|South Seneca Speedway
|This article was written and contributed by Bob Johnson and was
published in the Gater News on March 6, 2012. I swiped the pictures
Bob posted on Race NY to go along with the article. Many thanks to
Bob for both of these treasures - Enjoy.
When I was a young man I would spend my summers bailing hay. One afternoon, on
the way back to the farm, the gentleman I worked for asked me if I would like to see an
old race track. I loved racing so, naturally, I said yes.
He drove the old pick-up into a pasture where we got out and walked towards a pile
of cinder blocks. As we stood there, the remnants of the speedway started to fall into
place...the old pilings from the bleachers...the remains of the front stretch wall...the
outline of the ancient oval. There, in its ghostly state, lay South Seneca Speedway.
The speedway had come to life in 1951.The Boyce brothers, Charles, Howard and
Gordon, had obtained permission from their parents to build the track on scrub land 2
miles southeast of Ovid, N.Y. They had been attending auto races at Caledonia and
Rochester (Monroe County Fairgrounds). Gordon had gotten the bug and wanted to
start racing, so the boys built a car which Gordon raced at Naples Speedway.
Racing at Naples was a costly endeavor as it would chew up a whole day and there
was no money coming back in. It didn’t help matters that Gordon had been nabbed for
lying about his age in order to race. The die was cast.
Howard Boyce measured the Monroe track and commenced to staking the inside
and outside of the track. According to Howard Boyce the oval was purposely laid out
wide, “to keep the guys out of trouble.” Bob Parish, a local excavator, “did quite a little
work with his bulldozer,” added Mr. Boyce. A surveyor came in and helped with getting
the banking right.
An old grader was utilized to lay in the track. Art Lynch, one of the men who
helped with the track, told me it was a very complicated, temperamental piece of
equipment. There were four sets of wheels to adjust pitch, angle and depth. It was a
beast and cost one man, Fran Grabowski, a finger.
There was an incredible amount of work to get to the point where they could run on
it. Initially it was just to be a club with 10-12 cars participating. Word got out and
people started showing up for the races. The Boyce’s knew that something had to be
done before someone got hurt.
One of the fellows who had been racing was a young lawyer named Jerry Wolff. He
helped with the legalities and insurance was obtained through Lloyd’s of London. This
was a very expensive proposition, so it was decided to start charging admission. Like a
snowball rolling downhill, the operation took a life of its own.
Paid admissions meant that amenities were needed. The Boyce brothers had a deal
with a company in Waterloo that made bowling pins. They supplied the boys with
maple planking for seating. Railroad ties were utilized for the fencing supports
surrounding the track. Bathrooms and concessions were put in. The plan was to have
the track open to the public by mid-1951, but this was not to come to fruition.
On Sunday, June 29th, 1952, South Seneca Speedway came roaring to life. It was
an overcast day with threatening skies. Due to this, the car count was low at 20 racers
with 1000 souls braving the elements. Roger Bell of Penn Yan took the laurels that
The next week found 31 cars in the pits. The crowd of race fans was over-whelming,
so more stands were added for the third week. The car counts kept creeping up and
the crowds kept swelling. Even more stands were erected. By September there were 60
cars signed into the pits and 2,000 people filled the seats.
One unforeseen problem had arisen. The crowds were so big that there just wasn’t
enough room for parking. A deal was cut with a farmer across the road to use a vacant
field for overflow. In a stroke of genius, the Boyce’s had given the concessions to the
Ovid-Willard Lion’s Club. Community involvement was very strong.
Boyce shared that “it was a crude outfit with an assistant and myself doing the
flagging. Charles did all the announcing and Gordon did the handicapping.” It was
confided to me that he and his brothers were very green. They enlisted the help of
Southern Tier racing stalwarts Dusty Doyle and Doc Snediker. They pitched in and
mentored the boys on, respectively, announcing and flagging.
General maintenance consisted of disking the track up and then laying down three
to four tons of salt and calcium. Lynch told me that he and Gordon would take an old
stake-bed truck “down on Rte. 89 to pick up load after load of salt.” This would be laid
on the track with a grain spreader. The track would be soaked each week with 5-6000
gallons of “wet water”. A “wobble wheel” would then be used to pack the track.
As stated, the stands were packed and the fields were full. When the season came
to an end, things looked mighty rosy for the speedway.
By 1953, the track boasted “larger seating and better concessions.” The car counts
were big and the racing intense. The fields were averaging 50-60 cars a week with, at
times, 70 cars in the pits. Bear in mind that this was for one class of racing as “pure
stock” cars were the only class allowed at this point. The average Sunday consisted of
four heat races, two semis, two consolation races and a twenty-lap feature.
The Boyce brothers would also add specials such as “the Australian pursuit”,
“backwards races” and “powder puffs”. One of my favorite promotional releases was for
the women drivers where the promoters proposed that “the fences would be moved
back and the parking lot pushed back 50 feet.”
