Owner David Eriksen talks of Hesston Speedway
When Robert “Sonny” Eriksen died February 6th, 1996 at his Florida
residence, he left a solid lifetime legacy in the Hesston Speedway
that he built in 1961 and promoted for 18 seasons. His legacy lives
on through his family and in the stock car racing sport that he
played a part in building into the number one sport in America.
loved racing, and he got his start as a car builder and owner,
racing at the Huntingdon Fairgrounds and Port Royal Speedways. His
black and white car number was 2, and his first race cars were the
vintage pre-war coupes that developed into today’s sprint and
Eriksen was born October 28th, 1926 in Brooklyn NY, a son of the late Oscar Norman and Hazel (Dahl) Eriksen. His wife was Peggie Kyle, children Carole Thomas, David, and Kelly,
He was a resident of Huntingdon County since 1931, and he operated Eriksen Well Drilling and the Pit Stop Inn along with the original Hesston Speedway. He built his first race car in about 1957, and Al Epley,Eddie Norris & Bruce Walters Drove.
When the Huntingdon County Fairgrounds renovated the track to better
accommodate horseracing and eliminated stock car races, the local
Juniata Valley Racing Association (JVRA) needed a place to race. The
nearest tracks were at Port Royal and Bedford.
Eriksen had an
ideal location in a natural amphitheater on his property in Penn
Township, and he had the basic equipment to start building a track.
The D-7 bulldozer and drag pan earthmover he used are still in the
immediate area. JVRA members donated their labor to help build the
first race at Hesston was won by Donald “Meatball” Miller of Saxton,
who was most notable then for using a milk can for a gas tank
instead of the traditional small beer keg.
In about 1967, Eriksen enlarged the track from the original 3/8-mile circle to the
present 4/10-mile oval. The front stretch was moved back toward the
present grandstand and the backstretch drive in ramp was built as
shale was removed to fill the steeply banked turns. The present turn
three and four area was then a wheat field and the current
amphitheater like bowl the track nestles in required extensive
filling. Turns one and two were filled in and built up from a dip in
the field, and all of turns three and four were built up from
also planned in the late ‘60s for a drag strip, and he built a solid
base for the strip’s foundation as long as possible. The cost of
blacktopping and the energy crisis of the early ‘70s killed that
plan. It eventually became an airstrip after Eriksen got an airplane
in about 1972.
He also planned a
small amusement park for the kids in the area between the drag strip
and the circle track, which was
a cultivated field Hesston had its greatest moments.
the beginning, the track raced the coupes and the hooligans. As
racing grew, the stock class became the novices and they developed
into today’s Late Models, which developed from the hooligans
and in 1963 became the Pure Stocks, were the top division after the
old coupes evolved into the big money Sprint and Super-Sprint cars.
The hooligan, novice, Street Stock, Late Model evolution took about
the late ‘60s when the Vietnam War draft took the young drivers. The
general world situation, and especially’ the fuel shortages and
price increases created by such as the OPEC oil embargo of the early
‘70s, contributed to a general racing decline.
But even in the
rough years Eriksen’s Hesston Speedway offered good dirt track
racing. Sonny Eriksen was a believer, and he chose to race on Sunday
night for the good competition. Sunday is a poor race night for big
crowds and track profits because racing fans must work the next day.
But at Hesston, it was a great night for quality competition because
he could attract the cars from all of the Saturday night tracks like
Clearfield Mountain, Bedford and Port Royal.
For two years,
1970 and ‘71, Eriksen leased the South Penn Speedway, late of
Everett and operated it against Bedford Speedway on Friday nights.
After his lease ended in 1972 at the clay track where the Everett
Elementary school now stands, Eriksen tried racing Friday and Sunday
nights at Hesston, just to try it. Crowds were dropping at that
time, and he wanted to see how that would work.
He also tried
racing motorcycles on the steep Hesston oval during 1974 and ‘75 on
the same night with the stock cars, and he considered building a
hill climb for the two-wheelers. The cycles started in the middle of
‘74 and were back the next year for six shows in the 20-week season.
Four different classes of cycles raced. They ran at intermission,
starting from a dead stop at the drop of the flag. Among the notable
motorcycle racers at Hesston were moto-cross stars Ed Price and
promotion at Hesston was the parachute drops onto the racetrack, and
Dave Eriksen recalls one parachutist who landed outside turns one
and two and broke a leg.
For three consecutive years, in an
effort to increase attendance, Eriksen promoted the Richard Cobb’s
Thrill Show at the speedway on a special night. Cobb was the stunt
driver who filled in for
“In the 60’s all the young folks
did was work on racecars. We never had time to get in trouble,” Dave Eriksen said. He taught himself to be an “excellent” welder before
he was sixteen, and still is, working on the number H2O car his
brother Tom drove and helping set up other Hesston cars from his
racing parts shop at the Eriksen Well Drilling garages near the
track. “When you build a racecar, it’s your signature and you can
take pride in it. We all learned good mechanical skills in those
days from building our own cars from scratch. Now there is more
involvement from sponsors, business’s that see the value in
advertising on racecars, so the cars are more professional today.”
From the age of
12 until he was 21, Dave Eriksen watered the track and ran it in for
his father. In his spare time he took care of the racecar for his
older brother Tom, who worked away on construction during the week,
it was a very good year the summer of 1974 as Dave graduated from
high school. He got ten percent of his brother’s racecar winnings
for working on the car, and Tom Eriksen is still a top driver, along
with $50 a week for his work on the track.
The younger racing Eriksen summed it up; “Dad enjoyed racing as a car owner, and he promoted the track for almost 18 years. He made some money in the 1960’s and early 70’s and then lost it as racing declined.
Jay Grubb reopened Hesston Speedway in the fall of 1993 and sold the track to Ryan Lyan in 2002. In 2009, Dave Eriksen repurchased the track. After leasing it out for 1 year to Rick Jones, Eriksen took over promotion efforts in 2010.