ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some might consider New Mexico the land of mañana, but in the not-too-distant past plenty of people here were living life in the fast lane.
That’s because starting in the 1920s Albuquerque became one of many places around the country that embraced the car-racing culture.
Albuquerque historian Alan Carlson has spent the past year trying to track down this part of the city’s past, hoping to build a narrative and collection of documents for future generations.
Carlson attended his first race when he was 6 years old with his father, so his love of the sport began at an early age. He said initially he was focusing his research on the post-World War II era but discovered racing went as far back as the 1920s, maybe even earlier, in Albuquerque. Carlson said there are not a lot of photos from the pre-war era but he’s found newspaper articles mentioning events at local racetracks.
One of the first tracks in Albuquerque was the First American Grounds, which went by several names from when it opened in 1928 until it closed sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Newspaper advertisements at the time show New Year’s Day races and other weekend auto races with tickets costing $1 to $1.50.
Members of the city’s most famous racing family, the Unsers, made appearances at Albuquerque’s early racetracks. Bobby Unser, who won three Indianapolis 500s, said he drove his first race in 1949 when he was 15 years old at Cormit Speedway, which Clarke Corbin and his brother-in-law, Dick Mitchell, had opened in 1946 near Central and Wyoming.
“Most people would think we were just horse country back then,” said Unser, 84. “No. There was automobile racing.”
He said spectators flocked to the local racetracks back in those days.
Eddie Corbin, the son of Clarke Corbin, spent a chunk of his childhood out at Cormit Speedway. His mother was the ticket taker, and he was responsible for handing out the programs. He said come race day, the grandstands were overflowing. In a scrapbook compiled by his mother, black-and-white photos indeed show packed stands.
Unser said racing in those days was a raucous event.
“We were rough and rowdy,” he said. “Sometimes we got into fights with the other drivers. It was a common thing. But we always stayed good friends with them.”
Sometimes, he said, race organizers got tired of all the rabble-rousing.
“One night the whole Unser family got kicked out,” he said. “They realized soon they had made a mistake because we were bringing a lot of fans.”
The Unsers were eventually allowed back and the fun continued. They were frequent drivers in the races held at Speedway Park, which opened in 1950 and operated for more than three decades. The park was on Eubank near the entrance of Kirtland Air Force Base.
Unser said at times they didn’t have a trailer to take their cars to the racetrack so they would drive them along Central Avenue. If they wrecked that night, the cars were towed home.
While track racing, or circle racing, was a popular pastime, in the 1950s drag racing also became a popular sport in Albuquerque, according to Larry Stepp, 75. He said Albuquerque did not have a designated track for drag racing so drivers took over city streets, most often Eubank.
Unlike today, racers were not given traffic tickets, Stepp said. They were allowed to close off Eubank by placing telephone poles across the road to stop traffic from entering the race zone. Stepp still participates in drag races but not on city streets. Instead, he travels to Albuquerque Dragway, south of the city.
“It was fun,” he said. “There were not as many people in Albuquerque then and that’s what you did. You cruised and you drag-raced.”
Unser said it was also a lot more laid-back time, with loyal fans. He recalled that one night before a race at Speedway, he needed a new distributor for his race car.
“I went into the parking lot with my tools and found the right model, opened the car hood and took his distributor,” he said. “I put it in my race car, won the race, then put it back in his car.”
When the man came out after the race and saw Unser returning the distributor, the racing legend apologized and said he just needed to borrow it for a minute.
“He didn’t even get mad,” Unser said. “He just smiled. It was the attitude people had those days. They loved the races.”