Readers remember the adventure and danger to be found at Maryland’s old Vista Raceway.
The dust may have settled long ago on Vista Raceway, but Answer Man’s column last week on the Lanham, Md., track kicked up a lot of memories.
The District’s Tony King would go to watch his father, Bob King, compete. Bob raced Triumph motorcycles. We’d call them vintage now, seeing as they were made in the 1960s, but then they were snarling, snapping beasts eager to leap down the dirt track.
Tony said all sorts of speed events took place at Vista, a halfmile track owned and operated by African American partners. That included midget car races and various classes of motorcycle races. There was the occasional horse race, too.
Any time humans get on — or in — something that goes fast, accidents can happen, and that was the case at Vista. Tony still remembers the color of the illfated midget car driven by John “Shelly” Moroney of Richmond: burgundy with gold numbers, bought for him, Tony said, by his mother and grandmother.
On July 17, 1960, Moroney lost control of the midget car while passing another driver on Vista’s Turn 4 and hit a cable that was stretched across an opening on the side of the track. The wire was there to keep race fans from crossing. It struck Moroney under the chin, breaking his neck.
That wasn’t Vista’s first fatality. In 1954, a D.C. police motorcycle mechanic named Freddie Kutch died after he was thrown from his bike after colliding with another racer at the finish line. The track was muddy from an earlier rainstorm.
The aptly named Jay Lawless first raced at Vista in 1962 — aptly named because Vista was known then as an “outlaw” track, unsanctioned and off-limits to members of the American Motorcyclist Association.
“If we were caught we would have been suspended by the AMA,” wrote Jay, who now lives in Alaska. To avoid that, many racers used fake names. Jay went by “Sam Brown.”
He was in the Army and stationed at Fort Meade, Md., meaning he and his racing buddies didn’t have to travel far to compete.
“If you were good enough you could come out of there with a little money,” Jay wrote. “Being a party boy, I enjoyed the celebrations in the bar they had in the infield.”
That bar was known for the buckets of Cold Duck it sold.
There was often a party atmosphere at the track, especially on Labor Day weekend, Tony King said. That’s when the Gypsy Tour took place. It was a two-wheeled bacchanalia, with live music and a “Best Dressed Motorcycle” contest.
“A guy named Frog had over 1,000 lights on his motorcycle,” Tony said. “He would win every year.”
Tony said the event also featured hot dog races. And those were what, exactly? “That’s where a woman would stand up on the back of a motorcycle and try to bite a hot dog off a string that’s hanging across the track,” Bob said.
The Gypsy Tour could descend into something approaching chaos at Vista. Hells Angels would set up their camp on one side of the track. The locally grown Pagans motorcycle gang would set up on the other.
“They’d get drunk at night and be wandering over into each other’s camps,” Tony said. Then the fighting would start.
“They would have to call in the P.G. County police, the state police, the sheriff — everybody,” Tony said.
In 1968, a motorcycle racer told The Washington Post, “People hear about those guys [the Pagans], and it makes it hard for the rest of us.”
Probably the winningest competitor ever to race at Vista was Drayton Tylee of Alexandria, Va. He was champion for five straight years, going virtually undefeated from 1960 to 1964.
Tylee stopped racing, but he never lost his love of speed. A contractor who built homes in Northern Virginia, Tylee was killed in 1975 along with a friend when the plane he was piloting crashed in the mountains of Colorado. They were on their way to the Reno Air Races.
A motorcycle contest at Vista Raceway in 1959. The track featured all sorts of events, including midget car and horse races.