A Field of Dreams - Stateline Speedway Is Built
November 14, 2010
Part 1 of 12
It was 1956. In an open field, on an otherwise wooded 77-acre abandoned farm located on a narrow dirt road in the Town of Busti, a dream became reality. There, on the Kortwright Road, just a couple of miles from their homes in neighboring Sugar Grove, Pa., five men began construction of a dirt oval that would change their lives and the lives of all who came in contact with Stateline Speedway from that day forward.
The vision for Stateline Speedway came from Leonard Briggs and his four friends - Lloyd Williams, Marv Thorpe and brothers, Don and Jerry Frank.
Len, a former stock car racer at several area tracks, was the president of the very popular and successful Skyline Speedway located a short jaunt from his home in Sugar Grove. Briggs and two Skyline partners, Cliff Coons and Lowell White, had introduced auto racing to the sleepy border town in 1954. Initially, "modifieds" competed on Sundays at the third-mile track that was set high on a hill just east of town. In 1955, the highly popular "late models" were added to the card at the appropriately named oval with the majestic view of the surrounding countryside.
Len's friends, Lloyd, Marv, Don and Jerry were valuable help at the Skyline speed plant. Williams, a former race car owner, was the announcer. Thorpe, a stock car jockey himself, served as the starter. The Frank boys groomed the track and helped take car of the facility.
Despite the apparent success at the front gate and with the racing action, all was not well at Skyline. Disagreements arose between Briggs and Coons. Len spoke with his four friends, Lloyd, Marv, Don and Jerry, about the ongoing problems. The five men decided to form a new venture with a plan to offer to purchase the track. Each borrowed $750 to fund the proposed operation. A meeting was arranged to make the purchase offer, however Coons did not want to sell. The Briggs consortium then made their next move. If they couldn't own Skyline, they'd open their own track. But where would they build such a facility?
While driving around the area looking for a suitable location the boys discovered the aforementioned parcel of land. Lloyd Williams went to the Town of Busti tax office and learned the property was owned by Gladys J. Gonzalves of Brooklyn.He telephoned the widow and learned she was willing to sell.
Since Jerry Frank had the most roadworthy vehicle in the group of partners, his 1952 Oldsmobile was commandeered by Lloyd and Don for a trip to Brooklyn to negotiate the purchase of the property. It was bought for the sum of $1.200, a little less than $16 per acre. Gonzalves inquired as to what plans the men had for the land. Lloyd told her that they planned to clear the land and "drive some posts." Almost certainly she must have assumed the men were going into farming. Lloyd and Don just smiled, knowing the only "plowing" that was going to occur would be from an ill-handling race car attempting to negotiate the turns at their soon-to-be built racetrack.
By April 1956 the deed was secured. At that time a building permit was not required in the Town of Busti, so the partners were able to begin construction immediately. Word of the operation quickly spread and lots of curious people came to see what was going on and many offered to help.
Ray Groves and Chet Loomis brought chain saws. The Lindstrom brothers, Charlie and Leon, along with Don White, brought tractors. Trees were cut from the woods. Some lumber was sold to gain operating capital while other wood was used to make fence posts, poles and bleachers.
Len owned an old grader with which he planned to carve out the track, but the first time it was driven onto the property, it sank into the soft-ground. Frank Darrow came to the rescue with his bulldozer. He did site work for the track and agreed to wait for payment until such a time as the partners could settle their debt.
A third-mile oval was laid out that featured 400-feet straightaways measuring 45 feet wide and turns with a 110-feet radius and 60 feet in width. Drainage lines were installed in the turns. The trench work was done by hand and lines were made of used pipe and well casings. Posts were driven into the ground around the outside edge of the track and well cable, pulled by Russ Thompson in his pickup truck, was strung between them. Beyond that an 8-foot high wheel fence was erected.
Rough-cut plank bleachers were constructed on both sides of the track. The grandstands were five rows high and seated approximately 1,500 on each side. Next, a crude restroom was built consisting of four walls and a partition down the middle to divide the building into a men's and women's section. Each half had six "holes.'' Concession stands were constructed behind both sets of bleachers with help from the Sugar Grove Volunteer Fire Department. A parking area for 3,000 vehicles was cleared between the track and the road.
Twelve 40-foot light poles were purchased from REA in Youngsville and transported to the track by Frank Briggs. Niagara Mohawk wanted $2,600 to run a power line to the facility. Allene Briggs, Len's mother, loaned the boys money for the project. The Niagara Mohawk crew helped dig some of the holes for the light poles while the rest were dug by hand. Tom Blodgett, who worked for the Jamestown Municipal Light Plant, helped Leonard, an accomplished electrician himself, install the lighting system. A public address system was strung.
The new track was almost complete, but what should it be called?
Skip Brown, another friend of the track owners, suggested the name Stateline to draw attention to its close proximity to the Pennsylvania-New York border. In fact, many people over the years have thought the actual New York-Pennsylvania border bisected the track. They would refer to the back straightaway as the "New York" side and the front stretch as the "Pennsylvania" side. Further adding to the legend that the state border ran through the middle of the track was the fact that beer was only sold one on side of the track. It was alleged the owners had secured a New York license to sell alcohol, but not a Pennsylvania license.
The truth of the matter is that the track lies solely within New York State. The actual New York-Pennsylvania border signs are a short distance down either the Busti-Sugar Grove Road to the east or the Big Tree Road to the west. Beer was sold on just one side in order to create alcohol and non-alcohol seating areas, a common concept in today's world, but revolutionary at the time.
After three months of feverish activity, Stateline Speedway was ready for a July grand opening.
Next, an unforgettable opening night and the rest of the 1956 season.