Arlington in the Fast Lane

Written by Cleve Powell
Originally published in the Aril 2007 edition of the OAI Newsletter

It was very hard for a kid sitting on a bike at the ‘Crossroads’ in the forties and not get the racing fever when a ‘40 coupe’ with smitty mufflers pealed out headed for Uncle Joe’s. That coupled with stories about races at Jacksonville Speedway Park and hearing that Arlington’s Ray ‘Piggy’ Bennett was gaining fame as a racer, gave all of us hope to one day own a fast car and ‘maybe’ become a race driver.

The days of racing on the beach in the early 1900s and races at Indy and other venues came to a halt with WW II. When the war ended, a half mile dirt track was opened in Jacksonville at the corner of Lenox Avenue and Plymouth Street. Jacksonville Speedway Park became known as one of the better tracks in the southeast and attracted many legendary drivers such as Fireball Roberts, the Allison Brothers, Lee and Richard Petty, Buck Baker and Tiny Lund to name a few. It was a sanctioned NASCAR track and hosted an official race March 7, 1954, which was won by Herb Thomas in a Hudson, and then February 17th, 1955, which was won by Lee Petty in a Chrysler. In June 30, 1957, another race was held there, which was won by Buck Baker in a 57 Chevy. Then November 30, 1960 Lee Petty won again in a 60 Plymouth, and the last but not least of the NASCAR Cup races held at Jacksonville was won by Wendell Scott on December 1st, 1963 in a Chevy. This is the only African American driver to win a major NASCAR race up to this date in 2007.

For NASCAR to hold this many major races in Jacksonville puts in perspective the significance of Piggy Bennett’s racing career. He started out racing in the ‘Skeeter’ class at Jacksonville Speedway in 1947, and for many years built his own cars becoming Track Champion in later years. Piggy also raced on the famous beach course in Daytona in the Sportsman series, retiring in December of 1958. Piggy is a member of the Jacksonville Speedway Hall of Fame and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame as he also raced in Savannah and other Georgia tracks. Piggy who is in his seventies now lives near Callahan on Lannie Road.

Another racing family from Arlington were the Gilhousen’s that lived on Atlantic Boulevard. Pop Gilhousen is a member of the Jacksonville Speedway Hall of Fame, and his son Marvin Gilhousen raced in the same timeframe as Piggy.

Irvin ‘Speedy’ Spiers began racing in Alabama and moved back to Jacksonville before Jacksonville Speedway opened. He raced there and also on the beach track at Daytona until he decided to become a car and engine builder instead of a driver. He ran a Shell station on University Boulevard* during the 60s, and lived on Ector Drive, later opening a full-fledged race shop off of Beach Boulevard. Speedy built cars and engines for Fireball Roberts and built the engine that Jacksonville native, LeeRoy Yarbrough, won the 1969 Daytona 500 with. Speedy is now 80 years of age and lives on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway near Mayo Clinic. He is a member of the Jacksonville Speedway Hall of Fame, the Georgia racing Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Florida Racing Hall of Fame in Daytona in February 2007. Buddy Andrews and Tony Harrell from Oakwood Villa also had a car they raced at The Jacksonville Speedway in the 60s, which did quite well.

Jacksonville Speedway moved from it’s original location to Pecan Park Road near I-95 in the late 70s and is now closed. There have been several drivers with ties to Arlington that raced there, including David Bradshaw, son of Buddy Bradshaw, Jack Williams, Jr., and Terry Mock, who grew up just south of Atlantic Boulevard in Southside Estates. Terry was also a track champion and is a member of the Jacksonville Speedway Hall of Fame.

During the years there have been a lot of good mechanics and people from Arlington involved in racing not only in automobiles on the round tracks but in drag racing, boats, off-road vehicles, motorcycles and Go-Carts.

Arlington has always been involved in the boat industry and several people come to mind that built racing boats, including Raymond Dagley, Larry Teague, the Driggers, and Terry Fraughs. Many of you may remember the Jacksonville Outboard Club, which was located at the end of Edenfield Road in Mill Cove. They hosted boat races in the 60s and 70s that brought participants from several states to Arlington.

Jack Williams, Tommy Cordell, and Leonard Renna were into motorcycles that occasionally raced at Jacksonville Speedway also. Rick’s shop on Beach Boulevard was a hangout for Arlington motorcycle riders.

When drag racing spread from California to Florida it was quickly picked up by Arlington’s young men (and some girls). Old WW II airports became drag strips such as Lake City, Whitehouse Brannen, Bunnell, Fleming Island (Thunderbolt), Fernandina, on the beach at Daytona and later Spruce Creek near Daytona. Spruce Creek moved to Deland, and then Gainesville, and became the NHRA Gator Nationals of today. Pecan Park Raceway also built an 1/8th mile drag strip (most are ¼ mile), which is now closed.

There are so many people from Arlington that participated in drag racing and building cars it would be hard to name them all. We all owe Cliff Warden, Pop Rye, LeeRoy Newton, and Slim Harrison (Marvin’s) for helping us get started. Charley and Howard Jones of our Old Arlington group, as well as George Carter and myself are a few. If you go to the Krystal Drive-in on Merrill Road the first Saturday night of each month, you will see a lot of the guys who had cars in the fifties and sixties such as Gene Nettles (who taught automotive shop at Terry Parker), Bobby Lyon’s (who also had a speed shop called the ‘Hotrod Barn’), Ted and Ronny Simpson, Ted Femoyer, Noel Dana, Gene Harrison, and Tommy Younger to name a few.

Off-the-road racing became very popular in the mid to late 60s and 70s and a club was formed that sponsored races in the dunes at Humphreys (Mines) near Regency Shopping Center. This was due in part to the advent of fiberglass bodies on VW frames and small powerful 4wd, Broncos and Jeeps. Jim Sutton of our Old Arlington group was a member as well as Larry Teague, Jimmy Vaughn, David Bass, Piggy Bennett, and Ira Lee Richardson.

There have been several Go-cart tracks on Beach Boulevard, which are no longer there. The 2nd Jacksonville speedway off Pecan Park Road also had a very good Go-cart track. Does anyone remember when Walt Svoboda’s rent-all business on Arlington Road next to the north east corner business? He had a small go-cart track there before he moved to the Arlington Expressway just west of Mill Creek Road. Walt sponsored Kem Owens in a 56 Moss cart for three years until he joined the Air Force in 1960. The business is still run by his daughters.

Racing is harder and more expensive to get into today and there are fewer places left to race. However automobile restoration and street rods are very popular. The Turkey Rod Run held at the Daytona Speedway attracts over 6,000 vehicles every Thanksgiving. The turnout at car shows in Jacksonville is remarkable. A kid on a bike at the Krystal on a Saturday night may still see a 40 coupe peel out that pulls at his heart strings.