The 1953 season found a lot of drivers bringing their talents to South Seneca but
none loomed larger that year than Jackie Baldwin of Jacksonville N.Y. In the course of
the season, Baldwin registered 22 wins between heats, semis and features. This helped
him to snag the track championship.
In 1954 the South Seneca Speedway came to a swift demise. There were a
combination of contributing factors that, in my opinion, caused the end of the
speedway. The biggest one was the death of family patriarch Bert Boyce. His passing
had left a tremendous hole in the farming operation. The family focus was on the farm
and the track was built for fun. Unfortunately the raceway had become a full time job.
Another thing that had occurred was the opening of the track in Waterloo. Maple
Grove Speedway boasted lights allowing for night time racing. A good chunk of the field
had migrated to north Seneca County. This, coupled with the fact that there was a glut
of race tracks in the area, killed the car counts.
By mid-season John Filipeck, who had been active in racing and also as a thrill-
driver, used his ties with the upper echelon at Ithaca -Dryden Speedway to combine
forces between the South Seneca club and the Finger Lakes club. Arrangements were
made to bring the “A” cars to the speedway, with such stars as Bucky Dew, Rolf
Holtcamp and Hank Clark making the trip.
This didn’t last long. Lynch shared with me that by the end the car counts "were
down to 15-20 cars." between the two classes. There was talk of installing lights and
there was more than enough room to grow but it all boiled down to time and energy.
There just wasn’t enough to go around. The writing was on the wall and the plug was
pulled. The last race was held on July 18, 1954.
In researching this article I've had the oppurtunity to meet some of these guys. I
had the pleasure to sit down and talk with former driver Jim Joslyn about the
heydays. Joslyn was an early member of the racing club at South Seneca. He had
been attending races at Naples and when things started up at Ovid he went to watch.
It wasn't long before he was partnered with Ralph Gable, piloting their #366 Plymouth
Joslyn told me that the car handled "pretty good", but stressed that it just didn't
have the pick up that the Fords had. "The Fords ran in second gear, while we had to
run in third," he said, adding "We'd flat out get them in the corners." The weekly
maintenance regime on the #366 consisted of "fixing what was busted and improving
what you could," which didn't allow much as, being pure stocks, modifications weren't
Joslyn's career had its share of ups and downs. He ended up on the lid a number of
times. The one that stands out was caught on film by his brother-in-law. It was a
wicked wreck causing extensive damage to the car. It required a lot of thrashing to get
it back together, but miraculously Joslyn was racing again the next week.
Joslyn went on to build his own car for 1953. He found a '37 Ford that was basically
ready to go for the astronomical price of......five dollars! It was lacking a motor but
another Ford was located in Penn Yan that had an engine. He had the car ready to go
within a week.
I asked him to describe his racing career. Keep in mind that Mr. Joslyn is a very
humble guy. He told me he had enjoyed the racing a great deal and felt he was
"average." The fact that he was racing 60 other guys every week and making the field...
average doesn't quite cut it.
The speedway had lived a short life, but it left a tremendous legacy. The talent pool
that emerged was incredible. Guys like Lucky Cornish, Gordy Blanchard, Red
Beardslee, Glenn Reiners, Bucky Dew, Rolf Holtcamp, Ronnie Narducci and Roland
Velte went on to make their mark at other speed-plants. Two young guns that stick out
are Billy Schroth and George "Jackie" Soper.
Schroth started racing at South Seneca in 1953. At this point in time, to
legally drive a race car, you needed to be 21. He had talked his parents into letting him
get behind the wheel. While young Billy didn’t set the world on fire there, he did
manage to get his first heat and semi wins. It was at South Seneca Speedway that the
ground-work was laid. He went on to a stellar career going from the stocks at Southern
Tier tracks to being a top-notch driver on the URC sprint car curcuit in the mid-
Jackie Soper also got his first ride at South Seneca. Anyone who knows the
history of modified racing in New York State wouldn’t need an introduction as to who
Jackie was, but for those that don’t, suffice it to say Soper was one of the best to come
down the pike. In 1958 alone, he amassed five track championships and 58 feature
wins. His first race wasn’t so good. On the 8th lap of a consolation race, in a car
borrowed from his mother Lillian, the under-age racer proceeded to flip end over end.
From all accounts he destroyed the car. The front rock screen came up into the cock-
pit and beaned him in the head, sending Soper to the Seneca Falls Hospital. It wasn’t
a very good indicator of what was to come.
They say that timing is everything and for a brief, shining moment South
Seneca Speedway was the melting pot of racing in the Finger Lakes. Howard Boyce
had said to me “if we had kept it open- who knows.” I recently had the chance to re-
visit the old speedway. The old cinder block footers are now covered with moss, the old
railroad ties lay scattered, and the banking is all but gone due to sixty years of erosion.
The track has come full circle, lying in reposed splendor, only disturbed by a herd of