Drive to Survive

PC: Aspen Historical Society, The Johantgen Family Collection

It’s hard to imagine what life was like during the “Quiet Years” of Aspen. A time when life moved more slowly and the community was worried about having enough commerce and activity following the fall of the Silver Standard and prior to the birth of skiing. This Spring, town is about as quiet as it has been since 2019 and everyone is taking a bit of a breather and enjoying available parking and quiet streets. With massive construction projects underway and expectations for another busy summer, it’s even harder to ponder the community encouraging even more auto traffic during the warm-weather months. However, if we look back to the 1950s, that’s exactly what was happening in our sometimes-sleepy little ski town.

For four years in the early ‘50s Aspen had a moment of car craze with an auto race taking place on the dirt streets of downtown Aspen. This past weekend, racing fans cheered on the 79th Monaco Grand Prix in one of the few international resort towns that rivals Aspen’s legendary notoriety. Every year at the end of May, the streets of Monaco give way to auto racing’s elite and the glitterati that fill the stands overlooking the Cote d’Azur. With Formula 1 experiencing a massive moment here in the USA thanks largely in part to the Netflix series Drive to Survive, there are now 3 races scheduled throughout the United States in Austin, Miami and soon Las Vegas. It's hard not to wonder what if…

PC: Aspen Historical Society, Aspen Illustrated News Collection

The aesthetic beauty of the Roaring Fork Valley and the thrill of driving mountain roads was already increasing the popularity of auto rallies passing through town in the 1940’s. However, it was a legendry mischief-making Aspen doctor, and former mayor, with a love of sports cars that solidified Aspen’s place on the auto-racing calendar. Dr. Robert “Bugsy” Barnard (later lovingly memorialized by Aspen writer Martie Sterling as “a sodbuster, a gunslinger and a vigilante in an era of space technology”) was already infamous in Aspen when he convinced the town’s mayor to approve the races. For four years in a row, (and for a fifth time in 1957) Aspen was in the national spotlight for the Wild West Aspen Car Race.

The racecourse featured a start/finish straight down Main Street past the Hotel Jerome and racers rallied around some of Aspen’s iconic streets including Hopkins and Galena allegedly reaching speeds of 100 mph. The event grew year over year and eventually included a full weekend of events including a Jeep race up Aspen Mountain, a women’s-specific race and even a blind-folded race in Wagner Park. Spectators filled stands lining Main Street and fans got to see all of the cars close-up before the race in an auto-show display open to the public. Despite the events continued success, everything came to a screeching halt in 1955 when Colorado’s Governor forbid such use of public roads.

PC: Aspen Historical Society, Dr. "Slats Cabbage" ASTC Collection

Aspen’s need for speed didn’t die with the end of the Wild West Aspen Car Race. The 1960’s brought on a smaller race weekend at base of Aspen Highlands and the birth of the Woody Creek Raceway, which still operates today. That very racetrack even hosted a spontaneous demolition derby in the early ‘70s that truly embodied the spirit of old Aspen with locals ramming their “town cars” into each other in a last-car-running battle of attrition where the only rule was no crashing into an opponent’s driver’s panel. “As punctured tires hissed flat and radiators steamed, local rivalries played out leaving disabled clunkers strewn about,” reported the Aspen Daily News. One of the participants had to bulldoze all the old wrecks off of the track once the dust had settled.

Today, most of the talk about cars in Aspen is focused around parking spots, the roundabout and the s-curve entrance to town. However, some of us do dream about what it would be like to watch Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull battle at 200 mph past the Hotel Jerome. We’re all for bringing racing back to Aspen, but maybe let’s start with the 24 Hours of Aspen when the snow’s flying!