“In 1955, I ran 50-some race tracks all over the United States. Jungle Park was the worst track I had ever seen.”
~Stock racer Bobby Hunter
Drivers once considered the Jungle Park Speedway the most dangerous racetrack in the Midwest. There was a good reason for that: it probably was.
In 1927, race official and part owner of Rockville’s Jungle Park Speedway Earl Parker was repairing a deep divot in the track when a car struck and killed him.
Car racing emerged as a premier form of entertainment across the Midwest in the 1920s, but particularly in Indiana. In the early days of automobiles, Indiana had more independent car manufacturers than any others state. Counting boutique and custom brands, over 50 makers called Indiana home: Packard, Duesenberg, Studebaker, and Elgin, just to name a few. With the autos came the racing.
The Jungle Park Speedway opened in 1926 near today’s Bloomingdale, Indiana, about 50 miles due west from Indianapolis and 16 miles from the Indiana-Illinois border. It’s surrounded by dense second-growth forest and a twist of Sugar Creek today, but it was back then too. The only difference was, on a good day, Jungle Park Speedway could bring in more than 5,000 spectators. And the race cars.
Walter Axe died in 1928 when his car skidded wildly off the Jungle Park track, punching through the thin fence directly into a cluster of trees.
From the very start, safety was an afterthought, if it was thought of at all. More circular than oval and only a half-mile in circumference, the lack of real straightaways meant drivers would struggle maintaining control. Its curves were steeply banked, encouraging higher speeds.
“The track was not a true oval and the main straightaway, which is not straight, goes downhill, so you are in a constant turn,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson remarked. As many drivers pointed out, Jungle Park’s unique obstacles—trees—made the driving even more dangerous*.
In 1928, Mrs. Charles Kiger died while crossing the Jungle Park track on foot with her husband. The couple thought all cars had left the track until Howard King’s racer roared out of the curve and struck them both. Charles Kiger survived but his wife’s injuries proved fatal.
*If you look in the B&W photo taken mid-race below, you’ll notice a massive tree branch hanging over the curve, only a few feet from the track itself.
In its early years, the track used the hard-packed clay soil native to most of Indiana. As profits increased, its owners paved the track with asphalt and installed efficient drainage to quickly dry the track after rain. In its final years, the track would evolve a dangerous cocktails of surfaces: smooth asphalt on the each “straight” side, but slippery gravel on the severe curves. Jungle Park Speedway’s design demanded hard, risky racing.
1930: 25-year-old driver Frank “Tiny” Jenkinson died after losing a front wheel during a hard turn. His vehicle shot off the track and struck a tree hard enough to uproot it, fracturing Jenkinson’s skull.
It was one of the region’s most popular attraction during its early years, and profitable enough that its owners were able to build a line of expensive, shaded grandstands and even installed electric lights for night racing. There was a restaurant for quick meals and refreshments. Despite these additions, fans seemed to prefer the primitive modes of attendance. Instead of sitting in the grandstands, fans would cluster at the banked curves or inside the track itself.
During a warm-up lap in 1932, Indy driver Ed Leeper lost control of his car and tumbled off the Jungle Park track end-over-end. He died soon after.
Restrictions on fuel, steel, and rubber forced Jungle Park to close in 1941, although a handful of officially-unofficial races were held in 1942 using the previous season’s tires. In 1945 Jungle Park reopened. By 1947 it was in full swing again.
It was during this second phase of the park that its dangerous reputation became legend. Its owners didn’t acknowledge the park’s many safety issues. One attendee described a flopped car catching fire. There was no fire extinguishing equipment on hand. The crowd surrounded the car and used their beer to douse it.
Driver Don Salladay, 31, died in 1950 when his front brakes locked as he drove it in for a pit stop at Jungle Park Speedway. The auto jerked hard to one side, tipping over and crushing Don against a tree. He died instantly.
By 1950, the racing had become a routine spectacle rather than a singular demonstration of man and machine. Cars had long since replaced horses and just driving fast in a oval (and turning left sometimes) didn’t get the crowd’s attention. The thrill was gone.
Some drivers liked the track for the inherent danger but many major racers shunned the park’s “blood sport” image. In one instance, a professional driver noticed the stopwatch used during the timed laps wasn’t a stopwatch at all but a silver dollar. As the big name drivers left, so did the crowds. By 1955, Jungle Park had closed once again.
In 1952–in front of 3,000 fans and his own wife—driver Ralph Gordon Scott died after losing control of his car and tumbling across the Jungle Park track in hail of broken metal and smoke. He died from a crushed skull and chest on route to the hospital.
Investors attempted to open it again in 1960, hoping nostalgia might bring some of the people back. The old asphalt vanished under a layer of fresh dirt and after a few exhibition runs, the park reopened with great fanfare on October 9, 1960. 1400 people came to watch the race. Although this number was far below the track’s crowds 35 years before, it was better than the few hundred stragglers of the 1950s. A new decade, a new park, they hoped
It didn’t even last one race. As though the park itself wanted to reinforce its horrific reputation, the worst accident in the park’s history happened during an early heat of that first day.
As driver Arlis Marcum steered hard to avoid car in one banked curve, his tire plunged into a gash on the track. His car hopped high into the air, right over the delicate wire fencing around the track.
It plopped straight down into the panicked Jungle Park spectators, injuring several and crushing 37-year-old Annabella Sigafoose. It had landed directly on her back and dragged her for several yards in the short grass. Mrs. Sigafoose died 45 minutes later from a broken pelvis and internal injuries.
Despite this horrific fatality, the park’s owners decided to continue the races that day, worried they would never recoup their losses. This accident and owners’ callousness afterward ended Jungle Park for good. It would never host another official race.
Jungle Park Speedway still exists today, and polite visitors are permitted to come by. Much of it is still recognizable, although overgrown. It is an iconic piece of Indiana history, encompassing the state’s racing tradition AND its contribution to early automobiles…
I wanted to end this article with a note of appreciation for the park’s early owners, even if it was for the sake of staying positive. I cannot end it on happy note.
Folks, that place was a meat grinder. I already listed the fatalities reported at the park in this article, but I was more shocked at the newspaper reports of injuries. Hundreds and hundreds of injuries. Every time the park opened, racers and spectators arrived at nearby hospitals in droves. Newspapers were filled with injuries and names.
Broken arms, lacerations, concussions, burns, cars slammed into trees, cars fell into rivers, spectators injured, you name it. The list went on and on. In fact, I would even guess the number of injuries at this park surpassed hundreds and went into the thousands. THAT isn’t a blood sport. That’s a damn gladiatorial arena.
Jungle Park is a fascinating bit of Hoosier history, but I’m glad it’s gone.