|Motorsports In The Town of Kirkwood
Kirkwood Speedway, Kirkwood Airport Speedway, Five Mile Point Speedway
Gary “AJ” George Ph.D., Prof. Eng. , Elwood Derr Town Historian, Grant Buck and
Many Other Researchers
The history of motorsports in the Town of Kirkwood can be best viewed in three separate
periods of time. Those include: The Kirkwood Speedway (1938 – 1941), The Kirkwood
Airport Speedway (1949 – 1950) and Five Mile Point Speedway (1951 – present).
Automobile racing in the Southern Tier was conducted before any race facilities were
built in the Town of Kirkwood. The Binghamton Industrial Exposition (1903 - 1928)
staged automotive events with full racing from 1924 till 1928 at Stow Flats Speedway.
Another track was Bennett Field (1935) located in the site that is now Otsiningo Park,
Broome Community College and I-81. Big Cars (sprint cars) were the racing class. The
promoter was the famous carnival owner James E. Strates. Morris Farms (1936) was in
Conklin on upper Conklin Road across from the Susquehanna Valley School and also
ran big cars. The track was supposed to be a mile and a half long, consisting of eight
curves and patterned after the Roosevelt Raceway. Three races were scheduled in July
and October of 1936. One Big Car race took place Sunday, October 4, 1936 on a half
mile track. The race was won by Clarence Schaffer of Binghamton, a driver that
competed at numerous local tracks. The Tri-Cities Speedway (1938 – 1939) was located
in Campville. Racing at the Campville track terminated in 1938 due to safety concerns
with the large crowds using the unprotected railroad crossing. In that season the racers
had both the Kirkwood Speedway and Campville to race at. Almost all racing nationwide
was suspended during WW2.
This was a half mile dirt track owned and managed by E. M. Benjamin , a well known
land owner in the town. Owen Heath the brother of future 5 Mile Point Speedway
visionary and founder Irv Heath was heavily involved in the track. Heath and Al Abair
handled promotional duties as well as Benjamin. Big car racing was the featured
attraction with motorcycles, thrill shows, carnivals and quarter horse racing being
presented. Stock cars in the form of cut down roadsters called jalopies were held here as
early as 1939 on at least one occasion. The big cars, horses and motorcycle competition
alternating each week. Horse racing was popular during the late 30’s when the
motorcycles did not run. Captain Jimmy Smith brought his popular thrill show to the
track July 23, 1938 as a special event.
Portions of the track were located roughly where the Kirkwood Riverside Park sits today.
Track entry was off Bridge Street. Also, portions of turns one and two were buried under
by the highway that connects Route 11 with Route 7 on the east side of the
Susquehanna River. The front straightaway and small wooden bleacher grandstand were
parallel to the river while the back straight ran parallel to Main Street in Kirkwood.
Many spectators lined the outside fence and perched on their cars. Canvas sheets were
put in turns 1 and 2 so that people could not view the races free from Bridge Street. The
track was lined with railroad ties. No known remnants of this old track exist today.
Over 3000 fans attended opening day on Aug 28, 1938 to see Amos Murphy in a 4 port
Riley win the feature event. He was followed by Hank Bruning and Clarance Shafer. Due
to slippery conditions on the new track the fast time was lower than expected at 29.4
seconds by Murphy. The first year was a short season. The track in the following years
drew great crowds (a Binghamton Press story reported that 3,000 people saw Al Newton
of Syracuse win a 30 lapper at Kirkwood on May 14, 1939). The crowds were even bigger
for the June 19, 1939 meet with over 4000 fans. Speeds increased with the addition of
calcium chloride to the track in 1937 with times in the 27’s that was a very fast 67 MPH
1939 Opening Season Ad in The National Speed Sport News 1939
Every meet brought new drivers traveling around to different tracks to make some
money. Those drivers included Speed McFee (Indianapolis), Bob Gardiner (Providence,
RI), Ed Zulucki (Detroit), George Lewis (Boston), Hugh Tobias (Higgins, Pa.) and Hank
Gritback (Schenectady). They came into race with the great local “gas bugey’s” (as they
were described by the local media) driven by Bill Owen, Ed Bennett, Amos Hill, and Les
Eddie Zalucki and Johnny Gallet, Fierce Opponents in 1939
to name a few. Lee Wallard a future Indy 500 winner made appearances during the 1939
season. These future greats generally found the competition tough much to the local fan’
The track ran until WW2 under the sanction of a local racing club, the Southern Tier
Racing Club (STRC). The club had been formed by a number of racers looking to provide
organization to racing in the late ‘30s and treat racing as a sport. Included were Harry
Sentz, Bill Owen, Don Strong and Dusty Doyle. Sentz, Owen and Strong would
establish the Shangri-La Speedway. Dusty would become a key part of The Five Mile
Point Speedway well into the ‘80’s as a very colorful announcer.
