Love for racing runs from generation to generation
BEDFORD, Pa. (AP) — Some of Joe Padula’s earliest memories are from long days and late nights at the Bedford Fairgrounds Speedway.
Gathering up a jumpsuit, boots and a helmet, the majority of his summer nights revolved around racing or fixing cars with his dad.
While those memories were special to him, he said they certainly are not unique.
That, he said, is what makes the Bedford Speedway so special.
“There really is nothing as exciting or special as attending the Bedford Speedway, and it really is a family affair,” said Padula, who is the current race promoter for the speedway. “It’s such a prestigious venue, and it holds a special place in all of our hearts.”
The Bedford Speedway, which is the oldest dirt track in Pennsylvania, celebrated its 85th anniversary this summer.
With a cherished past, leaders at the speedway are taking the proper steps to help preserve those stories and create new ones along the way.
Like many who are involved with the speedway, Padula was introduced to racing by his parents.
Padula was just 3 years old when his father, also named Joe, took over as the race promoter in 1988, and he cited his father as the reason he first fell in love with the sport.
He said that is a common trope throughout the racing community.
“More than half of our racing roster is the son or grandson of a former racer,” Padula said. “We have people that are third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation racers.”
Eric Zembower, who is a historian of the speedway, spent a long career racing on the speedway and won 19 championships throughout his tenure.
Now serving as the lead announcer for the speedway, he has one of the best seats in the house to watch the action.
While he has witnessed several new faces get behind the wheel over the years, Zembower said many of today’s racers are the offspring of former friends or competitors from his racing days.
“It really has become a family tradition,” Zembower said. “It’s a hobby and a passion that is passed down from generation to generation.”
But regardless if a racer has deep familial roots or is a first-generation competitor, officials said there is only one family at the Bedford Speedway.
“A lot of people really don’t recognize the historical and cultural significance that the Bedford Speedway has to our area,” said Kellie Goodman Shaffer, President and CEO of the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce. “The culture is family-oriented, and it’s full of amazing people that work hard to preserve a landmark that is so important to the fabric of Bedford County.”
Making the grade
Jake Hoover won’t be the first to tell you that maintaining a speedway is busy work.
Hoover, who is now chairman of the race committee for the Bedford County Fair Board, was raised directly next to the fairgrounds and devoted much of his childhood volunteering there.
His grandfather was the caretaker for the fairgrounds and the speedway for several years, and he said he spent most of his childhood summers putting in sweat equity at the speedway.
“My family wanted to be close to the fairgrounds because it was such a big part of our lives,” Hoover said. “I always tagged along with my grandfather, and working at the fairgrounds and the speedway became part of my DNA. It’s close to home, and the races were always bigger than life to me. It’s been a way of life for 70 years.”
Hoover eventually got behind the wheel as the years passed, and he also was the fairgrounds caretaker for several years before retiring into an administrative role.
But through all the different hats he has worn at the speedway, Hoover said he is just as busy now as he was when he was a kid.
“We often question our sanity of why we put so many hours and late nights into doing this,” Hoover said. “But we keep coming back because we love what we’re doing.”
Zembower spent a long career as a racer at the track, and he acknowledged that there were several sacrifices he made all the way.
“Owning and racing a car is really a nightly commitment,” Zembower said. “If you want to win and be a good racer, you are working on your car every single night.”
Owning a race car or volunteering at the speedway involves “blood, sweat and tears,” and there are many frustrating or disappointing nights with the ultra-competitive roster of drivers at the track.
But, when a driver finally passes under the checkered flag and takes first, speedway leaders said there is no better feeling.
“I’ve seen so many grown men become so emotional from winning a big race,” Zembower said. “These people, along with their pit crews and families, put in so many hours and make so many sacrifices. When they finally win, they feel a big weight drop from their shoulders and sometimes struggle to contain their emotion. It’s a special sight to see.”
Although it is now the oldest dirt track in Pennsylvania, the Bedford Speedway wasn’t even the first track in the region.
The area had several speedways, including tracks in Tipton and the Blair County Fairgrounds.
Altoona had a 1-mile track in the early 1900s and featured Indy car races.
