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Archive for Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: The Days of Drag Strip Road

September 1, 2013

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This tucked-away West Lawrence location looks like the site of a crash: There's a broken guardrail — a wooden one, no less — pieces of debris scattered along cracked asphalt, and just for good measure, an empty Budweiser can in the middle of the pavement.

Tim Wudarczyk, longtime owner of Lawrence’s A-1 Automotive, was heavily into the drag-racing scene that decades ago dominated a strip of land in west Lawrence that’s now known as Wakarusa Drive. The local racing culture drew people to town from a “130-mile radius,” he says.

Tim Wudarczyk, longtime owner of Lawrence’s A-1 Automotive, was heavily into the drag-racing scene that decades ago dominated a strip of land in west Lawrence that’s now known as Wakarusa Drive. The local racing culture drew people to town from a “130-mile radius,” he says.

Tim Wudarczyk’s collection of race car photos includes a picture of the Jayhawker Dragster owned by Tim Baxter, who passed away last year.

Tim Wudarczyk’s collection of race car photos includes a picture of the Jayhawker Dragster owned by Tim Baxter, who passed away last year.

But don't wait around this scene for a police officer or anyone else to respond. It's not that type of crash site. Instead, this little quarter-mile spot just west of Wakarusa Drive is where two cultures collided a generation ago: Lawrence's white-collar growth machine and the city's once thriving blue-collar drag racing gang.

"It was a (expletive)hole, but it was a lot of good times," Tim Wudarczyk said of the quarter-mile sheet of asphalt simply known as the Lawrence Drag Strip. "We would run 300 cars through there on a Saturday night."

But those days are as gone as a new flathead Ford. Wudarczyk, who has owned Lawrence's A-1 Automotive for the past 34 years, said he made the last pass on the drag strip in October of 1986. He was driving a souped-up Rambler, of all things. An odd drag racing car, but perhaps fitting, because these days drag racing and Lawrence are a hard pairing to picture.

"It was kind of just all of a sudden" Wudarczyk recalled about the end of days for the drag strip. "The developers came and it just went away."

A clash of cultures, and the big wheels of a dragster stood little chance against the big wheels of Lawrence.

•••

You have to admit, it would be pretty cool to have a Lawrence street named "Drag Strip Road." There still are a few Lawrence residents who remember the days when the city basically did.

The gravel road just on the outskirts of the western edge of the city was almost universally known throughout the county as Drag Strip Road, which made sense because you had to take the road to get to the near-weekly races.

Now we know it by another name: Wakarusa Drive, the main thoroughfare for the office parks and suburbia that make up West Lawrence.

"As soon as the area got annexed into the city, one of the first things out of the city commissioners' mouths was, 'We have to do something about the problem of the drag strip,'" Wudarczyk recalled. "We were like, what problem?"

There's no question who won the debate, although it has not yet been a complete victory for development. The drag strip is still visible, if you know where to look. Its eastern end is behind Kansas University's Wakarusa Research Facility in the 1300 block of Wakarusa. Nice West Lawrence homes sit near the drag strip's western end. Research Park Drive bisects the decaying stretch of asphalt. As the economy improves and development picks back up in coming years, all signs of the drag strip are likely to be lost.

Wudarczyk understands that. Racing is noisy, and old-time drag strips are falling by the wayside in lots of places, although somehow Manhattan has managed to hang onto its raceway. But what Wudarczyk has a harder time understanding is why city leaders wouldn't at least tip their hats to what a group of gearheads and guys with grease under their fingernails had built, part of the city's legacy.

"For a long time, Lawrence was an island for hot rodders," Wudarczyk said. "We used to draw folks in here from a 130-mile radius, easy.

"But when it came into the city, they wouldn't even name the street Drag Strip Road. It was a part of our culture, but I'm not sure many people know that anymore."

•••

You can't blame Wudarczyk for being a little bitter about that. If the city had a street named Drag Strip Road, surely he would have a lot more natural opportunities to tell some great stories.

Like when as a 16-year old he lied to his mom and said he was going to the lake — and instead drove from Hays to Manhattan to race. It was a good plan until he won $500 and had to have his mom's help to cash the check.

She cashed it, but not before giving a warning. "You know," she said, "it is going to really hurt when you hit something going fast."

He could tell the story about having to admit to her that she was right. That involved a 1998 crash at Topeka's Heartland Park. He put his 1,078-horsepower Pontiac Firebird into not one, but two walls at 160 miles per hour. He said he had three thoughts in rapid succession during the accident: 1. The guy in the next lane is going to hit him in the cockpit and take off his legs. 2. When that didn't happen because his opponent's car began cartwheeling down the track, he believed the other car was going to land on top of him and catch them both on fire. 3. And then, of course, there was the other wall he was hurtling toward, with a throttle stuck wide open.

