Trenton, New Jersey, was once a great blue collar manufacturing town and produced everything from the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Mercer automobile, Van Camps Pork and Beans, cigars, Horsman dolls and much more – why one local Trenton bridge has the city’s famous slogan lit up even today, “Trenton Makes – The World Takes.”
Never mind that we used to say, “What the World Refuses – Trenton Uses,” that’s the city where I was born, and though I didn’t live there long, I still remember the sounds of the factory whistles and church bells, the aroma of fresh bread wafting from nearby bakeries, coal chute deliveries and the safe and bustling downtown area with five movie theatres and busy shops of every description.
Unfortunately, except for the sign, it’s all long gone save for state government buildings, but there was another sound that I remember just outside of city limits in the township of Hamilton, on the N.J. State Fairgrounds, about a half-mile from my grandma’s house. If the wind was just right and I was sitting on Grandma Riggs’ Greenwood Ave. front porch, those AAA Champ cars sounded like they were right there instead of a short distance away circling Trenton Speedway’s one-mile dirt oval that opened in 1946, replacing the former half-mile configuration.
Closer yet was a Chinnick Ave. home on the back stretch of the track where one of my mom’s friends lived, along with her son who was my age. Just little kids, we’d play in the backyard and watch the harness racing trotters warming up on the dirt surface but would be at the fence when the race cars came calling.
When my dad built a new home across the Delaware River in Yardley, Pa., just 20 minutes away was Lady Langhorne, the one-mile dirt circle (not really an oval) known in the racing world as Langhorne Speedway with its perpetual broadslides and a big dip known as “Puke Hollow.”
If you loved dirt track Champ cars back then, living where I lived doubled the pleasure, with two of the nation’s better-known tracks local. We went to almost every NASCAR, AAA and USAC race on the calendar and each track delivered its own brand of excitement, me over the moon that all the famous drivers I’d read about were dicing it out live! I do recall in 1956 being extremely disappointed at a Trenton rainout, and there were Thunderbirds and Corvettes coming in off the track with great clods of mud caked into the fenderwells. To this day, I have no idea what race it was. I do know that when the track opened for the 1957 season it was newly paved and I didn’t like it as much.
There in 1958 I saw Fred Lorenzen win a USAC stock car race and in September of that year sadly watched Jimmy Reese catapult out of the track, with the Bowes Seal Fast Spl. cut in two on impact, Reese dying on the way to the hospital.
Langhorne might have been even more treacherous, but an early memory was riding in my older cousin’s ’55 Chevy Bel Air to the Sept. 1955 NASCAR 250-miler where I saw the famous Kiekhaefer Chrysler 300s with Tim Flock the winner in one, a driver I interviewed for my book “Flat Out Racing” 40 years later. He recalled that race and told me how tough a place Langhorne was.
There too, I saw a driver die, the 1958 Indy “500” winner Jimmy Bryan in a June 1960 USAC Champ car race, the sick feeling when the place went silent and the crowd talking in hushed whispers, a distinct and lasting memory.
Mostly my soft spot for those track days comes not for the hero drivers I met and who risked their necks for fans like me, but rather for the extra time I got to spend with my dad, because of the magic elixir of rubber, methanol and hot Castrol R brought us together in shared hours we might not otherwise have had. Thanks to Trenton and Langhorne for that.