Hank Bruning in the potent Smullen 48 Special (killed at Tunkhanock, Pa.)
During the short history Of Kirkwood Speedway not one driver dominated with so many
drivers winning. Les Schafer as a local favorite won several features and many central NY
drivers won their share. Surprisingly there were no fatal crashes. May of ’39 saw the
worst crash with fan favorite Johnny Freitz being critically injured in a spectacular series
of roll overs that ended with the car landing on him. John Hart suffered a broken back
in 1940 but otherwise cuts and bruises were the norm.
With the ending of WWII many American soldiers who came back from overseas had
seen the world, as well as the horrors of war. They were no longer content with weekend
barbecues and Friday night bowling. For many returning vets there was a sense of
adventure and excitement that they had experienced during their war exposure. Some of
this was focused toward dangerously fast motorcycles, airplanes and fast cars.
Visionaries like Bill Owen, a Johnson City businessman and racer, saw an opportunity
to supply an outlet for this energy and provide a structured form of entertainment. He
built the Shangri-La Super Speedway in Owego in 1946. The Kirkwood Speedway did
not reopen due to the devastating floods that had hit the track area. Owego became the
local motorsports attraction featured the Big Cars (under STRA sanction) and midgets.
But, there was something new on the horizon in the late ‘40’s.….stock cars were
becoming very popular all over America. But first the Kirkwood Airport Speedway that
raced motorcycles and quarter horses.
Kirkwood Airport Speedway
Unfortunately there is very little paper coverage or documentation on this track.
According to some residents the track was located midway down main street in
Kirkwood. The track would be located in an area that is near the Kirkwood Historical
Museum. The track was a small ¼ mile. After WW2 according to long time residents
there was an air field on the flat area of the town park today thus the track name.
The track had a number of motorcycle races conducted by the Southern Tier Motorcycle
Riders Club (a JC based organization) under the American Motorcycle Association
sanction. Quarter horse racing was also conducted on numerous occasions in 1949 and ’
Ad in Binghamton Press 1950
Five Mile Point Speedway
By the late ‘40’s open cockpit racing was being plagued by terrible crashes and high
costs to run and maintain racing machines. Many drivers were very bold but did not
have the talents and paid a heavy price. The Offy motor and special drive components
were very expensive pushing out the backyard racers.
In the early ‘50’s there was an abundance of pre-war coupes and sedans since everyone
was buying new fast modern vehicles. Any garage or backyard racer could strip down
these older cars and go racing. It was cheap and much safer than the big cars with the
lower speeds and full bodies. At the same time the hot rod, jalopy and drag racing
movement was in place in the western US. After market products for stock motors
(Crane, Iskendarian etc.) were used to make these “strictly stock” race cars into modified
During the early ‘50’s tracks begin to appear all over the area featuring jalopies (street
cars), B-class stock cars (somewhat modified limited to 300 cubic inch motors) and fully
modified stock cars. Glen Aubrey, Airport Speedway (Penn Can today) and Five Mile
Point Speedway were built and opened in the early 50’s.
