Q: I have a friend who tells me that there used to be a drag strip, probably near the airport, in Cahokia. I’ve lived here all my life, and I can’t remember one. Who’s right?
B.H. of Cahokia
A: I can tell you with absolutely certainty that your friend’s memory is firing on all cylinders.
Actually, the racing must have been hard to miss. According to dragstriplist.com, the Belleville Gear Jammers sponsored the first National Hot Rod Association event at Parks Airport on Sept. 4, 1955. Two weeks later, another race drew 350 entries and 3,600 spectators. According to an illustrated article in the January 1959 issue of Hot Rod magazine, racing was held on the north-south runway of what is now St. Louis Downtown Airport.
Never miss a local story.
Even Parks College itself got into the act. According to the dragstriplist website, the school sponsored a race on May 27, 1956, charging a $1.50 entry fee for racers and 50 cents for spectators. As further proof, you can go the website and see a newspaper advertisement for a Belleville Gear Jammers event on June 10, 1956, at “Walston (Parks) Airport” with time trials starting bright and early at 8:30 a.m. It also reminded readers that racing was held on the second and fourth Sundays of every month.
Apparently, the strip remained a hotbed of activity for at least a decade, drawing competitors from a wide area. For example, in “American Muscle Supercars,” published in 2008 by Motorbooks, author David Newhardt writes about Fred Gibb, who was well known for the Chevrolet dealership he started in 1948 in La Harpe, about 20 miles northwest of Macomb. For years, Gibb reportedly merely supplied area folks with dependable transportation.
“Fred thought racing was a waste of a good automobile,” Ken Boje, a Gibb historian, once told Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine.
That would change after Gibb after hired Herb Fox as a 20s-something salesman in 1961. It probably seemed odd to many, because Fox was a devoted drag racer while Gibb frowned on the sport because he thought it attracted the wrong crowd.
“Fred was kind of a religious man, and he didn’t go for childish, foolish things like I was interested in,” Fox told Newhardt. “He wasn’t into it. He said it cost a lot of money.”
Nevertheless, Fox proved he had a good head on his shoulders, moving 368 cars out of that small dealership in 1965. A year later, Fox would convert Gibb, which is where Cahokia comes in again.
“One day in 1966 Fox was about to head out for another weekend of racing at the local drag strip in Cahokia when Gibb approached him and asked him what he was doing. Fox remembers, ‘I told him I was going racing. He asked if he could come along. I figured it would probably be my job. I said okay, if you want to go, get in. We came back and he’d changed his mind about racing.’”
I can’t find an official date for when the racing stopped there, but I did find one reference to cars still barreling down the Cahokia strip until at least 1968.
What famous painter/sculptor of Old West scenes is honored with a museum in tiny Ogdensburg, N.Y.?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: On Aug. 18, 1868, French astronomer Jules Janssen was taking a spectrograph of the sun during a solar eclipse when he noticed something odd — a bright yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers. He, however, assumed it was an indication of sodium, an element which had been discovered and named decades before. But when English astronomer Norman Lockyer found the same line two months later, he concluded that it was an element that had never been found on Earth. He and English chemist Edward Frankland named it helium after Helios, Greek god of the sun. Thus, it became the first and only element in the periodic table discovered someplace other than Earth, according to popular astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It wasn’t until 1903 that scientists realized the nonflammable substance could be captured as a byproduct of natural gas drilling. It eventually replaced flammable hydrogen in dirigibles and zeppelins.