Jim “Fireball” Sarasnick raced cars at for most of the 1960s while living in Bridgeville.
So he was saddened and very disappointed when the legendary local speedway closed and turned into a strip mall.
But he was happy to return from his current home in Tucson, AZ, to pay homage to the legendary speedway that was officially on Sunday.
“It was a bad dream,” Fireball Sarasnick said of when the track closed. “It would’ve been nice to keep it a racetrack. It was a lot of fun, exciting. This probably would’ve been a NASCAR track if it had stayed around.”
Instead, Heidelberg Speedway closed in 1973. But not before the track, which straddles the municipal border between and , was the site for weekend races, NASCAR events and even the final Ringling Bros. Circus that used a Big Top.
“We didn’t make a lot of money,” Fireball said, “but I made a lot of friends,”
Many of those friends gathered to watch the new blue and gold historical marker unveiled at Raceway Plaza between the and . Hundreds of people–more than organizers expected–attended the unveiling and brought up old memories of the old speedway.
“There are a lot of race fans here,” said Andrew Masich, who is the chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “A lot of history was made on these grounds here.”
Even a brief rain shower that briefly brought out the yellow flag on the festivities couldn’t dampen the day.
“Typical racing… It’s raining!” said David Kohler of the Pittsburgh Circle Track Club. “Racing always was and always will be the focus of Heidelberg Raceway.”
Steve Witlock of the NASCAR Members Club agreed that the speedway was an important part of racing history.
“NASCAR is a part of American culture,” Witlock said, “and Heidelberg Raceway helped build that culture.”
But that wasn’t the only history made at the track.
The track was a regular stop for the circus. The trains bringing animals, clowns, handlers and the Big Top canopy for the circus unloaded in Glendale on the way to the speedway.
Collier Township resident Mary Lou Kientz, who grew up in Heidelberg, remembers the parade through the neighborhoods that brought out all of the residents.
“When the Big Top came to town, I was thrilled,” Kientz recounted during the ceremony. “It was an eye-popper to see all these people walking down the street.”
Unfortunately, not all memories were so great.
Kientz remembers when the Big Top was closed for good on July 16, 1956. She was working at a nearby restaurant when the jugglers, clowns, animal handlers and sideshow talent began trudging through Heidelberg looking for somewhere to go.
The corporation had shut down the Big Top and ordered everyone to leave while in the middle of the tour. Many didn’t speak English, were broke and didn’t have anywhere to go, Kientz said.
“They had no money and nowhere to go,” she said. “These poor people were crying, angry, hanging on each other and totally in shock.”
She served one foreigner the final banana split before they were forced to close the doors because all the food was gone. By then, most of the workers had found taxis to Pittsburgh and moved on to their new lives away from the circus.
Even with the sadness of that day, Allegheny County Councilman Michael Finnerty, who grew up in Glendale and still lives in Scott Township, remembers the good days of watching the circus elephants marching down Carothers Avenue.
“I hope it brings back great memories,” Finnerty said. “It sure does for me.”