- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

TIPTON, Pa. (AP) - To many, a quarter mile of asphalt does little to inspire passion, but 50 years ago this month in Tipton, a similar stretch drew hundreds of motorists week after week.

On the edges of that 1,320-foot stretch, drivers would line up before pushing gas pedals to the floor to send their hot rods roaring down the strip in seconds.

That was the scene Sundays at Peterson Memorial Dragway, a Tipton drag strip along Route 220 that was opened in 1966 but continues to captivate those who sped across its lanes.

“Drag racing in the ‘60s, you know, it was hot,” said Tony Branda, namesake owner of Tony D. Branda Shelby & Mustang Parts. “It was really something.”

At that time, many manufacturers created race-ready cars on their production lines that needed little or no modifications to win, Branda said.

“They all wanted in that market,” he said.

And many local young people took advantage of that market, buying fast cars, which they would show off at meeting places, such as the Holiday Bowl, said Branda, who drove a 1965 Mercury Comet Cyclone.

Locally, a drag strip didn’t exist, meaning drivers had to travel sometimes more than 100 miles to sanctioned races, but many also turned to illegal competitions on area streets.

Branda remembered a spot off Kettle Road aptly called “the kettle.” A drop of a handkerchief often signified the start of a race on the asphalt strip, he said.

“It was dark,” Branda said. “There weren’t any lights back there.”

Negative conditions drew the attention of police officers, who were quick to issue citations, he said.

Reports about the soon-to-open - and legally sanctioned - Peterson strip meant good news to the local racing community.

“Everybody was looking forward to it,” Branda said.

‘The finest in the east’

Early mentions of a possible Tipton dragway date to June 1966, when airport owner Paul Peterson revealed he secured National Hot Rod Association sanction for his 6,000-foot airstrip along Route 220.

The airport, which had been moved about a mile from its original location, was built atop land where the renowned Altoona Speedway stood in the 1920s.

The wood-track speedway “was known throughout the world and attracted some of the world’s best drivers,” according to a June 1966 Mirror report.

The wooden track was removed in the early 1930s, and the land was used as a dirt racing track for a short time, the report said.

Later, Peterson’s strip was paved with high-traction asphalt and used more than $30,000 worth of lighting and timing equipment.

Most notable was a starting mechanism called a Christmas tree - a column of lights that was considered state-of-the-art at that time.

After doing a burn out to get tires “clean and sticky,” drivers would approach the tree, said Jack White, owner of Jack White Signs.

When drivers reached the lineup point, a light would shine, telling them to stop, he said. If they went too far, another light would tell them to back up.

Eventually, the lights would signify the start of the race, and they could be staggered to handicap obviously faster cars, said White, who once worked as an announcer and timekeeper at the strip.

Before its opening, Peterson claimed the dragstrip would be “the finest in the east.”

And by August, community excitement was growing. A Mirror article from that time cited Peterson as saying: “We’ve had 50 inquiries about drag races to every one question about the new airport.”

Marion “Bull Dog” Lightner, former owner of Lightner’s Service in Altoona, remembered the anticipation.

“We were racing before that,” he said, explaining that local drivers had to travel to places like York, Pittsburgh and Hagerstown, Md., to compete. “We were just waiting for it to open.”

‘We raced every week’

Named for Peterson’s deceased son, Peterson Memorial Dragway opened Sept. 18, 1966. An estimated 5,000 enthusiasts - many more than expected - attended the opening, when about 275 cars were raced, two at a time, down the strip, reports said.

In a drag race, the driver that travels a quarter-mile distance in the least amount of time wins.

Among first-day racers was Dick Goodman, who said racers’ and spectators’ enthusiasm was not limited to the opening.

“It was always full,” he said of the weekly races.

On a typical Sunday, racers would arrive about mid-morning to register their cars and submit to safety checks, Goodman said.

They would then race until a winner was determined in each class, with competition sometimes lasting until the late evening.

“It got to the point where you couldn’t see anymore,” he said.

