Recently, Thompson Speedway has operated as a small circle track, home to stock car and modified events. But in its heyday, Thompson Raceway was as vital to sports car racing as Lime Rock. It’s returning to its roots now, after a significant renovation.
Don Mei has been a spectator and competitor at Thompson Raceway — now Thompson Speedway — since 1955, when as an eighth grader in nearby New Haven, Connecticut, he convinced his father to take him to an SCCA event.
“I had received a new Ansco 35MM camera for graduation and I was in seventh heaven wandering around the short inside oval that was used as a paddock, happily taking pictures of Bill Kimberly’s 4.5 Ferrari, Bill Spear’s Maserati 300S, a 300SL, an assortment of Briggs Cunningham’s race cars,” Mei writes. “I was totally hooked. This was my introduction to Thompson and over the years I found my way there in several different roles.”
Northeastern Connecticut — just a few miles south of Worcester, Massachusetts — is known as “The Quiet Corner.” Prior to the construction of the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, the entire section of the state was populated with working farms and forests, quiet New England back roads, and not much else.
Thompson Raceway took root here in the 1940. According to Don Mei, the track’s construction came about following the devastation of the Hurricane of 1938, the most devastating storm to hit the region in the 20th century.
“It came ashore between Bridgeport and New Haven, traveling northeast through Thompson on its way into Massachusetts. In its wake, some 690 to 800 souls were lost, and some 57,000 houses damaged or destroyed,” Mei writes.
John Hoenig owned a farm in Thompson, Connecticut, and saw the clearing of all the debris from the storm as an opportunity to build a race track. “[He] set to work creating a 5/8ths mile asphalt race track which opened to the world on May 26, 1940,” writes Mei.
Hoenig’s track was America’s very first paved oval, and was a major success, attracting top oval track talent from all over the United States. Within a few years, Hoenig paved a quarter-mile oval inside the bigger track.
Road racing came soon after, in 1945 when sports car racing exploded in the United States thanks to returning GIs who recognized the allure of lightweight, sporty automobiles from their time stationed in Europe. Enthusiasts from Boston had formed a club that eventually the Sports Car Club of America. “On July 22, 1945, Thompson Speedway hosted this new club’s very first speed event using the 15 degree banked larger oval,” writes Mei.
In the 1950s, Thompson Raceway branched out by building road courses to attract racers who liked to turn right as well as left. The first track was known as “Thompson 1,” a 1.56 mile track that ran from 1952 to 1956. “This is the track I attended my first race at,” writes Mei. “It incorporated the larger oval, a common practice at the time,” citing Vineland in New Jersey and Marlboro in Maryland as similar designs.
In 1957, an new business arrangement evolved that led to the construction of Thompson 2, a 2-mile course that operated from 1957 to 1967. “‘Thompson 2 was run by well-known SCCA racer George Weaver who used the leased portions of Thompson 1 and incorporated them into sections of a road course he built on land he owned next door, Mei writes.
“The Thompson event that really stands out in my memory was the 1958 Labor Day SCCA National. Lance Reventlow brought his Scarabs east to do battle with Briggs Cunningham’s Lister Jaguars, George Constantine’s Aston DBR1 and an assortment of big bore Ferraris,” Mei remembers. “The Scarabs won the main event in a terrific race, though I can’t recall if Reventlow or Chuck Daigh was the winner. The big bore production race was equally exciting, as Jim Jeffords, in the 1958 Nickey Chevrolet Purple People Eater Corvette beat Walt Hansgen driving an Jag XK150S, Constantine in an Aston Martin DB and Bob Grossman driving a Ferrari TDF coupe. Great racing that to my mind wasn’t equaled until the Trans Am cars came along much later.”
On August 23, 1967, though, due to “an assortment of legal, financial and contractual complexities,” George Weaver sent out a postcard notifying enthusiasts that he was shutting Thompson 2 down.
Demand necessitated a new life, though. In 1968, the Hoenig family — owners of the oval track — constructed Thompson 3, a 1.7-miles track, modified from the original Thompson 1 layout. This version of the track was active until 1978.
Today, Thompson 4 is attracting attention. It’s a brand-new paved road course that allows several configurations. It’s modified from the Thompson 3 layout and debuted on June 27, 2014, open for sports car, vintage car and motorcycle racers.
For more information on the track, including dozens of amazing photographs, visit the Thompson Historical Society’s website, and check out the calendar of events at the newly revitalized Thompson Speedway website.
Image Source: Thompson Speedway