Outagamie Speedway: A pavement pioneer
By David Buss and Ron Kowalke
Contributors, Full Throttle Magazine
A small, crude patch of asphalt driveway leading to nowhere is the unofficial — but appropriate — historical marker of Outagamie Speedway. The patch, on the west side of north Ballard Road near where it intersects County Road EE on the outskirts of Appleton, fronts a dirt berm that acts as a sound barrier to the housing complex behind it. The mansion-like homes behind this berm reside on the property that from 1953 through 1974 was the site of Outagamie Speedway, one of the first — if not the first — paved quarter-mile race tracks in Wisconsin.
The tight Outagamie Speedway oval hosted racing on Thursday nights for most of its 21 years of operation. Its small grandstand overflowed with spectators eager to see their favorite drivers such as “Smilin’ Clyde” Schumacher, Dave “The Outlaw” Conger, Lyle “Pappy” Diemel and Jerry “Medina” Smith bang wheels and bumpers while chasing checkered flags.
For the drivers, Outagamie Speedway was a change of pace as its asphalt surface was unique from most of the other local tracks that were dirt. These other tracks included De Pere and Oshkosh joining Outagamie to form the Fox Valley Stock Car Club, and Seymour, Shawano and Shiocton that comprised the Wolf River Racing Club. While Shiocton reportedly used road binder over dirt to create a hardened surface that reduced dust, Outagamie Speedway’s pavement offered a truly dust-free racing environment.
Origin in dust
A track that drivers crudely dubbed the “Dust Bowl” may be to thank for Outagamie Speedway becoming a paved track. Prior to Outagamie Speedway’s
1953 opening season, races were held in a nearby bowl-shaped ravine located further north on Ballard Road, west of the intersection of what is now Broadway Drive. This track’s official name was the Apple Bowl Raceway. The natural bowl-like terrain lent itself to carving out a short track, and the surrounding hillsides acted as “bleachers” for spectators.
George Giesen of Menasha built a coupe to race at the Apple Bowl in 1952, but he was not yet 21, the age a driver had to be to race, according to the rule book. He hired Tony Monday as his driver, and now chuckles at the memories of that early racing experience.
“The Apple Bowl was rougher than a corn cob,” Giesen recalls, making a roller coaster gesture with his hands to mimic how stock cars bounced around the track. He also remembers the thick clouds of dust that were kicked up during the races.
Giesen entered the military in late 1952, and when he returned and began his stock car driving career in 1955, it was at the paved Outagamie Speedway.
“It was great running on blacktop,” he remembers. “Everything else was dirt until KK [Sports Arena in Kaukauna was paved in 1967].”
When asked what he did to make his stock cars — always No. 7 and nicknamed “Purple Passion” for his trademark dark violet paint — run well on the pavement, he stresses, “There weren’t a lot of speed parts available.” Per the rules, locked rear ends were not allowed. He says one way around that was to scour salvage yards for Fords equipped with the 60-horsepower version of Ford’s flathead V-8, which came with a 4.44 rear gear that provided better launch off the corners than Ford’s more common 4.11 gear.
“It was nothing to have 50-60 stock cars show up,” Giesen says of the Thursday night racing at Outagamie Speedway. A few of the drivers he mentions that he most enjoyed racing against included Wild Bill Fitzgerald and Glenn Bessette whom Giesen tagged as “one of the wilder drivers.” Another competitor of Giesen’s in the early 1960s was Jerry Smith. Because there was another Smith racing at Outagamie Speedway at the time named J.J., to avoid confusion between the two, Fox Valley Stock Car Club president Orv Kurey referred to J.J. as “Appleton” Smith and Jerry as “Medina” Smith, named after their respective hometowns.
“I thought it was kind of neat that Orv called me ‘Medina’ Smith and it kind of stuck,” Smith says of his racing legacy.
Smith began racing at Outagamie Speedway in 1960. He worked with Clyde Schumacher in an auto body business, and “Smilin’ Clyde,” who had been racing for a number of years by then, had his stock cars in the shop and curiosity about racing got the best of Smith.
“My first car was a 1935 Plymouth coupe,” Smith recalls, adding that most of the cars were coupes then. He named a later 1957 Chevrolet he helped build along with Mike Randerson — who later founded RanderCar Racing Enterprises, a noted race chassis building business — as his favorite. He won often with that Chevy racing at Outagamie, Oshkosh and De Pere during a driving career that spanned 18 years.
“We had to make everything, and used a lot of stuff from trucks,” notes Smith on how he made his stock cars both durable and fast. This combination was necessary, according to Smith, as he states Outagamie Speedway was “tricky” to navigate and had walls formed from upright railroad ties, which tore up the cars that made contact with them.
The ownership end
The rough and dusty nature of the Apple Bowl track was the catalyst for Carl W. Krause to build a quarter-mile track in a new location, with a new name, Outagamie Speedway. The owner of an excavating business, Krause had the proper heavy equipment to do the job correctly. After initially attempting to create a racing surface that Giesen described as “cold patch,” a mixture of pebbles held together with road binder — and which proved not to work at all, disintegrating as the cars raced over it — Krause switched to “hot patch,” a proven asphalt surface that served Outagamie Speedway well until its demise in late 1974.
There were several different promoters of Outagamie Speedway through its 21 years of operation. Each promoter, in succession, leased the track from Krause. During its final three years of operation, 1972-74, the promoter was Gordy Baumgart, who operated Baumgart Tire, a tire dealership in Appleton.
According to the late Baumgart’s son, John, operating Outagamie Speedway was the perfect tie-in to the family’s tire business, as Baumgart Tire was also the area’s racing tire distributor at that time. He added that Gordy had also raced at the Apple Bowl and just enjoyed stock car racing. “Dad raced an old Hudson and he rolled it all the time,” John remembers.
That early topsy-turvy racing experience may have prompted Gordy Baumgart to start a tradition when he became promoter of Outagamie Speedway. John jokes, “Dad always gave away a case of beer to the first driver who rolled over on race night.”
John, along with his mom and brothers had specific duties to perform, both on race nights and during the week. His main job at the track, he recalls, was to keep the pit area clean. He met all the drivers, but his fondest memory is of “Pappy” Diemel, who was also the track’s welder on race nights.
“‘Pappy’ used to chew on an unlit cigar, even when he raced. You could always tell when it got close to being time for him to race, because that old cigar would be rolling back-and-forth in his mouth quicker and quicker,” he recalls.
Even though the three years that his father promoted the racing at Outagamie Speedway were successful, according to John, the track was eventually done in by senseless vandalism.
“Vandals would shoot out the lights on the poles and smash the toilets,” John remembers. Since the Baumgarts were leasing the track from Krause, the repair bills ate into operating profits to the point Gordy Baumgart opted out of promoting Outagamie Speedway after completing the 1974 season.
For several years after that, while the track sat idle, its paved oval and front stretch wall remained in place. A trench was dug across the back straight to prevent trespassers from racing their street cars around the quarter mile. Eventually the property was sold and expensive houses were erected, erasing all evidence that a race track had ever occupied the site.
Well, almost all evidence. Giesen relates a story he heard that when the basement was being dug for one of the houses on the property, a chunk of an old stock car was discovered buried in the ground.
But for those who raced on or attended Outagamie Speedway during its 21 years of existence, it offered stock car thrills and spills, and the pleasant memories will not fade.
“To this day,” John Baumgart says, “we still get people coming in [Baumgart Tire] and telling us they wish the track was still going.”
(This article first appeared in the July 2011 issue of Full Throttle Magazine.)