Taking a few laps back into Lebanon’s little-known racing history

4 min read1,660 views and 313 shares Posted April 4, 2019

The city of Lebanon was a respected name in motorsports’ heyday.

As auto racing gained popularity in the first decades of the 20th century, young men in the southeastern Pennsylvania region began to compete on local dirt tracks, risking life and limb for high-speed thrills. Events drew in many spectators, and Lebanon racers like Mark Light and Cyrus Patschke gained national fans.

A 1934 ad for a Lebanon Fairgrounds race. The 25c admission price would be roughly equivalent to $4.75 today. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

The old Lebanon Fairgrounds near the intersection of 16th and Oak Street drew considerable attention in the 1930s and early 1940s. A half-mile dirt loop on flat land became the training grounds for some of Pennsylvania’s finest racers.

The Lebanon Fairgrounds as seen in a 1937 aerial photo. (Penn Pilot)

A 1936 newspaper described the track as “about the best independent racing layout in Eastern Pennsylvania,” and at peak times the Fairgrounds admitted around 10,000 spectators.

An admission ticket to the Lebanon “Light Speedway,” dated July 12th, 1934. Mark Light is credited with officially introducing the sport to the Fairgrounds. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

Small-town stars

Lebanon’s most well-known racer, Mark Light, who raced in jalopies early in his career. Jalopies in the motorsports context were old cars, often poorly constructed or maintained, that racers refitted for speeding around the track. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

Lebanon’s golden boy, a racer and promoter named Mark Light, left perhaps the biggest impact on the sport’s local history. Born in 1910 and an orphan at age 11, he began racing at 21 and quickly became one of the most respected Lebanon racers, winning one event after the other at the Fairgrounds and regional tracks.

An undated (possibly 1937) “Sports Closeups” illustrated by Le Roy Gensler describes Light as “one of the leading independent dirt track drivers in the East.” (Lebanon County Historical Society)

Light’s career thrived, and the racer’s public enthusiasm for his hometown helped Lebanon’s track gain a similarly distinguished reputation. Light’s duties at the Fairgrounds shifted and overlapped as the years went by; at times he was a participant, a promoter, a race official, and a mechanic.

Lebanon’s Cyrus Patschke.

The earlier Lebanon racer Cyrus Patschke also made a name for himself in the motorsports world. Born in Lebanon in 1889, Patschke’s biggest claim to fame was his turn at the wheel in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 race for driver Ray Harroun. Patschke “relieved” (substituted) Harroun for several dozen laps, bringing the car from 5th place up into 1st. Harroun would go on to win the first Indy 500 in history with the help of Patschke, but the latter’s contribution to the race has largely been forgotten.

Indy 500 racer Ray Harroun in the winning vehicle, the yellow Marmon “Wasp,” which Cyrus Patschke drove for a portion of the event. (IndyRacingMuseum.org)

Though Light and Patschke are probably the most-remembered names from Lebanon, a slew of talented racers drove at the Fairgrounds and other regional tracks: Tex Artz, Ted Nyquist, Ted Kline, George Culp, Bill Holland, Ottis Stine, and Dave Randolph, to name a few.

A dangerous hobby

Advertisement

The sport was not without its risks. A number of racers and even a few spectators were injured at the Fairgrounds, sometimes fatally. Clyde H. “Jimmie” Zohner, a Reading native who had broken the Lebanon track record just two weeks earlier, was killed at the Fairgrounds in May 1936, marking the first fatal accident at the track.

Advertisement

Another Lebanon native, Ammon Kelchner, got his start at the Fairgrounds in 1935. Kelchner won the acceptance indie championship of the Eastern US in a race held in Lebanon. Tragically, his career was cut short only a few years later when he was killed in a 1940 race held in Altoona; he was just 28 years old.

Advertisement

The legacy of racing in Lebanon

Mark Light’s career continued intermittently into the 1940s and early 1950s. During World War II, the US government put a halt on auto racing, damaging the sport’s popularity. Light eventually retired and set up an auto repair and muffler shop on Cumberland Street. He later relocated to Manheim where he passed away in 1975.

Another photo of the Fairgrounds at 16th and Oak Street, dated April 17, 1938. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

Cyrus Patschke returned to Lebanon after a relatively short 7-year racing career. He opened two auto businesses along Cumberland Street, one a dealership and the other a repair shop, and continued to live in town until his death in 1951.

As the years passed, Lebanon’s league of racers began to settle down. The site of the old Fairgrounds dirt track, closed in 1940, was overtaken by houses and farms, and the sound of autos speeding in the soil faded. Thanks to the talents of these racers, though, Lebanon will always remain a place of interest for classic motorsports fans.

Comments

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ryan. Lebanon County does indeed have quite a tradition – this article focuses more on the Fairgrounds track but there is certainly much more to explore; individual racers, the local Hill Climb style of racing, etc.

      We’re always welcome to hear suggestions for future articles, so let us know if there’s something specific you’d like to see covered!

  1. I’d be very interested in learning about hill climb racing in Lebanon County. I knew a good bit of the old fairground history, but learned more from this article. Thanks!

  2. My dad, Harold Klopp (Kloppy) and his buddy Vic Nauman, raced in that era. So, as a young kid I got to go to a lot of races. I remember going to Williams Grove and seeing Mark Light fly in the crowd. He was hurt and ended up with a steel plate in his head. that could have been when he quit. I always loved racing and still watch NASCAR since I am too old to go to the tracks as my husband and I used to.

  3. This is very interesting to me as I grew up around racing. My uncle wild Bill ream was a stuntman for Joey chitwood and lucky teter back in the 40s and early 50s. My dad had a Coke stand at hilltop and we went to Zellers Grove silver springs and Williams Grove when I was a kid. I built and worked on race cars in my younger days. I was on Bobby gerhart juniors crew and my brother was on Bobby gerhart seniors crew. I have a box of old 8 mm tapes of some of the old tracks. I would like to know more about the local hill climbing thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Stories