Speedway Motors History
The history of Speedway Motors can be traced to the childhood of its founder, "Speedy" Bill Smith. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bill developed an early passion for performance. He began racing motorcycles as a teenager in the late 1940s, transitioning to cars in 1948. Speedy Bill's entrepreneurial streak was established when he started his first business - a hauling service - at age 14.
In 1952, with a degree in education from Nebraska Wesleyan University, 22-year-old Bill decided to forego teaching and pursue his love of cars and racing by opening Speedway Motors, one of the Midwest's first speed shops. The company opened in a tiny building at 2232 "O" Street, Lincoln's main drag. Speedway Motors grew quickly, expanding into a 5,000 sq. ft. building near 17th and "N" streets in 1954.
By the early '60s the company had also opened its own fiberglass manufacturing facility for making street rod and race car bodies and parts. Speedway's reputation for quality products, great service, and low prices kept it growing through the decades, culminating in a move to its current corporate campus at the turn of the century.
For a more in-depth look at the history Speedway Motors has created - and some very cool vintage photos - click on the decade tabs below.
By 1954, Speedway Motors had grown enough to expand into a 5,000 sq. ft. facility at 1719 "N" Street. Bill's racing endeavors helped keep the Speedway Motors name out in front of racers and the public. His purple 4x stock cars were familiar sights on dirt tracks throughout the Midwest, and were regular winners with drivers like Lloyd Beckman at the wheel.
In 1956, Bill and employee Bob McKee built one of the first Pontiacs in NASCAR, which was driven by future Hall of Famer DeWayne "Tiny" Lund. Drag racing also took off in the '50s, and Bill successfully campaigned cars powered by Ford Flatheads and newer Oldsmobile, Chevy, and Chrysler V8 engines. During this same time period, Bill began experimenting with fiberglass as a means for building lightweight racecar bodies - a move foretelling things to come. In addition to racing, Speedway Motors found success helping the area's hot rodders soup up their street-driven rides. According to Bill, two of the most popular aftermarket performance items in those early years were floor-mounted shifters and Fenton's "Hollywood" dual exhaust packages.
Of course, performance engine parts like camshafts, intake manifolds, and cylinder heads were sought after, too, along with chrome-plated accessories that helped rodders dress up their cars "just like the ones in the magazines."
By the 1960s, Speedway Motors was becoming an established name in motorsports and hot rodding. The company's 10-page catalog and ongoing racing involvement attracted enough business to allow the "N" Street headquarters to grow to 20,000 sq. ft. in 1962. In addition to a storefront and warehouse, Speedway Motors now had full-service engine and muffler shops.
Speedway began the decade as a dominant force on the local racing scene. The company-sponsored 4x sedan, built by "Speedy" Bill and driven by Lloyd Beckman, won a record 16 features in a row at Lincoln's Capitol Beach Speedway and took home the Nebraska Modified Racing Association championships in 1960 and '61. The same car won the 1961 IMCA Five State championship in Spencer, Iowa.
On the street, T bucket roadsters were all the rage, thanks in part to the roadster driven by Edd "Kookie" Byrnes on the TV series 77 Sunset Strip. This is where Bill's early experience in fiberglass paid off.
He already had 'glass T roadster bodies in production as the trend exploded, and he was soon able to pair them with new purpose-built frames to create some of the first "kit" packages in rodding. Speedway Motors opened its own 20,000 sq. ft. fiberglass plant in 1962 to build T buckets, sprint car bodies, and an ever-expanding line of fiberglass racing parts. The central western states emerged as the hub of sprint car racing as the 1960s marched on, and Speedway Motors was always out front with the cars and parts it developed.
In 1968, Bill met a young racer from California named Jan Opperman who was looking to race sprint cars. Few people wanted to take a chance on this wild-looking long-haired kid, but Bill put him in a Speedway sprint car in 1969, where he went on to win the 1969 Big Car Racing Association (BCRA) championship. This was just the beginning of a very successful relationship between Smith, Speedway and Opperman.
The 1970s was a busy decade for Speedway Motors, especially on the track. In 1971, Lloyd Beckman won the NMRA championship and finished runner-up in the BCRA. Jan Opperman continued to be a force to be reckoned with, winning three features in a row at the 1974 IMCA Winter Nationals in Tampa, Florida.
The following year he earned his second BCRA championship and took IMCA runner-up honors. In 1976, Opperman made history by outrunning 56 of the country's best USAC sprint teams on his way to winning the Hulman Classic. Dubbed "The Race that Changed the World," Opperman's victory was a huge shot in the arm for so-called "Outlaw" racers.
A couple years later, Doug Wolfgang earned 26 feature wins and won the 1978 Knoxville Nationals - the Indy 500 of sprint cars - driving Bill's 4x car. The 1970s saw a resurgence in street-driven hot rods as the National Street Rod Association was formed and grew in popularity. Speedway Motors was an early supporter of the organization, and today is recognized as the oldest vendor at the annual Street Rod Nationals.
In addition to its popular T-bucket kits, Speedway began offering reproduction '32 Ford roadster bodies and many other fiberglass street rod parts, not to mention frames, chassis components, and countless other pieces to help street rodders build safe, reliable cars.