During the dragway’s early days, Goodman drove a Plymouth Barracuda, though he would eventually drive many cars in numerous classes, he said.

For many Peterson regulars, the word Sunday became synonymous with racing, said Lightner, who used to race a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air at the dragway.

“We raced every week it was opened,” he said. “We liked it because it was close, convenient.”

In addition to off-the-lot vehicles and modified hotrods, spectators at Peterson Dragway were likely to see faster cars, such as aerodynamic dragsters and Funny Cars, which boasted powerful engines and light, fiberglass bodies.

Many of the former Peterson racers joked that “anything with a motor” could be driven at the strip, as long as it passed preliminary inspection - which took into account aspects like weight and horsepower to place racers into classes.

Trophies were given each week to winners in their classes. Tim Doyle, a longtime Mirror employee, was among those winners.

Doyle said he typically drove a 1965 Oldsmobile 442, but he also was known to race a family car - “a beat-up, old ‘61 Oldsmobile.”

“It was a half a junker, but it was fast as hell,” Doyle said.

Earlier this month, Doyle shared his old Peterson time cards, which show he’d traveled the quarter-mile in fewer than 15 seconds, achieving speeds in excess of 95 mph.

“I was into drag racing,” Doyle said, adding he typically visited Peterson to watch friends. “It was nice having (a strip) in your own backyard.”

Others exceeded even that 95 mph mark. Goodman displayed a tall trophy in his Altoona home last week.

The nondescript trophy, topped with a chrome car, was given to Goodman when he beat a speed record on the quarter-mile strip - more than 220 mph from a standing position, he said.

‘You couldn’t wait for Sunday’

While bragging rights were an obvious benefit, winning wasn’t everything at the dragway. Jack White, whose business is lined with car-related keepsakes, never raced the strip.

Still, he and coworker Charlie Mingle, who was among drag racers, talked for more than an hour last week, remembering the good times and friendships they developed in Tipton.

“There was always someone coming in putting a show on,” Mingle said, referring to regular visits from professional racers who would show off in exhibitions.

Some drove top fuel dragsters that could travel the entire strip in 6 seconds, White said. Modern dragsters have been known to travel that distance in as little as 3.7 seconds at 330 mph, he said.

Plenty of the local racers were entertaining, too, they said. Trying to think of an especially exciting story, White couldn’t decide among the many.

“Which day do you want?” he said, jokingly. “It was just so fun. You couldn’t wait for Sunday.”

Eventually, the duo told an anecdote about a racer who drove over the starting line before the race. He backed up to get into place, but forgot to take his car out of reverse.

So when the race began, he shot back at top speed, they said with a laugh.

Even with occasional mishaps, White said there never was a serious injury at the dragway, though officials always had an ambulance on site.

And with the drag strip located at an airport, racers commonly had to move out of the way for landing planes, he said.

Mingle, who still races occasionally, also told stories about taking his father’s car, which he wasn’t supposed to race, to the strip.

“It made it hard for me to take trophies home,” he said. “He didn’t know I was racing it.”

For Mingle, who has multiple drag racing-related tattoos, the risk of a scolding was worth it, he said.

“I’m really heavy into it,” he said.

Their stories were seemingly endless, mirroring their ongoing enthusiasm.

In White’s shop, where he often designs decals and artwork to be applied to vehicles, he showed off a pickup truck equipped with a jet engine.

“It’s all thrust,” he said, pointing out that 30-foot flames shoot from the vehicle’s rear.

White and Mingle listed a long name of local racing buddies they met at the dragway - many who maintain a passion for the former venue.

‘It was awful’

There is some disagreement among former Peterson racers about the dragway’s final year, but most said it was in the late 1970s.

Many also agreed that increased costs and mounting responsibilities contributed to its demise.

“Baby boomers started having kids and selling their cars,” Branda said. “Drag racing got to be so expensive.”

In drag racing’s early days, a driver could put $75 or $100 into a car and significantly increase speed, Branda said. Nearing the late 1970s, that cost increased drastically, he said.

