Many younger residents in Greater Alton are oblivious to the fact that Alton was once a hotbed for drag racing.
From its first race on July 13, 1958, to its last battle on Oct. 1, 1972, Alton Dragway compiled a plethora of memories etched into the brains of a generation of drag racers who loved the quarter-mile track.
Still straight as an arrow, Wonderland Drive is now the main road into the Enchanted Village off Fosterburg Road. It’s almost unfathomable to believe a who’s-who of racers used to squeal tires and blaze down the track, which now houses a mobile home park.
Chris Karamesines, “The Golden Greek,” had arguably the first run over 200 mph — at 204 — on Alton Dragway, the birth of the funny car was there and numerous other feats happened during its heyday.
Mike Storey was 5 when his father, John, opened the track and 18 when it closed. Growing up with his own drag strip was a surreal feeling for him. He still lives not far from the site of the track.
“People don’t understand that growing up, this was literally in our back yard,” Storey said. “We would work construction, mow, or whatever until noon on Saturday and then at 3 go set the clocks and timing lights and all that up and make sure everything was ready to go. At 4 o’clock the cars would come in and start racing, and at 8 you’d take a break until 8:30 to get everything set up because we didn’t have computers. We’d have to figure out who was racing who and put them in staging and at 8:30 everything would really get going.
“I was 5 years old when it opened, 7 years old when Karamesines (broke 200 mph) and from then on I did every job from janitor to manager.”
Racing legends like Karamesines, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Bill “Maverick” Golden and the racing group of Stone, Woods and Cook all frequented Alton Dragway.
There were plenty of others who made names for themselves, too, like Wayne Arteaga and Art Badgley, who were there on that first day racking up wins. Unfortunately, Arteaga and Badgley since have passed away.
Even with those stars always lurking around, Storey was sometimes amazed of who his dad knew. A phone call he took when he was a teenager rendered him speechless when a racing icon spoke on the other end.
“It amazed me that my father even knew Mickey Thompson, and Mickey Thompson would even call him back,” Storey quipped. That was the type of racing royalty associated with Alton Dragway.
Rick Myers of Rosewood Heights was a regular racer at the strip. He lived close to the track and raced his ‘56 Chevy, “The Time Machine,” there with some success. Myers remembers going before he could even drive.
“I used to get rides out there when I was like 15 and I was amazed guys were putting new cars on the track, like Corvettes,” Myers said. “The 409s came out and the 413 Plymouths and the 421s and I was just a kid hanging on the fence watching all this stuff.
“Garland Tyler had a car called the Outcast; it was a ‘32 Ford with an Oldsmobile motor and he’d do burnouts and tires screaming and it just about frightened me, but I loved it standing there hanging on the fence.”
It was Tyler who pushed the idea of Alton Dragway to John Storey, Milton “Fat” Kingston and Allen Tite. Tyler later became manager of Mid-America Raceway in Wentzville, Mo.
“Garland Tyler, who was a head mechanic for Helmkamp Construction, put my father, Milton Kingston, known as Fat Kingston, and Allen Tite in a car and took them over to Terre Haute, Ind., and showed them a drag strip,” Storey said. “My old man owned the perfect piece of land for it and he looked at the economics of it. You have a place where people pay you to race, pay you to watch a race and while they’re there they all buy a hamburger and a T-shirt. It’s a perfect way to make money. He put the track in, but he set it up so if it ever went broke you could build houses down the side of it and over the years he went into the mobile home business, so it made a perfect mobile home park.”
On April 24, 1960, the most famous run at Alton Dragway happened. Karamesines scorched the track at 204.54 mph in his rail dragster. It is accepted by most as the first quarter-mile track run faster than 200 mph. The argument comes because Alton Dragway was not sanctioned by the NHRA and Karamesines had his run with the assistance of nitromethane.
“He was the first recorded run over 200 mph,” Storey said. “Connie Kalitta tries to claim it and that’s ridiculous. Don Garlits had the first legitimate run over 200 because it was in 1964 and NHRA lifted their fuel ban and he did it in a NHRA race. But if you talk to Don Garlits he’ll say that Chris Karamesines was the first run. Legitimate run? No. We weren’t NHRA so we didn’t have a fuel ban and they could run whatever they wanted.”
Storey and Myers weren’t there that day, but both said the legend of Karamesines’ run has grown to giant proportions even though the pictures tell a different story.
“Everybody and their brother claims they were there from the stories, but I was not there that day,” Myers said. “By some of the pictures I don’t even see anybody there that I recognize. It’s almost like an old wives’ tale or something. If everybody who said they were there was there, there would have been 100,000 people out there.”
Alton Dragway is also widely considered as the birth of the funny car. Storey said he watched the evolution in his back yard. From altered wheel bases to adding fuel injectors and blowers and removing seats, headliners and windows, the funny car was a strange transformation that took drag racing by storm.
“Jack Chrisman brought in his funny car and they were working on it and they weren’t 100 feet from my house,” Storey said. “People just don’t understand what it’s like to have that there. It was like a whole different world.”
A unique aspect of Alton Dragway was the grass median down the center of the track. It was a rare piece of drag strip aesthetics.
“There were only 13 that were ever built that had a median in the middle of them,” Storey said. “There was a lot of debate whether that’s good or bad. To me it’s a little safer because it keeps a guy over in his own lane. I guess it’s how you’re raised.”
Over time as drag racing turned to bracket racing and became more about how much money a team had rather than the quality of driver or mechanic, Alton Dragway changed. John Storey was becoming more engulfed in his mobile homes business, too, and it was year round, so in ‘72 the track closed. Badgley’s son Kenny prevailed in the final race, just like his father had done on the first day 14 years earlier.
But while the Alton Dragway may be gone, it’s not forgotten by the diehards who raced there.
Myers still cruises Wonderland Drive from time to time and reminisces of the good ol’ days.
“I take a drive back there every once in a while,” Myers said. “I have a buddy from North Carolina who used to race out there all the time and when he came back to town we started at the old Alton bridge and brought him across that way and the path he’d probably taken to get to the drag strip and then we went down the drag strip and he was pretty amazed it’s there.
“It’s the memories. The lights, the noise, the announcers, the cars. I only lived about three miles from the track and when I didn’t go out there I’d hear them. It’s like going back to visit your old family home that you grew up in. I see people sitting on the porch on their trailers and getting in their cars and I’m thinking, ‘Man, there were cars that used to go down through here at 200 mph and now here you are backing out on the road.’
“It’s just a plain old road, but that was a famous spot at one time.”
Storey has created www.altondragway.com. The website is under construction, but he hopes to have more up by July 15. Visit the site and feel free to share stories, pictures and memories to help keep Alton Dragway alive.