"I thought I was going to hit the wall and die," he said. "All I could think is: 'Don't let them see this.' My wife and son were sitting in the trailer in the garage area."

Wudarczyk hit the wall, but he walked away, hurting in places he said he didn't know he had. The next morning, before his mother could read the newspaper, he called her. He told her she was right. It hurt.

But not enough to stop Wudarczyk, now 58, from traveling the country and racing for many more years. There is a thrill to the racing, the speed, he says. But describing that thrill is one story he can't tell, at least not in most circles.

"I could describe the thrill to you, but you couldn't print it," he told me.

He's right. I can't print it and its language and keep my job. Let's just say he finds it awfully exciting.

•••

Lawrence Drag Strip had its share of excitement as well. Like the night a whole bunch of cops showed up. At first, a single deputy came by, saying there had been a report of a plane crash in the area. No, it was just a blown motor that shot a little fire into the air. But then, another deputy arrived, followed by several police officers.

"There wasn't a problem," Wudarczyk said. "They just decided they wanted to watch some racing."

There used to be quite a few people who wanted to watch it, and quite a few who wanted to do it, said Don Baxter, who once owned Lawrence's nationally-renowned Don's Speed Shop and is considered the granddaddy of Lawrence drag racing.

Baxter and a Lawrence High auto shop teacher, Bill Prince, were part of the group that started the drag strip in the 1950s. It seemed like a natural thing to do.

"Racing is all I dreamed about while I was in the service," said Baxter, who now is in his 80s. "I just always liked hot rods, and there were quite a few guys who liked the same thing."

But apparently, those guys weren't in the Lawrence halls of power in the 1980s, when the track closed.

"I guess it just didn't fit with the image of the city," Baxter said of why the track was shut down.

Maybe that's so. After all, Lawrence builds its reputation on the science and scholarship that happens on the top of a hill; not on the speed and swagger that happens on a quarter-mile flat stretch of ground.

An inevitable clash of cultures, or so it seemed.

But it's funny how things work out. Even though the drag strip was gone, Wudarczyk stayed in drag racing. He focused on his son's driving career, which began at age 12 with junior dragsters.

The junior dragster program gave college scholarships to its top performers, which always seemed odd to Wudarczyk.

"Then somebody told me it is because these companies know these little gearheads are going to become their next engineers," Wudarczyk said.

Sure enough, Wudarczyk's son used drag racing to immerse himself in math and science.

"For my generation, this sport was all about hauling ass," Wudarczyk said. "For his, it is all about the science of it."

Wudarczyk's son, Tyler, now 27, is a mechanical engineer for a manufacturing and design firm — and he's still racing.

Maybe the cultures weren't that different after all. But that should come as no surprise. Throughout history there are plenty of signs of cultures misunderstanding each other.

In West Lawrence, where Drag Strip Road used to be, they read: Wakarusa Drive.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at clawhorn@ljworld.com.

Comments

godsnewine777 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Fun? The Soap Box Derby Car Races that took place at the top of Mississippi Street on Campus, racing North (down hill) toward 9th Street. Home made cars with sons/daughters and Dads made to race.

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blindrabbit 7 months, 2 weeks ago

While the discussion centers on the dragstrip what about another 1950's Lawrence icon located just a mile further west on what is now 800 Rd. Sycamore Hollow ,Nudist Camp was quite a happening, will never forget the lovely Donna and her set of handsome twins.

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blindrabbit 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Flint: Thanks for the back, it was Art Afrons with the "jet powered". He had several different versions. Fuzzy, not only did they change from Dragstrip to Wakarusa, but the old Yankee Tank Lake is now called Lake Alvamar for Bob Billings parents Alvin and Margaret (I think).

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fuzzynavel 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Back when I five year old my parents ran the concession trailer. Good times. Now I've always wondered why it wasn't named drag strip road because to this day I still don't know who the heck Bob Billings was and why we had to change the name if that road. Maybe we can rename Wakrusa Dr to Drag Strip Rd.

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FlintlockRifle 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Hey there B.R, yes Bill home was on east side of the road. Bill had the flathead Lincoln rail, and he also owned the Allison but never did put it in a rail .I don't remember how the KVTA was involved, yes Big Daddy did run his SWAMP RAT, but had to shut it down, stopping area was not that long,and kinda rough, and there was a pond on west end if you didn't shut it down in time. and you are very welcome, really great times Art Arthon(?) was the guy with the jet power dragster and who blew the fence down, what a sight to see and hear. I still have my ""Crusader"" white shirt, all the years washing it must have shrunk it, don't fit====

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blindrabbit 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Wasn't Pirince's house on the east side of Dragstrip Road just north of 15th Street? Who had the flathead Lincoln powered dragster, also the Allison powered? How was the KVTA (Kaw Valley Timing Association) associated with the strip? Last one, am I mistaken that Don Garlets paid a visit to the strip? thanks for the memories.

