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 own 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.
The track became the new home of the Arizona Jalopy Racing, which was looking for a better deal than it had at South Mountain Speedway. Jalopy was a stock car class that used older, inexpensive street vehicles. “The drivers were supposed to get a percentage of the gate, but the official attendance didn’t jibe 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.
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, and motorbikes in Arizona for the next 58 years. Local drivers Bobby Ball, Art Bisch, Jimmy Bryan, Bill Cheesbourg, and Roger McCluskey honed their skills there. At the same time, legends such as A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen, and Al Unser Jr. visited and raced at the track.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2022 issue, Vol. 11, No. 1.