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Forgotten Racetracks: Visiting Meadowdale International Raceway

Eric Rood October 28, 2016 Featured, Motorsports, Vintage Racing 11 Comments

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Not long ago, I wrote occasionally about former racetracks in the United States that have largely disappeared. Those primarily covered temporary circuits set up on closed public roads in the early days of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) while some permanent circuits were set up. Some of those that I’ve covered—Brynfan Tyddyn in Pennsylvania, Lake Garnett in Kansas, and Las Ochas Millas in New Mexico—were spectacularly dangerous. As a result, purpose-built circuits like Road America and Watkins Glen International started to become the rule of the day. One of these tracks was Meadowdale International Raceway in Carpentersville, Illinois, just northwest of Chicago. Unlike most forgotten tracks, Meadowdale is often remembered today and even more often visited in its current guise, Raceway Woods Forest Preserve. I visited Raceway Wood a couple years ago and then did nothing with the photos. Until today!

Meadowdale opened in 1958 and was a spectacular track with some extraordinarily challenging elements. The Monza Wall brought cars onto the half-mile straightaway meant enormous top speeds. Just before arriving at the Monza Wall, cars passed in opposite directions separated only by a couple feet and a narrow barrier. The rest of the track featured major elevation changes and actually had some tremendous spectator sightlines. We’ll get to these things shortly.

 

A stroll through the historical records from Meadowdale, particularly the SCCA National events held from 1960 to 1965, turns up both racing legends and machinery: Bob Holbert, Roger Penske, Augie Pabst, Denise McCluggage, Bob Johnson, Don Yenko, Porsche 718 RSK, Ferrari 250 GTO, Chaparral 1 , Shelby Cobra, and Corvette Grand Sport to name a few.

 

However, financial and safety problems plagued the track shortly after its opening. I was once told that an angry creditor that also happened to be a construction company once rendered the track unusable by simply parking a heavy piece of construction equipment on the racing surface until they could collect on their debt. I’ve never found written mention of that, but it seems compatible with the eventual outcome of the track. After one last hurrah, a Trans-Am Series race in 1968 that Mark Donohue won for Penske in a Camaro, Meadowdale was gated for good in 1969.

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It sat vacant for a quarter-century until local park districts bought the north end of the facility in 1994, followed by the rest of the land in 2002. A hiking trail was soon put on the property, now named Raceway Woods, where it loosely followed the original track layout.

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As is par for the course with these stories, I’ll give a quick walk-through of the 3.27-mile track. The long main straight (A) was nearly three-quarters of a mile long—also was used as drag strip occasionally—which ran north. To its left (west) was the paddock with grandstands on the right near the straight’s beginning. There were cutouts (B) to make two shorter courses just as the track heads downhill; the cutouts sat just south of a bridge that spanned a 30-foot gully (C) before heading back uphill. After a long time on throttle, drivers finally arrived at “Little Monza” (corner names borrowed from this horribly-out-of-scale map from the 1961 SCCA Nationals program), a long, sweeping corner (D) that dives seven stories to the track’s lowest point, Greg’s Corkscrew (E), skirting Route 31 to the east. After a short section of tightening esses past the famed white silo (F), you’d head steeply uphill toward Len’s Hairpin (G). Then it was back downhill a bit toward Serpentine (H), another set of esses that went under the four-lane bridge (I) to the parking area inside the track. Carl’s Bend and Steffan’s Straight (J) followed, sending the cars gradually climbing back to the top level of the track. The Back Straight (K) followed into Doane’s Corner (L), a very-long right-hander that encircled what must have been a glorious spectator hill (M). A short burst from there paralleled the Back Straight with minimal separation and drivers made a return to the long straight via the Monza Wall, a shortened replica of the Italian Circuit’s famed banking.

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So let’s take a tour of what remains of the circuit. Here’s the view today of what the top part of the main straight. Grandstands would have stood to the right (where the trees are) and the photo was likely shot from the paddock-side of the pit wall.

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The main straight soon heads downhill to cross the gully. The walking path is curved where the straight would have been, well, straight. One of the primary safety concerns here was the width of the original bridge (which was really mostly an earthen dam); the runoff area on the original bridge was barely wide enough for a small car, though the actual track width here was substantial.

