Oak Hill Yesteryear: Oak Hill Downs—dogs, horses, chariots, jalopies and drag racing

July 22, 2012  

December 5th, 1954: Richard Huff is in the cap at left; owner Jack O’Bannon is holding the bridle of his winning horse, “Booger Red”. “King” (his nickname) is the jockey, the young girl is Judy Fay O’Bannon, Jack’s daughter, and Vernon Grant is in the cowboy hat on the right.  All are gone now, according to Lloyd Burt.

By T. Q. Jones 

Even the ones who were there don’t know everything about Oak Hill Downs.  A fixture in Oak Hill for some 20 years, Oak Hill Downs was at first a dog-racing track in the early 1940s, then was a horse track and stock car dirt track and eventually included a drag strip.  Oh, and there were even chariot races in the 1950s, presumably inspired by the success of Charlton Heston in “Ben Hur.”

Oak Hill resident Lloyd Burt was there for most of it, working for Archie Patton, who owned the land where the track was built.  Burt always wanted to be a cowboy, and he is.  When he wasn’t off riding in rodeos, which he did for some 15 years, he cowboyed for Buck Steiner and often for Archie Patton.

Patton was a promoter, and promoted all kinds of things on the land roughly where Freescale now sits.  The racetrack was about where the duck pond is now, between Freescale and 290-71.  The creek was actually the first thing that drew people to stop there, as both horses and cars needed water constantly in those days.  Horses and people got thirsty, and you couldn’t drive an early model car like a Model T over the hills from any direction without the car needing water along about Oak Hill.

Over coffee at Jim’s, Lloyd Burt told us about the early days.  Junior Medlock, who now lives in Manchaca, talked with us later about racing there in the late ’40s.  Buddy Parker lives in north Austin now, but he grew up in Oak Hill and went to the races there.  So did Rodney Templeton, who’s living out by Bastrop now.  They all saw at least a part of it, starting with Burt.

“Archie started out with match races,” Burt says.  “He’d get two horses matched up to run a race, just the two of them.  The first course was just a straight path for quarter horses.  Later, he built a quarter-mile oval for horses, then started running jalopies on it, too.

“He did all kinds of things.  At one time he had bought a used state car that had outside speakers, and he would drive into Austin and drive around telling everybody to come out to Oak Hill Downs for the races.  He even built a one-mile oval dirt track there in the late 1940s, but no one had a race car that could run on anything that long.

“He took me down to Mexico with him one time to put on a rodeo, and there were twenty or twenty-five thousand people there.  In the 1950s he even had some chariots built and ran chariot races at Oak Hill Downs.”

Junior Medlock was one of the racing drivers, and in his 70s, he still is, racing once in a while at Thunder Hill Raceway in Kyle.  Buddy Parker was just a kid going to the races, and Rodney Templeton not much older when he went to Oak Hill Downs to watch his cousin Paul Jett, one of the best short track (and road course) drivers Central Texas ever saw.

Medlock started racing midgets in the late ’40s, but was only 16.  Racing drivers had to be 21 in those days and when his mother found out he was racing, he had to run under another name, Clyde Tubby.

“Most people don’t know Junior is my middle name,” Medlock says.  “It’s Clyde Junior Medlock, so I just used my first name and made up a last name.  The Indianapolis drivers, Jim and Dick Rathmann, switched names for the same reason.  The younger one wasn’t old enough, so he used his brother’s driver’s license.  When the older brother decided to start racing, he had to use his little brother’s name, because his was already taken.

“Oak Hill Downs was one of the tracks we ran in the late ’40s.  There was one called the “Club Track” over where Porter Middle School is now, and one in Temple called the Gravel Bowl.  Seems like a lot of tracks were called “bowls” in those days.  There was another track in Waco.  The Star Club track in Round Rock was named after the bar in front.  The bar owner owned the track, and you went through the parking lot of the bar to get to the track.

“We’d run Oak Hill or the Club Track on Friday, the Star Club on Saturday, the Gravel Bowl on Sunday and then either Waco or San Antonio on Sunday night.  There was only one class at most tracks, including Oak Hill, but we’d run heat races, a consolation race, a trophy dash, and then a B Main and an A Main.  Once Dick Peters and I raced six races; he won three and I won two, but I was second to him once or twice and we both won $25.00 for the night.

