Hills Of Death
A Fictional Story of a Visit to the Cursed Hills of Dayton Speedway
By Gene Crucean
Notes from the author’s diary:
It is with extreme reluctance and discomfort that I tell of my visit some years ago to the ruins of Dayton Speedway, that damnable old circle of death. My experience that dreadful evening has, to this day, given cause to occasional nightmares and bouts of fear. My story will surely create natural doubt, so assessing the authenticity of my narrative must be left to you, the reader. Perhaps you will think me demented.
I was motoring out of Dayton, Ohio on the return leg of a business trip when a familiar street sign caught my eye – Germantown Road. After a moment I made the connection with Dayton Speedway. The decaying ruins of that hideous place must be nearby.
Built in 1934, Dayton Speedway, along with its siblings Winchester and Salem Speedways, was one of three infamous amphitheaters of terror which were carved out of Midwest farmland by Frank Funk. This high banked widowmaker claimed many a soul. At seventy yards longer than a true half mile, Dayton was fastest of them all. The ledger of names of great men who have given challenge to those horrifically fast hills includes Rex Mays, Everett Saylor, Troy Ruttman, Pat O’Connor, Bob Sweikert, A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen, Larry Dickson, Pancho Carter, and Tom Bigelow.
As I followed my directional instincts, I wondered what I might find. By my recollection, the place had been closed for a number of years. A part of me hoped that the venomous place had surrendered itself to the ages and that grasses and shrubs had mercifully ereased any record of the tormented track. However, I was surprised to see the old Dayton Speedway sign still standing as I approached the desolate grounds. I turned in, parked and, exiting my auto, was struck by an eerie silence. The early evening was bleak and overcast, the air heavy with humidity.
For reasons I cannot explain, I began wondering the forlorn fields, eventually exploring the ruins of the rotting grandstands which were once filled with thousands of witnesses who suffered in agony as the fury of this old track had its way with those who had come to give challenge. During a visit of my own some years prior, I witnessed the accursed place attempt to claim yet another soul, that of a young lion named Mike Mosley.
I was surprised to find the driveway into the pits open. The procedure at Dayton required competitors to sign for their credentials then maneuver their tow vehicles past the main grandstand near the fourth turn then down the steep banking and into the pits and infield. Standing on this high ground I could overlook the totality of this cursed and blood stained battleground. Ironically, the old war field seemed peaceful as it slumbered. As I stepped along this hallowed pathway my thoughts ran to the many great men who had preceded me. A quote from Dante’s Inferno seemed darkly appropriate: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” Indeed, some never returned.
My meanderings took me onto the track itself and into the barren and windswept pits. The old pavement was cracked and crumbling but still there. The overcast sky darkened as the hour advanced. The evening breeze seemed to produce a plaintive wail as it blew through the rotting grandstand. Perhaps it was the moaning of the dead. Save for some rather large and menacing birds that seemed interested in my arrival, the accursed place was abandoned. Strangely though, I had the distinct and uneasy feeling that I was not alone. Suddenly a gruff voice pierced the silence: “Help you?” Startled, I turned and was surprised to see an old man in coveralls only fifteen feet or so from me. His appearance was sudden and almost supernatural, as if he was some sort of apparition. “I, I was just looking around” I stammered. He was up in years, I noted as he approached, perhaps an octogenarian. He favored one leg and walked with the aid of an odd, knotted, wooden cane. His frail body was weak and his free hand seemed palsied. I awkwardly tried to explain about the Germantown Road street sign and about my curiosity – and that I was drawn to this macabre place perhaps as race drivers themselves were drawn to challenge and danger. I mumbled something about the darkness of those who seek to live on that thin edge between the here and the hereafter. To this day, I’m not certain that my babbling made any sense to the old man.
As we began slowly wandering, he explained that he was the groundskeeper and watchman. He seemed, however, much too frail for such activities. He began to tell of the curse of this wretched place, saying that he had been witness over the years to all manner of horror. He told of the men whose souls were claimed by these homicidal hills – Jimmy Kneisley, Tommy Legge, and “Pappy” Booker. He spoke of Johnny Shackleford, Gordon Reid, and Jim Rigsby. Pausing, he expressed solemn gratitude that this malignant place was shuttered and could kill no more. “There are places where Hell seems to find its way to the surface” he said. “Like Dracula’s castle, unspeakable horrors seem always to occur there.” Shaking his head, he added “The devil must have been in old Frank Funk when he re-built this place.”
Leaning on his odd cane, the old groundsman crossed himself as he began to tell of the ghastly accident that took the life of Gordon Reid on that cloudy April afternoon in 1952. “They say the steering wheel came off in his hands” he stammered. Pointing a weathered finger up toward the head of the front chute, he added, “Took Charlie Engle’s sprint car over the rail and into the stands. Killed a security guard and a woman – a bunch of fans got hurt real bad too. And poor Gordon, he was cut right in half” he said as his voice softened, “wasn’t nothin’ left but his torso strapped in that car.” After a moment, he began walking then turned to add, “And old Charlie Engle even went and got himself murdered some years later.”
I caught up with the groundsman and we walked a bit in silence. “And up there” he said as he nodded toward the third turn, “Gene Force lost it and got sideways in ’52. Jim Rigsby was right behind him and ran up over the front of Force’s sprint car. Shot Rigsby up the bank and he hit the guard rail – it launched his car some 30 feet in the air. I ain’t never seen anything like it before or since” he said. “Rigsby just sailed through the air – did a beautiful, graceful swan dive – car just disappeared outside the track into a cabbage patch.”
After a moment, the groundskeeper turned on his cane and began to walk slowly away. I was uncomfortable in his presence and found myself shivering at his tales. He seemed to be mumbling to himself as he departed, something about hearing echoes of the damned. I did not call out.
The darkening skies told me that my time for departure had also arrived. I climbed the banked pit road and paused to look back for the groundsman. I was surprised to find that he was gone. I couldn’t understand how this ancient and infirmed man could have made his way through the infield so quickly.
As I motored away I glanced back at those brooding and tormented grounds and saw a fog beginning to envelope the place. I thought it merciful that fog should seal off this evil place, perhaps as a shroud covers the dead.
Stopping nearby to fuel my auto, I began to relate to the attendant my experience with the ancient groundsman with the wooden cane. “Oh, that’s old Leroy” he said. “Must have told us a hundred stories about the old track. He’s been dead, what, ‘bout ten years now, I guess.”
Although some years have passed since my visit to those old ruins, I am still haunted by my dreadful experience with the old groundsman and those blasphemous hills. I occasionally have difficulty sleeping and I must ingest a sedative during bouts of thunder and lightning. Perhaps a merciful God will one day erase from my consciousness the memory of those killing hills and that sinister old man.
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