By Victoria Scannella, Library Assistant

In Vineland during the 1950s, there were a lot of fun activities going on for people of all ages to enjoy, including NASCAR and a drive-in movie theatre! Ordinarily when you think of car-racing tournaments, or the first drive-in theater in New Jersey, how often do you think of Vineland? The Vineland Speedway had a car-racing track that opened in the mid- 1950s and closed in the late 1960s. It hosted many local and national racing championships and events; these events included sports car racing, motorcycle events, and even drag races. (1) What about the idea of the drive-in? Did you know the first ever drive-in theatre, like the one seen in the movie Grease, opened in New Jersey?

Sports car racing began in the early 20th century in Europe with the first Grand Prix occurring in France in 1906. There are numerous types of racing that had been present in the early nineteenth century, including drag racing, stock car racing, which led to the founding of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). (1) The late 1950s and the early 1960s saw a country-wide rise in interest in sports-car racing due to the establishment of Grand Prix racing worldwide. (1) The growth in popularity also can be credited to the end of World War II, and the demand for leisure activities that had not been previously available. (1) It was hot-rod racing in particular that gained popularity following World War II, which led to the founding of the National Hot Rod Association that: 

Unlike most European and other countries, the United States [had] no single automobile racing body. The governing bodies noted above for various kinds of racing are members of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States-FIA, basically an advisory and liaison organization. (1)

Specifically, in Cumberland County, the introduction of the Vineland Speedway in the Spring of 1955 led to 10 years of high excitement automobile racing for the county. (4) The end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s show cultural themes across the nation of getting back to “normal” following the end of the war, but also experimenting with different forms of entertainment that had been present previously, but now could be revolutionized.

The Vineland Speedway was a dirt-road track that was only half of a mile and tickets were sold for less than a dollar each when it first opened. (5) The world of auto racing, as it was being reimagined, struck those in Cumberland County with excitement as drivers from all over came to race at the track. In 1958, the original dirt road track was paved with asphalt and brought new life to the racing scene. (5) There were several tracks present in the state around the same time, including the Morristown Raceway in North Jersey, which also hosted NASCAR races in the 1950s. (6) Quoted from the Trenton Evening Times, “An important link in the five-track Garden State circuit of NASCAR (National Association of For Stock Car Auto Racing), the half-mile Vineland smokepath will be the mecca for star performers who last year captured track, state, regional and National honors.” (7) This did become the case with famous racers racing at Vineland Speedway throughout its time. One famous racer named Tommy (Tommie) Elliott raced at Vineland Speedway several different times, and had raced at Vineland as early as April of 1959. (8) Elliott was described as “the blonde-haired flash,” in a newspaper article from the Trenton Evening Times, a racing champion who had been racing at several other New Jersey tracks before winning again at Vineland that week. (9) Another famous racer was Elton Hildreth, nicknamed “The Bridgeton Broadslider” was a Vineland Speedway champion, having won 12 features at the track in the season of 1960. (10) Also nicknamed “Wild Man”, his career began in the 1930s racing in open-cockpit cars. Hildreth was specifically known for racing in a black and orange 16-J Chevrolet coupe. Although he competed and won at numerous other races and was a champion, at Vineland Speedway, he won a whopping record of 33 races. (11) He was notorious for many things, and when kids were given the opportunity to ride with Hildreth in his famous 16-J, they lined up for a turn in the car. Hildreth had a long and successful career, retiring in 1973. (11).

Despite the seeming popularity of the track, it unfortunately closed in 1965 after a steady drop in attendance due to the lack of interest in local sports racing, in addition to some of the land being sold off to build the Cumberland County Community College. (2) 

Another famous (and historic!) spot in Cumberland County is the Delsea Drive-In, also in Vineland. Although it was not the first drive-in movie theatre in New Jersey, today it is the last one existing in the state. The first drive-in theatre in the United States was opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey, in June of 1933 by Richard Hollingshead Jr., “…admission cost was 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person.” (12) The site now houses the Zinman Furs building and a few billboards. I’ve passed this site going to Philadelphia for pretty much my entire life and never would have thought this space used to be a drive-in movie theater. 

Drive-ins, much like the Vineland Speedway, became post World War II pastimes as the culture of the nation shifted in the new post-war era. Many Cumberland County and New Jersey residents alike loved the Delsea Drive-In theatre from the days it was open to today. The Drive-In opened originally in April of 1949 by Milton Smith, playing the movie Drums as its inaugural movie. Unfortunately, after changing hands numerous times, the drive-in closed in 1987, assumed to be permanently closed. (13) It was in 2004 that the drive-in reopened after being purchased by Dr. John and Jude DeLeonardis, who renovated it into how it is seen today. The theater has two screens and a wide concessions menu, which is what the Deleonardis’s credit with keeping the drive-in afloat. Although Delsea is not the only drive-in left in the United States, there are not many left with “The closest drive-in to the Delsea [Drive-In is] Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Pennsylvania [which is] 100 miles away. It’s America’s oldest existing drive-in, dating to 1934.” (13) This, in a sense, helps Delsea as it is a unique destination for people from all over the state, and surrounding areas in Delaware and Philadelphia. 

I vividly remember when my friends and I were old enough to drive, one of the best summer activities was to drive out to the Delsea Drive-In, to see the blockbuster Marvel movies around 2018. If you want to feel nostalgic or wish to relive an aspect of the 1950s, attractions like these are great places to visit!


Also! If you aren’t following our social media, The Cumberland County Historical Society has just begun a new podcast called, “NOT Well-behaved Women, American History from a Different Perspective with Britt, Tori and Tia” now available on Spotify!

  1. “American, European, and International Racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica.  
  2. Doug Fuhrmann, “Vineland Speedway Was Center of Auto Racing.” The Daily Journal, June 16, 2015.
  3. “American, European, and International Racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. Don Whitney, “SCODA, a Concise History.” SCODA, A Concise History – International Motor Racing Research Center. Accessed January 31, 2024.  
  5. Doug Fuhrmann, “Vineland Speedway Was Center of Auto Racing.” The Daily Journal, June 16, 2015.
  6. “NASCAR and Modified Racing Has Deep Roots in the Garden State: NASCAR Hall of Fame: Curators’ Corner.” Nascar Hall of Fame. Accessed January 31, 2024.
  7. “Dual Feature At Vineland on April 7.” Trenton Evening Times , March 26, 1957.
  8. “Stock Cars Start Racing This Friday.” Trenton Evening Times, April 21, 1959.
  9. “Elliot Races Choice at Dix.” Trenton Evening Times, July 1, 1964.
  10. “Hildreth Seeks Win in 100-Mile Classic at Langhorne Sunday.” Trenton Evening Times, October 3, 1961.
  11. “Legendary Race Car Driver Elton Hildreth Dies at Age 95.” South Jersey Times NJ.COM, September 3, 2013.  
  12. “About Us.” Delsea Drive-in Movie Theatre, January 21, 2024.

13. Jennifer Finn, “Behind New Jersey’s Last Drive-In Theater.” New Jersey Monthly, May 24, 2023.