During the early 1930s, as our nation struggled to survive the Great Depression, a new sport burst upon the scene, and oval tracks for midget car racing began appearing throughout the country. During its early days, this unusual racing sport drew the interest and participation of backyard mechanics, and as one source said it was more Frankenstein than Iron Man. A 1934 article in the Popular Science Magazine reported that “Discarded motorcycle engines, outboard motors, and engines from ancient cars provided the power for these sensational racers.”
Even unincorporated Edmonds was not to be left behind, and soon a neighborhood race track became a popular place to spend a Sunday afternoon cheering for a special driver as the very popular midget race cars maneuvered around the 5/8-mile oval dirt track at the Aurora Speed Bowl. First called the Seattle Speed Bowl when it opened in 1936, the name was changed to the Aurora Speed Bowl in 1938, and even jalopy racing was introduced that year. The race track and its rustic grandstand were located a short distance north of the King/Snohomish County line on the former North Trunk Road, now 84th Avenue West, between today’s 230th Street Southwest and 234th Street Southwest in Edmonds.
Several years ago, I was reminded of the Aurora Speed Bowl and its mostly forgotten role in Edmonds’ history, when an old friend shared with me his own remembrances of some adventurous times during his boyhood, when he lived just south of the race track—close enough to hear the sounds of the engines. Now, 91 years old, Johnnie Dontos — a 1947 graduate of Edmonds High School and longtime resident of Woodway — still has many happy memories of those long-ago days and enjoys telling his stories. With permission, here are some of his first-hand memories of a special and exciting time during his younger days.
As told to me by Johnnie Dontos:
“We moved to the North Trunk Road in 1935. At that time, our garage was fairly close to the road, and I parked cars for the race customers for 25 cents. Our home was just about one block south of the track on what is now 236th Southwest and 84th Avenue West.
“The track was fenced in, with a pretty big grandstand. After the races, I would go under the grandstand and pick up old cigarette packages, bottles, or anything else I could sell at Mathay’s Grocery Store. For a dime from the money I made, I could by a comic book. I took the tin foil out of the cigarette packages, and rolled the foil into a big ball. Later, Mildred, my stepmother, used the foil to make corsages.
“The race track was well-oiled dirt and my older friend Mel Anthony would ride his bicycle there from his home at the top of the Richmond Beach hill, about three miles from our house. Mel went into the Navy, and after he came back, he raced car number 40 at the Playland race track.
“During the 1930s and early 1940s, when the midget cars raced on the 5/8-mile, high-banked, oiled dirt Aurora Speed Bowl, about 15 miles north of Seattle, we lived close enough to hear the great sound of racing engines breaking loose as they hit the ruts. That sound would send me scurrying to the track on my bicycle.
“One day, I heard the roar of a testing car and hurried to the track. By the time I arrived, the testing was over, but the back gate was open. A road grader was slowly following an oil spraying truck, grading sand and dirt over the fresh oil. As long as nobody stopped me, I thought it would be fun to follow on my bike.
“We were on the back stretch, just entering the turn when I decided to pass the slow-moving grader. The oiling truck up ahead was laying down black sticky bunker oil, and the turns were very steep. When I got by the grader on the high side, my bike began to slow down. Not a good move on the oily high bank! As the turns increased in diameter, the ‘the rim riding’ ended. Down we went, me and the bike. All the way to the bottom.
“The oil was into my T-shirt, pants, eyes, nose and ears—I was covered in bunker oil. The grader operator stopped to help me, all the while laughing hysterically. We squeezed much of the oil off so I was able to head for home. At a gas station, I got a can of kerosene to wash off more of the sticky oil. At home, I was not allowed in the house until I had become degreased. It was some time later that I was finally sleeping between clean white sheets again.
“A few years later, driving a racing roadster through the same south turn, I recalled the ‘oiling’ I got that day. Now, years later, I still remember it!”
Richmond Beach native Mel Anthony, mentioned above, had a long and illustrious career on the midget race car circuit. In his 2006 book Smoke, Sand and Rubber, Mr. Anthony told of his own experiences during his career as a race car driver. His career seemed to have had its beginnings in 1939, when at the age of 16 he competed at the Aurora Speed Bowl in a jalopy race sponsored by the former newspaper, The Seattle Star. After WWII, Mel Anthony became a favorite at Playland’s Aurora Speedway on North 132nd and Aurora Avenue in Seattle. This race track did reopen after closure during WWII. Its grandstand was destroyed by fire in 1953, although racing did continue for a few years longer.
Today, in Edmonds, the Aurora Speed Bowl is long gone and mainly forgotten. Closed when automobile racing was banned during WWII, the Aurora Speed Bowl never reopened after the war. Eventually, the grandstand was torn down, and replaced by family homes during the post-war housing boom.
— By Betty Lou Gaeng
Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of early-day Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board.