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Heidelberg Raceway Reignites Memories

Racing enthusiasts gathered Sunday for the unveiling of the Heidelberg Raceway historical marker. Do you have memories of the racetrack? Share them with us in the comments section!

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.”

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Tom Lewis July 16, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Nice pictures Mike--thanks for sharing. Tom
Mike Jones (Editor) July 16, 2012 at 12:57 PM
Thanks, Tom... It was a lot of fun. I figured there would be a big crowd, but was blown away by how many people showed up to share their memories. I wish the track was still around!
rose altvater July 16, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Missed seeing you Mike ! Great day, for sure !!
Cheryl July 16, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Thanks for the share! I remember the racetrack well! My brother Ken used to participate in those races with his '67 GTO! I know that man in the first photo, he was a friend of my brother. Thank you again.
Michael Teti July 16, 2012 at 09:15 PM
I used to live on Raven Drive. When we moved there in 1968 I was only 8 years old, but my brother, my sister ans I would climb out my sister's bedroom window and onto our side porch roof. From there we could see half of the track and we would watch with binoculars. My Dad also took us to the track a few times. I wish I could have taken my kids!!
Wannabe Racer July 16, 2012 at 09:56 PM
I'm still a race fan because of the old Heidelburg Raceway.
Wannabe Racer July 16, 2012 at 09:56 PM
One night a bunch of us kids from Glendale decided to go watch the races from the top of the hill. I told my dad where we were going and he asked me if I wanted money to get in. I said no because the other kids didn't have money. We didn't watch from the top of the hill for long before we decided to climb down the hill, cross the creek, sneak past the guy that patrolled it with a shotgun and go through the opening in the fence right by the men's room and go into the men's room. Then we walked out of the men's room (like we were paying fans). As we were walking in front of the stands who do I see coming from the other direction ... my dad. He looked at me and I looked at him but not a word was spoken ... he didn't need to say anything. That was the last time I snuck in anywhere.
Mike Jones (Editor) July 16, 2012 at 10:04 PM
Great stories, everyone... Keep 'em coming!
Bernadette E. Kazmarski July 16, 2012 at 11:07 PM
I don't remember the circus too well, but I grew up on Wynnecliffe Drive with a perfect view of the racetrack from our front porch. We watched with binoculars, and I well remember falling asleep on a hot summer night with no air conditioning to the sound of the cars vrooom-vrooming around the track coming right up the valley to the top of the hill.
Mike Jones (Editor) July 17, 2012 at 02:52 AM
Awesome photo, Jim! Thanks for sharing it with us. It's now the main photo on the story.
fran jones July 17, 2012 at 05:17 AM
I can remember going to the last circus performance, rodeos, and of course the races. In fact my husband used to race there many moons ago. Too bad the track isn't there any more....lots of memories.
dblum July 17, 2012 at 05:43 PM
my interest in nascar racing was born at heidelberg raceway.As a young person growing up in Carnegie and Scott-Township my parents introduced myself and siblings to the speedway. My friends and I would enter towards the main gate and then roam far to the right and crawl under the fencing for a free visit. I especially enjoyed the figure-eight racing.I also remember what a thrill it was to go to the infield after the last race and get up close views of the drivers and their cars. I would feel the hot tires just off the paved track and peer through the drivers window. My last memory of the figure-eight racing was a car that got t-boned and blew up into a ball of fire. I always wondered what happened to the driver(hope he was ok). This accident would have had to have happened in 1972 or 1973.
Sherry July 18, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Does anyone know why it closed?
Joseph Wissel Jr July 19, 2012 at 12:56 AM
I attended the dedication ceremony on Sunday. I have to say it was one of the greatest days, not because I have memories of the track but because I got to see the look on my dad’s face when all his great memories came racing back. I remember all through my life the stories my dad would tell me and how him, my uncles, and all their friends would go on and on about the raceway. The raceway is a great piece of CHARTIERS VALLEY history that will never be forgotten now. This is important because we can’t forget where we came from. I give Joe Kauer, Heidelberg Borough manager a standing ovation for making this simple sign that warmed so many hearts and took so many back to those dust filled Race days. PS The track was closed because of the slipping economy and the change of race surface from dirt to asphalt. I’ve done some historic research on the raceway and know that some considerable complaints of noise and dust had a lot to do with the tracks decline.
Joseph Wissel Jr July 19, 2012 at 12:59 AM
I attended the dedication ceremony on Sunday. I have to say it was one of the greatest days, not because I have memories of the track but because I got to see the look on my dad’s face when all his great memories came racing back. I remember all through my life the stories my dad would tell me and how him, my uncles, and all their friends would go on and on about the raceway. The raceway is a great piece of CHARTIERS VALLEY history that will never be forgotten now. This is important because we can’t forget where we came from. I give Joe Kauer, Heidelberg Borough manager a standing ovation for making this simple sign that warmed so many hearts and took so many back to those dust filled Race days. PS The track was closed because of the slipping economy and the change of race surface from dirt to asphalt. I’ve done some historic research on the raceway and know that some considerable complaints of noise and dust had a lot to do with the tracks decline.
Sherry July 19, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Thanks for the response Joseph..
Dana George July 19, 2012 at 12:54 PM
My dad Jook George used to race out there long before I was even born...I've seen many pictures and heard about the great memories from my mother...sounded like a great time!
Tom Middaugh December 28, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Spent many a weekend there watching my father race.
Don Starner May 17, 2013 at 02:45 PM
I loved this track when I was growing up .... My dad was a track inspector .... I remember watching Bud M / Tony D / Tom C / Harold S... as I grew up

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