Dirt Track Memories

In its heyday, Riverview Speedway
in Milton, Ky., drew a crowd

Local fan Howe writing a book on former drivers

(April 2021) – One of the features of the ’50s and ’60s was society’s fascination with cars. Most social scientists believe that the automobile industry created the middle class, which created more discretional funds to buy many products, including more appealing and faster vehicles. While Americans traded in their horses for steel, horsepower was still the measurement for potential speed, and speed has always turned into competition.

Riverview Speedway

April 2021 Cover

By the ’60s, the desire to see who had the fastest car or who was the most skillful driver was satisfied by the creation of small dirt tracks in almost every city across the land. Here in Kentuckiana, this effort was led by Odell Graves and Carroll Stockdale. These neighbors, who lived on top of the Milton hill in Kentucky, were race fans that regularly went to the Twin Cities Raceway Park in North Vernon, Ind.
Probably on one of those rides home after watching the exciting races the idea was hatched to develop their own track. Stockdale had a flat corn field that wasn’t producing very well, so that became the spot for the track. Does this remind you of another famous sports venue?
In 1966, after two years of pushing dirt around with a bulldozer, their creation was finished. The track was a quarter-mile in length with slightly banked turns. Mounds of dirt were strategically placed in the infield to corral any wayward drivers. The track was named Riverview Speedway, since it sat on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River.
Odell’s son, Larry, 69, who was a teenager at the time, helped build the infrastructure. “One of my jobs,” the younger Graves recalled, “was to dig the holes for all the posts that our benches were on.”
He also helped his father construct several concession stands, the fence that protected the spectators and the ticket booth.

Cecil McQueary

Photo courtesy of Ceneita Ginn

Milton, Ky. driver Cecil McQueary is pictured with his race car in 1973. He was a regular competitor at Riverview Speedway.

Electricity was brought in for the speaker system, and eventually lights were added for a short-lived time of Saturday night racing. A large pole barn was added later.
Larry Graves began driving in the races when he was 15 years old. “You were supposed to be 16 to drive, but since I was an owner’s son, I got a special exemption,” he sad with a grin.
His racing season came to an abrupt end when a competitor’s car pushed him off the track, and he flipped over, destroying the car. “All I can remember is my penny loafers were somehow stuck to the floorboard, and I had to get out of the overturned car in my stocking feet. My mom wasn’t very happy about it, and she suspended me from racing until I was older.”
Sunday afternoons soon became the established day for racing. Hundreds of people would show up to watch three heats, a consolation race and then a 25-lap feature race, in which $300 was paid to the winner. The events couldn’t start until the ambulance arrived and the fire truck had watered down the track.
Sherriff Howard Long was usually present to make sure things didn’t get too rowdy. According to Graves, “One of our most loyal fans was Ray Richmond, who would walk two miles, pay his $3 admission fee, enjoy his day at the races and then walk back home.”

Denny Long

Photo courtesy of Donnie Green

One of the popular race car drivers of teh day was Milton, Ky.'s own Denny Long, whose car is shows here in 1975.

The track never had any driver injuries but did have a serious mishap when a fan crossed a barrier and was then struck by a tire that had come off a car. One notorious incident was when two local drivers had a conflict on and off the track. Word got out into the community, and the next week, a record crowd showed up, eager to see if there would be additional fireworks.
Graves continued to race at Riverview and at the 3/8-mile Twin Cities until he went into military service in 1971. When he returned, his father’s track had stopped holding car races in 1972 and closed down completely in 1980. So he concentrated on racing in North Vernon in a car that Raymond Wentworth built for him. He also began a career in working as a mechanic for several service stations and car dealerships in nearby Madison, Ind.
After Riverview Speedway closed, it was used for various events. Midget Car and Dune Buggy races were held there. The Trimble County fair used the facilities to stage horse races and beauty pageants. The mechanics’ barn became known as the Dance Barn and featured local music talent, including Tommy Day, who was also a race driver, Charlie Broad and Tilford McKay.

Johnny Robbins

Photo courtesy of Bobby Davis

Race car driver Johnny Robbins collects his trophy after a race in 1972 at Twin Cities Raceway in North Vernon, Ind. The track is still in operation today.

Sadly, if you visit the site today on Racetrack Road, you will see a run-down pole barn and find that the track has been totally taken over by trees and brush. Odell Graves died in 1986 at age 63.
Another person who has vivid memories of the Milton race track is Jim Howe of Columbus, Ind. As a boy, Howe came often to the track with his father, Gene, a long-time race car driver and mechanic.
It was only natural that Howe would get the racing bug, since both his father and grandfather were ardent dirt track drivers. “My grandfather raced in ‘the Hole’ (the Columbus Speedway) against drivers who made it to the Indy 500,” recalled the 62-year-old Howe. “I started out as a 6-year-old in dad’s garage, handing him tools and anything else that would be helpful.” That began Howe’s role as support person in small-time car racing.
In the ’60s and ’70s, they raced in Milton but mostly at Twin Cities. Howe became his father’s “grease monkey” and later on became an official at Twin Cities Raceway Park. Later, he wrote for a racing newspaper, the National Speed Sport News, based in New Jersey.
Presently, Howe is working on a book about the history of the Twin Cities Raceway Park, specifically from the time the track opened in 1964 up until 1980. “I want to tell the story of the men who started the track and who some of the early drivers were, including Madison’s Tommy Day and Pee Wee Day. There are so many good stories about races and drivers. It’s going to be tough to decide which ones to tell.”

