2744 George Washington Boulevard
(address of that same location was 2700 South Oliver Street in the 1940s and ‘50s)
1945 - 1957
It is not known just when this aerial view of Cejay Stadium was taken looking in a northwesterly direction across southeast Wichita. The major street, running along the bottom of the photo, is George Washington Boulevard. The major cross street in the upper left corner is Oliver Street. Cejay Stadium is the fenced-in area in the upper center of the photo. The racetrack was an egg-shaped racetrack with the larger radius turn and grandstand at the left side of the racetrack in this photo.
The photo below shows Cejay Stadium as blown-up from the photo above.
The following article appeared on page 3Z of the July 7, 1984 issue of the Wichita Eagle-Beacon newspaper:
Track Was Racers’ Training Ground
Wall Evokes Memories of Chills, Spills
By Brian Thornton, Staff Writer
Former Cejay Stadium owner and race
promoter, Carl Johnson, is shown here
standing beside the Cejay Stadium crash
wall in 1984 – Wichita Eagle / Beacon photo
As mementos go, it’s not very impressive – a faded green concrete wall, about 4 feet high, a foot wide and 35 feet long. It’s cracked in more than a dozen places, crumbling on top and chipped nearly everywhere. But the old wall, behind home plate at the Cessna Activity Center baseball field, 2744 George Washington Blvd., has a world of meaning to people like Emmett Carpenter, 71, and Carl Johnson, 75.
The wall is all that’s left of the popular Cejay Stadium dirt racetrack, 2700 S. Oliver – one of Wichita’s first raceways and the place where many early Wichita auto racers learned their skills.
“Like me, I guess the wall has stood the test of time,” said the gray-haired Johnson, with a chuckle. “But I think it will outlive me and be there long after I’m gone.”
More than 2,000 people showed up at Cejay each Saturday and Sunday nights in the summers between 1945 and 1957 to watch those skills being honed, according to Johnson, who built and owned the stadium – and used his initials to name it.
“People all came to have fun, forget their troubles, have a little excitement and see reckless young men risk their necks,” said Johnson, an east Wichita resident. He bought the 240-acre stadium site – the former location of a tuberculosis hospital – from the county in 1944 and then sold it in 1957.
He is retired now from a varied career as pool hall owner, photo lab technician and real estate speculator. But his stint as racetrack owner remains one of his favorites – one he readily talks about, checking facts in a brown, weathered scrapbook.
“I don’t know anybody that left the place dissatisfied,” Johnson said. “There were always enough chills and spills for everyone.
“For me, the best thing about owning the place was the excitement and thrill of watching the race meets. I got into all of it because I was a race nut and loved to watch the cars zooming around. I watched but didn’t drive. I was stupid, but I wasn’t crazy. Watching was enough for me. I had a good time. It was partly hobby for me and partly work.”
That same mixture of work and hobby lured Carpenter to Cejay. He now owns a bicycle shop in south Wichita, after retiring from his job as a mechanical engineer for Boeing. Carpenter said he spent hundreds, if not thousands, of happy hours at the track as a young man. “I went there quite a lot,” Carpenter said, “more than I care to admit.”
At first, Carpenter said, he was just a spectator and avid fan, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the track, where the whiff of gas often alternated with the smell of fresh popcorn coming from the concession stand. Then, Carpenter briefly drove a special tiny breed of racing car called a midget. He also helped build midget car motors. He finally got a job “scoring” or keeping track of laps on long races. He also wrote stories about events at the track for a magazine called the National Speed Sports News.
Trophies awarded to Hugh “Hugo” Shea for trophy dash victories in jalopy racing at Cejay Stadium in the early 1950s
Bob Lawrence photo
“I think we had some of the best racing at Cejay ever seen in Wichita,” Carpenter said.
The track had a couple of high dirt banks built into it, along with big dips, said Carpenter. “That all made it pretty spectacular.
“You’d see two, three or even four cars going up over a bank at the same time and flying a couple of feet into the air,” he said. “It was something to watch.”
To protect spectators from those high-flying cars, Johnson first installed a wooden wall in front of the bleachers at the corner turn in the track where cars frequently became airborne. Later, he replaced that with the concrete wall that still stands.
Cessna Aircraft Company – which has owned the land since the late ‘50s – tried to remove the wall, after easily demolishing the wooden stands, said Cessna activity center employees. But company workers gave up on the wall, they said, after discovering its concrete base runs several feet down and across into the ground. The rest of Cejay Stadium was not so indestructible.
