Cortez to continue racing history

It all started with the Thunderbird Speedway

The old bleachers for the Thunderbird Racetrack are barely upright. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

The old bleachers for the Thunderbird Racetrack are barely upright.

This weekend, stock car racers will circle the track Fairgrounds Speedway, adding a chapter to Cortez’s rich racing history.

Though a few competitors are new to the area, local drivers have circled the tracks for years.

Listening to the drivers speak, one cannot help but be enthralled by stories of incredible wrecks and down-to-the-wire finishes.

In advance of this weekend’s races, below is a brief history of local dirt track racing.

Racing arrives in Cortez

Throughout most of the 1960s, racing was nonexistent in the Cortez area.

Then, hoping to attract racers who had competed at a track near Dove Creek, local businessman Ed Novotny constructed a track northwest of Cortez.

The track, near U.S. 491 and County Road N, became known as Thunderbird Speedway, and it was a hit.

Beginning in 1970, races took place every Saturday throughout the summer.

Gathering into wooden bleachers, audience members generally witnessed races in five classes, including a novice class open to drivers too young to obtain a driver’s license.

“The races were a big deal,” said local driver Tony Hill. “A lot of people showed up, and everyone always had a good time.”

Eventually, races were moved to Friday night to accommodate drivers who wanted to compete in Aztec on Saturdays.

“Guys wanted to run two nights a week,” said Hill. “Friday (in Cortez) and Aztec on Saturday.”

Wild nights at Thunderbird Speedway

Throughout the early years of racing at Thunderbird Speedway, excitement was high, and wrecks were a common occurrence.

Due in part to the oval track’s unique soil and banked turns, drivers were often thrown off the track into the blackness of the night.

“Jimmy Rodd and Richard Cox went for a tumble off of turn four one night,” said Hill, recounting a memorable wreck. “It knocked Jimmy out. He was unconscious for a while. His car landed in the pond.”

As risky as races were for drivers, events could be equally risky for fans who ended up in the path of debris.

“In 1975, Ron Rosenbaugh came off of turn four and hit a berm and barrel-rolled the whole front shoot,” said Hill. “The hood came off and flew up in the stands. The battery flew out and knocked this lady out of the bleachers. It was a bad deal.”

Thunderbird Speedway shuts down

Throughout the excitement and chaos, races at Thunderbird Speedway carried on until 1982, at which point the legendary speedway shut down.

While multiple factors led to the shutdown, the Speedway’s outdated facilities played a role.

“Part of the reason that we moved was because (Thunderbird Speedway) was near a junkyard, and it didn’t look very appetizing,” said longtime track officer Marian Rodd. “Everything was a temporary deal. We were getting bigger, and we needed a bigger facility.”

Fairgrounds Speedway is born

Eventually, Cortez’s bigger racing facility came in the form of Fairgrounds Speedway, which opened in 1986.

After a few successful seasons, the track began hosting International Motor Contest Association races, which continue to take place at the track today.

Like the races at Thunderbird Speedway, events at Fairgrounds Speedway are generally exciting, but safe.

This weekend’s races will begin at dusk on May 30 and 31. As always, fans are encouraged to come out and play a role in the latest chapter of Cortez racing history.

Remnants of Thunderbird remain in the field off Road N, including the finish-line marker, light poles and outhouses. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Remnants of Thunderbird remain in the field off Road N, including the finish-line marker, light poles and outhouses.