By Larry Lawrence
Many GIs returning from bases in England during World War II came back with a taste for nimble handling sports cars. Sports car racing grew in the U.S. by leaps and bounds in the 1950s. Land was relatively cheap and as a result a slew of road racing tracks were built in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Most of these road courses like Road America, Mid-Ohio, Infineon, Brainerd, Willow Springs, Watkins Glen and others, were built in a roughly 10-year period from the mid-1950s to the mid-‘60s. While the aforementioned tracks survived, there were a number of tracks that didn’t make it through the lean road racing times of the late 1960s and early ‘70s when the first generation of automobile road racers that spawned the sport and tracks began hitting retirement age.
One of the tracks that bit the dust was Greenwood Roadway just southeast of the little town of Indianola, Iowa. Greenwood Roadway was the brainchild of a group of sports cars enthusiasts, who were tired of traveling hundreds of miles to race their MGs, Jaguars, Alfas, Morgans, Coopers and Triumphs.
For motorcycle racing enthusiasts the importance of Greenwood Roadway was that it hosted three AMA national road races from 1964 to 1966. Dick Mann won the national in ’64 on a Matchless; Ralph White in ’65 on another Matchless and Gary Nixon took the victory in ’66 on a Triumph.
It was hoped that the AMA Nationals held at the track would bring in big crowds and help save the financially ailing facility, but as road racer Torello Tacchi, who won the novice final at Greenwood in 1965 on a Ducati, recalls not many showed up for the races in this quite part of farming Iowa.
“Greenwood was sort of in the middle of nowhere,” Tacchi said. “It drew some people, but not the kind of crowds I think they’d hoped for. The track had a nice layout, but the pavement got worse every year we went there.”
The original grand dream of the developers of Greenwood Roadway was for it to be Disney-like facility, complete with hotels and restaurants, but the investors, many from outside the area, operated on a shoestring budget and didn’t make a lot of friends with the locals.
To help raise capital the group sold Greenwood Roadway stock. Today you could paper your walls with the worthless Greenwood Roadway certificates, perhaps with a tasteful Enron border as an accent. The scheme worked well enough however, that the three-mile, 15-turn track was opened in June of 1963.
Almost immediate things began to unravel. The grand dream of hotels and restaurants turned to the grim reality of the track just trying to survive day to day. It wasn’t long before Greenwood Raceway’s credit was no good with local businesses and everything had to be paid for with cash. Employees didn’t get paid on a regular basis and began leaving. It’s no wonder little money was left over to promote the events held at the new facility. So the vicious cycle of lack of funding led quickly to a slow death spiral.
The track itself was a high speed circuit, with some fairly substantial elevation changes. Ralph White, who won the race in 1965, remembers coming over the crest of a hill at triple-digit speed on his fully faired Matchless when a gust of wind caught him.
“Both wheels came off the ground,” White said. “Everything suddenly got real quiet when I got airborne. I was still tucked in when I landed in a ditch. I ground the back of my left hand down pretty good and I was telling the medical people how to bandage my hand so I could ride.”
Bob Hansen and his crew went to work on White’s battered Matchless and didn’t quite have all the parts to make a full repair.
“When Bobby Winters finished the amateur race they were frantically pulling off pieces of his bike in the winners circle and were putting them on mine,” White continued. “They got me ready just in time for the start and it took me awhile to get my wits about me and my confidence back after crashing so hard. I got the lead and had to stop for a mandatory gas stop late in the race. They had a little paper cup of gas they threw in, but (Cal) Rayborn got by. I caught him and his Harley on the last lap and passed him to win the thing.”
Winters and his friends wanted to celebrate after the race only to find that Iowa was dry on Sundays.
“Dan Haaby’s girlfriend asked for keys to the car and said she be right back,” Winters remembers. “Pretty soon she came back with a case of beer. She’d found an old farmer to buy it from.”
White left Iowa with very little to show for his victory at Greenwood Roadway.
“Floyd Clymer promoted the thing and he wasn’t known for big purses,” White said laughing. “I got $750 for the win and I had to split that with Bob Hansen. So by the time I paid for my airline ticket about all I got out of it was a trophy.”
The corners that were cut (literally) in building the track began catching up with Greenwood Roadway. The track’s pavement was thinner than its budget. Too little asphalt was laid in the turns and after the track hosted its first stock car race the pavement came apart badly and there was no money to make repairs. After just three short years the high hopes for Greenwood Raceway crumbled away. In 1966 it went bankrupt and sat largely vacant for years.
Only remnants of Greenwood Raceway remain today. It stands eerily quiet – a ghost track now with only distant echoes of racing engines. The facility is now a training center for heavy construction equipment. Graders and bulldozers line the old track. Grass is growing up covering the old pavement in areas A pedestrian bridge sits rusting on the ground in the old pits.
Rumors persisted for years that the track would make a comeback, but it’s too far gone now. It seems that time has forgotten Greenwood Roadway. Many younger area locals today don’t even know that there town once was home to a nationally known racetrack where stars like Mann, Rayborn, Nixon and White rode their speedy Harley-Davidson, Triumph and Matchless racers.
Here’s a link to old 8mm video of a sports car race at the track.