Marathon County Historical Society- home of the Yawkey House Museum & The Woodson History Center.
The first horse race in what became Marathon Park occurred in September 1868 between W.D. McIndoe’s filly and August Kickbusch’s colt “Prince.” The track was “cleared of logs and stumps and somewhat smoothed, of course not rolled.” In his History of Marathon County, Judge Marchetti recounted that “there was no grandstand, no grandstand play, no entrance fee charged, no purse except the wager of the two owners themselves.” McIndoe’s horse won the “exciting race.”
Horse racing quickly became an established feature of the early fairs, although most of the locals were replaced by professional racers attracted by prize money. By the 1910s, harness racing had become the favored event. The horses and their riders — sitting in a small harness with wheels strapped to the back of the horse —jockeyed for position as they galloped twice around the half mile dirt track.
Automobile racing joined the lineup sometime in the 1940s, possibly as late as 1947. Over the next thirty years the dirt track would be home to contests between various kinds of machines; including “big cars,” sprint cars, stock cars, and, briefly, motorcycles. Car races were not as fast on the dirt oval as races on paved tracks, but they could still be dangerous and exciting. Motor races became the main attraction throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s.
A side note: During winters, when it was not being used for races, the track was used by Wausau Iron Works (whose facilities were nearby) to test their Wausau Snow Plow.
Starting in 1955, lighting extended the excitement into the evening. Officials hoped that would rejuvenate interest in harness racing. At first they rented portable lighting; by the end of the 1950s, they had invested in permanent electric lighting for the races. Although the hoped-for profits didn’t materialize, the lights remained.
In 1958, after several years of financial loss from harness races, Fair organizers decided to end them altogether, in favor of automobile racing.
But in 1968, harness racing returned as a feature for the Centennial Fair in 1968, and would remain part of the Fair on and off for the next twenty years. Whenever Fair officials thought about dropping harness racing, popular demand brought it back, even though it was not a big money maker.
By the end of the 1970s, the advanced age of Marathon Park’s track called into question the future of automobile racing there. On the last night of the 1983 Fair, the stock car race caused significant damage to the track. Fair officials estimated the cost at $88,000 for track repairs and upgrades to comply with insurance regulations. It was too much for so few days of racing each year. The Marathon County Park Commission that year suspended all automobile racing at the park.
Spectators continued to show up to be entertained by automobiles, however. Demolition derbies had begun in the early 1970s, and tractor pulls were added. These events could be done without a proper track, and were staples of the Fair’s grandstand program for many years. Harness racing also could be run without a modern track, and continued for several more years.
By the late 1980s the need for a track at all was gone. In 1991 the dirt track that had hosted countless races was finally removed.