News & Media

Caraviello: In Chicago, nothing like a race at Soldier Field

September 15, 2012, David Caraviello,

The original Monsters of the Midway were rough-and-tumble stock-car drivers who inhabited Chicago's iconic lakeside stadium long before a certain football team moved in. They were locals, mostly, blue-collar types from the neighborhoods in the city's Near South Side, and they drew tens of thousands of spectators for events that had the atmosphere of a circus -- animals sometimes included. They raced llamas, they rode elephants, they traded blows on and off the race track at a facility that came to define the golden age of auto racing in the Windy City.

"Every night, there was excitement," said Chicago native and veteran racer "Tiger" Tom Pistone. "You'd see guys flipping, cars burning, guys fighting. It was excitement every night. Every night. They loved it. And us drivers, we didn't know any better. We fought. We'd bring 10 to 15 guys with us every night. That's the way it was."

"You'd see guys flipping, cars burning, guys fighting. It was excitement every night. Every night. [The fans] loved it. And us drivers, we didn't know any better. We fought. We'd bring 10 to 15 guys with us every night. That's the way it was."


NASCAR's premier series opens its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, on the outskirts of the big city. A fixture on the sport's schedule now for more than a decade, the 1.5-mile track carries on the legacy of what was once one of the most motorsports-mad metropolitan areas of the country, a place that boasted the first automobile race in the United States and saw short tracks dot the landscape. And the epicenter of it all was Soldier Field, which once had a permanent asphalt track laid between its famous columns, and hosted national and weekly racing events well before the Chicago Bears made it their home.

NASCAR visited the facility four times, once in July of 1956 for a Grand National -- the equivalent to the Sprint Cup level today -- event where Glenn "Fireball" Roberts bested a field that also included the likes of Herb Thomas, Lee Petty and Buck Baker. There were also three convertible series races, won by Pistone, Curtis Turner and Glenn Wood. In the stands for one of those convertible races in 1956 was a young Stan Kalwasinski, who would later work as public address announcer at another local racing facility, and become something of an amateur historian collecting information about the Chicago racing scene from that era. He would go on to visit several other tracks in the area, but nothing quite matched Soldier Field.

"That was a pretty big deal," Kalwasinski remembered. "You think of the size of the arena, that was a 70-80,000-seat arena before they remodeled it. It was something."

Indeed, the Soldier Field in which the Bears play today bears little resemblance to the stadium of the 1950s and '60s, even though it has the same name and sits on the same site aside Lake Michigan. Constructed in 1924 and later renamed in honor of those killed in World War I, Soldier Field was originally a Greco-Roman edifice built in the shape of a horseshoe, with the far end open and its columns rising above the grandstands. What Kalwasinski believes began as a cinder running track was eventually paved and turned into a quarter-mile auto racing layout. When NASCAR arrived, one end was elongated, adding a second oval that measured just short of a half-mile in length. Barriers surrounded the football field, which hosted regular college games at the time.

To Pistone, the closest modern equivalent is Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., the legendary NASCAR-sanctioned weekly track that also encircles a football field. But at the time there was nothing like Soldier Field, which hosted weekly stock-car races promoted by Andy Granatelli, who would later go on to mastermind the groundbreaking relationship between Richard Petty and STP. These weren't NASCAR-sanctioned events, but off-the-wall local shows designed to pack the grandstands. Photos from the time show six drivers piling on top of a circus elephant, and racing in buggies pulled by ostriches. A Chicago Tribune clipping notes that Pistone not only won the 25-lap feature event one night in 1956, but also the llama race.

"He knew how to put on a show. It was all a show," Pistone, who holds the record for feature wins at Soldier Field with 38, said of Granatelli. As Tiger Tom remembers it, there were always five drivers the promoter had on the payroll to cause wrecks, and five others whose job it was to lead to the white flag and then fall back. "The young guys like myself didn't know any better, until we got in the clique," added Pistone, now 82, who peddled fruits and vegetables around Chicago until he became a race car driver, and went on to win a pair of events at NASCAR's highest level.

While the promotional tactics may not have been exactly above board, they worked: "38,000 See Tom Pistone Capture Soldier Field 100," blared a headline in National Speed Sport News in 1956. By then Chicago had firmly established itself as a racing Mecca, having hosted the nation's first automobile race in 1895, and post-war midget events in the 1940s that started the craze at Soldier Field. Drivers gravitated to Chicago from other parts of the country, among them Dick Rathmann, a California native who won the first NASCAR event in the area, a Grand National race at Santa Fe Speedway -- so named because of its proximity to the Santa Fe Railroad -- in 1954. Locals like Pistone and Fred Lorenzen broke out to become stars. Dozens of short tracks popped up to meet the demand for stock-car racing in the region.

"Right after the war, people had a little money, and the midgets got too predictable," said Kalwasinski, 62. "Then the stock cars came in, and they were flipping and crashing and banging into each other, and that put a lot of people in the stands. That was exciting stuff."

Why didn't it last? Granatelli moved on to bigger things, and took his ostriches and elephants and crazy promotional antics with him, and Pistone said after that racing at Soldier Field was never the same again. The Soldier Field track was shut down for an entire year when the city hosted the Pan-American Games, and enthusiasm seemed to wane during the interim. Chicago's pro sports teams grew in stature, and media attention was diverted from the more grassroots racing events. Sal Tovella, a Chicago native who made 14 starts on what is now the Sprint Cup tour, won what proved to be the final auto race at Soldier Field in June of 1968.

According to Peter Golenbock and Greg Fielden's "NASCAR Encyclopedia," the Soldier Field track was torn out in 1970 "following protests by hippies who objected to city funding of auto racing." Kalwasinski isn't sure that's the only reason. "They might have had that in the newspaper somewhere," he said. "But I talked to some people who were involved in the promotion of that place, and it just became too big of a nut to crack, too expensive to race there on a weekly basis. Paying the freight and opening the place up just became too darn expensive."

Regardless, Soldier Field's fate as an auto racing venue was sealed in 1971, when the Bears moved down from Wrigley Field and the stadium was eventually reconfigured to move seats closer to the playing field -- a process that involved closing off the open end of the horseshoe, and making it too small to accommodate a race track. According to Kalwasinski, the Bears play today on a field that covers turns 1 and 2 of a race track where the likes of Pistone, Turner, Roberts and Wood once won.

Some vestiges of that time lingered on. Rockford Speedway, a track an hour outside Chicago that was once part of a circuit involving Soldier Field and Milwaukee, remains an active, NASCAR-sanctioned venue, and has produced graduates like current Sprint Cup director John Darby and championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus. Santa Fe Speedway survived into the mid-1990s, the oval where Rathmann won eventually hosting events in NASCAR's weekly series. The opening of Chicagoland Speedway filled a gap in the nation's third-largest city, given that its inaugural event in 2001 was the first major NASCAR race in the Chicago area since Wood's convertible victory at Soldier Field in 1957.

But it was at that colonnaded facility on the lakeshore where NASCAR's first great leaps in Chicago took place, those events at Soldier Field proving the apex of a stock-car fervor that has faded but not been forgotten. "It was just phenomenal," Pistone remembers of that time. Flying over the city today, the stadium stands out, that modern seating bowl perched oddly atop those timeless columns. It's the home of the Bears, all right. No doubt. But the men who competed there all those years ago, who banged and spun and fought in convertible and hard-top vehicles, know one thing for certain -- it was a race track first.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.