Friday, July 27, 2012

Birmingham's Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - Episode #3

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated - December 29, 2015

Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - 1914
Birmingham, AL. Public Library Archives
O. V. Hunt Collection
The other day I was reading the Birmingham News and came across an article about a political battle brewing around the use of the old Alabama State Fairgrounds property. Seems they want to build another big box store on the site. Few folks in Birmingham know it, but the raceway which was located on this site for over one hundred years played a very important role in early history of motorcycle racing. It's time to tell the story, so it's not lost!

If you ride down Bessemer Road in the Five Points West neighborhood of Birmingham, AL., you come across a several acre bare plot of land, that was formally the site of the Alabama State Fairgrounds.  This is also the site of the old Fairgrounds Raceway. The original one mile dirt oval was used as a horse racing track until 1907.

Alabama State Fairgrounds
Site Map
Motorcycle racing in Birmingham began with a single race held at the Fairgrounds track on April 2, 1906. Eight riders competed in the race, which was won by a Birmingham rider named Jenkins.

Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review
April 7, 1906
On July 4, 1907, the track held their first motorcycle race sponsored by the newly formed Birmingham Motorcycle Club. Club president Robert Stubbs riding an Indian won all five races.

Bicycling World an Motorcycle Review - July 13, 1907
Robert Stubbs, became the driving force for early motorcycling in Birmingham. He went on to set a world motorcycle speed record at Ormond Beach, Florida as a member of the Indian Factory Racing Team in 1909, and was the Birmingham Indian Motocycle dealer for many years.

Robert Stubbs - Ormond Beach, Florida 1909
Chris Price@Archive Moto
 Motorcycle races were held there until shortly after World War 1. In the teens, motorcycle racing on the board and dirt tracks throughout the country, was one of the most popular spectator sports. Despite the danger to both racers and spectators, the motorcycle races became very popular in Birmingham drawing large crowds of spectators.

Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - July 4, 1911
Chris Price@Archive Moto - Motorcycle Illustrated July 13, 1914

Amateur Race Start
Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway
Birmingham, AL Public Library Archives

They came to see the countries' leading professional racers compete on the one mile dirt oval. The track featured a modern covered grandstand down the front stretch. Birmingham became a popular spot with professional motorcycle racers from across the country. They would spend their winters in Birmingham sharpening their racing skills.

In 1912, Birmingham native Gene Walker entered his first motorcycle race at the Fairgrounds. At the time, Walker delivered mail on his motorcycle  for the Birmingham Post Office. He raced at the Fairgrounds Raceway, as an amateur for the next two years.

Gene Walker - 1914

Walker gained a reputation as the man to beat at the Birmingham track. He honed his racing skills against the professionals racers, who relocated to Birmingham for winters. His talent was recognized by the local Indian Motorcycle Company dealer Bob Stubbs, who put him on a new 8 valve Indian racer.
In October 1914, Walker entered his first professional race at the Fairgrounds Raceway. He was able to run with the lead pack, led briefly, and set a new track record. The race was won by Harley-Davidson's new factory rider Red Parkhurst, but the results were protested. Parkhurst's win was later upheld, giving Harley-Davidson their first ever win in a National Championship Race. This win was used in their advertising for the 1915 models.

Harley-Davidson Ad - December 1914

Walker would go on to be an Indian Factory rider, set the first official motorcycle land speed records, and become one of the top motorcycle racers in the country. He was tragically killed in a racing accident in 1924.

Motorcycle racing continued at the Fairgrounds until just after World War 1, when the focus shifted to automobile racing.  The dirt track was shortened in the 1930s. In 1961 it was paved over, and renamed Birmingham International Raceway. A total of eight NASCAR races, many dominated by the Allison brothers Alabama Gang, were held at the Raceway from 1958 until 1968. The Raceway continued to operate, but gradually fell in disrepair. Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford proposed relocating the Raceway in 2008 and it was demolished in 2009. It had been in continuous use at that site for over eighty years.

One icon of the early  Fairgrounds Raceway survives today. In 1904, Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti cast an iron statute of Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire, in Birmingham for exhibition at the upcoming  Worlds Fair in St Louis. After the Fair ended, the statute was returned to Birmingham and reassembled at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. The statute remained at the Fairgrounds Raceway until the 1930s, when it was moved to it's current location a top Red Mountain. This iconic symbol of Birmingham's industrial past over looks the city today. It is the largest cast iron statute in the world.

Vulcan Statute at Alabama state Fairgrounds - Birmingham, AL.
Birmingham Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection
That raceway is gone now. It has been stripped away, leaving only an empty dirt lot. Soon it will be paved over in favor of progress, and all that happened there will be lost to time. I walked the site a few months ago. Little was left, just a few bits of broken concrete. I couldn't help but think of those early days. What was it like to sit in those grandstands a century ago? The deafening roar of the bikes drowning out a crowd of thousands cheering for their favorite rider, as they tore around the track at break neck speed, seemingly oblivious to the life and death struggle they were in.

Alabama State Fairgrounds
Raceway Site - 2012


Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review

Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection

Chris Price@Archive Moto

Motorcycle Illustrated

Johnny Whitsett Collection

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