HISTORY OF THE HORNELL RACEWAY
By Dan Hall
In 1959, Daytona Speedway opened for its first race season. The Daytona 500 is the stock car’s premier event. In the beginning, the sport was primarily a southern pastime. Today, its popularity revivals all other sports. NASCAR, sanctioning body for the sport, claims 75 million fans that purchase over $3 billion in annual licensed product sales. Names like Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, and others have large fan base. These drivers all share a passion for racing. That passion all started at a small hometown track, anywhere USA.
Western New York had multiple tracks running in the late fifties. Angelica Raceway, Olean Raceway, Cuba Lake Raceway, Hunt Raceway, Wellsville Raceway, and Hornell Raceway were running weekly races. In 1958, the idea for a race track on Ashbaugh Hill came about by a local race fan. Paul Amidon said, “I attended races at several of the local tracks. Myself and some others were returning from watching a race at Hunt. I told them that next year, 1959, there would be racing in Hornell.” Paul owned a large parcel of land on Ashbaugh Hill. Paul said, “The track was going to be built on my property which was located about one mile south of the WHHO radio station.” Paul contacted local contractor A L Blades and the process began. Blades brought up bulldozers and graders to carve out the track. The composition of the soil had enough clay to provide a smooth surface for the track. The construction continued on through the remainder of the year. The banking on the turns was approximately twenty five degrees and could easily sustain four grooves of racing. The track was one third of mile in circumference and very fast. While work on the track progressed, Paul began clearing the side of the hill for parking. He also began construction on the starters stand, snack bar, two bathrooms, and excavation for the sitting area. Paul did this all while working a fulltime job at McBride’s Trucking. In addition, he had to construct a bridge over a creek and build another building in the pit area.
The spring of 1959, Paul began hiring people for various positions at the track. Larry Dye from Cuba was hired as track announcer, Hornell police officers Walt Baldwin and Clifford Dillon were hired for ticket taking and security. Bob Faye from Arcade was the Pit Steward. There were a number of other people who worked the grill at the snack bar or operated the tow trucks. There were two starters, Rex Ward from Addison and FOAR Score Hall of Fame starter, Whitey Gorsuch from Andover. Paul remembers, “Both of my starters kept the show going. They started the races right down on the track. It’s a wonder, neither one of them got hit.” Whitey was like a matador on the track. He would walk right down between the two roll of cars on the parade lap. As the car proceeded down the backstretch, Whitey would turn towards turn one and wait on the field of cars to enter turns three and four. As the field began to exit the turn four, he would turn face them and began running toward the charging pack. As they approached him, he would jump in the air and wave the green flag. The cars flew by him as he made his way to the infield. Once they passed, he made his way up to the flag stand. Track announcer, Larry Dye remembers, “I have many special memories from Hornell Raceway, highlighted by the fact that Paul Amidon was a fantastic guy to work with. Despite any disputes, arguments, fights in the pits or crowd disagreements he always kept a cool head and solved any problems.” Larry went on to explain some of the track procedures and courtesy extended to Erie employees. He said, “The starter's stand was a flat spot carved into the bank above the front stretch and the announce booth was up on the hillside and behind the spectators. If a car flew off the track and down the banking outside the unfenced turns the starter couldn't observe if they were right side up or had flipped or rolled over and needed assistance. Since I could see that area and the starter could see me in the announce booth I would wave a red bandana if the race should be stopped or circle one arm above my head if the race should continue since we had no radios at that time. There were no cell phones then and many spectators were on train crews that were subject to short notice calls to work. To accommodate them Paul had a phone installed in the announce booth so that the train dispatcher could call there and have me page crew members. He wanted me to relay their orders over the P.A. system. Since I didn't want to erroneously order an Eastbound crew for a Westbound train I compromised by paging them to the booth and letting them get their own orders.”
The 1959 race season was about to begin with great anticipation by the race fans. Paul had to purchase some additional equipment. He explained, “The surface of the track was going to need water to keep the dust down. I had to purchase a one thousand gallon water tank trunk for that purpose. We got the water from a pond that was on the property.” In addition, stove, coolers, and refrigerators were purchased for the kitchen. Paul would bring his Mister Softee truck to the races for ice cream. The track also provided beer for the adults. In the beginning, Hornell Wholesale was the provider. EPSO Beverage was another beer vendor at the track. Paul remembers that one Sunday, a record two hundred and ninety four cases were consumed at the track.
The first season brought many fans and competitors to the new track. Competitors came from as far as Buffalo. Typically, the track would see six hundred fans every Sunday. The admission price was one dollar and twenty five cents and five dollars for a pit pass. On special events, the crowd grew to several thousands. Paul remembers, “The one event that drew the most people was the daredevils from Canada. I don’t remember their names but they sure had brought thousands of people to the track. The highlight of the show was a car and driver being shot out of a cannon. The people talked about that for weeks after.” Demolition derbies were another event that would draw a lot of people to the raceway. At the years end, Hornell Raceway had crowned it’s for track Champions. Initially, there were two classes that competed. They were the Modern Stocks and the very popular, B-Modifieds which consisted of primarily coupes from the thirties. Floyd Green from Belmont won the Modern Stocks championship. Cal “Swivel” Lane won the B-Modified Championship.
The seven years of competition at the track was second to none. Each year, full field of cars would compete. Local competitors would go head to head with invaders from other tracks. Many who competed at Angelica, Bradford, Olean, Hunt, and Perry would come to challenge the high banks. Some of the locals racers were Bill McMordie (Hornell Fire Chief – retired), Hoot Gibson, Otto Goodwin, Bill Carlin, Jim Plank, and Hornell Police officer, Vernon “Red” Towner. Red drove his own car, #96 and a car Sponsored by Ken DeVore. Ken DeVore’s #15 visited victory lane many times with both Red and Eddie Anchor driving the car. Red remembers, “The racing at Hornell was great. Paul Amidon was a great promoter who packed the track every week. He paid the drivers a good purse and was respected by everyone.” Red won so much at the track that people started calling him the Flying Indian. Red continued, “I won a big demolition derby driving one of Paul Amidon’s cars. At the end of the competition, I tried to roll the car on the front stretch using the banking of the track. The car went up on two wheels but never rolled. Those times hold a lot of good memories for me.” Multiple Holland and Perry Late Model Champion, Art Clark remembers racing at Hornell. Art said, “Hornell had high banks which gave the drivers several racing lanes. We always enjoyed racing at Hornell.” The raceway closed at the end of the 1965 racing season.
Forty five years have elapsed since the raceway closed. There are no traces left of the track. Paul had the property restored by grading and planting trees. During the seven years of operations, the Amidon family provided quality racing every week. Many people were first introduced to racing at this facility. There is no doubt the racing brought a lot of excitement and joy to thousands of people. Paul stated that he wouldn’t change anything except for the sale of alcohol. No longer does the roar of engines permeate the Canisteo valley. Gone are the high banks, and the cheering crowds. What remains are good memories of Hornell’s only race track, Hornell Raceway.