The Cumberland Municipal Airport has never been busier than when sports cars raced around its runways.
Yes, sports cars. Not airplanes.
Each May from 1953 to 1971 racers from across the country would travel to Cumberland to test their sports cars against other top cars to see whose was the fastest. Roger Penske, Shelby Briggs and Carroll Shelby all raced at the Cumberland Airport. The races featured some of the greatest racing cars of the time: Birdcage Maserati, Ferrari Testa Rossa, D Type Jaguar, Porsche 356 Speedster, Cobra, Mustang, Camaro, Sunbeam Alpine, Austin Healy 100, and the Howmet Turbine Car.
“It was a great time,” said Dave Williams. “A who’s who of American sports car racing came through Cumberland.” Williams watched many of those old races as a young man and he remains a racing enthusiast and promoter of sports car racing today.
The Cumberland Municipal Airport offered a 1.6-mile-long course for the racers. In the days before permanent automobile racetracks became common, airport runways offered a satisfactory alternative.
Cumberland Lions Club staged the annual races and their proceeds helped provide free eye exams and glasses for needy children in the county, helped build Lions Manor Nursing Home, contributed to the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins and provided funding to the local Salvation Army, Boy Scouts of America, and YMCA.
May 1953 saw the first races at the airport. It was a result of months of planning between officials from the airport, Cumberland Lions, and Pittsburgh Steel Cities Region – Sports Car Club of America.
“The initial 1953 event started as Steel Cities/Pittsburgh Regional Races with 80 entries and a rather sparse group of spectators,” Bob Poling and Bill Armstrong wrote in Wings over Cumberland: An Aviation History.
Word spread locally and through the racing community that the airport in Cumberland was a great track on which to race.
The following year 122 racers and their cars showed up to compete before a crowd of around 12,000 people. This led to Cumberland’s regional event becoming a national one.
“Being a national event meant that it was the most-important event in your region in a year,” said Williams.
It also meant that only racers with a national competition license could compete at Cumberland. There were only 1,100 nationally licensed drivers in the country at that time and 284 of them showed up in Cumberland to race in 1955. They came from 40 of the 48 states, Washington, D.C. and Canada. The racers competed in 11 races from 8:30 a.m. until 4:15 p.m. giving racing fans a full days of thrills.
As a national event, Cumberland began getting featured in media across the country. Sports Illustrated listed the Cumberland Airport Races among the big coming events in the world of sports.
“It represented the largest car race conducted in the US and included many prominent racing figures such as the Briggs Cunningham team of Maseratti race cars. Also, the American manufactured Corvette was making its presence known,” wrote Poling and Armstrong.
The Cumberland Sports Car races continued to grow in popularity with fans. Some of the highlights over the years include:
- 1956 – Band leaders Paul Whiteman and Skitch Henderson along with actor Steve Allen race in Cumberland.
- 1957 – Famed racer Carroll Shelby wins the main event at Cumberland.
- 1958 – Roger Penske taking his SCCA driver’s test in Cumberland in a 283 Corvette. Penske got his license at the cost of his car. He blew the engine and then it fell off the trailer as he took it home.
- 1965 – The new GT Mustang driven by Bob Johnson wins the Production Car race.
- 1966 – The Walt Hansgen Memorial Trophy is awarded in memory of a five-time winner at Cumberland. Hansgen was killed in a crash at LeMans earlier in the year.
- 1967 – What would become a classic—the Z28 Camaro—won its first race.
- 1968 – Ray Heppenstal drove the turbine-powered Howmet TX Turbo car. Billed as the “car of the future”, it lost its race to Bob Nagel’s McKee Ford 427.
The peak year for the races, as far as attendance goes was 45,000 people in 1958. This was also the year a racer went over the embankment at the airport. Louis Jeffries was driving a Siata Special when the brakes failed coming off a long straightaway. The car went over the embankment, rolling several times until it reached the bottom. Jeffries was injured but not seriously. It was the only time that this type of accident happened during the races.
“By the early 1960’s, though, airport courses were being replaced by permanent sports tracks and attendance at airport races declined,” said Williams.
Though the community supported the races, some people were starting to complain about the ground at the airport being torn up and that the cars racing at Cumberland were starting to show their age.
Then the Cumberland Mayor and City Council voted to ban car races at the airport after June of 1971. This allowed the 1971 race to go on. Only 200 cars entered the races and competed against each other before 12,000 fans. Almost as if to mark the sadness of the last airport races in Cumberland, it rained through much of the day.
The Federal Aviation Administration agreed with the actions of the city government. In a letter to the city, an FAA official wrote that “it is evident that increased use of the airport requires that all facilities be available for aviation purposes.”
Amateur racing had been struggling in recent years not only because access to airports was being denied organizers, but insurance costs for such events were rising dramatically. Also, many of the big-name draws for these events had turned professional, taking much of the fan base with them.
Allegany County continues to have autocrosses but nothing like the head-to-head competition that once thrilled residents.
For more information:
Here’s are some links to more information about Cumberland auto racing.