Tucked between US 41 and Sugar Creek, in west central Indiana lies a small field. It is surrounded by a thick underbrush and grove of oak and maple trees. Just south of the green pasture, a dilapidated wooden structure stands watch; its fading wood slippery with moss and mold and a tree growing out of the middle. If you look close enough at the field, you can make out a thin, brownish-grey path that circles the pasture.
This is all that is left of a race track that once sent shivers down the spines of the bravest and most fearless race car drivers in the country. Jungle Park Raceway opened its gates in 1926, when auto racing was in its infancy. It was started by Earl Padgett. The track itself was an 1/2 mile oval, asphalt track, with raised gravel embankments on the turns. There were no railings or safety nets to separate the cars, which often hit up to 100 mph in the backstretch, from the spectators or to keep the cars from flying into Sugar Creek, and they did so….frequently. The name said it all….it was a jungle.
On a good day, up to 5,000 spectators would walk through the white wooden gate with “Jungle Park” in green capital letters. They would pile into one of the five wooden grandstands that encircled the track or lounge on blankets, eating from picnic baskets along the grassy edge of the track. Beer flowed like water at the races.
At the height of its fame and popularity, Jungle Park was a destination point. Padgett expanded the land to include a hotel (which burned down), guest cabins, a restaurant (with a windmill theme), gas station and a family home. It was a proving ground for race car drivers from all over the country; eight of those drivers went on to win the Indianapolis 500. The track was also the first to install lights and host nighttime races.
Unfortunately one of the aspects that made watching racing at Jungle Park so exciting was the risk of death. Since there were no guardrails, often cars would flip into the stands injuring or killing spectators. In its second season, a spectator, race official and a driver were all killed within a few months when cars went careening into the stands.
The sounds of engines roaring ceased in 1960 when during a midget car race, a driver swerved to miss another car, lost control of his car and landed in a crowd of spectators. That was one death too many. The sport of auto racing was moving toward regulations that would make the events safer for drivers and for spectators. The era of the jungle was over.
All that remains of Jungle Park are the entry gate, one grandstand, and a thin line of a track. The restaurant and The forest that surrounded the track is slowly taking it all back. The property now belongs to a Parke County woman and her son, who use it as an access point to Sugar Creek for their canoe business. A few times over the past years, the location has hosted a reunion for veteran drivers and a car show.