“Our season ran from about March until football season started, then we were done.  In the spring and fall we’d race on Sunday afternoons because none of the tracks had lights.  Not long after that I joined the Seabees and was in for 27 years, so I didn’t race much at any of the Texas tracks anymore.”  Medlock did race all over the country wherever he was stationed, including in California and at Chicago’s famed Soldiers Field.

Lloyd Burt remembers Archie Patton doing things like hiring Joe Tanner, the blacksmith, to make thin “racing plates,” — lightweight horseshoes that were used for racing, replacing the thick iron shoes normally put on horses.  (We get the impression those thin shoes were used only on Patton’s horses.)  Patton also built a café about where the Lube Pitstop is now to feed the folks who were coming to Oak Hill for the races.

By the mid-1950s Oak Hill Downs was also in the drag racing business.  Drag racing didn’t exist until after World War II, but by the mid-1950s tracks were being built to give the “street racers” a legal place to race.  Burt remembers that Archie Patton built the drag strip at Oak Hill Downs in sections, as he had the money to pave it.  The oval track remained dirt and was used for both horse racing and stock car racing.

Buddy Parker’s memories of Oak Hill Downs are about the dirt track and the day he met one of Texas’ best-known drivers, Grand Prairie native Jud Larson.  Larson was very successful racing nationally, but like a number of racers, didn’t survive.  He was killed in a sprint car in Reading, Pennsylvania in a 1966 wreck that also claimed the life of Red Riegel.  In the mid-’50s, though, he was a hero to small boys.

“I was about six years old,” Parker says, “and I can barely remember this.  It must have been a Saturday afternoon. I was at home with my mom, dad and older sister and there came a knock at our front door.  It was our next-door neighbor with some guy I didn’t know. After a brief conversation, my dad went outside with the other two men. Being the curious six-year-old that I was, I followed along.  Well, my dad (a professional mechanic) got his tools and headed out to the curb in front of our neighbor’s house, where sat to my utter amazement a RACE CAR!

“It turned out the stranger was the neighbor’s younger brother. He was visiting for a few days. While visiting, he borrowed this car from a friend of his to race at the local track.  I sat and watched while the men worked on the car.  My dad soon had it fixed for them.  That night my dad and I went and watched the younger brother race. His name was Jud Larson.”

There was a problem.  The American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned most of the open-wheel racing in those days, including the Indianapolis 500, and they banned drivers who raced in “outlaw” events from AAA competition.  As Oak Hill Downs was about as outlaw as you could get, Jud Larson ran (and won) that night wearing a mask and claiming to be Roy King from New Jersey.  Some 40 years later, Parker bought a book on Texas racing and found a photo taken of Jud Larson that night at Oak Hill Downs, wearing the mask.

Rodney Templeton’s memories of Oak Hill Downs include the night a Chevrolet Corvette burned to the ground.

“I remember the Corvette burning,” he says.  “It started with a break in the fuel line and when the fuel and fire got on the front tire, that started burning along with the fiberglass body.  There was no way to put it out – no fire extinguishers.”  A sanctioned track might have required that fire extinguishers be available, but maybe not.  Safety was pretty lax even at big races back then.

“Some guys went down to the creek in a ’55 Chevy and started hauling water in a barrel trying to put out the fire, but they were too late.  Some other people had put blankets on the ground, piled dirt on them and then threw the dirt on the fire. That still didn’t put it out.  The last thing I remember about the car is some guys picked up the back end and a guy with a lug wrench took the racing slicks off.  They were the only things that were saved.

“Way back in the early days, on a Sunday afternoon you could watch horse races, dirt track cars (jalopies), and drag races all in one afternoon.  I can still remember the dirt flying.  We spent many a Sunday evening at the old drag strip.  It was an outlaw track, and even operated with a flagman instead of timing lights up into the 1960’s.  There were a lot of 409s, 413s and ’55 Chevys; lots of cheating and fistfights and a lot of beer.”

In 1960, the brand-new “Austin Speed-O-Rama” opened for business on the old Lockhart highway, U. S. 183, out by Bergstrom Air Force Base.  It was asphalt, not dirt, and had real grandstands and parking and lights.  Sometime after that, Oak Hill Downs faded away.  But for some, the memories of horses and cars both kicking up dirt on a weekend afternoon are still bright.

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