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Winchester Speedway’s web site advertises the track as the “world’s fastest half mile.” And now we know why. The recent discovery of a handwritten 1922 letter offers a few small clues as to how builder Frank Funk constructed a facility that still holds the world record for half mile tracks more than a century later.
Frank Funk was a successful farmer who owned a home and a large tract of land just west of Winchester, Indiana on State Road 32. Part of this land was used to build Winchester Speedway in 1914. Funk’s home still stands there today, although now it is owned by local race fan Nathan Peed.
“We were re-doing one of the rooms upstairs and I had to climb into the attic to repair some wiring up there,” Peed recalled. “The upstairs has never been touched since the house was built. It had no heat or nothing like that. I thought, ‘I’m gonna run new wires to the ceiling fan.’”
Buried under a pile of insulation in the attic, Peed ran across a “box with a bunch of papers in it,” including a receipt book from the 1920’s, several canceled checks, entry forms from the 1922 racing season and a handwritten letter to Frank Funk from a man named F. E. Clemons.
Frederick Earl “Skinny” Clemons was one of the Midwest’s premier short track racers in the early 20th century. After placing fifth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend 1910, he went on to make a name for himself as both a driver and car builder. Over the next decade Clemons competed in multiple 500-mile events and won the 25-lap feature at the Indiana State Fairgrounds’ “Indy mile” on July 5, 1920.
Peed was amazed at his discovery. “I thought, ‘Is this really what I’m reading?’ I knew that Funk had built the race track and he initially built my house. I just couldn’t believe that I was finding papers that were in decent shape from 1922.”
Dated July 11, 1922, the letter reveals that Funk wanted Winchester Speedway to be faster, especially in the turns, so he wrote to Clemons requesting that he provide a blueprint to improve the track layout. Today’s Winchester Speedway is paved, but in 1922 the track was dirt and could still be altered for additional speed.
Clemons replied that it wasn’t the corners that needed changing. “You won’t need to do anything but bank the straightaways a little,” Clemons suggested, “so the cars will go into the turns on an angle. When the cars can run all the way around the track at the same angle, there won’t need to be any shutting off on the turns, and we can sure show some speed.”
Clemons concluded his letter by recommending that Funk eliminate the bigger displacement cars from the upcoming 1922 Labor Day event at Winchester because they were “clumsy, and get in the way of those who can travel.”
Winchester saw huge crowds throughout the 1920’s. The speedway continued to evolve under Funk’s supervision. He began oiling the clay before each event to minimize dust. On Clemons’ advice, the banking continually increased until the top of the turns reached an incredible 25 feet in height. The track was paved by the early 1930’s with seating for 6,000 fans.
A successful businessman and legendary sprint racing promoter, Funk oversaw the construction of at least five more tracks and continued promoting motor races until his death in 1953.
“Skinny” Clemons continued racing into the 1920’s, building his own cars just north of The Circle in downtown Indianapolis. His original mechanic’s shop and welding facility was one of five buildings demolished during the 1926 construction of the Indiana War Memorial which still stands on that site. Barely six blocks away, Clemons’ old home at 107 West St. Claire Street is now an abandoned garage with an empty, fenced-in parking lot.
Winchester Speedway remains open today as one of the world’s oldest operating race facilities, still holding the world’s record for the fastest lap on half mile track. Owned by Charlie Shaw, the track retains its original character and layout just as Funk and Clemons intended.
Clemons continued to build race cars for famous drivers including Louis Meyer and Wilbur Shaw until 1940. He spent his last years in the restaurant business, operating “Grandmother’s Kitchen” in downtown Indianapolis until his death by heart attack in 1945 at age 54.
Although my success has so far been limited to a pole position and a handful of top fives, I consider myself fortunate to have raced at such a grand and historic venue. If you’re a racer, be sure to log a few laps at Winchester. It doesn’t matter where you finish. Driving there is an privilege that few drivers enjoy.
If you’re a fan of motorsports or one who enjoys history, take a road trip to Winchester Speedway this summer. While you’re there, raise a glass to men like Frank Funk and Skinny Clemons. And remember, you never know what you’ll find in an old attic.
Thanks to Nathan Peed, Jim Michels and Jimmy Rush for their assistance in preparing this article.
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