But after the stock market crashed in 1929, the track failed.
The wooden structure rotted and collapsed, creating an urgent need for another race track in the area.
At the time, officials from the Bedford County Fairgrounds were looking to expand their horse track, which spanned just a half mile and was not oval shaped like a traditional speedway.
The fairgrounds received assistance through the Works Progress Administration, and after being approached by the American Automobile Association, which governed races at the time, the current facility was erected in 1936.
“The fair board worked to get funding through the WPA grant,” Hoover said. “The fair board had the foresight at the time that Bedford could be a viable location for a successful race track.”
The speedway experienced several upgrades and renovations over the years to bring it up to modern times, but historians said the track at its core has remained intact for 85 years.
“We’ve survived all this time,” Zembower said. “The speedway is a little bit higher banked now, but it’s still the same footprint from when it was originally built.”
In just a short amount of time, the Bedford Speedway was an instant success for local residents, and it drew national attention.
Famed driver Mario Andretti raced at the track in 1960 and 1961, and over the past 85 years, numerous driving legends have made the trip to Bedford to compete on the prestigious speedway.
“The greatest racer to ever live once raced at our track,” Zembower said in reference to Andretti. “Not too many places get to say that.”
Preserving the past
The Bedford Speedway certainly has a rich history, but as generations pass through, officials said it is integral that the track’s famous story remains.
Plans are underway for a $4 million facility — the Museum of Speed — that will house antique race cars, jumpsuits, documents, photographs and various other memorabilia.
“We want to acknowledge all those people that laid the groundwork for us,” Hoover said. “There’s been so many families, generation after generation, that have helped build this place.”
The museum, Zembower said, will be constructed directly on the Bedford Fairgrounds and will overlook the speedway.
“We have so much memorabilia and so many stories that deserve to be passed onto the next generation,” Padula said. “We have a responsibility to preserve the history of the speedway.”
While the museum will include plenty of history from the Bedford Speedway, it will act as a preservation of racing from several counties and from nearby states such as Maryland.
Funds are still being raised for the project, but when complete, speedway leaders said it will serve as a showpiece for racing throughout the region and include the history of racing from counties such as Blair, Cambria, Huntingdon and Somerset.
“This is going to cover over a 100-mile radius of race tracks throughout the region,” Zembower said. “This is not only going to be a celebration of racing in Bedford County, but also to remember other tracks and events in many different counties.”
With efforts still underway to cover the total cost of the museum, a temporary museum is planned for downtown Bedford.
A permanent museum will take time to fully develop, and in the interim, officials said they hope the public can get a small taste for what is in store.
“We’re very intent on building this museum to give all these people credit and acknowledgment for what they did,” Hoover said. “We want to honor those we feel are responsible for the fantastic track we have today. We’re going to do all we can to give them their due in a permanent facility.”
The Bedford Speedway has a deep connection to the past, but officials are hopeful that the future will be even richer.
“I think we have a very bright future,” Hoover said. “Some people like to hunt, fish or golf as a hobby, and this is ours. We enjoy testing our competitor skills, talents and mechanical abilities. It’s an adrenaline rush like no other to go out there and dice against other drivers. It’s a part of your blood, and it doesn’t leave.”
A positive sign for the speedway, he said, is the engagement of the younger audiences.
Families continue to pass on their passion for racing to the next generation, and unique childhood memories are already being ingrained.
In addition to the younger fans, race leaders have recently witnessed new and unfamiliar faces who were drawn into the speedway from the outside.
Regardless of their age or how they got involved, the speedway’s newest fans are already discovering their own love for the sport.
“There’s different strokes for different folks,” Hoover said. “There’s many different ways to get involved. “But we have to bring that new generation along and hope they get attached to the events.”
The future of the speedway is important to those involved, but Padula said they are not too caught up in prognosticating.
If the speedway and those involved continue to create an entertaining environment, he said new fans will come.
“We have a responsibility to keep this track in order and in good condition so we can pass it onto the next generation,” Padula said. “We need to be good stewards of the track so it’s history can live on. I think we’re doing that, and we believe the speedway has a bright future.”