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Saturday, December 16th, 2006

Area man pens book 'Daredevils on Dirt' about old New Bremen Speedway

By Janie Southard
Bob Heinfeld got hooked on racing early, even before the old dirt track behind his grandpa's farm in New Bremen had a real name.
Many decades later Heinfeld, now in his 80s and a retired fifth grade teacher in Ada, has written a book, "Daredevils on Dirt," which chronicles the early years of New Bremen Speedway from 1926 through 1931.
"I guess I started thinking about (writing a book) as a young lad. All through the years I've kept notes and pictures. I'd talk to the drivers and get information directly from the people involved," he told The Daily Standard last week.
The author labeled those early years as "rough and tumble racing."
"That time was the very beginning of the automobile era. People were still learning to drive. In fact there were still a lot of horses around. People farmed with horses. Milk delivery was by horse and wagon," Heinfeld said.
So roaring around in a souped up, new fangled car on even a makeshift dirt track was a wildly thrilling experience for the young farm boys around New Bremen. But it was on-the-job training. "They got their experience just by doing it," he said.
The first races there came about as part of the annual farmers' picnic, which was held in the field north of New Bremen where the old racetrack remains today.
It was two local car dealers, Leo Huenke and Oscar Dammeyer, who first came up with the idea of a racetrack. Today their effort could be called promotional, but at the time the racing was a good opportunity to show off what the automobile was capable of doing.
The track was on Frank Kuenning's farm, which was also the location of the farmers' picnic. "They graded the field and cut out a grass racetrack one half-mile in length," Heinfeld said.
There are no surviving attendance numbers for the very early years, but, by 1929 a crowd of more than 12,000 paid to watch the races.
Racing often results in some unusual accidents, such as the time in the early 1930s that Mauri Rose of Columbus and a multi-winner at the Indianapolis 500, drove into the grandstand at New Bremen.
"There was no guardrail back then. There were flags around the curves or rims of the track to let the drivers know the edge. Mauri Rose lost control in the fourth turn and simply slid off the track into the grandstand. No one was hurt, and he just climbed out the of car on his own," Heinfeld said.
Although he never personally raced, much of his lifelong fascination began with the incidentals of the track: the colors on the cars and the noise of the engines. Heinfeld nixed adding the "smell" of racing to his list.
"You know they used castor oil to lubricate those engines?" he commented.
Heinfeld will be at the New Bremen Coffee Co., and Books Inc., on Tuesday from 9-11 a.m. to sign his book.
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