Omaha’s Auto Speedways
Most Omahans of just about any age are probably aware of Omaha’s horseracing history, with the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack drawing huge crowds to 67th and Center Street for decades. But even farther back, Omaha and Council Bluffs had a string of auto racing venues that brought in international talent and fostered a love for automobiles among many locals.
Auto racing has been around for just about as long as internal-combustion engines have. The first true race was a publicity stunt devised by two Parisian engineers and businessmen—in 1895, they raced each other from Paris to Bordeaux and back. The drivers averaged about 24km/h. The idea caught on immediately, with a similar race taking place in Illinois later that fall. By 1898, the close-circuit race was coming into fashion. It was easier to spectate, and safer for all parties involved.
The first speedway with banked curves was constructed in England in 1906, and they soon began popping up all over Europe and the United States. In order to tap into the demand that was showing itself in Kansas City, Chicago, Buffalo, Indianapolis, and many other cities, a group of Omaha investors created the Omaha Automobile Speedway Association in 1910. Members included local auto men Clark Powell, W.J. Kirkland, C.L. Gould, W.D. Hosford, O. Hibner, and T.F. Wilcox.
Though I was unable to find any explicit references to confirm this location, it seems that within a year, the Omaha Speedway track was built on the 1894 fair grounds between Elmwood Park and Center Street (almost exactly where the Ak-Sar-Ben track was built just a few years later). The streetcar didn’t run all the way out to the track, but free shuttles were offered to move people back and forth.
In the earliest days of auto racing, before specialized speed-focused design took over, the cars used were often brand prototypes for new models. Sometimes, companies would provide cars for publicity, and drivers gained reputations for representing specific producers. The Omaha Speedway Co. started strong, securing two cars each from the National, Black Crow, and Marmon factories, and six well-known drivers for its first race.
At left, mechanic Jack Henderson rides with Ohio-born racer Eddie Rickenbacker, who would soon go on to become a decorated fighter ace in WWI. This photo was taken at the East Omaha Speedway in 1916. Rickenbacker lived in Omaha for a few years between 1910 and 1913 as an employee at Firestone. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
In 1914, another track, called the East Omaha Speedway, opened at Carter Lake. It was 1.25 miles in circumference, and the track was made of lumber—3,000,000 feet of 2x4s laid on edge. To increase speed, the stretches were built at a pitch of 10 degrees, with the curves at a daring 42-degree pitch (about ten degrees steeper than the Daytona International Speedway). There was seating for 40,000 and parking for 5,000 cars.
Over the next few years, several international names, including Dario Resta (English-Italian), Hughie Hughes (English), Ralph de Palma (Italian), John de Palma (Italian), and other well-known American racers like Barney Oldfield, Willie Haupt, and Ralph Mulford all raced at the Speedway. The investment proved a popular one, with large crowds reported at many races. There was one hiccup—the Speedway built a lot of hype for a first-annual 300-mile race held on July 5, 1915, headlining many of the names mentioned above. Unfortunately, several of them were also in a race in Sioux City two days prior, which proved to be a dangerous mud bath. Several cars were destroyed and drivers didn’t have enough time for repairs, leaving many Omaha fans angry after a disappointing showing. The next year, they tried again, taking out a full-page ad in the Omaha World-Herald apologizing for the year before and explaining the new measures put in place to guard against another such unfortunate coincidence.
Official program from the ill-fated first-annual 300-mile race, 1915. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
The Omaha Auto Speedway was shuttered when the U.S. entered World War I, but racing came back into vogue in the years after the war. In the 1930s, small and fast “midget” cars became popular in the U.S. Omaha’s first race was held in 1935 at League Park on 15th and Vinton. Soon, small ¼-mile tracks were all over the Midwest. A short-lived park at 72nd and Pacific (called Indian Hills) featured “midget” races, as did Creighton University (they build a mini racetrack inside the perimeter of the running track).
Four women pose with a “midget” car, ca. 1940. These were often homemade racing cars just big enough to fit the driver. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
The Blue Heron Speedway, also known as Riverview Park Speedway, housed stock car, hot rod, and “midget” races for a few years in the 1950s, as did a tiny 1/8-mile track in Ralston.
Playland Park in Council Bluffs, which had long counted a track among its features, was transformed into a speedway-only venue for a few years between 1971-1977.
Finally, Sunset Speedway opened in the 1950s in northwest Omaha, and was Omaha’s main auto racing venue for four decades.
 “Automobile racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/sports/automobile-racing. Accessed July 29, 2021.
 “Plan to Make Omaha Auto Racing Center.” Omaha World-Herald. June 18, 1910. Page 11.
 “Speedway Improved for Races this Week.” Omaha World-Herald. June 4, 1911. Page 32.
 “Big Drivers Will Come to Omaha Meet.” Omaha World-Herald. August 7, 1910. Page 14.
 Chamberlen, Ross. “Diversified Program of Turkey Day Sport.” Omaha World-Herald. November 26, 1914. Page 8.
 “Facts About the Omaha Speedway.” Omaha World-Herald. June 15, 1915. Page 4.
 Program, Omaha Auto Speedway. July 5, 1915. Douglas County Historical Society.
 “Announcement to the Public in Regard to Championship Automobile Races to be Held at Omaha Speedway Saturday, July 15, 1915.” Omaha World-Herald. June 28, 1916. Page 13.
 Chambers, Keith W. “Souping up a Midget racing Car.” Omaha World Herald. July 25, 1948. Page 10-C.
 Ackerman, Lee. “Eddie Kracek – The Nebraska Midget Champion.” Midwest Racing Archives. http://www.midwestracingarchives.com/2012/02/eddie-kracek-nebraska-midget-champion.html. Accessed July 29, 2021.
 Warner, Richard. “A Popular Council Bluffs Business was Landmark of the Times.” Council Bluffs Business Journal. May 1, 2003.