Irv Heath saw the need for a race track close to the Binghamton area that could support
this new form of racing. Irv was a brother to Owen that had the Kirkwood Speedway. Irv
ran a construction company that facilitated the building of the track. The new track
opened on July 13, 1951 at its current location after the initial opener a week earlier
was rained out. The track is the second longest continually weekly running track in NY
with Middletown only longer. The Heath family is probably the longest owner of a single
race track in the entire US.
Every area had a stock car club with different and confusing rules. Two clubs would rise
to the top in the southern tier in 1950: The Southern Tier Stock Car Club (STSCC) and
The Finger Lakes Roadster Association (FLRA) later known as the Finger Lakes Racing
Association (FLRA). For Five Mile Point the STSCC would be the main sanctioning body
during the 50’s and early 60’s. In 1950 a group of drivers, mechanics and car owners
organized into the STSCC to race at area tracks. They had been sanctioning events at
Shangri-La in the 1950 season. The cars were almost strictly stock that kept costs down
resulting in large car entries. For a long time every garage, gas station and backyard had
race cars with the famous STSCC lettered over the back window.
Some of the big car (sprint cars) owners and drivers migrated over to the stock cars such
as “Hoop” Singer and Walt Craver. Most had success in the stock cars.
The first winner Art Polenz went on to win many races at the Point as well as other
Art Polenz Wins the First Race and Two Track Championships
With Glen Aubrey running Friday and several tracks running Saturday the “Point” ran
on Wednesday. Finally in 1952 they selected Sat. with Weds for a rain date. The early
years provided a lot of excitement with an abundance of race cars. Crowds were good as
the picture below shows.
The Racing in the ‘50’s Was Pretty Wild
Without the use of racing wheels broken wheels flying off cars were common. A number
of spectator injuries resulted from this, some seriously. In fact one resulted in a $1000
lawsuit in the mid fifties. The worst accident was in 1959 when Jack Theobald went up
the bank and hit a pole that toppled over into the crowd. Several fan were injured, one
seriously. Rocks hitting fans were also common. As for the drivers lacerations and
abrasions were the norm with some back and head injuries reported. The cars began to
change from strictly stock to more striped down race cars with the use of special speed
parts. The flat heads and other engines from the early 50’s were being replaced by the
overheads. Controversy over rules were common and are still today.
Over the first 10 years of continuous operation the top driver was Ken “Monk” Rauch
with 25 feature wins. Dave Kneisel scored 16 wins. A new generation of stars began to
hone their skills at “The Point” as the veterans retired or could not adapt to the more
Over those years there were many “colorful” drivers, owners and race officials. There are
too many to cover in this article. But, one driver that the fans loved or hated was “Irish”
Joe Donahue with his aggressive driving style. Joe honed his racing skills riding
motorcycles at various local tracks and moved to the stock cars winning almost a dozen
features and a track championship at Five Mile Point.
Three racing events put “ The Point” on the regional map: The two 1960 shows with the
United Racing Club sprints and the first Southern Tier 100. The two URC shows allowed
the fans to see the fast open cockpit racers from all over the northeast. A future World
Grand Prix Champion, Mario Andretti competed in both events The first Southern Tier
100 late in the season of 1964 saw NASCAR star Kenny Meahl win. National Sportsman
Champion Bill Wimble and veteran Bill Rafter were one of many outside drivers at that
event. The fans were somewhat baffled by these invaders that they might of heard about
in racing publications but never saw in action.
During the 60’s even the local kids got involved. The Kirkwood Soapbox Club in the
early 60’s raced on School Ave. Kirkwood. A full program of heats, semis, consolations
and the main event were run. Sometimes there would be 20 plus soapboxes. The drivers
paid to race and received points and were paid to win. The organization tried to be like
the real STSCC. There were rules and even an occasional fight. Boys will be boys, just
like 5 Mile Point Speedway. Some of the soapbox drivers were to become drivers at the
real track and all be actively involved in motorsports the rest of their lives in various roles.