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Looking backwards from the far end of the main straight, it’s not hard to close your eyes and imagine how fast a Shelby Cobra must have been ripping after more than a half-mile with a running start. The camera lense makes it look much longer in the photo than it really is, but it’s still not insignificant.

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Photos really don’t convey the steepness of the first turn, called Little Monza. With big bore cars almost running out of gear on the approach, there would have been a huge gut-check just to get the car slowed enough to careen right and drop 70 feet during the 180-degree turn.

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There aren’t many actual original elements of Meadowdale left, though I suspect this fencepost and concrete wall are relics from the racetrack on the outside of Little Monza.

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You can also find where asphalt has been cut away here. Again, I don’t know for certain that this is the original track surface, but it seems a funny place for there to just be asphalt hanging out if it’s not.

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The bottom section of track is pretty dense forest these days. There are small elevation changes all over the track and the esses here include a small brow in the middle. This would have been a deceptively tricky and highly technical part of the circuit.

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It was here near the low point that the tall white silo would have swished by to driver’s left with spectators lining the hill to the right.

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The bottom section of the track was one of the main entrances off Route 31 and still is; entering Raceway Woods here, you’ll walk past the restored Meadowdale silo. The track jogged left before a hard right here, crossing the same creek again that runs at the bottom of the gully on the main straight today.

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Again, it’s hard to capture the severity of the elevation change with a camera, but the climb up to Len’s Hairpin was substantial.

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Here’s what the spectator view would have been like, roughly, from just before Len’s Hairpin. The pavement leading off to the right was the cutout for the northern short course that would have included Little Monza. It’s one of several remaining places that gives you a good feeling for how good the sightlines for spectators would have been.

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The traffic bridge’s frame remains intact. This was the entrance to the main parking lot that crossed over the east side of the circuit. The track actually curved right here instead of left like the walking path does, but the sightline would likely have been similar from a low-slung, bare-bones sports car in 1960.

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The brave can still cross the bridge’s beams, but I instead sat on the edge of the enbankment, closed my eyes, and tried to picture the blue flash and echoing bellow of a Shelby at full-song beneath me. For a fleeting moment, I swear I felt the unfettered V8 tremble the ground, but it was probably a bit of wishful thinking.

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One quick dip followed the bridge before the track headed back uphill, where Steffan’s Straight is nothing but a drive straight up the hill “behind” the Monza Wall. There was a drainage pond somewhere on the right that is now obscured by trees, but the Monza Wall would likely have loomed right from here.

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After what would have seemed an interminable climb, the track reaches level ground again and veers right toward the Back Straight.

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This part of the walking path was never paved, but the Back Straight is the gravel section to the left. Traffic would have flowed the opposite direction on the right-hand gravel section with only a narrow barrier separating cars with immense head-on closing speeds.

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After a quick flick left, you’d then be in Doane’s Corner, an extremely long right-hand curve. You can still see a berm on the outside of the corner that was likely part of the “safety barrier” at the time.

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I met a snake back in Doane’s Corner, but it didn’t remember anything about the track when I asked.

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On the inside of Doane’s Corner is this 20-foot hill, the top of which would have likely afforded an incredible view of the Back Straight and Doane’s Corner.

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Here’s the view from the Doane’s Corner hill looking back toward the Monza Wall. I’m not sure what trees were there a half-century ago, but the view likely would have included the Monza Wall and much of the infield section between the Back Straight and Main Straight.

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Here’s another look of the Back Straight, this one from after Doane’s Corner. The entrance of the Monza Wall would have loomed in the distance from here like the corner of a cavernous mouth ready to spit you skyward if you tempted it.

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The Monza Wall stood here. This is the entrance to it on the way 180 degrees back to the start/finish line.

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More of where the Monza Wall stood, though it’s hard to grasp just where. The pavement is straight here and I think it curved across the the apron in the center of the photo.

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And here the Monza Wall dumped back on the long Front Straight.

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It’s hard to envision what it was like to race at Meadowdale. There were so many epic challenges in it that are extraordinarily rare in a modern racetrack: super-long straightaways and a Monza Wall are absolutely insane concepts, particularly in cars with rudimentary brakes and suspension systems. The first turn would have been one of the most daunting in America and from there it was all diving and wheeling and fighting the car just to stare up at the approaching banked curve. Today, the Meadowdale International Raceways Preservation Society actively acts to preserve the history, including a car show that includes a parade lap around the hiking path and an annual dinner with guest lecturers from motorsports past.

