The word “tradition” gets tossed around pretty frequently in hot rodding these days. There’s a lot of conversation about “traditional” cars and “nostalgic” parts and accessories. That’s a good thing—it’s important to know the roots from which hot rodding grew. But how many people—or companies—have truly been around long enough to remember when all this “traditional” stuff was new?

Speedway Motors is one of a small handful of businesses that can rightfully claim it has grown up along with the hot rodding industry. Founded in 1952, the company is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Sixty years! That’s a pretty long stretch in anyone’s book. Not only that, but company founder “Speedy” Bill Smith is still at the helm. How many businesses do you know that have been around for six decades, much less under the same leadership?

It seems fitting to mark this milestone by looking back at the rich history of America’s oldest speed shop. Speedway Motors may be well known as a mail-order powerhouse today, but its roots are as humble as those of hot rodding itself, sprouting from a single man’s passion for automotive performance.

Beginnings

The history of Speedway Motors is directly tied to that of its founder, William “Speedy Bill” Smith. Born in 1929 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bill gravitated toward all things mechanical, encouraged in part by a neighborhood tinkerer and mentor named Milo Caslasky. At age 12, Bill built himself a makeshift go-kart using cast-off parts from a Maytag washing machine and wheels from a baby buggy, and was summarily ushered off the street by local law enforcement. By 14, Bill had bought his first “real” car—a Model T purchased from Caslasky—and began buying, fixing, and re-selling other Model Ts to earn spending money. It seems the only thing that matched Bill’s mechanical interest was his entrepreneurial spirit.

Another thing that made a strong impression on Bill as a teen was the roar of Midget racing cars from the local dirt track, Landis Field. Bill badgered his father into taking him to the races, and was soon hooked on the sights and sounds of this magical world of speed and dust. “I remember thinking it was the greatest thing that ever was,” Bill later recalled.

Bill earned enough money to buy his own BSA motorcycle by the time he was in high school, and even made a few bucks racing two-wheelers on local dirt flat tracks. By 1949, he graduated to racing “roaring roadsters,” unbeknownst to his protective mother. “I liked racing a lot,” Bill says, “but the idea of getting hurt was on my mind. I wasn’t afraid of an injury; I could deal with that because I wanted so badly to race. But it was the idea of how my mother would react that was on my mind.” After beating up his roadster by driving through a fence during a race in Hastings, Nebraska, Bill hung up his helmet as a driver, focusing instead on building winning race cars and hiring the best drivers he could find.

In those early days, racing and hot rodding were more closely linked than they are today, and Bill can still recall the local boulevard scene from the late ’40s and early ’50s. Bill’s parents lived on O Street, Lincoln’s main drag, giving him a front row seat for the action on the street. Some of the prime gathering spots for local rodders were close by.

“It was Elmer’s Conoco station where our car scene was really happening,” Bill recalls. “Guys standing around talking, hoods up on their cars, crawling all over each other’s machines, studying what they were doing, getting ideas. There was no television, and very few magazines; it was all about studying other’s cars, particularly somebody from out of town who might have something new to us.”

There was plenty of rodding interest in Lincoln, thanks in part to the enlisted men at the local air base. But the resources to feed the burgeoning hot rod movement were limited in this farm-belt community. Enthusiasts had to be creative and resourceful in their pursuit of performance.