KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Have you ever wondered how a street got its name? Sometimes the name of the street can reveal so much. For example, some may ask, “What is the story behind streets like Holston Drive, Gratz Street or Emory Place?”
In East Knoxville, there is an oval-shaped street called Speedway Circle. The story behind its name was earned through resilience, determination and hard work. It is also home to many Knoxvillians.
“I love it because for many years, people, myself included, knew this street was called Speedway Circle. We knew it went in a circle,” says Rev. Renee Kesler with the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. “There were houses on it, but no idea why.”
In order to understand the history of the road, you would have to remove the homes and peel back the asphalt to reveal the remains of a horse track.
Opened in the late 1800s, the track was built and owned by Cal Johnson. Johnson was born into slavery but became a prominent businessman and philanthropist in post-Civil War Knoxville.
According to the Knoxville History Project, not only was he a builder but he became a wealthy man during times of hardships and war.
Johnson’s father was well-known as an expert horseman and his mother invested in real estate and other businesses. One of Johnson’s most well-known business ventures was the former horse racing track, now known as Speedway Circle.
Johnson began to be involved in horse racing in the 1880s, as an owner, jockey and sponsor of racetracks, according to Knoxville History Project. He leased one on the south side of town, now known as Suttree’s Landing. He would also enter his horses in Chicago races associated with the 1893 World’s Fair.
“He loved horses, so hence the horse racing and the racetrack,” says Kesler. “It’s a sacred ground if you will, and exciting to know that’s exactly where that was.”
The track, which is believed to have been in operation for roughly 18 years, was home to more than just racing.
“The very first plane that ever landed or took off in Knoxville did so from the Cal Johnson Racetrack,” Kesler tells WATE. “And you know whose plane it was? It was the Wright Brothers.”
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For many people, Speedway Circle is just a street but those who know the story behind it understand that it serves as a symbol of success for a man who overcame insurmountable odds and brought enjoyment to all in the city he called home.