Lyndon Johnson was president, Sonny and Cher had the hit song “I Got You Babe” and a gallon of gasoline was 31 cents. The year was 1965 and the sport of auto racing had come to the small town of Placerville.
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This week Placerville Speedway celebrates its 48th year of operation this season as one of the best Saturday night racing programs on the west coast. So just how did this unique racetrack carved into the side of a hill in the mother lode come about? It all started when two men had a vision of bringing great family entertainment into a rural community.
Formerly known as Anderson Field, the arena and main grandstand that is now known as Placerville Speedway was originally built by the El Dorado County Fair during the winter months of 1956. During the opening ceremony for the 1957 county fair, the newly constructed field was dedicated on Aug. 16 to the late Leo J. Anderson.
Anderson was a local veterinarian, rancher and teacher who passed away after a sudden illness in 1955 while serving as president of the El Dorado County Fair Board. In the beginning, Anderson Field was used for various fair activities and later became host to the El Dorado High School Football team. Eight years later, fair manager Warren Jewitt teamed up with a man by the name of Bruno Romani and auto racing was born in a county best known for agriculture and gold discovery.
Romani was a successful auto-racing promoter who operated tracks in both Roseville and Auburn. Constructing a clay racing surface around the perimeter of the football field, Jewitt and Romani created what was originally known as “Hangtown Speedway,” Auto racing took place here for the first time on June 18, 1965 and local residents packed the grandstands opening day.
In the beginning, the track was host to hardtop racers which were passenger cars made no later than 1953. Drivers competed for points between Placerville Speedway and the old Auburn Raceway, under the sanction of the Central State Racing Association (CSRA). Sacramento driver Don Nelson became Placerville Speedway’s first CSRA champion late that summer.
Gene Gillihan, who still owns and operates a local radiator shop around the corner from the speedway, was one of the early drivers at Placerville Speedway. As a local native and businessman that continues to help nearly any racer who asks, Gillihan knows what professional sports mean to a small foothill town like Placerville.
“Placerville Speedway was one of the best things to happen to this county and is a great source of family entertainment. After they built that track, people took an interest in racing as families. It really involved the whole community from day one,” Gillihan said. “This community is lucky to have something like that to this day.”
Like most retired racers, Gillihan has much memorabilia and a tale that goes with each piece of it. One photograph pictures three sets of brothers lined up in front of their cars. The racing suits were nothing more than a pair of tennis shoes or boots, white jeans and T-shirts. “Racing was so less expensive then it was pretty common for brothers to race together. It was a lot of fun but it was amazing we never burned up in those kind of clothes, we were our mother’s biggest nightmare,’’ Gillihan said.
When Gillihan raced, he drove side by side with many drivers who now have children or grandchildren racing. Examples include last names like Sellers, Morrison, Bradway, Burt and Crockett to name a few. One of the biggest names to compete with Gillihan and the Wessels back then was a driver named Doug Gandy.
A former resident of Pollock Pines, Gandy became one of the track’s top drivers, eventually winning titles in 1975, 1977 and 1978. Now over the age of 60, Gandy resides in Oakhurst continues to race sprint cars today with the traveling King of the West Series.
“I have some great memories at Placerville, “ said Gandy. “I’m not quite sure what we would have done as a family back then if they hadn’t built it. It’s a special place to me and I look forward to coming back. I’m not too old yet to stop racing but when I am I will always appreciate those days racing here and all the great fans.”
In 1968, management of “Old Hangtown” was taken over by local businessmen Al Hinds and Rich Hirst. The eager duo worked hard to bring the speedway and the community together in the early years. Their commitment to the fans and area businesses built a legacy that lives 48 years strong and their success is well recognized by the drivers and speedway personnel today.
In 1972 Hirst and Hinds added a claimer division to the program and three divisions raced weekly for points. In addition to adding stock cars to the regular program, they added special events such as powderpuff derbies and sponsor races before resigning in 1973.
Although he was no longer involved with the management, Hinds remained very active in the local sport for the many years that followed. He attended the events weekly up until his passing in 2004. In honor of his commitment to the sport and the community that surrounds it, a special race takes place annually with the Thompson’s Auto Center “Tribute to Al Hinds” featuring the Civil War Sprint Cars and additional winnings.
The following year the duo stepped down from their successful reign and Placerville Speedway underwent a series of short-term custody changes. The next three years saw management become a team effort between four individuals, Bob Rodriguez, Tom Snider, John Henderson and Andy Kovach. While the other three eventually resigned, Kovach stayed involved and teamed up with the late George Stefanski of Placerville in 1975.
Much like Hinds, Stefanski was all about improvement, enlarging the track and making several facility enhancements. The local team operated the track for four years, during which time Super Stocks joined the program and hardtops transformed into super modifieds.
In 1979, Kovach and Stefanski sold the track promotion to David Grizzel who operated under the same format until 1981 when the duo of Al Youngblood and Arnold Brink took over the business for a single year. In 1982, racing promoter, John Padjen, came aboard at the request of the fairground to rescue the community icon that was beginning to struggle in the way of management efforts.
Already a successful motor sports promoter in Sacramento, Dixon and Chico, Padjen moved in and molded the foothill race facility into the successful, competitive track it is today. Padjen established a consistent Saturday night program following his first race in April of 1982 to improve safety and visibility for both drivers and fans. He also chose to change the name of the track from “Hangtown” to Placerville Speedway so the sport became associated with the community.
During his reign, which spanned more than half of the 42 year of operation here, Padjen and his staff have improved the racing program to new levels. His reign has been witness to many of the track’s notable events.
During Padjen’s term, technology launched new divisions and canceled others. The year he took the track over was the first year that sprint cars raced on the weekly program. In 1989 the super modifieds were replaced with today’s Limited Sprints, which have since become the most populated open wheel racing division in California and Oregon.
Through the decades, divisions such as Super Stocks transitioned into California Modifieds, Claimers became Street Stocks and both divisions have since transformed into Pro Stocks and Pure Stocks.
Lap times for sprint cars have dropped from the 13-second mark into the nine-second neighborhood and safety equipment has been greatly improved for both spectators and drivers alike and is always a top priority. Mike Nichols of Folsom is the only race car driver to lose his life in a racing accident at Placerville Speedway in 1988.
In 2009 Handy Racing Promotions Incorporated assumed the promotership of the facility. With a new management team that has 30 years of experience behind them, they continue to carry on family tradition and put affordable family entertainment to the top of the to do list. Alan and Diane Handy have put their own mark on the long list of Placerville Speedway land mark events, bringing National attention back to the track in 2011 with the American Sprint Car Series and new weekly features to the racing program that appeal to fans of all ages such as a Kids Dash and more.
Despite the continued rise of operation costs and an economy that continues to be troubled, Placerville Speedway has reached a milestone, with 44 years of continued operation as one of California’s oldest and most successful motor sports venues. The facility that was once known as home to a “Small Town Saturday Night” is now nationally recognized in the nation as one of the crown jewels in dirt track racing.