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Forgotten Racetrack: Lake Garnett in Garnett, Kansas

Eric Rood October 1, 2014 Featured, Motorsports, Vintage Racing 12 Comments

Postcar_2

Fifty miles south of Lawrence, Kansas, lies a small city called Garnett. Aside from being the birthplace of American writer Edgar Lee Masters, Garnett hardly stands out from other county seats in the state’s flat expanse. Visitors will find a dine-in Pizza Hut, a turn-of-the-century courthouse, a main street lined with signless brick buildings, and—just within the city’s northern border—the 300-acre North Lake Park around small Lake Garnett.

Though you’d likely never know it driving through the city, from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, the road that ringed Lake Garnett made up a challenging road course with a surprising amount of elevation change and a foreboding sense of danger. The site of the Lake Garnett Grand Prix would host one of American sports car racing’s major turning points and thousands of club racers would compete there during the event’s 15 years. Those races eventually disappeared more than 40 years ago, but the temporary circuit has enjoyed renewed interest and enthusiasm.

Track_Map

The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal public works projects administrations, constructed Lake Garnett and the surrounding park in the mid-1930s, digging it out and building shelters and a football field, among other accommodations, on the grounds. In the late 1950s, the Sports Car Club of America held its first Lake Garnett Grand Prix on the lake road, 2.8 miles of narrow, rolling tarmac lined with trees. Dangerous hardly begins to describe the Lake Garnett’s nature; some places featured inadequate runoff to keep a wayward racecar from getting soggy.

Track_Map

Take a deep breath, because the track’s layout brims with intensity: The Lake Road circuit’s start/finish line (A or K) is on the lake’s east side on a barely perceptible left-hand fade. After the fade, the road drops down to a bridge (B) and then climbs another slight hill with downtown Garnett’s water tower straight ahead. The first corner, a very tight hairpin called Flatiron Corner (C), required heavy braking and would have been the prime passing opportunity on the course. Drivers then shot down a bumpy straight over another bridge, and then back up a small incline with the spectator area mostly to the left.

An unnamed bend led to the super-fast Sante Fe Straight (D), where the first indicators of danger appeared. The road runs close to the lake here, some 15-20 feet above the water’s surface. The braking zone for the Dam (E) was frought with peril. Get it wrong or get nudged to the right and you face a concrete abutment or a steep slope down into the lake farther to the right. Concrete fence posts line the dam itself and should drivers clear that, the road falls away to the Dip (F), a dive onto a bridge and a steep, climbing right turn. Next up was Muleshoe, a long right-hander that tightened and dove down again to another concrete-lined bridge (G).

A short straight finds the first perilously close trees with one tree a scant 10 feet from the road’s edge. Snyder Corner came next (H), a 90-degree left where drivers couldn’t afford any sort of failure. Melted brakes or missing marks meant making a choice between the tree straight ahead or about 100 feet of downhill runoff ending in the lake. If a driver had gotten that far, he or she would face the Corkscrew, a quick left-right-left-right (I) flow. Missing either left meant—you guessed it—trees and the lake, this time only about 50 downhill feet from the road surface. Finally, you arrived a Clubhouse Bend (J), a long right-hander that climbed before diving back to the start/finish line.

To recap:

  • Narrow, low-usage road
  • Concrete fixtures lining braking zones (protected by water barrels in some, if not all, races, though at least one car allegedly plowed through four barrels and still split itself—but not its driver—on the abutment)
  • Trees practically on the circuit
  • Multiple areas where the minimal runoff is downhill into a lake

1968_Program

The first Lake Garnett races were SCCA Regional events, held July 4 weekend in 1959. Road & Track covered the inaugural weekend, reporting that the race drew 123 entries, a  record attendance for the Midwest and an indicator of the forthcoming popularity of the events at Lake Garnett. Weather was ugly to begin the first day, but it cleared in time for the first practice. Two  Triumph TR3s got caught out in that opening practice session, their drivers underestimating the steepness of the Dip and ending up with rubber pointed skyward, though they escaped with only bruised egos and trashed Triumphs.

Ken Kennedy won the very first race, a novice-only sprint, in his Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce. More preliminaries and novice races followed, while the Ladies and Main events took place the following day. Grace Harris and her Elva Mk. II (Do click that link; those are some sexy-looking cars) won the 10-lap Ladies race. Experienced driver Jack Hinkle in a Maserati won the complementing 10-lap race, which was interrupted by a red flag when Bill Moore lost control of his Corvette at the Muleshoe, plunging into the lake. Moore was soaked but otherwise OK. In the final 20-lap feature, Hinkle again conquered, averaging more than 80 miles per hour in the Main Event and topping out well north of 130 mph on Santa Fe Straight. The Road & Track report considered the weekend a success by one of the chief metrics of the oft-romanticized, extremely perilous period of racing: Nobody had been maimed in any of the racing accidents and the only injuries were the spectators’ sunburns.

Hinkle and his Italian thoroughbred would repeat the Regional Feature win in 1960, but the following year would bump the event up to a Divisional weekend, where Harry Heuer and his Scarab Mk. II Chevrolet would take home the Main Event’s trophy.  In 1962, Lake Garnett’s status again increased to become a national event, drawing big names like Jim Hall and Heuer in Chaparral 1 Chevrolets. However, Alan Connell’s Cooper Monaco would beat them both (running in a different class) with a completely bonkers average of 89.4 mph.

1963_Cobras

But 1963 would be the year that Lake Garnett became part of motorsports legend. Carol Shelby’s Cobras had been tearing up races all over the country, the brutish V8-powered roadsters simply blowing the doors off every production-class car they faced. Depending on who you ask, upwards of 70,000 attended Lake Garnett that year to see sportscar juggernauts battle. They anticipated that Shelby and his three ace drivers—Ken Miles, Bob Johnson, and Dave McDonald—would meet in the middle of the country with Grady Davis’ three assembled Corvette pilots: Dick Thompson, Don Yenko, and Davis himself. When the green flag finally flew on the top-billed production race, the Shelby Three dusted the Corvettes immediately, running away to a 1-2-3 finish that left the Chevys wheezing in the next three positions.

