Soldier Field, located hard on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, only blocks from the iconic skyscrapers of Chicago, will forever be known primarily as the home of the Chicago Bears and one of the National Football League’s landmark stadiums.
It comes as a surprise to many, however, that Soldier Field also has a long and strong history in auto racing. Yes, auto racing.
A cinder track was built inside the stadium in the 1930s. It later was paved, and several varieties of motorsports were contested on the surface until the 1960s. Included was one visit by what is now the NASCAR Cup Series—on July 21, 1956, 15 years before the Bears moved into Soldier Field. Photos shot in the 1950s show stock cars circling the track with the stadium’s huge grandstands and columns in the background—a weird sight for those whose perspective of Soldier Field is limited to football.
It seems almost impossible to imagine today, but back in that other time, the stadium was the place to be on weekend nights as stock-car racers put on wildly entertaining shows for the assembled throngs.
“It was a remarkably different place,” said Art Fehrman Jr., whose father raced on the Soldier Field track. “The thing I’ll never forget as a spectator is being on the front row on the wall. My hands were right on the wall, and I was looking down on the roofs of the cars as they whizzed by.”
Yes, there was even some banking (but not much of a safety fence) at Soldier Field’s racing layout.
Fehrman, who is the director of the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame, has collected photographs and artifacts of Soldier Field’s racing days. His father, in addition to driving on the track, served as a flagman and had other official duties there. Andy Granatelli, who later put together the expansive NASCAR sponsorship deal that matched Richard Petty and STP and who became a central figure at the Indianapolis 500, was a key player in Soldier Field racing.
An active promoter in the Chicago area, Granatelli scheduled weekly and sometimes twice-weekly stock-car racing programs at the stadium in the 1950s, in the process attracting tens of thousands of fans with rock ’em, sock ’em shows that typically featured numerous crashes and wild action, some of it staged, much like professional wrestling.
Tom Pistone, who raced at NASCAR’s top level, was a part of Granatelli’s Soldier Field stock-car extravaganzas.
“Granatelli had five guys on his payroll whose job was to wreck you,” said Pistone, who was raised on the north side of Chicago but later moved to North Carolina to be closer to NASCAR’s heartland. “He called his crashers ‘booger’ artists. Guys got paid to roll and flip their cars. It was crazy racing, but it brought out the people.”
There was plenty of blocking and tackling at Soldier Field, even before the Bears moved in.
Granatelli’s programs typically included four heat races, a semi-main and a 25-lap main event—plenty of opportunities for mayhem. On good nights, the crowd surpassed 30,000. Advertisements for the races guaranteed “DANGER! THRILLS CHILLS SPILLS.” And the price was right: usually one or two bucks per person. Fans poured into the stadium on subway trains and buses.
John Carollo, a Soldier Field racing fan and later—briefly—a driver there, said the track was flat and challenging. “It was like any short track, very tough,” he said. “The big, thick concrete wall—it was 8 or 9 feet tall—got big and came at you in a hurry. You wondered if you’d make it out of the turn or eat the guardrail on the inside.”
NASCAR drivers wandered to the Midwest to try out the unique form of racing.
“I was used to running all these little fairgrounds tracks,” said Rex White, NASCAR Cup champion in 1960. “I’ll never forget driving there with those huge grandstands. It was overwhelming.”
The weekly fields at the stadium were populated by an ever-changing cast of drivers from the Chicago suburbs and beyond. Numerous “speed shops” and hot-rod garages opened in the region in the post-World War II years, fueling interest in fast cars and racing.
Soldier Field became a gathering place for budding racers, their friends and assorted hangers-on. It was better, and generally safer, than racing in the streets.
“It was very interesting racing, especially with the big wall on the outside and the guardrail on the inside,” said Fred Jacobi Jr., who worked as an official at the track along with his father. “To pass, you pretty much had to move somebody out of the way or halfway crash them. It was dangerous at times.
“The way the track was, people didn’t care if there were wrecks. It sold a lot of parts. In the early 1950s, they’d pack the place. It was something new for people there. They typically had 20,000 to 30,000 fans and probably 70,000 to 80,000 for special races.”
Granatelli, a larger-than-life figure, was in the center of it all. He made Soldier Field a racing hotbed and a popular weekend spot for entertainment, even for spectators who might have little interest in racing.
“When you have something good, no matter where it is, they’ll go wherever you got it,” said Granatelli, who died in 2013, in a 2007 interview. “Why should I do it at some rinky-dink track when I can do it in the best place in the world?”
Sal Tovella raced there often. A Chicago driver and Soldier Field track champion in 1963, he won the final race at the track in 1968. “It was a different time,” Tovella said. “Andy did a great job. He did a lot of advertising, and there was a lot of coverage in the papers. The city was all for it. Everybody liked stock-car racing at Soldier Field. It was the big thing then.”
Pistone and Tovella raced in the 1956 Cup event at Soldier Field. Fireball Roberts was the winner. NASCAR also scheduled three races for its old Convertible Division there, with Glen Wood, Curtis Turner and Pistone scoring victories.
Don’t expect the Chicago Bears to give up a Sunday for a NASCAR race at Soldier Field anytime soon.
Pistone attached himself to the fast- car culture. He was a regular at Soldier Field and remembers picking up bonus money from Granatelli for flipping his car and other off-the-wall activities.
“It was hard there,” he said. “Andy started the fastest cars in the rear and started them three-abreast. You had to come from the rear. It was a wild place.”
Pistone now lives near Charlotte but remains in touch with many of the old-timers he raced for and against at Soldier Field and in the greater Chicago area. He often returns for reunions, although many of the stadium’s early racers have passed on. Why did racing end at the giant stadium? Opinions differ.
“One version is that a bunch of people complained about the noise,” Carollo said. “I don’t buy into that. It was on the lake. No one lived there. Another is that the city’s park district decided it wasn’t worth it. It cost a lot just to open the stadium, and a lot of short tracks were being built nearby.”
Some drivers with Soldier Field experience eventually moved on to those other area tracks and then on to NASCAR. Among them were Pistone and Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen. In 2001, big-time racing returned with the opening of Chicagoland Speedway in nearby Joliet.
The cars still go in circles and the noise is still loud, but somehow it isn’t the same.
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