On a spring night in 1956, Charles Peak and two of his friends were driving a souped-up car around downtown New Castle, looking for other cars to race. They found none, so they pulled up beside a parked police car on Mercer street, shouted obscenities at the officers and sped off. The patrol car chased them south for several blocks then north on Cochran way. The boys abandoned their car and fled, but were caught shortly afterward. Charles was found to be in possession of an Italian Beretta .32—someone’s world war two souvenir—for which he had no licence. He was fined $100 and given a year’s probation.
The following week, Charles’s father, Harry Peak, was charged with murdering his brother, Erwin. He was released when the autopsy showed the cause of death to be a heart attack brought on by acute alcoholism. There was no answer to the question of how Erwin came to be buried in a ditch off the West Pittsburg road, under several feet of dirt, rock and logs, but similarities were noted to the incident in 1917, when Charles’ grandfather, Ransom Peak, had been arrested for killing his nephew but had been released when it was found that the brain injury that had killed the boy had been sustained in a drunken fall on the rocky banks of the Shenango, rather than in the quarrel that had occurred before he had left Ransom’s house. There were no further proceedings in either case.
Six months after his first arrest, Charles nearly died when his car overturned after it missed a curve on Butler avenue, at Cascade street, and slid on its top for a hundred yards until it hit a utility pole. He had been racing another car on the stretch of route 422 that the local boys used as a drag strip. His car was destroyed but he suffered only minor facial injuries. No charges were brought against him.
Charles got a new car as soon as he could. By the following spring, he had customised and improved it to his satisfaction and was ready to test its performance on the road. On April 10th 1957, Charles had a few beers with John Young and George Ramsey, two hot-rodders a few years older than him. After discussing their cars and arguing about whose was the fastest, they drove a few miles east of town on route 422 to Lipinski’s garage, the traditional start of drag races into New Castle.
They lined up across the three-lane highway and took off toward town, quickly reaching speeds of more than 120 miles an hour. After a short distance, they met a car travelling in the opposite direction, which pulled off the road as far as it could and came to a halt. John Young swerved to avoid it. He sideswiped George Ramsey’s car, clipped Charles’s car and spun across the road, directly into the stationary car. He was thrown through his windshield as his car went over the embankment and overturned. His skull was crushed against a steel guard post.
The other drivers and their passengers suffered lacerations or broken limbs, apart from Charles, who was entirely unharmed.
Charles and George were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and were sentenced to up to two years in the Alleghenny workhouse. Charles was paroled after ten months; George after four. Neither was arrested again for a driving offence, although Charles fractured his rib in a crash two years later. (He was the passenger; his wife was driving.) He died in 1996, aged sixty-one.
The New Castle News published editorials throughout the fifties calling for drivers who caused deaths through drag racing—the “gasoline ghouls”—to be charged with second-degree murder. Others in the city wanted a drag strip to be built so that young men would have somewhere legal to race their cars. Arguments about where one could be situated carried on until 1961, when Mike Pollio laid an asphalt track and erected some bleachers on a site seven miles west of New Castle on the Youngstown road, which he called the Skyline. Weekly competitions were held. Unofficial races were allowed for a fee. Thousands of spectators attended during the summer.
The Skyline closed down after ten years. The structures were abandoned and later removed. All that remains is a patch of discoloured grass, two lanes wide.Sources: New Castle News (9 July 1917, “Ransom Peak Discharged”; 15 Mar 1956, “Police Catch Three Boys After Downtown Chase”; 22 March 1956, “Officials Probe Mystery Death”; 23 March 19562, “Harry peak Released After Hearing, Monday”; 12 Sep 1956, “End Of Harrowing Accident”; 15 Feb 1957, “Judge Powers Hands Down 11 Sentences”; 11 April 1957, “1 Killed, 4 Hurt, In 4 Car Crash”; 13 April 1957, “Peak Is Picked Up For Violation Of Probation”; 23 April 1957, “Peak, Ramsey Held For June Grand Jury”; 24 April 1957, “Peak, Ramsey Arraigned On Police Charge”; 3 May 1957, “Peak Sentenced In Violation Of Parole”; 12 Oct 1957, “Peak, Ramsey Are Sentenced To Workhouse”; 1 Feb 1958 “Parole 4 From Workhouse, County Jail”; 2 Jan 1960, “Hurts Chest”; 24 June 1961, “Skyline Drag Strip Opens Tomorrow”; 23 May 1977, “’Drags’ Race Off Into Memory”).