To top it off, Ken Miles added an oil cooler to his Cobra to meet regulations for the C-Modified class (normally reserved for non-production, purpose-built racecars like Lolas and Elvas) and proceeded to obliterate all comers with Harry Heuer coming in runner-up, nearly three mph slower than the Cobra. The cocky Shelby strode away from Kansas having manhandled the best sportscar racers in the country.

The Lake Garnett Grand Prix would again serve as a stop on the SCCA National Sports Car Championship in 1964, but Shelby and his drivers would not return, having focused their attention on the world stage with the Shelby Daytona Coupe. That year would also be the final year of the club’s national championship. Starting in 1965, regional champions would head to the National Runoffs to crown national champions. With the large crowds from previous years significantly disturbing the town’s business (newspapers claim the town saw riots entirely related to the sudden tripling of the county’s population and inadequate accommodations for the boom), the event was discontinued from 1965 until 1967, though it reappeared in 1968 to much smaller turnouts.

Postcard_1

Lake Garnett would hold its final SCCA race in 1972, which would be overshadowed by the death of veteran C-Production driver Ralph Miller in a violent accident.  With warranted concerns over course safety and smaller-than-anticipated crowd turnouts, the Lake hosted no more road races.

Today, Lake Garnett remains part of North Lake Park. The road around the lake that made up the circuit is also still there. A 1/8-mile kart track was added just inside of the former Clubhouse Bend and the venue hosts several large karting weekends a year. The original circuit has enjoyed something of a resurgence of popularity. The road was repaved and widened in 2007 and the local car club in 2009 hosted a 50th anniversary celebration that saw some hot lapping of the old circuit.

Modern_Cobra

Last year, Garnett native C.B. Harris—who had watched the races at North Lake Park as a young man—decided that a some automotive remembrance was in order, said Darren Traub, secretary of the Lake Garnett Grand Prix Revival. The group got permission to use the park from local officials and invited the local Triumph club and a few other clubs to drive hot laps around the old lake course, drawing around 60 cars of all vintages and speeds.

“The city enjoyed it and the spectators and participants enjoyed it,” Traub said, “so we realized we have to do it again.”

This October, Garnett will once again host the revival, which will include hot lapping, a car show, and several other events. Safety is obviously a concern with a dangerous track, so the Revival has hired an experienced grand marshall to address safety concerns and make improvements to the circuit and the organization, Traub said. This will include designated passing zones and, perhaps most notably, a chicane on the long back straight to reduce speeds before reaching the dangerous dam section. The recent repaving and widening of the track means there should be ample passing room in the designated zones, though Traub notes that passing anybody at speed during the track’s heyday was certainly a daunting task.

Nevertheless, interest in the revival has certainly blossomed and while it’s unlikely to be the next Goodwood, the Lake Garnett revival organizers hope it becomes a destination for motorsports fans.

“A number of individuals have come out of the woodwork who were [at the old Lake Garnett races] and can’t believe it’s come by,” Traub said. He added that the interest has come from far wide, including old track marshalls and even major players in the Ford GT40 development, many of the intersted parties having sent old pictures and memories.

The 2014 Lake Garnett Grand Prix Revival will be held October 11 at Garnett’s North Lake Park. See the Revival site for more information.

 

[Images: ChuckBrandt.com, Google MapsLake Garnett Grand Prix Revival |  Sources and Further Reading: Lake Garnett Grand Prix RevivalChuckBrandt.com, Nebraska Region SCCA, TopoQuest, Racing Sports Cars, Eye on Kansas, Experience Garnett, Old Racing Cars, Lake Garnett Cruisers]

  • ConstantReader

    Wow! Back when you had to have brass cojones!

  • MVEilenstein

    Cool story, Eric. I love hearing about old tracks.

    It reminds me of the old Watkins Glen, or Elkhart Lake – very fast, with plenty of elevation change.

  • I Think Not

    Wish I'd known about this sooner! My folks will be in town that weekend, and my dad would probably love to go, but alas, plans were already made for 10/11.

    Boo.

    I hope it's a success so the organizers can justify putting it on again in the future!

    • FЯeeMan

      Indeed! This falls during the state high school soccer tourney, so I've got 2 more years with that weekend booked. I hope it keeps running, because in that 3rd year, my oldest will be out of the Army, and that would be a great way to celebrate!

      • Eric Rood

        Yeah, I really meant to get this all put together sooner. I had most of the research done some time ago but just didn't have time to put it all together until the last couple weeks.

  • Great feature. Well done, sir!

  • Jonathan

    Awesome story….one of my favorite articles. Well done.

  • OttoNobetter

    Great pic of the Cobras-rode hard and put away wet.

  • JD Ald

    Great story! This happens to be my dad's hometown and he somehow failed to mention this.

  • apfeifer3

    This gives me an idea, I've been working on planning a big road trip. It would be really cool if there were a map (Google Map, or something) of old race tracks. I'd like to drive on the ones that it is possible, or see what they look like now. Does this exist somewhere?

  • Andrew F

    Bro, I live 1 hour away from this. NEED to check it out someday!

  • John Crider

    We have raced our Go-Karts around that lake for over 50 years. It’s a rush to go over 130 mph down the back straight. And that track will test Your bravery. Only 2 Karters have lost there lives there that I know of. When I first raced there in 1976 we would have over 50 entries in some classes. And getting around that track under 2 minutes is not uncommon. I love that place.