Johnson said the beginning of the end came in the early ‘50s when the state condemned part of the stadium grounds to make way for the Kansas Turnpike, cutting his parking lot in half. The knockout punch came soon after that, when the bigger, wider and more modern 81 Speedway track was built at 7700 North Broadway.
“Running the stadium wasn’t all that lucrative to start with,” Johnson said. “You had to give a lot of money to the drivers.” When 81 Speedway opened, he decided to get out of the business – even though by then, he had branched out and was also using the grounds for rodeos, dog races, circuses and wrestling matches, when races weren’t under way. None of those alternative uses made Johnson much money, he said.
“I haven’t been to a race meet since I sold Cejay,” Johnson said, “I had my fill of it.”
But Cejay Stadium lives on in the memory of many folks like Carpenter. “It was a special place,” he said. “We had some of the biggest names of the racing world down there. I miss it. The modern racing isn’t quite the same. Back then, it was more exciting – and more dangerous. They didn’t have roll cages then, and the harnesses weren’t as sturdy. The helmets weren’t as strong, either. It took a special type of person to drive then.”
Johnson and Carpenter said that two people died* while racing at the stadium and many other drivers sustained injuries. Johnson insisted he’s unsentimental about the old stadium and doesn’t think about it much anymore. But younger people in the racing world readily admit to being influenced by Cejay – and recalling it fondly.
Said C. Ray Hall, general manager of 81 Speedway: “My parents used to take me to Cejay all the time when I was a kid. I learned to love racing there and it’s stayed in my blood. “The racing was real wild and spectacular,” he said. “I remember that and the old wooden bleachers, the concessions and the big crowds. Once that racing world got into my system, I couldn’t help staying involved in it. I think a lot of people here got their start in the racing business the same way.”
In the face of stiff competition from the newly built Robbins Speedway (later known as 81 Speedway), part of Cejay Stadium’s parking lot was condemned in the mid-1950s to make room for building of the Kansas Turnpike (a.k.a. Interstate Highway I-35). The combination of the above problems caused promoter Carl Johnson to close the racetrack and sell the property. A bulldozer was brought in to level the racing facility but it broke down while they were trying to remove the cement section of the fourth turn crash wall. (The rest of the wall around the racetrack had been made of wood.) A second bulldozer was brought in to do the job but it too, became a victim of the sturdy slab of concrete. The cost and trouble of bringing in a third and larger bulldozer to complete the work was deemed too high so the crash wall was left in place.
Webmaster Bob Lawrence is shown above standing beside that section of crash wall in 2006 which still stands today behind the backstop of a baseball diamond that has since been built on the former racetrack side of the old crash wall. Ball players often watch the games from atop the structure never having a clue to its historic past.
The photograph below of the crash wall and the webmaster, was taken the same day from the pitcher’s mound of the baseball field. The scorers booth in the middle of this picture, was removed shortly after that – Photographs from the Bob Lawrence collection
Unveiling of the Wall Plaque
September 26, 2015
15 of the 23 known living drivers who had competed at Cejay Stadium, gathered at the site of the crash wall before approximately 100 family and friends, to unveil a granite plaque commemorating Cejay Stadium. Left to right are: Johnnie Bush, John Marshall, Frank McElhaney, Gaylon Albright, Chuck Jones, Clark Racer, Larry Hall, Jack Petty, Bill Curless, Dick Walker, Forrest Coleman, Ray Riner, Brian Corrigan (seated), Jerry Shumaker and Jerome Chumley. Most of these drivers had driven stock cars at Cejay Stadium while Frank McElhaney and Brian Corrigan had raced in the hot rod class. Jerry Shumaker had raced both the hot rods and stock cars – Connie Lawrence photos
* During time trials for a “hot rod” race at Cejay Stadium on Saturday night, July 24, 1948; a roadster driven by 24-year-old Dorrel Dean Wilkinson of Wichita, crashed through a wood fence and overturned flipping end-over-end several times. Wilkinson died instantly after being struck in the head by one of the boards from the fence during the accident. Drivers had long complained about how dangerous that wood fence was so they, along with pit crews and other volunteers, removed what was left of the fence before the program resumed that night. (Note: Wilkinson’s first name is spelled “Dorell” on his grave marker in White Chapel Memorial Gardens in Wichita.)
Six weeks to the day after Wilkinson’s accident, a car driven by Chet Clark of Shattuck, Oklahoma made contact with another race car and hurtled through a fence plunging into the bleachers. Clark and 11 spectators were injured, four of whom were treated and released from a local hospital. Three spectators, including 23-year-old Billy Dean Sturgeon of Wellington, Kansas, and his wife, received critical injuries. Billy Sturgeon passed away the following day of a skull fracture.