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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.