Heidelberg Raceway recognized for impact, history with state marker

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More than 300 people turned out Sunday to remember Heidelberg Raceway and Sports Arena, as a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker was unveiled to commemorate the site at 2055 Washington Pike on the border of Heidelberg and Scott.

The marker notes the important role Heidelberg Raceway played in early NASCAR racing history and acknowledges the raceway as the site of the last "Big Top" show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus on July 17, 1956.

The circus survived, but all of its future shows were held in sports arenas and concert halls, rather than under tents that were transported by train and erected at each stop on the circus tour.

Andrew Masich, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, took note of the many auto racing fans that attended the dedication. "A lot of history happened here," he said.

David Kohler, representing the Pittsburgh Circle Track Club, a group dedicated to preserving the memory of the raceway, said it was a decision by the state Legislature that brought years of auto racing excitement to the area.

He said that in 1947 and 1948 the raceway was constructed by David Wright, owner of Wrights Seafood Inn in Heidelberg, with financial backing from Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney. Heidelberg Raceway operated from 1948 to 1973.

The men wanted to build a horse racing track, but when the state Legislature didn't approve horse racing in the state, they turned to auto racing.

During the dedication ceremony, the Pittsburgh Circle Track Club displayed vintage race cars from the '50s and '60s.

A number of famous NASCAR drivers competed at the track, including Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty, who has won more NASCAR races than any other driver. In one 1949 race at Heidelberg, Lee Petty finished first and his son finished second. That was the same race that Sara Christian set a record that still stands today. She came in fifth, the best finish by a woman at the highest level of NASCAR racing. The track hosted many local stock car drivers. Herb Scott of Wexford won 11 racing championships at Heidelberg, the most of any driver.

The raceway also played host to motorcycle races, figure 8 races, demolition derbies, soccer matches and festivals, but one of the biggest events of the year was when the circus came to town.

The circus needed at least 15 acres to hold its 41 tents that housed the show and served as living quarters for the performers. The 87-acre raceway complex, which straddled the border between Heidelberg and Scott, was more than big enough.

Mary Lou Kientz, a former waitress at Josie's Truck Stop near the raceway, spoke at the dedication about her memories of the circus.

"The circus would unload from the train in Glendale [in Scott]. The elephants would walk by my house," she said. "It was really fantastic."

When the show was canceled July 17, 1956, Mrs. Kientz was working at Josie's.

"The performers were stranded. Some were crying. Some were angry and hollering. They had nowhere to sleep or eat," she said.

"The restaurant tried its best to feed them but ran out of food. We had one banana left for a banana split, then we closed our doors," she said.

Eventually, she said, most of the performers, many of whom couldn't speak English, found their way to the bus and train stations in Downtown Pittsburgh to make their way home.

Heidelberg manager Joe Kauer worked on the application for the marker to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, with input from Robert DeBar, head of the Heidelberg Historical Society, and from others as he researched the history of the facility.

"Everyone I talked to had some memory of the race track," he said.

Today, the site of Heidelberg Raceway is home to Raceway Plaza, a shopping center.

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Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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