The Strangest SCCA Race That Never Happened
Editor’s note: Permission to publish the following article, which wil be reprinted in two parts, was obtained by C. Robin Kendall a Chambersburg resident and Fulton County native. Kendall came upon this fascinating story about Pennsylvania Turnpike history, “street racing” and some interesting things about the county a few years ago. As a kid growing up in McConnellsburg he got interested in cars while hanging out around Jack Kelso’s antique car shop or down at Fulton Motors bugging the mechanics with endless questions. Later Kendall tried his hand racing sports cars and joined the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). One of the benefits members receive is a subscription to SportsCar, a nationally distributed magazine. Peter Hylton is the SCCA historian and author of the following article that first appeared in SportsCar in August 2007.
Before SCCA’s first event at Watkins Glen, a different kind of road race very nearly became our first highspeed competition. The venue was so unlikely as to be virtually unbelievable to us today. Nevertheless, it is true. Our first high-speed event was planned to occur on (of all things) the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Step back with me and let’s look at the strangest SCCA race that never happened.
The story actually goes back to 1884, with industrialist William Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt had a vision of a Pennsylvania railway linking Pittsburgh to Harrisburg that would be under his control and not that of the Pennsylvania Railroad system. Surveying was completed and work had begun on nine tunnels that would be required for the route. However, the plan got caught in a power struggle between two of the era’s richest and most powerful men, as banker J. Pierpont Morgan won a seat on the board of Vanderbilt’s New York City & Hudson River Railroad Corp. Morgan fought his way into the chairmanship of the board and promptly sold the right of way to the competing Pennsylvania Railroad, which stopped work immediately. The unfinished tunnels, the only noticeable result of the two years of effort, became knowm as “Vanderbilt’s Folly.”
But time is a powerful ally, and half a century later, in 1934, two employees of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association proposed using seven of the old railroad tunnels and part of Vanderbilt’s proposed path to build a toll highway linking the East Coast to the Great Lakes. In 1937, Pennsylvania Gov. George Earle signed legislation to fund the project to the tune of $70 million, and create the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to oversee construction of this country’s first superhighway.
In the United States, highways had always been built contouring the terrain, and using flat curves to discourage speeding. Highway engineers on the new project had to change their way of thinking, looking for ways to alter the terrain to permit cars and trucks to have year-round use of the new road which would have long, sweeping curves and ample room for high speeds and safe stopping distances. Additionally, there would be no cross streets, driveways, traffic signals, or railroad grade crossings. This would affect something over 900 existing cross streets and over two dozen railroad crossings along the proposed route. As common as interstate highways are to us today, it is hard to imagine how radical this proposal was in 1934, when no such highway existed anywhere on this continent. Over 700 properties along the route had to be purchased for the right of way. This would have been impossible had Pennsylvania not been one of the few states at that time which had legislated the authority of eminent domain, giving the state the power to force property holders to sell for major projects deemed best for the good of all.
Over 15,000 workers, ranging in pay from 52 cents per hour to $1.40 per hour for skilled tradesmen, began work on the project. The gates to the turnpike opened in 1940. Soon, over 6,000 vehicles per day were using the new road, silencing critics at the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor to today’s Federal Highway Administration), which had predicted usage at only about 700 cars per day in their effort to discourage intercity, limited access highways from being built. One of the distinctive features of the turnpike was the ability for a car to reach high speeds. In 1940, a test car ran the highway at 102mph. It is said that the imposed 50mph speed limit was widely ignored, and seldom enforced in the first years. When motorists entered the turnpike and asked about the speed limit, they were allegedly told simply “drive carefully.” This attitude eventually evolved into an increased speed limit of 70mph, (35mph in the tunnels) – however, it also was frequently ignored.
It is not surprising, then, given the high quality of the road and the general lack of attention to enforcing limits, that the speed-hungry members of the SCCA were attracted to the turnpike. Thus it was, that in the March- April 1947 issue of SportsCar, a “High Speed Time Trial” was announced in an article by Al Garthwaite. It was to be open to any member of the SCCA in good standing, driving any car registered with, and accepted by, the club. Two classes were established, one for cars under 1500cc displacement and one for unlimited engine size. The course was defined as being the path of the Pennsylvania Turnpike from the western end of the Tuscarora Mountain Tunnel to the eastern end of the Sideling Hill Tunnel, a distance of approximately 15 miles.
Drivers were to complete self-timed runs up until Aug. 15 of that year. The runs were not witnessed, and members were on the honor system to turn in real times. After Aug. 15, the top two cars and drivers from each class were to be invited back to make final runs timed by club officials.
Qualifying run times were to be submitted to the editor of Sports- Car within 10 days of completion and drivers were allowed six trials.
By midyear, one of our best-known early members, Bill Milliken, had reported in SportsCar on his attempt driving his familiar Bugatti Type 35-A. He made the 300- mile drive from Buffalo, N.Y., to the turnpike, fighting rough roads, detours and rutted paths typical of many roads of that day. Finding the turnpike a much more hospitable byway, he quickly prepared his car for an initial run at about 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. His prerace prep included changing to Champion R-7 spark plugs to avoid pre-ignition at high speeds, a typical problem with cheap commercial plugs of the day. His initial run ended when the water temperature hit 220
degrees. degrees. The car was towed to a service station where a water leak was found and fixed, and he returned to the turnpike near midday.
Although he had lost his chance for a clean, early morning run, Milliken nonetheless set off. He claimed his speedometer never dropped below 90 for the entire run and that frequently it topped 100, despite some Sunday afternoon traffic. In spite of oil and water temperatures that ran 25 degrees hotter than normal, some shaking due to a poorly balanced wheel, and what he referred to as “some interesting brushes with other traffic,” Milliken completed his run. However, it became even more eventful at the finish when he arrived at the Sidling Hill Tunnel to find the traffic backed up due to the two turnpike lanes merging into one lane to enter the tunnel. A stuck throttle did not help this situation, creating a few exciting moments at the end.
What Milliken had experienced at the entrance to the Sideling Hill Tunnel was one of the most common problems of the new highway. The seven tunnels were the most impressive features of the highway, carrying the road under the rolling terrain, and exhausting carbon monoxide fumes using an extensive ventilation system. However, each tunnel only had one lane heading each direction. Thus, the wonderful fourlane highway across the top of the land had to neck down to one lane each direction at the tunnel openings. Even in the very first year of operation, the biggest complaint about the turnpike was traffic backups. Lines miles in length were reported at early toll booth interchanges and tunnels. While the entrance and exit problems were solved by adding booths and attendants and refining the process of collecting tickets and payment, there was not much that could be done about the tunnels. It had taken millions of dollars to complete Vanderbilt’s railway tunnels and make them work for the highway there was no chance to enlarge them until considerably more money came into the budget. Thus the backup that caused Milliken grief at the entrance to Sideling Hill Tunnel was a common occurrence.
The conclusion of “The Strangest Race That Never Happened” will appear in next week’s issue.