Leafing Through History Racing in Geneseo history
Geneseo has always been a community interested in and supportive of all types of speed events. From the 1880’s Geneseo Fire Departments running team to the 2021 girls taking 2nd place at the IHSA State Track Meet, the Maple City has backed the speed events of all types.
The love of speed began in the 1880’s when harness racing was the source of enjoyment around the area. Geneseo built its first horseracing track in 1865. This track was located on the grounds that are now home to Geneseo Middle School on Ogden Avenue. The Geneseo Driving Park was the scene of many thrilling trotting and pacing horse races through the years. Horseracing fans came from miles around by horse or train to witness the racing action. Several of the racing events in the 1870’s brought over 3,000 fans to Geneseo.
By the 1890’s, bicycle racing was added to the speed events at the local Driving Park. During the bicycle races the riders would ride on the same track as the horse and complete in front of the same crowds that came to watch the horse run. With the development of the mile racetracks throughout the Midwest, the small half-mile dirt tracks like the one in Geneseo began to fade away. By the late 1890’s the Geneseo Driving Park had closed down and in it place was a residential house.
The need for speed came back to the people of Geneseo with the building of a second oval dirt track on the east side of town. Combination Park was built and hosted its first racing event during July of 1904. This time harness racing was not the only type of racing to be held on the new track. With the turn of the century came the drive to own an automobile. Combination Park hosted its first harness racing and automobile racing event on July 11, 1911. The automobiles circled the track one car at a time racing for 3 miles against time. On that day the Midland Racing Cars from Moline came to complete on the track at Combination Park. The two Midland cars to race that day were a Model L and a Model K both driven by the Pope Brothers who were hired by the Midland Company to race their cars. Also going out on the track that afternoon were two motorcycles racing for three miles. Maurice Hoit of Geneseo won the motorcycle race by covering the 3 miles in
4 minutes and 30 seconds.
If racing fans could not make it out to Combination Park that July afternoon, they might have gone to the Airdome outdoor theater locate in downtown Geneseo to watch the racing film that covered the 1911 Indy 500 race.
By 1915 harness racing and local auto racing began to fade away from the local scene, and Combination Park went the way of the Geneseo Driving Park closing and disappearing from the Maple City landscape.
The thrill of watch speed events remained for the citizens of Geneseo. Next to fill the void were the track and field teams of Geneseo High School. In 1936 high school track coach Ray White came up with the idea to host the first Night Relays at what is now known as the Old Athletic Field. The Geneseo Night Relays were not only the first in Geneseo but the first relay meet to be hosted under the football field lights in Henry County. The first version of the Night Relays had the Geneseo High School Band playing and the crowning of the Night Relays Queen. The Queen was selected from ten high school girls who sold the most tickets to that first event. The Night Relays became a very popular event for the local track teams with the events lasting into the 1980’s with each of the events having a new queen reining over the evening.
Automobile racing was highlighted again in Geneseo during the 1950’s. Murrell Belanger, owner of the local John Deere Implement dealership, also was the owner of a USAC racing team. Murrell sponsored the Belanger Special number 99, which raced throughout the Midwest in the USAC sponsored races. The largest of those races was the Indy 500 every Memorial Day. In 1951 Lee Wallard drove the Belanger Special to win the Indy 500. In June of 1951, the Geneseo Rotary would sponsor the bringing of car 99 to the Maple City for all to see.
Later, the Belanger Special was be driven by Tony Bettenhausen. By 1958, Bettenhausen was a two-time USAC National Champion. In December of 1958 Bettenhausen made a visit to Geneseo speaking to the Geneseo Rotary Club and at the high school sharing his adventures as a USAC winning driver.
The 1960’s saw the development of boat racing on the Hennipen Canal. The boat races were first held during the Outing Clubs Fourth of July celebration. The boats were divided into classes by the size of their engines and then race in the section of the canal from the Izaak Walton grounds to the Outing Club. Today you can see some of the boats that race there by visiting the Geneseo Historical Society Museum.
If you are interested in the racing history around Geneseo I have several stories in my books that discuss those topics. I also have a new book out titled Under the Wire They Go, which covers the horse racing scene in and around Geneseo from 1850 until 1915. You can pick up a copy of that book and my others at C & S Antique Mall or at the Geneseo Farmers Market on Saturdays during the summer.