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FlintlockRifle 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Chad, thanks for finding a great story, back when times were much simpler. In the 50's when our car club the ""Crusaders"' which Bill Prince was the guy who opened his home to a bunch of ""kids""each evening an weekends to meet and have fun around his inground pool, and use his garage to work on your rod. His wife Betty was just the sweetest lady , putting up with all these guys coming and going around there place.When the idea to build the strip down the road north a little ways from his home came up the club said they would clear the ground which was mostly brush and trees, well that worked well for a few evening and weekends, each work day fewer and fewer kids would show up, and finally Bill got somebody with a bulldozer to clear and grade the ground, and then put down blacktop. One side note Bill Prince was the auto machanic teacher at L.H.S, just one ""Prince" of a teacher and all round great man.

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Jeremy Farmer 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Both of my parents raced there, and I vaguely remember being there as a young child. Dad raced his dragbike and Mom raced her datsun. I have grown up with a passion for NHRA Drag Racing, and even attended Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in Florida to get my license in Super Comp.

One of the cool things that made Lawrence what it was. I drive down Wakarusa frequently and think of Lawrence Dragway. I wish there was a way we could get a strip back in Lawrence!

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Tanked 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Excellent story!!! I have been to the track back in the 70's as a kid. A friend of mines Dad from Bonner Springs raced there. I also seen people on the You Tube videos. Unbelievable. I seen two people who I now work with and have for years and a guy I went to school with. What a incredible walk back in time. Also went to the drive in out there to. Back then if we had to prove something, you put your car on the track and the best man won. Now sadly its settled with a shooting in the parking lot of one of our less than stellar bars. Reeving motors or the sound of gun shots.You tell me what choices do people have now?

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bradbernhardt 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Search "Lawrence Dragway" on YouTube and enjoy great home video movies of the strip during its heyday. There are also movies of the old Kaw Valley Dragway in Topeka from the 60's & 70's. It was located on Lower Silver Lake Road in North Topeka.

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richfree 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Ran a 64 Ford Galaxie out there , 390 4 speed, against lots of local talent, including the Jim Clark guys, Shaake Pontiac crew and of course, the James Gang. A real Blast !!

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Jim Fisher 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I cringed a little bit every time I read 1/4 mile. A small detail lost between the author and the interviewee, but it affected the pace of an otherwise nice piece of nostalgia. I once called an editor over the reporting of a story that the writer obviously had no knowledge of the subject. In the style of voice Mr. Lawhon uses, which I enjoy, he kinda blew it this time

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Starlight 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I remember one time they had a jet-powered dragster there. It blew the sheet metal away that covered the fence between the track and road. Fence might have been staged for show but it was a blast. Got to run dad's roadster and rode with friends. Good times.

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LogicMan 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Roller coaster, drag strip, putt-putt, dirt track, horse racing track, roller rink, drive in theater, and what else fun has dissappeared from this town?

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flattracker 7 months, 2 weeks ago

never a 1/4 mile track, always 1/8 mile

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Lathrup 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Back in the day I took a 1972 Norton Commando out there regular. Had to buy 3rd layshaft gears 3 at a time because it would shell one out about every 4th pass. Best was a 7.99 and got paired off against a dragster. I was half way down the strip before he got the green and he still beat me. What memories!

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rtwngr 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I remember the dirt track that sat on the north side of the drag strip where they used to stage jalopy races too. Good times. Great memories. The developers, and they know who they are, that were on or controlling the city council back then killed the drag strip in the name of development. Still it was inevitable that the city would grow that direction.

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Liberty275 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Wudarczyk is a great transmission man.

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Michelle Reynolds 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Tim is a great car mechanic. He maintains all my families cars. A-1 over on Pennsylvania Street.

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truthbetold7 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I remember Drag Strip Road! My family moved to Lawrence from Calif. in 1971, & we lived on Randall Rd. (west of Kasold Dr). There was nothing but farmland between our backyard & the drag-strip, so you could hear the races off in the distance. I attended Lawrence High at the time & Tim Baxter was in a couple of my classes. I didn't know of anyone who raced there, or ever saw any of the races, but now I wish I had at least once!

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Jstanobservation 7 months, 2 weeks ago

When I raced there it was only a 1/8 mile track.

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