Mt. Lawn memories make the heart race

Posted by on Sep 6, 2014 in Historically Speaking |

Famous band leaders Jimmy Dorsey and Sammy Kaye played there. Chrysler workers who came here from Kentucky once lived there. The “Rushville Rocket” Tony Stewart honed his skills there.

Mt. Lawn has revved up Henry County in more ways than one since Doc Sweigart built the unique, pear-shaped race track. The announcement earlier this month that stock car racing would be canceled at the facility for 2014 created more than just a ripple of sadness in the local community.

But what a ride it’s been up until this point.

Archives at the Henry County Historical Society steer the reader through better times. Historic times. Unforgettable times.

George A. Sweigart began construction of the track 80 years ago in 1934. Today, Mt. Lawn is regarded as one of the oldest family-owned race tracks in the nation.

The Sweigart names – and the friendly, engaging personalities behind it – have kept the track improving, evolving and relevant. From “Doc” to George A., Clara, “Bucky” and now Rick, family has been the engine that’s made Mt. Lawn checkered-flag famous.

In a July 2, 1977 article written by Matt Morris for The Courier-Times, a picture was painted of the track’s earliest days. Morris wrote that traffic was bumper-to-bumper from Ind. 38 with several roads blocked near the track, located five miles west of New Castle.

“Tickets were sold by salesmen jumping onto the running board of cars as they approached the speedway,” Morris wrote.

An interesting twist happened that night, according to Morris, who wrote that the new floodlights failed to work. So, with help from the crowd, the Sweigarts improvised.

“The management asked the crowd if they would line their automobiles around the edge of the track and turn on their car lights. The race was a success.”

Mt. Lawn Speedway would go on to pave the way – literally – for racing and race car drivers in the 1940s. In 1946, it became one of the earliest paved race tracks. Bob Stranahan, a Courier-Times sports editor during those days, pronounced the fifth-of-a-mile track “the fastest in the Midwest circuit and spectators were thrilled by the close finishes.”

Names of drivers who participated here reads like a Hall of Fame racing roster. Louie Meyer, a three-time Indy 500 winner, once built a car for local favorite Kenny Eaton. Jim Rathmann, 1960 winner of the Indy 500, also raced here in the 1940s and early 1950s. Tony Stewart and Kenny Irwin Jr. drove midgets here in the mid-1990s.

But as deep as the racing history is here, that’s only part of the story.

Mt. Lawn was once the place to be in social circles. In a 1985 article by Wayne Slaven in The Courier-Times, a resort area was described that featured 50 cabins and a large dance hall where nationally known big band leader Jimmy Dorsey appeared and local residents could “swing and sway” with Sammy Kaye.

Believe it or not, there was also racing of a different kind done here back in Mt. Lawn’s heyday. It was New Castle’s own regatta of sorts. Newspaper ads for outboard speedboat races urged readers to attend races on the “big beautiful lake” at Mt. Lawn. Nationally known speedboat drivers from Chicago and Detroit were said to participate.

Mt. Lawn also played an important supporting role in the mass migration of people who came here from Kentucky to work at the Chrysler plant in the 1950s. Henry County Historical Society Board President Gene Ingram recalled in a 2006 Knightstown Banner article that his father, Sterling Ingram, maintained the Mount Lawn track and lived in one of the cabins.

Through decades of races and events, Mt. Lawn has been one of the safest and most family-friendly places to be. Only one racing fatality has ever been recorded there, that coming in 1941. The track has refrained from selling alcohol throughout its eight decades of operation, making it a great place for family fun.

Perhaps the 2014 cancellation of races at Mt. Lawn is just a yellow flag for a facility that’s rebounded from challenges more than once in its long and colorful history.

Darrel Radford is a Courier-Times contributor and board member for the Henry County Historical Society. Come look through the society’s Mt. Lawn files and get close to other parts of magnificent local history. The museum is open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. and by appointment, by calling 765-529-4028.


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