FORT WAYNE – Fifty years along now, and still Moose Myers remembers the price of fame: Twenty dollars.
It was the last race of the year, says Myers, five blaring decades after that first summer at Baer Field Speedway. The weather was kind of bad, so (track owner John) Weisenauer said If everybody races, everybody will get 20 bucks. So we all got in our cars and thats how I got my first win.
And the rest, as they say, is history. A whole pile of it.
Myers, whose given name is Conan, went on to win 14 season titles at Avilla and Baer Field, becoming along the way the only man to win championships in the American Speed Association and Automobile Racing Club of America. He and his car owner, Jim Stovall, are both in the Baer Field Hall of Fame.
Not a bad deal for a guy who began his career by being shown the door at the old South Anthony Speedway.
Yeah, I started out there with Tommy Wible, and they found out we werent old enough to race so they kicked us out, Myers says.
A handful of years later, of course, he and Wible both became stars at Baer Field, a recurring theme for the half-mile of asphalt laid out on 45 acres of land south of what is now Fort Wayne International Airport.
Over the years, the place has served the purpose all such places serve: As both an outlet for any scuffler with a few dollars in his pocket and a jones for speed, and a grassroots incubator of American racing talent.
Along with the Myers and Wibles and Joe Wallaces and Larry Zents, great names have passed this way. Bobby Unser held the track record for sprint cars, once upon a time. Bobby Allison ran here four times. Steve Christman went from Baer Field all the way to NASCAR in 1987, taking a 23-year-old New Haven kid named Steve Minich with him as his crew chief.
Dale Earnhardt ran here, taking Zents car for a winning ride one memorable night. And, on yet another memorable night, Rusty Wallace went careening off the unfenced first turn and wound up among the trees just beyond – after which, turn one was duly christened Rusty Wallaces Corner.
And yet another hotshoe discovered there was a trick or two to getting around Baer Field in one piece.
Whoever got through the turns fastest was gonna come out on top, says Jim Lambert, a drafting teacher at Wayne and Elmhurst who ran at Baer Field for 18 years and retired with 13 track championships and 155 feature wins. And you never came to the track with the same setup; you always made a change. If it didnt work, you went back to whatever worked for you at that point in time.
You really had to have a good engine, but the main thing was a supergood set of brakes. Later you could hit your brakes in the corner the faster you could get around the place, Myers says.
Nobody got around the place faster that summer of 1964 than Johnny Klotz, who Myers remembers pretty much won everything. He set a track record the very first day Baer Field opened for business, and went on from there.
Jack Riley and Moose Myers, they were really good competitors, Klotz says. I remember everything was brand new: the grandstands, the track we had been running at South Anthony, and this track was little bigger so it gave us a little more racing room. I remember you had to head for the bottom of the track and just let it drift up toward the wall, and that seemed to be the fastest way around.
All in all, it was a fine time to be spending your Saturday nights banging fenders. That first summer, there were two other racetracks in Fort Wayne – South Anthony and Fort Wayne Speedway out north of Glenbrook Square – and yet finding an audience was never an issue.
What I remember most about the first season was if you didnt get there a half hour before it was time to qualify, you didnt get a seat, Myers says.
And it didnt last. Within a couple of years, South Anthony and Fort Wayne Speedway were both gone. And within a few more, Baer Field would slip into the hand-to-mouth existence that is the fate, eventually, of almost every small track in America.
When it came time to put some money into it, thats when it started going downhill, Myers says. And nobody knew what the airport was gonna do, if they were gonna take it over or what.
And yet 50 years along, theyre still racing on summer nights south of the airport.
It was a family friendly racetrack, and the competition was great, Lambert says. My family would come, and my students at Wayne High School and Elmhurst would come.
You just enjoyed racing for the local people here in Fort Wayne, I guess.