Bedford track combines history, new ideas

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on area auto racing facilities.)

Eric Zembower grew up virtually counting down the days until he would be old enough to put together a car to race at the Bedford Speedway.

That was 32 years ago, and he’s still racing at his hometown track.

“All of the heroes of my youth raced there,” the 50-year-old Zembower said. “I sort of grew up with it.”

Zembower isn’t alone. Bedford, which opened in 1936, is the oldest currently operating speedway in Pennsylvania, and Zembower estimated it’s one of the 25 oldest tracks in the United States.

Suffice to say its history is rich. Bedford was part of the same circuit that raced Indy cars in the 1930s through 1950s, meaning renowned drivers like Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt raced in Bedford. NASCAR drivers have also come through Bedford, promoter Joe Padula said.

“Very few tracks can compare facility-wise, history-wise, atmosphere-wise and show-wise,” Padula said. “It’s just the total package.”

That package is something that keeps Zembower coming back, as he races every week at Bedford and cherishes the memories and friendships. The best man in his wedding, Jack Pencil, who is the winningest driver in Bedford’s history, is someone Zembower met through racing at Bedford.

“It’s competitive, don’t get me wrong, but we like the people we’re with,” Zembower said. “We cook after every race win, lose or draw. I’ve won a race and cooked out, and I’ve demolished a car and cooked out.”

Part of what makes the Bedford Speedway unique, Zembower said, is its imperfections. While the grandstand is level, the track falls off what he estimated to be about 10 to 20 feet, leaving the track uphill in the back stretch and downhill on the front stretch.

He likened the track’s asymmetry to the Darlington Speedway.

“If you put a new track in like that, there’d be people complaining,” he said.

Instead, he said, it adds to the charm.

And that charm is something for which Jake Hoover, the chairman of the race committee, is thankful. Although Hoover said placing a dollar amount on the economic impact of the speedway would be speculation, he said the speedway adds to the Bedford landscape.

“I feel like it has a tremendous impact [on Bedford’s economy] not just on race nights but on people supporting gas stations, motels, whatever it may be,” Hoover said. “When I think of people coming into areas for an event, it encourages them to come back and support other activities in town.”

Bedford has about 28 races scheduled this season, and although the track has historically been heavy on late model stock car races, Padula is expanding on that by adding open-wheel races.

Bedford has scheduled 10 such races this year instead of the one or two that typically dot the schedule.

Attracting open-wheel drivers has been tricky in the past, Padula said, because most live three to four hours away. But this year, he has tied most of those races into something else. The winner of the 410 sprint car show June 8 will be the automatic starter at Lincoln Speedway’s “Dirt Classic presented by Kasey Kahne,” which has a $20,000 purse.

“Race night in Bedford is really something special,” Padula said. “It’s the community gathering place almost. They get here before the race, and everyone is barbecuing behind their pickup trucks, hanging out with their neighbors or other people they see once a week. It’s the social gathering spot, and it’s a really nice part of the small-town atmosphere.”