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‘There was no place like it’: The rich history of Lakeside Speedway, once known as Denver's ‘palace’

Lakeside Speedway, which now sits in ruins, was once known as “the palace” and drew visitors from across the West. Hear the seldom-told stories of the track in this Denver7+ special presentation.
Posted: 2:48 PM, Sep 04, 2022
Updated: 2022-12-06 16:55:21-05

LAKESIDE, Colo. — While the word “Lakeside” might evoke images past of Lakeside Amusement Park – once known as “The Greatest Park in the West” – perhaps the richest history on park grounds sits right next door, and it’s in danger of crumbling away.

What now sits in ruins, a shell of its former self, the Lakeside Speedway was once the place to be in Denver and a staple of the racing landscape in the American West.

In this special presentation of Discover Colorado, we sit down with a historian and several drivers who raced at Lakeside for seldom-told stories of the track and an intimate look at the cars that competed there. Plus, a look at the tragic night in July of 1988 that brought 50 years of racing in the Denver area to a grinding halt.

Watch the full Denver7+ documentary in the video player above or here:

Lakeside Speedway: The history of Denver’s ‘palace’

"The place to be"

“Still, to this day, I think Lakeside Speedway would be one of the finest midget racetracks in the country – if we were still running,” said Joe Starr, an award-winning motorsports photographer who documented countless races at Lakeside Speedway. “They just put on an incredible show there. Back in its day, they used to call Lakeside ‘The Palace.’"

So, how did Lakeside Speedway get from there – "the finest racetrack between Kansas City and Los Angeles," as Starr put it – to the abandoned eyesore you see at Sheridan and 44th today?

This recounting of the racetrack’s history and legacy is based on interviews with 11 Coloradans who grew up racing or hanging out there with the people they refer to as “family” – whether blood or not.

Some of their fathers were legendary drivers, others were those drivers’ die-hard fans, and a few of them followed in the footsteps of the men they admired and cheered for as kids every Sunday night near Interstate 70 and Sheridan Boulevard.

It all started in the early 1900s, when the roughly 16-acre plot of land in the parking lot of the famed amusement park was home to a baseball field. In 1935, a man named Ben Krasner bought the amusement park.

Lakeside baseball field 001.jpg

“Ben was a good sportsman … and in 1937, he went to the West Coast and watched some midget car races and thought [the park] is where Denver needed to have a permanent home,” said Paul Bredenberg, a racing historian and the vice president of the Colorado Auto Racing Club. “With Lakeside, Ben decided to plow up what was then home base, and the north end of the field, and make that the speedway.

The ball field was converted to a racetrack for a type of car known as "midgets" – small-bodied cars hammered out of aluminum.

They raced on dirt in the first year before the track was paved in 1939. The following year, the Rocky Mountain Midget Racing Association was formed.

Racing in Colorado stalled for a few years during World War II. After the war ended the Colorado Auto Racing Club formed, bringing stock car racing to Lakeside.

Lakeside turn 4 northwest corner grandstands 001.jpg

The thirst for racing in Denver only grew. Midget cars raced on Saturdays, stock cars on Sundays.

Race night at Lakeside would become a cultural icon in the Mile High City.

“Through the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, there was really no competition for the sports entertainment dollar in Denver. … There wasn’t a basketball team to speak of. There wasn’t a football team to speak of. And any of the college teams played on Saturday,” said Bredenburg. “So, the place to be was Lakeside Speedway.”


“Everybody in Denver went to the softball games at City Park during the day, and then everybody showed up at Lakeside Speedway for the midget races or the stock car races on Sunday night,” said Joe Starr. “If you didn’t get there early, you didn’t get a seat.”

Many of the drivers and Lakeside alumni we spoke to fondly recalled a similar Sunday night at the park: Enjoying the rides in between races next door, the smell of the hot dogs and the other sights and sounds of the amusement park.

"Lakeside is always home," said Chris Ertler, a 50-year member of the CARC whose racing expertise garnered him the nickname "Professor Coupe."

"It just it's hard to explain it just pulls me on. It's a little place. Yeah, the whiteboard grandstands with the red seats. And it just was homey. And it made a lot of friends.

