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Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Natalie Kammerer


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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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).[4] The streetcar didn’t run all the way out to the track, but free shuttles were offered to move people back and forth.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]  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).[12]

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.[13]

Finally, Sunset Speedway opened in the 1950s in northwest Omaha, and was Omaha’s main auto racing venue for four decades.

[1] “Automobile racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/sports/automobile-racing. Accessed July 29, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Plan to Make Omaha Auto Racing Center.” Omaha World-Herald. June 18, 1910. Page 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Speedway Improved for Races this Week.” Omaha World-Herald. June 4, 1911. Page 32.

[6] “Big Drivers Will Come to Omaha Meet.” Omaha World-Herald. August 7, 1910. Page 14.

[7] Chamberlen, Ross. “Diversified Program of Turkey Day Sport.” Omaha World-Herald. November 26, 1914. Page 8.

[8] “Facts About the Omaha Speedway.” Omaha World-Herald. June 15, 1915. Page 4.

[9] Program, Omaha Auto Speedway. July 5, 1915. Douglas County Historical Society.

[10] “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.

[11] Chambers, Keith W. “Souping up a Midget racing Car.” Omaha World Herald. July 25, 1948. Page 10-C.

[12] 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.

[13] Warner, Richard. “A Popular Council Bluffs Business was Landmark of the Times.” Council Bluffs Business Journal. May 1, 2003.

College World Series, Part I: Omaha Municipal Stadium, 1950-1963

June is just around the corner, and for the past 70 years, Omahans have expected the month to bring hordes of baseball fans flocking to town. This year’s cancellation of the College World Series has left thousands, both in Omaha and across the country, missing baseball in general and the CWS in particular. Over the next few weeks, we are going to look back on the history of the CWS in Omaha to see how the Series has evolved over the years and how it has shaped our city in turn.

For a handful of years between 1936 and 1948, Omaha had no baseball on any kind of scale. A fire destroyed the city’s League Park on 13th and Vinton, and World War II put a hold on any kind of replacement. Then the mid-1940’s saw an initiative to build a new ball park in Omaha – future mayor Johnny Rosenblatt and some of his friends spearheaded a movement to bring a AAA franchise to Omaha, but were at first turned down because Omaha didn’t have a good enough stadium. In the following years, Rosenblatt worked with the city to finance the construction of Municipal “Muny” Stadium. A 40-acre parcel at 13th and Deer Park Blvd was purchased for $17.00 and ground was broken in 1945.[1] Construction would continue until 1948.

The men in this photograph served on the Municipal Stadium construction crew.

The Omaha Cardinals began their season in Muny Stadium in 1949. That same year, the park was also selected to host the American Legion World Series for 1949 and 1950. The next year, it was also selected to host the 1950 collegiate tournament, then called the National College Baseball Finals. The series had begun three years earlier in 1947, and in those first years, games had been played in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Wichita, Kansas.

When the athletic director for the University of Minnesota scouted the stadium in February of that year, he came away impressed and ready to recommend that it be used that summer. “This is the finest baseball park in America…Your Omaha civic leaders make it plain they want this meet to come here, and I will be frank in saying that I am ready to recommend that the meet be held in Omaha.”[2]

Its first year in Omaha, the opening of the National College Baseball Finals generated quite a buzz. They reported about 2,200 spectators at the opening game on June 15 (for a bit of context, Rosenblatt’s final capacity was 23,145 seats, and TDA Park holds 24,000)! Box-seat tickets were sold in advance for $1.25 and bleacher seats were available on game day for 75 cents.[3] The Omaha World Herald described the players as “hell-for-leather holler guys,” and both games on the opening day—Texas vs. Rutgers and University of Wisconsin vs. Colorado A&M—ended in upsets. Texas lost their first game, but went on to become the first champions of the Omaha tournament.

Texas star pitcher and 1950 National College Baseball Champion Jim Ehrler in action. Photo credit: Omaha World Herald, June 20, 1950.

A rainy weekend during the tournament raised questions of whether enough Omahans would come out to support the event,[4] and there were rumors that the tournament might transfer to Los Angeles the following year.[5] Fortunately, the coaches and NCAA officials agreed that bad weather and only one year’s precedent wasn’t enough to break with plans to return to Omaha the following year. The contract was renewed, and the College World Series would continue to be held at Omaha Stadium until 1964.

CWS Program and scorebook.

College World Series advertising, ca. 1960.

More next week on the stadium so many college baseball fans came to know and love from 1964 to 2010!

Natalie Kammerer

[1] Esser, Bruce. “Nebraska Minor League Baseball: Omaha Municipal Stadium, Rosenblatt Stadium” 2009. http://www.nebaseballhistory.com/muni.html.

[2] “Omaha Is Favored For Meet.” Omaha World Herald, February 10, 1950.

[3] “Meet Tickets To Go On Sale.” Ibid, June 2, 1950.

[4] “Schools Take The Loss.” Ibid, June 20, 1950.

[5] “Los Angeles To Seek Tourney If Omaha Doesn’t Want It.” Ibid, June 17, 1950.



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