[All photos copyright 2016 Hooniverse/Eric Rood  | Video from Z Pigman on YouTube]

  • roguetoaster

    This is exactly the sort of content I come to the ‘verse to enjoy. Many thanks!

    Don’t forget to treasure your local tracks, after all, they could be gone tomorrow.

  • Rover 1

    Whatever happened to Pure gasoline?

    • dukeisduke

      According to their Wikipedia article:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pure_Oil

      they were founded in 1914, and then bought by what became Union Oil Co., in 1965. The brand name returned in 1993, “as a cooperative (based in Rock Hill, South Carolina since 2008) which has grown to supply 350 members in 10 Southern states.”

      Searching for “pure gasoline” isn’t easy, since most links go to sites about ethanol-free gas.

      • CraigSu

        My mother worked for the Pure Oil Co regional office in Charlotte for several years until they were purchased by Union Oil in 1965. She still has a few bits of Pure Oil memorabilia stashed away, mostly lapel pins, tie clips and pens.

  • dukeisduke

    It’s a shame the track didn’t survive, but then if it had, it would have been reworked by now to be safer, and much less challenging.

    • mike england

      I used to live a couple miles from Meadowdale Raceway. I discovered it when you had to have a machete and climbing gear to go all the way around it. Even then the Little Monza was really frightening on a bicycle. Years later they put in a couple footbridges and I used to enjoy walking around it. When I first visited it, there was an awesome metal bridge over the straightaway. There was a pedestrian underpass under the straightaway also, which had been blasted shut. I suppose it’s still there; kind of like a cave but it doesn’t go all the way through.

  • Batshitbox

    I like the idea of a monolithic, towering-over-all gasoline tank that anchors the infield, and has only one spout to supply all the cars.
    I’m not thinking this is the case with Meadowlands, but that image of the gasoline silo at the top of the post… it’s so authoritarian and also egalitarian. The silo was where all the farmers’ grain went at the end of harvest; everyone had to bring their grain to the silo, and everyone’s income came from the silo. Everyone’s year’s efforts got literally siloed into one great focal point that reminded everyone they were part of a community. The silos towered over all the fields, could be seen in all seasons from all fields, they were geophisically sort of godlike.
    (EDIT: Maybe shouldn’t have used the past tense regarding agribusiness.)

    What a great metaphor for “leveling the field” it would be to have a central race gas tank that made sure everyone was racing on the same fuel, and stood in the center, and attained the highest elevation, and looked out over the track as if the track was (despite any radical elevation challenges) just a level field.

    They don’t make ’em like they used to.

  • Tomsk

    Great stuff, Eric! It’s worth mentioning that the Monza Wall was removed and replaced a few years before the track closed with the flat, double-apex left whose remnants you saw.

    Interestingly, the original plans called for some additional connector roads that would have formed a trioval speedway; I can’t help but assume the transitions onto and off of the banking would have been, um, interesting…

    http://i586.photobucket.com/albums/ss309/1967z28/Oct%202012/Meadowdale5.jpg

    • The Rusty Hub

      I thought that was the case but wanted to get the story up so I left that vague. Place is awesome, would have been an insanely intimidating place to race, probably on par with Road America.

  • Batshitbox

    Off topic, I’m stumped as to who’s doing the Surf Music version of Hungarian Dance #5 at the beginning of the last video. So far I’ve found versions by Satan’s Pilgrims, The Red Elvises, The Surfcoasters and the Ventures (who called it “Rap City”, if that’s not way out)
    I can’t find any with that hand clap, but I’m loath to actually post a comment on the YerTubes page. In the name of science, I shall continue to listen to Surf Music until I find it!

  • outback_ute

    Very interesting, what a unique place. I’ve done a similar thing with the old Catalina Park circuit in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Lakeside which is north of Brisbane (and is still used a couple of times a year) plus the Lobethal Grand Prix road circuit in the Adelaide hills, all public roads so I drove that one. Also because it is over 8-1/2 miles around the lap!