"I just enjoyed the heck out of it."


"You were their hero"

On weekend nights between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the finest racers in Colorado and across the region would compete on the one-fifth-mile track vying for a season title.

“There was great competition, with a lot of drivers that traveled to Colorado to race at Lakeside – from California, from all over the United States – would want to come and race at that racetrack,” said Kevin Gallo.


In the track’s hay day, as many as 75 cars would turn out to race. Fans were treated to the main event, the “B Class” race, the “Hooligan” race, and on most weeks, an all-female race called “Powder Puff.”

On many nights, the grandstands would sell out with upwards of 10,000 spectators in attendance. As Doug Stallsworth told us, they'd put out a blanket to save space for mom so she'd have a seat for the races.

What are now rotted grandstands and overgrown facades were the barbicans and battlements of Denver’s "palace." And the drivers there were royalty.

“You were as close as they were going to get to a Major League star,” said Darrell Taylor. “You were their hero.”


Take Scott Wilson’s late father, Fritz Wilson, for example. The elder Wilson was a champion racer at Lakeside who would go on to race in the very first Daytona 500 in 1959 alongside several other legendary drivers.

Wilson said some people credit his father, who drove a ’59 Thunderbird in the inaugural Daytona 500, with inventing drafting – a tactic still used by drivers today to reduce their drag by using the slipstream behind other cars to gain momentum to pass drivers in front of them.

“I guess if you could race Lakeside, you can race about anywhere,” Wilson said.

Wilson said his father was like John Elway around Lakeside before John Elway was a twinkle in the eyes of Denver sports fans. But the magic of Lakeside Speedway wasn’t found just in the level of competition that came through or the packed bleachers.


A family affair

What made the place great was the special bonds formed at the track – families grew closer and others became family.

“You have your family, your blood family, and then you have your racing family,” said Gary Land. “And that family doesn’t go away. Those are still your family. I look at most of these people in this room today that I consider family because we’ve spent so much time together.”

“For me, it was a connection to my dad and to my two brothers because it was the only time we went anywhere without the two sisters and my mom, generally speaking. And it was exciting. So much to be part of,” said Bredenberg. “And you know – connection. The people you sat next to, you got to know for the summer. They may not come back the next summer, but you got to know [each other].”

Family is something that means a little more to the group of men when they harken back to their days at Lakeside.

Gary Land, Scott Wilson, Frank Denning Jr., Kevin Gallo, Doug Stallsworth and so many others also followed in their fathers’ footsteps, racing at Lakeside.

Gary Land and his father, Bob Land, are seen with their family and several of their race cars.

“I grew up there from when I was a baby,” said Gallo. “I was carried in in a little bassinet to sit in the stands.”

Land says he loved watching his dad, Bob Land, who was his hero.

“He didn’t win a lot, but he was on the track racing with a lot of my heroes and a lot of his heroes,” he said. “It wasn’t that big a deal to me because it was my dad and I got to be around him 24/7, so working on the cars at home was normal to me. But I didn’t realize until later in life, as I grew up and became a father myself, that those are special times. And I hope to continue that tradition with my son.”

So many of the drivers at the time got their sons into racing simply by immersion – or perhaps because of the atmosphere.

“Well, my dad was one of the winners in the Denver area for a long time, and he was one of them personalities that you either liked him or you hated him,” said Stallsworth. “Real simple.”

And for many of them, while it was the family ties that kept them linked to the sport, there was also the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the rush of race night at Lakeside that kept them coming back.

“I’ll spend every last dime of money I got to go racing, to get that little bit of adrenaline rush that you can’t get not too many other places,” Land said.

Gary Land and his father, Bob Land, are seen with their family and several of their race cars.

"You really had to be on your A Game"

How would a driver describe the experience of racing two-dozen other cars on a one-fifth-mile track?

"It is organized mayhem," said Darrell Taylor. "If you're going into the first corner, trying to not touch wheels with another car, and then picking off cars one, two at a time, passing them, and you have a 25-lap main or a 10-lap heat race or six-lap trophy dash to do it in."

