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Monday
Dec272010

My interview with Gary Marchbanks

I had the privilege of recently interviewing Gary Marchbanks, a former co-owner of Hanford Motor Speedway and the grandson of Marchbanks Speedway founder B.L. "Bircha" Marchbanks. 

This wonderful ticket brochure for the 1961 NASCAR race contains a nice map showing the various layouts at Marchbanks Speedway (link opens PDF of brochure)We chatted at his Hanford farm for about 90 minutes on a variety of things. While I still have many questions about the track's history (particular specific dates for any number of things), Gary filled in more than a few blanks and lent me a boxful of old newspaper clippings and other documents (including this attached wonderful trifold brochure for the 1961 NASCAR race) that I will write about in the future. The visit was very fruitful and will really fill out the history I've started so far. 

Here are some highlights of things we touched on:

  • The original track opened in 1951 was a half-mile clay oval shortened to a one-third mile sometime in the 1950s because a half-mile was just too large for the jalopies from around the immediate region. B.L., his son Bonnie and Gary Marchbanks did all the work on that first track. Gary, then age 9 or 10, helped drive a vehicle around the track to pack the road base surface (road oil mixed with dirt). 
  • Gary said his grandfather originally was interested in horse racing but couldn't get a track approved so shifted his focus to auto racing. At various times over the years, the track featured a roping arena and hosted "Portuguese bullfights," bloodless versions of better-known Spanish bullfights. B.L. also leased a local roller rink and the Marchbanks promoted races at Kearney Bowl and Bakersfield Speedway. 
  • Gary said racing was held at the track -- sometimes called Marchbanks Stadium -- regularly during the 1950s, a period I don't have much history on. He said jalopies from around the area filled the fields for weekly races. There even was a Figure 8 race on the third-mile track at some point. "I really liked watching that," Gary said. 
  • I was aware of two deaths at the track, but Gary recalls a third, when a car rolled over and killed someone in the 1950s. I'll try to get more info on that. 
  • The track layout unveiled in 1960 included an infield lake large enough to host quarter-mile flat-bottom dragboat races and water skiing. Marchbanks said a world record speed of 114 mph was set at the lake; the boat was unable to stop and "went into the bank." The Marchbanks relied on overflow irrigation water, pumped water and whatever rainfall to keep the lake full, but as any farmer can tell you, as time went on the cost of pumping water became expensive. 
  • Gary and Bonnie bought the farm and track from B.L. in 1964. Kal Simon entered the picture when he leased the track and paid for major improvements that led to four Champ Car races in 1967-69 (more on that in a subsequent post). 
  • The famed turbine car driven by Joe Leonard debuted at Hanford Motor Speedway when Indy car owner Andy Granatelli conducted testing over a two-week period. "That turbine, there was no sound to it. It just went whooosh." Gary also has fond memories of the Fords in those Champ Cars during the late 1960s: "Oh, you could hear those Fords. They sounded nice. ... those Ford overheads." 
  • A legal dispute between the Marchbankses and Simon surfaced in the late 1960s, and the track hosted its last race in 1969. Several efforts were made to save the track -- including a stock proposal and a pitch from Fresno racecar builder Fred Gerhardt -- but those efforts failed.  "It would have made money had that stock sale gone through. It would have made money," Gary said firmly. 
  • The track sat silent until its demolition in 1984, shortly after the track was sold to Gary's brother-in-law Rolland Gonzalves. Gary's voice cracks a bit as he thinks about the track, which was just a half mile north of his current home and walnut farm. "We used to go in and drive around it and mess around. What I miss is it's just not there. It might not have been running but it would have been there. ... I don't have any regrets. I'd have just liked it to be there." 

RELATED STORIES: Read more about Marchbanks Speedway and Hanford Motor Speedway in my Marchbanks section, including the regularly updated "History of Marchbanks Speedway, aka Hanford Motor Speedway."

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