In 1977 and '78, Bill Smith served on the board of directors of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). Speedway's continued success and growth spurred another company move in 1978, this time to a 75,000 sq. ft. complex just off of Van Dorn Street in southwest Lincoln. The new facility helped Speedway improve order processing and shipping time and set the stage for even more expansion in the decades to come.
In 1983, Speedway bought the Mr. Roadster company, expanding its line of components and accessories for street rods. Two years later, Hot Rod magazine featured Speedway's new '32 Lo-Boy roadster kit on its cover - not once, but twice - while completing a five-month buildup series.
The Lo-Boy was a rodding innovation at the time, combining the classic '32 Ford roadster lines with a contemporary frame design in easy-to-assemble kit form. Hot Rod called it "a kit that will create newfound interest in hot rodding by appealing to the pocketbooks of entry-level enthusiasts." Two decades later, the kit remains a popular Speedway offering.
In 1987, Speedway Motors acquired two more companies - Beverly Hills Pedal Car and Safety Racing. The pedal car became Blue Diamond Classics, a separate division of Speedway that currently sells vintage-style pedal cars, restoration parts, accessories and graphics. Bill Smith teamed up with General Motors Engineer Ed Mosher in 1988 to create the "Coors Extra Gold Draft" $1 million '32 Ford Roadster, a high-tech showpiece powered by a jet helicopter turbine engine.
With independent front and rear suspensions, four-wheel steering, countless electronic features, and a curb weight of just 990 pounds, the state-of-the-art roadster showed just how far street rods could go at the time. Coors toured the sleek black roadster around the nation for three years.
In 1982, Carson Smith, Bill's oldest son, became crew chief for Speedway's famed 4x sprint car, and 55-year-old driver Lloyd Beckman wheeled it to the track championship at Lincoln's Midwest Speedway. In 1989, Carson and his youngest brother, Jason, fielded a Lola-Chevrolet in the American Indycar Series championship. With Robby Unser at the wheel, the Speedway-sponsored car won 12 races and set five track records on its way to capturing the title.
Speedway kicked off the '90s with a bang by making a record-setting blast across the Bonneville salt. During the 1990 Speed Week, builder John MacKichan and driver Tim Schulz pushed the bright red Speedway Motors streamliner to 326.17mph, a new record for a small-block Chevys.
This was an early indicator that it would be another great racing decade for the company.
In 1992, Danny Wallace won 29 feature races and the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) championship in a Speedway-built IMCA Modified, a car that had been featured on the cover of Stock Car Racing magazine earlier the same year.
Beyond the oval track, Speedway got involved in the fabled Pikes Peak Hill Climb. First, Carson Smith designed the "Winged Wonder," which Robby Unser piloted to wins in 1992 and '94. Next, Carson designed a Chevrolet Motorsports-backed S-10 pickup, which won the Pikes Peak truck class in 1995 and '96. After Chevrolet introduced an all-new Corvette in 1997, Carson created a version that won the unlimited class at Pikes Peak in 1998.
Like most hot rodders, "Speedy" Bill has always been a collector. Throughout his years of racing and rodding he has quietly amassed an incredibly extensive collection of aftermarket parts, race engines, cars, toys, and automotive memorabilia. In 1992, these acquisitions were formally organized into the Smith Collection, a federally recognized 501(c)3 museum dedicated to preserving significant artifacts of American racing and performance history. The collection quickly became a significant attraction at Speedway's facilities.
Speedway Motors raced into the new Millennium head first by moving into a massive new corporate campus near downtown Lincoln. The 520,000 sq. ft., 46-acre facility would allow the company to realize unprecedented growth, and the technologically advanced call center and warehouse provided the capacity to process and ship record numbers of orders without sacrificing Speedway's signature speedy delivery. By this time, Speedway was being recognized not only as America's oldest speed shop, but also one of the world's largest.
Speedway's new location provided vastly improved facilities for the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed, as well. It is now housed in a 135,000 sq. ft., three-story building across the parking lot from Speedway's headquarters. The world-class museum presents a continuous chronology of automotive racing engine and performance equipment development, with displays of rare and one-of-a-kind race cars, engines, prototype equipment and specialty parts. There are also thousands of pieces of toys, accessories, collectibles and additional automobilia.
Speedway's Lo-boy roadster kit, first introduced in the mid-1980s, showed its staying power by serving as the basis for Street Rodder magazine's popular SpeedRodder build-up series in the early part of the decade. Interestingly, the car would go on to be honored as one of 2001's "100 Best" by Rod & Custom magazine. "Speedy" Bill's personal '57 Chevy custom rod, built by local craftsman Dale Boesch, received the same honor. "Speedy" Bill, meanwhile, found himself being inducted into various motorsports and hot rodding hall of fames, as detailed in our honors and achievements page.
After more than five decades in business, Speedway Motors' continued growth and success are the result of the business principles it was founded upon: giving car enthusiasts quality components at affordable prices with quick delivery and courteous service.
After six decades in business, Speedway Motors' continued growth and success are the result of the business principles it was founded upon: giving car enthusiasts quality components at affordable prices with quick delivery and courteous service.
The company's countless achievements are also the culmination of "Speedy" Bill Smith's tireless work ethic, expertly summed up by the man himself: "The smart guy will outsmart himself. The lucky guy will run out of luck. The money guy will never have the desire. But hard work will take you anywhere you want to go!"