They’d stagger the starting line, with the fastest qualifiers starting in the back, and it was a mad dash for the lead and the win. But the crowded track – “the great equalizer,” as Taylor called it – was just the beginning of the challenge.

“Lakeside was so short, so tight, that you really had to be on your A Game in order to run this and be successful,” Starr said.

Stallsworth describes the track as “kind of like running on the outside of a donut.”


“The car was never straight, so it taught you a lot of things. Plus, [the track] was egg-shaped – it was flat in the pit corner and banked in the other corner,” he said. “So, trying to make a car go around this thing was an adventure, to say the least.”

But despite the tight quarters and high speeds, Lakeside was not a demolition derby.

“That is the great thing about racing a car is the respect,” said Taylor. “You’re not out there to wreck somebody or drive into the side of their car, you’re keeping the greatest distance possible and still trying to beat the competitor in a relatively gentlemanly fashion. Because the whole idea is not to wreck the car.”


The speed, finesse and heart-pounding action were all part of a spectacle unfolding mere feet in front of spectators.

“The aisleways were so close to the racetrack that it was scary as a kid because the cars are – there’s a guardrail which is, you know, three feet away. And then you had a chain-link fence, and then you had your walk planks,” said Wilson. “And those cars would go roar and roar past you – you know, the sights and the sounds and the smell when they go by, it was a blast. When you’re a kid, you just love it. The grandstands were packed.”

clarence my photo 001.jpg

Taylor compared the crowd at the raceway to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field in Chicago.

“There wasn’t a great distance between the track and the grandstands. You could see the people. And you had your heroes, you had your villains, you had people who would wave at you,” Taylor said. “And you were putting on a show for the fans. And there probably is no greater feeling in the world.”

Under the hood

The midget cars that raced at Lakeside in its earliest years and again from the ‘50s through the ‘80s had about six-foot wheelbases, bodies hammered out of aluminum, and engines ranging from the old Ford V8-60, to the four-cylinder Hercules engine, tractor engines and more.

“They just kept going and they’re very small and lightweight cars with tremendous horsepower and torque. So, they went faster than the stock cars and were more dangerous,” said Bredenberg.


The stock cars were generally random cars found in junkyards, from people’s estates, or scraps that got the windows knocked out and everything unnecessary stripped out.

The draw for young racers? Stock cars were inexpensive.

"A kid like me when I was, you know, in my early 20s, to get into it for cheap, really cheap," Ertler said. "I paid $400 bucks the first car, and another $100 to the same guy for the trailer. I mean, that's achievable."

The downside, though? "After you crashed it, that was pretty much the end of the car back then,” said Bredenberg.

But the cars meant much more than simply being metal heaps that crossed the finish line. They were symbols of a racing legacy – special enough to re-create and preserve.

The group of racers still around have nearly all restored or preserved cars similar to what they, their fathers, or their heroes raced back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.


Wilson built a tribute to his father – a replica of Fritz Wilson’s 1932 Victoria that he raced at Lakeside, complete with gold leaf and the open roof – but with some newer slicks. It’s just part of a massive racing collection inside the garage at his Broomfield home.

All of the group’s cars – from the famous Donald Duck on Frank Denning’s car, to the driver’s signature – contain beauty in the details, and tributes to the Lakeside of the past. They also need plenty of care.

Maintaining them is a labor of love. Take Darrell Taylor’s No. 93 car – a 1934 Chevy sedan built on a ’32 Ford frame – which has been passed down through generations of racers and which still hits the track today.


“A lot of TLC. The frame is 90 years old, and it is showing its age, but it still runs,” said Taylor. “And it takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication. Those parts are hard to come by and a lot of time on eBay, a lot of time with old racers who have old parts.”

Doug Stallsworth, the son of a prolific driver and a Lakeside alumnus himself, says that tender love and care is part of what made the speedway so special. He says the work that was done behind the scenes was just as important as the turns made under the lights.