“I think that really hurt it,” Branda said.

And Doyle suggested increased government anti-pollution regulations “that cut down on power” could have contributed to waning interest.

During that time, the price of gas also skyrocketed, Goodman said, explaining he used to pay only 23 cents for a gallon of high-test fuel.

“If you won $100 and a trophy, you were hot (stuff),” Goodman said.

Now, it’s not uncommon to spend several hundred dollars on gasoline in a single weekend, he said.

“Cars were sold and hocked,” Goodman said. “It was awful.”

Branda was among those who sold their cars. He was drafted to the military in 1968, and didn’t have a garage to store his 1965 Comet Cyclone.

Recently, he decided to replace the car and searched for years before he found a Comet Cyclone with black paint and red interior that matched his original, he said.

Late last year - 50 years after it was manufactured - Branda purchased a matching car from North Carolina. He showed it in a parking lot last week.

By the late 1970s, those in charge of the strip were ready to sell, White said.

In January of 1981, the 165-acre airfield was marketed by the relatives of the then deceased Paul Peterson. The original asking price was $360,000, according to a Mirror report.

By April, a proposal to develop an industrial park at the former dragway was approved by the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission.

A Mirror article that ran shortly after the approval named the park Peterson Industrial Site.

It’s now commonly called Tipton Industrial Park, and is the location of several area businesses, including New Pig Corp., ORX Rail and Balfurd Healthcare & Linen Rentals.

‘That was the place to go’

The closure didn’t mean the end for the track or its enthusiasts, however.

Dan Parson Jr., owner of Junior’s Garage in Bellwood, didn’t race at the track, but said it had a profound impact on him that he continues to share today.

“When I was a kid, we lived in Bellwood,” he said. “I could hear the cars.”

Parson said he and his friends would ride their bikes to the track and watch from outside a fence. Sometimes, they were invited inside by its owner.

“As long as we stayed right there, he could see us and didn’t mess around, we were in,” he said, also revealing he had older relatives who raced at Peterson.

Parson wasn’t yet old enough to drive when the strip was closed, but he still would later race the strip.

“It was never really locked up very well,” he said. “We actually ran down there until the late ‘80s.”

Eventually, authorities dug ditches across the strip, putting a stop to the illegal races, he said.

Now Parson curates a Facebook page, “Peterson Memorial Dragway,” where users post photos and memories of the former drag strip.

“It’s always been one of my fascinations about the area,” he said. “You get down there and hear and smell it and just get the bug.”

Goodman’s garage - Goodman’s Racing along 18th Street - is a testament to his lasting interest.

It’s there that Goodman and his family members have built racing engines for decades.

“I’ve just been doing it forever,” he said. “Don’t know nothing else.”

Goodman’s racing roots, he said, stem from a young age when he’d compete in “soap box derby down the front street, down grandma’s hill.”

Inside his nearby home, Goodman showed of shelves of racing memorabilia, as well as albums filled with racing photos from Peterson and out-of-town venues, which he continues to visit.

Branda also was able to transition his passion for cars into a career. He sells parts for select vintage muscle cars.

“I get to live in the ‘60s every day,” he said.

Within his storefront, Branda displays car-related items from decades past in what he calls his “little museum.”

Branda said he started collecting - especially items pertaining to Peterson or the Altoona Speedway - in the 1990s, and he showed off two Peterson trophies dating to 1977.

His collection spills over into the nextdoor Meadows ice cream shop in Greenwood, which he also owns.

Among “American Graffiti” movie posters, pictures of James Dean and photos of Altoona Speedway, Branda displays what he called his favorite piece of Peterson memorabilia - a white jacket with red lettering, saying: “Peterson Drag-Way.”

Branda said he won the jacket during a race at the drag strip.

“I didn’t always win,” he said. “But for the young crowds, that was the place to go.”

In Lightner’s opinion, that could still be true.

“It could still be good today,” Lightner said. “I would do it again tomorrow.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2dhW9y3

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Information from: Altoona Mirror, http://www.altoonamirror.com

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