Watching the race cars arrive at the track are; Left to right David French, Emmanuel
French, Robin Oltz*, Bill Diffendorf Jr*, Joey Donahue*, Marchie Diffendorf*, Jack
Diffendorf, and Rick Smith* (* indicate future drivers)
Irv Heath passed away in 1965 but his widow Anna kept the track going by leasing to
different promoters. She also had a race each year dedicated to Irv coinciding with old
timers night. The Irv Heath memorial continues annually in the race season to celebrate
the track history. With Heath’s death a new promoter was installed in the form of the
Southern Tier Racing Inc.. Many of the STSCC members were on the board of directors.
Two of these were Art Bonker and Gordie Cunningham that ended up as key promoters
until 1983. During their tenure the face of modified dirt racing changed dramatically.
Cars were professionally painted and lettered. Safety of both competitors and fans came
to the forefront. Increased restraining walls, better car construction, high impact helmets
and fire proof uniforms were introduced. Drivers began to do appearances at charity
events. Car shows for race cars pushed the owners to put more effort into the overall
appearance of both the car and crew members. The era of rough of tumble stock cars of
the 50’s was coming to an end. During the late 60’s thru the 80’s some of the best stock
car drivers in the northeast came to Five Mile Point and raced. The regular drivers did
very well against these invaders. Sprint cars (including the World of Outlaws), midgets,
thrill shows, figure eight racing, powder puffs and other events provided a wide variety of
events for the fans.
After Art and Gordie retired a new promoter, Jim Randall took the over the promotion.
(1983 – 1988). The stock cars continued to flourish. The cars were becoming very exotic
modified stock cars. A problem that plagues all short track racing even today is the high
costs. The time of home built cars was coming to an end with “store bought” cars and
expensive drive components the only way to win. Major corporate sponsors begin to
market their products via the race cars. Randall brought the National Championship
midget cars to the track during the ’80’s. Such stars as John Andretti, Mel Kenyon,and
Rich Vogler toured the speedway.
By 1989 two of Heath’s grandsons, Dan and Andy Harpell were ready to take the track
and return “The Point “ and continue the family legacy. Both had worked at the track
during their youth doing all kind of tasks. Dan had been working for the major
sanctioning organization DIRT as Director of Marketing and Public Relations. Dan ran
the track through the end of the 2003 season. Andy the younger of the two was ready to
help his brother until he picked up promotional duties in 2004. Anna became ill over
the winter of 2004 and passed away in March 2004. At this point Andy purchased the
track facility ensuring the track would remain in the family. Both Andy and Dan are
actively involved in the track promotion today.
Over their tenure racing (now called motorsports) became a full time business. Increased
competition from other tracks and entertainment activities required a year round
promotional effort. The cars continued to become more expensive and everyone was
looking for an “unfair advantage”. This required strict enforcement of rules and
regulations. Purses continued to grow as another business concern.
During the time frame from the early ‘60’s one driver stands out from among the many
stars of the period, Chuck Akulis with well over 100 wins far leading any other driver
ever at “The Point”. Chuck probably known as the “Pink Panther” is now retired but
attends racing events on a limited basis.
Chuck Akulis in his beginning years of an incredible career at “The Point”
As the 2016 opens in April another new generation of drivers are showing their strength.
Mike Colsten remains as one of the top veterans to challenge the new generation. In his
‘60s he still beats the kids today and has racked up over 50 wins and 5 track
championships in his career.
Mike Colsten wins 2014 Irv Heath Memorial (Notice difference in car design compared to
first time winner Polentz)
Come out and hear the roar and enjoy an entertaining night at the races reliving a Town
of Kirkwood tradition that goes back to the 30’s. GET TO THE POINT……See you at the
Dr George is a motorsports historian involved with the International Motorsports Research
Center at Watkins Glen. The research for this article was done by many others including
Grant Buck, Jeff Ackerman and other noted researchers using multiple sources and
personal interviews of the wonderful residents of the Town of Kirkwood. Without their help
this article would not have been done.