Long before there was a Patuxent Greens Golf Course or Stewart Towers high rise building, a mammoth oval race track occupied that area of land off Route 197, near Route 198. Horse racing at Laurel Park racetrack had been ongoing since 1911, but in 1924 an idea was pitched to the public to construct the Baltimore-Washington Speedway, a new wooden track for auto racing.
Promoters issued a slick brochure for potential investors, extolling the benefits of the enterprise and describing the proposed track and how investing in it worked.
According to the brochure, "the Officers and Directors of the Baltimore-Washington Speedway, Inc. are all men of ability, honesty, and integrity, and are well known in the community."
Curiously, however, these men were not named.
It promised that "the Baltimore-Washington Speedway located at Speedway Park, Laurel, Md., will be a place where you will be pleased to take your wife, mother, sweetheart, and friends and enjoy an afternoon of clean thrilling sport."
In case the potential investor had doubts, the promoters tried the direct approach: "We do not promise to make you rich within a week or a month. It will require a little time to bring an enterprise of this magnitude into its full productiveness. Although we firmly believe that the profits will be large, and will come within a reasonable time, we are not going to make any exaggerated promises to win your co-operation."
The price of construction for the all-wood structure was estimated to be $500,000.
It was envisioned that the speedway would host two major 250-mile auto races a year with purses of $25,000. Investors were also informed of other events that would swell their profits: "In addition to the above motor classics we will be able to hold local and inter-state motorcycle and bicycle races, football and baseball games, national and international airplane and balloon meets, polo games, fairs, expositions and tournaments."
It's unclear if any of these events were held, except for motorcycle and bicycle races, which were common on board tracks.
The big question, however, was where the speedway would be located. Approximately 300 acres was bought from J.W. Staggers, of Laurel, in 1924, in the area that today is approximately at the intersection of Routes 197 and 198, just a stone's throw from the existing Laurel Park racetrack. The promoters thought the site was perfect: "The most important cross-state traffic arteries in the east lead to the improved concrete Lincoln Highway (the Washington Boulevard) which passes within a few feet of the site."
Plans were also made to get fans to the 25,000-seat venue: "Facilities for handling enormous crowds who patronize these motor classics will be the finest in the country, made possible by laying railroad switch tracks directly in the rear of the main grandstand."
The brochure included a map that showed this and other proposed roadways.
Construction on the 1¼-mile track (which almost immediately became known as "Laurel Speedway") began in 1925. Made entirely of 2x4 boards laid on edge, the track was 50 feet wide and banked on the turns at 45 degrees. The speedway was completed in time for its July 11, 1925 inaugural race.
Clearly, the Washington Post anticipated major problems with traffic and crowd control at the new venue: "An inspection of the approach to the track yesterday emphasized the traffic problem. While there is plenty of space to park machines both outside and inside the oval there is only a narrow road leading to it from the highway, a distance of about half a mile. Every effort, however, is to be made to keep traffic moving briskly. Those planning to go to the track in machines, should bear this in mind in arranging their running time. … Special trains will be operated over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. They run directly to the track. … Arrangements have been completed for handling the vast crowd expected to attend the race."
As expected, a sell-out crowd jammed the grandstands for the opening day. The Post described the new marvel: "A wide board track, wrapping 80 acres of ground as a ribbon might encircle an ostrich egg, with a huge grandstand overlooking it all, is ready today to vibrate under the great motor gruel, the inaugural race at the Washington-Baltimore automobile speedway. Never level and in places almost up and down, it is the arena of sixteen speed-crazed drivers, out on a Roman holiday to entertain the populace and in so doing to lower the world's speed records."
Peter DePaolo won the inaugural race with an average speed of 126 mph, edging his rival Robert McDonough. McDonough evened the score by beating DePaolo in a rematch at Laurel Speedway in October of that year.
Although the Laurel Speedway had a short life — it was only active as an auto track for two years—many of the best drivers of the era raced there. It addition to DePaolo, Indy 500 winner Ralph Keech, Jimmy Gleason, Russell Snowberger and Fred Winnai all competed at Laurel. For a few years after that, it hosted motorcycle and bicycle races, but was eventually abandoned and torn down.
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Most information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times