Unlike his predecessors prior to the late 1960s, no Wildcat head coach today need lose a minute of shuteye obsessing over the grooming of a porous cinder track on which his team would have to compete before the next nightfall.
Running surfaces have come a long way since former head coaches Oliver Jackson (’42) and Bill McClure (’48) used a tractor to drag a heavy wooden implement behind it, water the surface, and then roll and pack it smooth in an effort to outfox the dry West Texas wind and drain downpours that could otherwise turn a fast track into a mushy quaqmire.
“The cinders were watered the night before a meet just enough to soften the surface and yet leave it tight: just the right amount of moisture and packing was necessary,” said former quartermiler Earl Young (’62), who set five world records and helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the 4×400 relay in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. “Coach Bill McClure was in charge of this grooming of our track and he was a perfectionist.”
“On cinder tracks in wet conditions, the water puddled and if you were not in the lead you got splashed by the lead runners,” said Don Conder (’56) of Lubbock, a member of ACU’s world-record-tying 880-yard relay team in May 1956. “The surfaces at the Texas Relays (Austin), Drake Relays (Iowa), Coliseum Relays (Los Angeles), California Relays (Modesto), and ours were all as good as you could get at that time.”
Young said you would think the Penn Relays, which hosts several thousand runners from high school and college to Olympic development divisions, would have had a substandard cinder track. “But not so,” he said. “It held up because of the outstanding grooming of the running surface.”
To underscore the advantage today’s modern surfaces give runners, consider that Philadelphia’s legendary annual Penn Relays – held for the first time in 1895 – saw a six-second improvement in the college division’s 4×400 relay winning time after switching from a cinder to all-weather track in 1967.
Young said that without such care – and good drainage in wet conditions – cinder tracks could become crusty, hard or loose, and create inconsistent conditions for athletes. “I always preferred a well-maintained surface because it was easier on my legs. It had some ‘give’ to it,” Young said.
Conder said lane lines on cinder tracks had to continually be re-chalked when blurred by wind or rain.
ACU sprint sensation Bobby Morrow (’58) ran a 9.1-second wind-aided time in the 100-yard dash in June 1955 at the NAIA national championships at McMurry College, set on what Conder called a very loose cinder track. Morrow was a freshman that season who helped his team win its third national title in four years. That the Wildcat sprinter could perform so splendidly on a slow running surface – 9.1 in 1955 would have been a world record under today’s wind restrictions – makes fans of the sport shake their heads in amazement.
Morrow became known as the world’s fastest man after tying or setting nine world sprint records and winning three gold medals in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
“I have always wondered what times he and we may have run if we had the type surfaces they have now,” Conder said.
“Coach Jackson always said that all-weather tracks were on average one to 1.5 seconds faster to a 400-meter runner,” Young said. “There is no question the surface benefits all runners. I remember stepping onto the track in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and you could just tell by walking on it that it was built for speed.”
Both the 100-meter (won by Donovan Bailey) and 200-meter (Michael Johnson) dashes in Atlanta resulted in new world records. Johnson also added a gold medal in the 400.
The last Olympics to be held on cinder were the 1964 games in Tokyo, Japan. ACU’s old Elmer Gray Stadium track was converted from cinder to an all-weather surface in 1969, thanks to a gift from the Gray family. The surface was re-done in 1978 and renovated again in 1990.
The new Elmer Gray Stadium running surface is a world-class, full-pour polyurethane product built by Beynon, a Maryland-based company that installed identical tracks at Big Ten Conference universities Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa; and Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State of the Atlantic Coast Conference, among others.
Beynon tracks can be found throughout the Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences. The last two U.S. Olympic trials (2008 and 2012) were held on a Beynon track at historic Hayward Field at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., and will be again in 2016.
A cinder track today at the Penn Relays would likely never hold up like a synthetic one, as the three-day track and field carnival attracts 22,000 runners in various events. Averaging more than 44,000 spectators a day, only the Olympics and world championships draw larger crowds.