadway, namely “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff, Earl Cooper, Eddie Rickenbacker and Barney Oldfield.
The five-mile track took shape when the president of the Tacoma Automobile Association Arthur Pitchard gathered enough investors to build an all-dirt track in time for the first races to be held on July 5, 1912. Tetzlaff headlined with much fanfare and a bit of controversy. He had allegedly been “kidnapped” the day before the race and held in a Tacoma brothel before a ransom was paid. He, however, was enjoying his “captivity” among the soiled doves of the establishment and had to be convinced to leave.
The race that first year drew large crowds. Tickets sales funded track changes, first to a tighter 3.5-mile course in 1913, then down to a 2-mile track the following year. The shorter course was roughly what is now Steilacoom Boulevard and Gravelly Lake Drive to 100th, then back to Lakeview. The grandstand mushroomed up in 1914, and the dirt track was replaced by a board track in 1915.
An interesting fact about the track is that the boards were placed on their edges instead of being placed side by side. The gaps between the boards were packed with gravel and dirt to save on lumber costs. The cost-saving measure meant that the track was notorious for spaying cars with splinters and gravel as well as popping more than its fair share of tires. It was not unheard of for cars to crash after hitting support joints of ruts between the boards.
Two fatalities marred a 250-mile automobile race held in 1915, according to Tacoma Daily Ledger newspaper reports. Driver Billy “Coal Oil” Carlson and his mechanic Paul Franzan were killed by a tire blowout on an 18-foot banked curve. The force of the blowout stripped the rubber from the wheel, causing the rim to catch one of the ruts between the boards. The car went airborne. Since cars didn’t have seatbelts – or really any safety features to speak of – Carlson and Franzan took flight as well. Franzan hit a stump and died instantly. Carlson died the next day of internal injuries. Driver Conrad Hanson would die in a similar accident while racing his Hudson around the Tacoma Speedway two years later.
The war years of 1918 and 1919 brought patriotism to the speedway, with red, white and blue banners decorating the grandstands and cars flying all the flags of the forces fighting against Germany.
But the track’s future was short lived when the war ended. An arsonist left the grandstands in ashes in 1920. New grandstands, with some seats covered by a roof, were built, but the speedway’s fate was already at the finish line.
The last races were held in 1922. That year, driver Wells Bennet set a new 24-hour endurance record on a motorcycle during a publicity event at the track. He rode 1,562.54 miles, averaging 65.1 mph on a stock Henderson, stopping only for fuel, oil checks and brief rest to shatter Erwin “Cannonball” Baker’s seven-year record by 28 miles.
The end of racing in Tacoma didn’t mean the end of the track, though. The infield of the oval track became the landing strip for the Mueller-Harkins Airport, which was then commandeered by the federal government during World War II as the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Naval Advance Base. The land is now Clover Park Technical College.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Tacoma Speedway can visit the Lakewood History Museum at 6211 Mount Tacoma Drive SW in Lakewood. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4:00 p.m.