Riverview Speedway

Photo courtesy of Karen (Graves) Evans

A crash occurs on the backstretch during a Riverview Speedway race back in the 1970s

When talking about the different races that took place at Twin Cities, Howe relayed how they used to have the Powder Puff event. Women who had no driving experience were chosen out of the stands and were given a chance to drive race cars that the racers volunteered.
“It was a way to get the women involved, and everyone loved it,” Howe said. “Today, there is now a number of women drivers at Twin Cities, and some of them have developed into accomplished racers.”
When he’s not working on his book or at his job as a training consultant for G.P. Strategy, Howe is supervising his go-cart team in Columbus. “It’s my way of helping youngsters to get into racing,” he said. “Most professional racers start out in go carts where they not only learn how to drive but all the intricacies of the sport. I’m hoping some of them will develop a love for the sport and help carry it on.”

Tommy Day

Photo courtesy of Sheri Boner Schroeder

Race car driver Tommy Day of Madison, Ind., was a big star in his racing days. He is pictured with his car in the 1970s. He raced at Riverview Speedway and Twin Cities Raceway.

Howe’s father, Gene, began his love affair with racing in 1956 when a friend had a car, and Gene volunteered to work on it. Gene, who considered himself a ‘shade tree mechanic,’ was employed by Cummings Engine in the Research Building for more than 30 years. He had his own car for about four years, but as Howe explained, “It became too expensive.” He traveled to all the early tracks, including Lawrenceburg, Brownstown, Seymour, Salem, Twin Cities, Riverview and others.
“I guess our first race in North Vernon was in 1965, and we also crossed the river to go to the Milton track. Riverview Speedway had just a metal fence to protect its fans, while Twin Cities started out with a wire fence, also, but eventually built a concrete wall along the home stretch,” Howe said. “A lot of the early tracks had a pond in the middle so water could be pumped onto the track to keep the dust down. Twin Cities was also called the Dust Bowl, since it is down in a valley and because of all the dirt that was thrown into the air during the races. Racing became a fun family event when my son, Jim, started learning the ropes around the garage and would go racing with us.”
Howe’s racing horizons expanded when he joined the Moenning Brothers Racing team from Seymour. They were part of the American Speed Association that had wining purses of $15,000 to $20,000 and that has produced many big time NASCAR drivers, such as Rusty Wallace and Alan Kulwicki. The A.S.A. had races almost every weekend scattered throughout the Midwest and beyond.
While this type of racing is just a step down from NASCAR, it’s very exciting because of its short track, but it’s more expensive than dirt track racing.

Jim Howe

Jim Howe

“It took about $200,000 for our team to compete,” Howe said. “We always carried two complete engines that cost $35,000 a piece, and that was back in the ’70s. The hardest part for me was all the traveling we did. I usually used my four weeks of vacation from Cummings traveling with the team. Sometimes, we didn’t get back home from the Sunday races until early Monday morning, and I would go into work without sleeping at all.”
While Howe is no longer able to be involved in racing, he can still get ‘revved up’ describing his days on the circuit.
There are many people besides drivers and owners that make racing possible. One of those is Glenn Sullivan, also an employee of Cummins Engine and was enticed by a friend at work to go to the races at Twin Cities. Eventually, he became an official.
Sullivan, who lives near Paris, Ind., had several jobs at Twin Cities, including score keeping and announcing. Sullivan remembers many of the drivers from the ’60s during his 10 years of officiating. Among those were Howard Von Dissen, nicked named ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and Tommy and Peewee Day from Madison.
The format for the races were 10-lap heats involving 10 to 12 cars,  a consolation heat and then a feature race that may have 20 cars running. “Sometimes, we would get into trouble with the local government officials because we would be going past midnight, creating a lot of dust and noise.”
When asked about favorite memories, Sullivan said he had a lot of good ones and one very bad one. “I enjoyed being around all the people involved – from the fans, drivers, crews and all of the support people.” He also liked the powder puff event, and one in particular. One of the ladies was very competitive and got so frustrated about being behind that she cut across the infield to catch up with her rival.
“While I was at Twin Cities, I don’t remember any drivers getting hurt,” said Sullivan, “but we had a tragic event happen when a car went off the track. A sheriff’s deputy was escorting a lady through an unprotected area, and he just barely saw the car coming and pushed her out of the way. But unfortunately, he was struck and killed by the wayward vehicle.”
Sullivan also had good memories of the other dirt tracks at which he worked, including Brownstown and Milton. His memory of the Milton track was that drivers would say, “Make sure you make it through Turn 3 or you will end up in the Ohio River.”
Many of these tracks are now gone, but Twin Cities Raceway Park is still operating on Saturday nights. And if you like racing, keep an eye out for Howe’s book.

• To contact Jim Howe with information about his future book on Kentuckiana dirt track racing, email him at: jimhowemotorsportsllc@gmail.com.

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