“Everybody’s talked about how magical it was and stuff, but I’m going to tell you that I’ve always thought that the magic was in the guys that you surrounded yourself with – the pit crew, all the people like that that you met along the way,” Stallsworth said. “These people would spend every night in the garage at home instead of being out partying and having a good time. And so, you know, you’ve really got to have some really good people around you, and you got to be around some people that were very creative. They could look at a problem that we’re having with a car, and everybody put two or three cents in on it, and all of a sudden, you’d kind of start putting it all together and solve the problem.”


A deadly ending

No matter the detail put into the cars and their mechanics, and the familial and oft respectful bond among drivers and spectators, crashes could not be entirely avoided.

“It’s part of the business and probably part of the allure for some people to go watch people wreck,” Wilson said. “…I think they enjoy it as long as it’s still, you know, little things here and there, and nobody really gets hurt. And all that’s part of the sport, you know?”

The crashes were inevitable, the former drivers said in interviews. One couldn’t look away from them.


But sometimes they change the course of history.

Wilson was on the track the night of July 24, 1988, racing in the main event. Since the top qualifiers started at the back of the pack in the Lakeside races, Wilson was working up through the pack a few laps into the race when it happened.

“By the time I realized what was happening, it was over with,” said Joe Starr, also at the track that night.

“I think it was a black car got on top of another Camaro and went over the guardrail and hit the chain-link fence – behind which were some poles, light poles, wiring polies, something like that,” Bredenberg said.

Driver Gary Burton lost control of his car on a turn of the track and slammed into the chain-link fence. Debris from the crash hit Kristy Carlson, a 26-year-old woman from Arvada who ultimately died from her injuries. According to an Associated Press report from that night, 13 others were hurt.

“In turn one, we realized what had happened,” recalled Starr. “The other people in the other grandstands thought it was just another accident. They didn’t realize the severity of it until later.”

The drivers and fans would go back to Lakeside again the next week, but the grandstands were closed. Starr says everyone was a bit gun shy.

“We had an accident where somebody hit one of the light poles a week or so later, and I remember I flinched,” he said.

The famous track at I-70 and Sheridan would only host a few more races.

“I don’t think there’s anything that anybody really did wrong, you know. It’s just a bad thing,” Wilson said. “They got together and then that was about the end of that season right there.”

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Rhoda Krasner, who still owns Lakeside Amusement Park today, closed the speedway for good later that year. After one deadly turn, decades of racing at Lakeside came grinding to a halt, and the sport’s main club of drivers was left without a home.

The Colorado Auto Racing Club needed to find a new place to race. The Colorado National Speedway in Dacono was paved in 1989, but the group couldn’t get enough drivers together to make using it a viable option, Bredenberg said.

Others broke off to other groups, and drivers increasingly had to go further out from the metro area to find places to race after the closures of the tracks in Englewood and at Lakeside.

“It did change the culture because those two local Denver tracks were both gone,” he said.

The Krasner family declined to be involved in this story, so the reasons why the stadium known as “The Palace” for much of the 20th Century is now a decrepit, run-down lot with deteriorating grandstands may never be known to the public.

turn 1 stands 001.jpg

But what is known is that generations worth of stories and memories took place at Lakedside Speedway. And for many, that’s its legacy.

“The tragedy that took place, we don’t want that to be a reflection on what actually took place at the Lakeside Amusement Park and Speedway, or the park in general,” said Starr.

Lakeside Speedway: Drone video of Denver’s abandoned racetrack

"I miss the place really bad," Ertler said.

"There will never be another place like it. You know, what's the chances of having a racetrack and an urban intersection with houses all around it? I just love the place and it was so much fun."

For the members of the racing club, it’s a special place that will forever hold special memories that they keep alive today even if what used to be their Mecca is no more.


“Time marches on, and they say all good things come to an end. And maybe that’s what we need to do, is remember Lakeside Speedway in a documentary like this. Remember all the good times we had and just move on,” Starr said.

“It’s always nice to talk about the old days, so to speak, and what it was like. We kind of put out of our mind all the bad things that we had, but we remember all the good things,” Starr added. “And we certainly have a lot of good things to remember about Lakeside Speedway: the people, the race fans, the drivers – everything about it. It was just a time in our lives that we look back on fondly.”

Roarin' engines: Up close with the cars that raced at Lakeside Speedway