Manzanita Raceway was a nationally known dirt racetrack that attracted top drivers for almost six decades until closing in 2009.

Life in the Fast Lane

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: August 2017
Group Free
Pin It
AZ Sand & Rock Team at Manzanita Speedway in 1952.

Before the Valley hosted major league teams in luxurious stadiums, local sports fans reveled in homegrown competitions filled with motor-induced drama and dust. Phoenix was a hotbed of auto racing, with more than a half-dozen raceways constructed after World War II.  These speedways were modest facilities with dirt tracks and wooden grandstands. What the racetracks lacked in glitz, the drivers made up for in racing action. Split-second decisions behind the wheel could be the difference between winning and losing – or life and death, in the days when safety equipment consisted of goggles and a leather helmet.

The most prominent track in the state was Manzanita Speedway, which featured many drivers who went on to race in the Indianapolis 500. Located at Broadway Road and 35th Avenue in a county island surrounded by Phoenix, the track became famous as the site of the Western World Championships, the last jewel in the sprint-car Triple Crown. “Manzanita was an institution and destination for any racer worth his wheels,” fan Jeff Giroux says. “There were so many personalities among the drivers, and even the cars had their individual personas. There will never be another track like it with such magnetism.”

But the legendary speedway only came about because another business had gone to the dogs, so to speak.

Manzanita Park opened as a greyhound racing track in 1949. The Arizona Racing Commission, however, denied future racing dates on technicalities later that year. A subsequent transformation turned the venue into an auto speedway. “The first time I was there, the betting windows were still in place from the dog racing days,” racing fan Hal Branham says.

Entrance to Manzanita Speedway; 1952 program. Photos courtesy the Arizona Open Wheel Racing Museum

The track became the new home of the Arizona Jalopy Racing Association, which was looking for a better deal than it had at South Mountain Speedway. “The drivers were supposed to get a percentage of the gate, but the official attendance didn’t jive with what we could see in the stands,” former driver Ted Bloomquist says. “Some thought that the promoter, Ernie Mohammed, was giving the shaft to us, so we bolted for Manzanita.”

Manzanita Park opened to a standing-room-only crowd of almost 4,000 on August 25, 1951. Then-19-year-old Bloomquist drove his 1934 Ford as one of the 52 jalopies on opening night. “Everything was a blur to me,” he says. “I remember that it was hot. I won my heat race, but I cracked up in the main event and didn’t finish.”

Airborne sprint car on the track. Photos courtesy the Arizona Open Wheel Racing Museum 

To entice the crowds back the following week, Manzanita Park featured stuntman Jack Holloway standing on the hood of a car as it raced through a wall of fire. By the third week, with the addition of a new clay racing surface, the park was advertised as “the fastest quarter-mile track in Arizona.”

Manzanita Park, which was renamed Manzanita Speedway in 1965, became the place to race sprint cars, modified stock cars, midget cars (see sidebar) and bikes in Arizona for the next 58 years. Local drivers Bobby Ball, Art Bisch, Jimmy Bryan, Bill Cheesbourg and Roger McCluskey honed their skills there, while legends such as A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen and Al Unser Jr. visited and raced at the track.

Manzanita produced racing talent because it was a big, high-speed, slick, banked track that required a lot of finesse to negotiate. Racers made it look easy, but it wasn’t. “It’s like flying a plane without leaving the ground,” driver Rickey Hood says. Racing success is split evenly between the driver and the car, he adds. “A driver can make up for a lot of things, but if you don’t get the mechanics right, you might as well leave the race car on the trailer.”

The racing at Manzanita wasn’t always only testosterone-fueled, as the track was a pioneer in providing opportunities for women, mostly wives of the drivers. The first Powder Puff race was held in 1951 and the ladies’ times were impressive. “Hubby better watch out, for these gals are so good, that it is not uncommon to find the wife posting a faster qualifying time in the trials than the husband,” said Bill Close, the track’s first announcer and later a local television news anchor, in an early race program.

In 1952, Manzanita had special match races pitting the four top women point leaders against their husbands, which was thought to be the first time in the country that the sexes had competed against each other on a track. The ladies won three of the four races for bragging rights.

The action wasn’t only confined to the track, as the crowds experienced more than the roar of the engines. Steve DeWalt bought a bumper sticker at Manzanita in the late 1980s that declared, “If you don’t have dirt in your beer you’re not at a real race.” Spectators often came suitably attired. “Some nights, so much mud was thrown into the stands from the track that when fans took off their goggles, they looked like possums,” Hood says.

Mud can be fun; airborne auto parts, not so much. “One night a tire flew over the fence near the pit gate and landed on the roof of my 1952 Lincoln,” fan Joe Agnew says. “I had to get in the back seat and push the dent out with my feet.”

Some spectators had safer vantage points. Nearby neighbors would watch from their roofs or peek through the fence. “I lived a couple of blocks away,” retired City of Phoenix employee Robert Parra says. “At night, while in bed, it seemed as if the race cars were inside my bedroom. I loved it!”

Dirt Track Racing Terms 
Jalopy 

An older, inexpensive, closed-wheel street car
Modified stock car 
A closed-wheel street car highly modified to increase safety and speed 
Sprint car 
A single-seat, open-wheel race car with high horsepower and fast speed
Midget car 
A scaled-down sprint car

Manzanita briefly expanded into other forms of entertainment, including hosting a raucous concert featuring Alice Cooper and Canned Heat in 1972. “The crowd outside got unruly and started to push over the chain-link fence to get in free and started throwing bottles,” Phoenix native and retired train dispatcher Brian Amerman says. “My buddy and I climbed over the fence to get out.”

The constant at Manzanita was William “Windy” McDonald, who was the track’s official announcer for more than 50 years. McDonald, who passed away in 2016, studied racing and its society. “Every night, he’d visit us as we were unloading our cars in the pits, and learn about the latest activities,” Hood says. “He knew more about us than we did.”

Despite Manzanita’s continued success, it was shut down with little warning in 2009. The site was sold to Southwest Industrial Rigging, which converted it to an equipment storage facility. “Manzanita broke a lot of hearts when it closed,” Hood says. “It probably all comes down to money. It didn’t have to go, but it did.”

The demise of Manzanita Speedway severed the last link to the Golden Age of Motorsports in Phoenix. “It was a different era; auto racing didn’t have other professional sports to compete with for customers,” muses Pam Lambert, formerly of the Arizona Open Wheel Racing Museum. “It was just a few bucks to get in, and pit passes were probably five bucks. Safety equipment and insurance weren’t major costs, which are huge bills for the speedways today.”

The loss of Manzanita Speedway won’t change the impact it had on fans such as Don Burns, who fondly recalls buying cans of Schlitz beer for a quarter there with a buddy, even though they were only 16 in the early 1960s. “It was the sound, the smell of the fuel, and the dust that made it the most precious time of our lives.”

Being able to hail the beer vendor for another cold one when you’re underage didn’t hurt, either.

Photos courtesy the Arizona Open Wheel Racing Museum