- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

MARSHALL, Ind. (AP) - An hour west of Indianapolis, in the middle of sparsely populated Parke County, in some woods, is an unexpected thing: a grandstand.

Not bleachers. A grandstand. A large, roofed-over affair with a seating capacity of more than 500. It’s made of wood, and it’s in an advanced state of dilapidation.

The grandstand looks out onto … nothing. Just some grassy field surrounded by forest. Except that if you spend a moment looking at the grassy field, not closely but broadly, you begin to get the picture: It’s not so much a field as a corridor, and the corridor bends. And the outside of the bend is raised. It seems to follow a ridge, a bowl-shaped ridge.

But this ridge is too perfect, the bend too uniform. This thing was man-made.

This is not a ridge. It’s a high-banked turn.

This nothingness in the woods was a race track.

Jungle Park Speedway, a half-mile oval with a quarter-mile oval in its infield, was one of the premier speedways in the Midwest in the early 20th century. It was a proving ground for some of the top American race drivers. Eight Jungle Park veterans went on to win the Indianapolis 500, including one of Indy’s all-time greats, Wilbur Shaw, who won the 500 in 1937, 1939 and 1940.

The track closed in 1960 after one more in a long line of horrific accidents. Nature has been reclaiming the grounds ever since. Sycamore trees stand 40 feet tall in the middle of the first turn. Honeysuckle grows thick in what once was the pits.

But the reclamation is not yet complete. In places, if you stab at the grass with the heel of your boot, you quickly reach the racing surface: in the early days dirt and later a rough hewn combination of gravel and oil. The grandstand is the most obvious remnant. It was built in 1947. The track opened in 1926. Auto racing was in its infancy. Cars were in their infancy.

The other day in the grandstand a black buzzard, startled by the rare presence of people, clumped quickly and noisily along one of the aisles for about 20 yards then flew away into the woods.

It was fitting. Buzzards are death symbols. Jungle Park was bloody almost from the outset.

In the track’s second season race official Earl Parker was mowed down and killed by a speeding racer as he repaired a divot on the track. The following July a spectator was killed. Two signs of the times: The spectator was identified in The Indianapolis Star only as “Mrs. Charles Kiger,” and just one paragraph was devoted to her death, the third paragraph in a story chiefly about the day’s racing results (headline: “Bauman is first in three races”).

Two months later Jungle Park lost its first driver, Walter Ax. The following year another spectator, Gilbert Cox, was knocked unconscious when a race car flew into a fence post causing the fence post to fly into Cox. Three more drivers would die at Jungle Park during the next two years, including Edward Leeper, whose car, The Star reported, “left the track and threw Leeper against a tree, crushing his skull.”

But at a time when seat belts were nonexistent and emergency medical care rudimentary, that was racing. Even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a sophisticated, well-funded racing operation, in the 1930s had 22 fatalities, three of them spectators.

Still, Jungle Park’s casual approach to safety made it stand out. Most of the track didn’t have an outside retainer wall, so cars frequently went careening into the trees and even into nearby Sugar Creek.

The high-banked turns meant high speeds. “They’d get up to over 100 mph,” said Tom W. Williams, a retired engineer and racing fan who wrote the book “The Ghosts of Jungle Park.” ”It was dangerous as all get out.”

Fans poured in. A small hotel, which later burned down, was built on the grounds and also a restaurant made to look like a windmill, which remains today but is empty.

“Jungle Park got a reputation for being a very treacherous place,” said Dick Jordan, longtime publicity director for the United States Auto Club, who remembers very clearly being at Jungle Park on Sept. 28, 1952. He was 6. He can still see Ralph Scott losing control of his racer and crashing spectacularly, fatally. “That was part of the spectacle of auto racing, to try and cheat death, and to a certain extent it still is,” Jordan said. “I hate to think that’s the case, but there’s something to that.”

The size of Jungle Park’s crowds on a good day hovered around 5,000. Some fans sat in the grandstand, but many more sat on a hill off the fourth turn or in the infield. Others gathered in the wooded hills outside the grounds and caught glimpses for free.

“It was rowdy and crowded,” said Robert Dicks, 72, a lifelong racing enthusiast. “I was like 4 or 5 years old. I remember the drinking was heavy. So we’re standing at the fence watching the race, and there’s a drunk sticking a firecracker in a guy’s shoe. And he lights it, and the guy is hopping around …

“People drank beer, long necks. One car went off the track on the back stretch and flipped and caught on fire, and back then they didn’t have much safety equipment, and people ran to put out the fire with their beer. I remember one drunk bought my brother a case of snow cones. How could you eat 24 snow cones?”

Good times, perhaps, for the spectators, but not so much for the race drivers. Aug. 24, 1930, was a particularly trying day. As the drivers prepared for the final race, the “feature” race, the promoter advised that the promised $700 purse would instead be $400. The racers refused to race.

Race fans, seeing the drivers packing up their gear, felt cheated and took out their wrath on the speedway. They “tore down part of the fence,” The Star reported, “destroyed a part of the bleachers and dismantled and wrecked the lighting system, which had been installed to accommodate night racing.”

Jack Shanklin, 86, Camby, one of the last people still alive to have driven a race car at Jungle Park. It was a ‘39 Ford stock car in 1950. Shanklin was 20 and racing under the name Bill Ewbanks because his parents would have stopped him had they known. He borrowed a helmet from Bobby Hunter, a stock car driver from Indianapolis.

“I turned over between Turns 3 and 4 during qualifying,” Shanklin said. “There was no guardrail or nothing. I went over the bank. It wasn’t at all organized.

“They didn’t even have a stopwatch. They were supposed to be using a stopwatch for qualifications, and the guy had a silver dollar in his hand, acting like he had a stopwatch in his hand.”

Hunter was a spectator at Jungle Park a few times but never drove there. “In 1955,” Hunter said, “I ran 50 some race tracks all over the United States, and Jungle Park was the worst track I was ever in. There were some tracks down in Georgia that were bad, but Jungle Park - it had trees in the way.”

As crowds diminished, racing at Jungle Park ceased in 1955. In October 1960 the old track took one last breath. A midget car race was staged on the quarter-mile dirt track. It ended horribly when driver Arlis Marcum, Indianapolis, swerved to avoid another car and one of his wheels hit a hole in the track. “The front end of the car bounced high into the air,” The Star reported, “and came down through the fence and into the crowd.”

Annabelle Sigafoose, 37, Terre Haute, was sitting on a blanket, watching the race. She saw the car coming toward her and started to move away but did not move fast enough. The car struck her, dragged her, killed her.

That ended racing at Jungle Park.

Once idled, the track was allowed to fade back in the woods. Four of the five grandstands soon rotted and collapsed, and the debris was hauled away. Since 1972 the property has been owned by longtime Parke County residents Beverly Chaplain and her son, Monte. They operated a canoe livery there for decades. “We never had any intention of renovating the race track,” said Monte Chaplain, whose uncle Charlie Sentman raced there. “We just needed an access point for Sugar Creek.”

The Chaplains no longer are in the canoe business. They have no long-term plans for the property, most of which is in a flood plain and therefore unavailable for development. In 2003 they hosted a reunion of Jungle Park racers and race fans. People brought more than a dozen old race cars. They had another reunion in 2004 and another one in 2009.

Fewer and fewer people are alive who remember the Jungle Park Speedway, but another reunion is planned for this fall.

“It’s a historical type site,” Monte Chaplain said, “and it’s extremely beautiful, and I’m along the lines of just preserving it.”

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/1OPYasD

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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