Monday, February 28, 2011

Run What Ya Brung

I'd never really given it any thought before, but in writing these stories I realize the track management in the early 60s was always willing to try new things. They added a support division (first Hobby cars, then Cadets), Figure-8 racing, knockout races, the Joie Chitwood Thrill show, and a Powder Puff division (although they had been tried at the Legion Bowl).

In 1964 another experiment was tried. Open Competition races. And the term is pretty much the rule book. And they led to some of the most diverse fields of race cars in the history of the Fairgrounds.

The first race was run October 18, 1964. It was two weeks after the regular season was finished, so there was no threat of having your car demolished and being eliminated from points contention.

And sure enough, cars came out of the woodwork. Quite a few of the Modified Specials were still around, having been the main division at Highland Rim in 1964. Sprint cars showed up from Ohio and Indiana. Super Modifieds or "Skeeters" flocked in from Memphis. Although they knew they were at a disadvantage, the local guys who switched over to the Late Model Modifieds made up a part of the entry. The race paid $1,000 to win. Second place in the Grand National race that summer paid $1,000, so that was pretty big money for the local drivers.

One of the stories that enticed the local fans was a combination of two of the strongest teams in Nashville racing. Bill Dyer owned the car Jimmy Griggs drove to the 1962 track championship and in 1963 Dyer had a fleet of three of the sharpest looking Modifieds to grace any racetrack. Charlie Binkley had moved up from the Hobby division to the Late Model Modifieds for 1964 and won the most races, taking home 6 victories. The two joined together for the 300-lap race, with Dyer putting Binkley behind the wheel of the #707 coupe. But there was one more twist - they decided to run a 75 gallon fuel tank so they could run the entire race without making a pit stop.

Thirty-nine cars took a qualifying lap and thirty cars took the green flag. Bobby Allison started from the pole with a fast lap of 20.11 seconds, breaking the track record of 20.50 set by his brother in qualifying for the 1963 Southern 300.

Another local favorite Jimmy Griggs was the first car out. Wrecks were frequent. A total of 91 of the 300 laps were run under the caution flag.

And the plan of Dyer and Binkley worked to perfection. Binkley won the race by more than a lap over Indianapolis 500 driver Carl Williams in a sprint car. The crowd of 7,500 liked what they saw.

The winning crew. L-R: Ken Gupton, Roy Binkley, Charlie Binkley, Ray Binkley, and Bill Dyer

Three Races were scheduled for the 1965 season. Two 100-lappers during the season and another 300-lap grind to close out the season. Because of the grandstand fire, the final race was canceled.  Ellis Palasini came up from Memphis and won both of the 100-lap races with Griggs finishing second in the first one and fellow Memphis driver Armon Holley as the runner-up in the second race.

Coming to the green flag. You can see winged cars, full-bodied cars, and coupes scattered through the field.

The field lines up for the start

Ellis Palasini won both 100-lap races in 1965

           Charlie Binkley hits the wall in his Late Model while a coupe spins and a sprint car slides down the banking just in front of Walter Wallace

The same schedule was used for the 1966 season. Two 100-lappers and a 300-lap race two weeks after the Southern 300. Palasini couldn't make the trip, but his car owner brought the car. He put Griggs in the car and not only did he win the two 100-lap races, but won the October race by 11 laps over second place finisher Dick Gaines.

Jimmy Griggs receives the trophy after a 100-lap Open Competition race from Sally Harrison and flagman Forrest Prince

Griggs stands beside his ride before the October 300-lap event

Two serious accidents marred the 1966 300-lap race. A multi-car accident in turns one and two took out three of the winged sprint cars.

Jack Marlin (#1), Dick Gaines (#70), and an unidentified car crash in turn one. Walter Wallace slips by in the #43

Charlie Stofel squeezes by on the inside in his 59 Plynouth

Bud Fox piles in to the scene in his #22 while Bobby Walker goes low and L.J. Hampton goes high in the 56

But one of the most violent crashes in Speedway history occurred on lap 28. Gene Glover spun his Super Modified coming off turn two. Marty Robbins squeezed by on the inside, but Ben Pruitt, driving Bill Dyer's Late Model Chevy, hit Glover a ton. The entire accident was captured on film in an award-winning sequence by J.T. Phillips.

Glover spins and looks for oncoming traffic

Glover continues his spin, still untouched

Marty Robbins gets by on the inside

Ben Pruitt slams into Glover

That's the gas tank over Pruitt's hood to the right of the wing on Glover's car

The cars continue sliding down the track as Bob Hunley goes high

Both cars come to a stop under the scoreboard

Coo Coo Marlin and safety workers attend to Glover

A note on the final photo. That's Coo Coo Marlin in the black on the left side of the car. he was the first person to Glover's aid. In a strange twist of fate, 35 years later Glover's son Tony would be the crew chief on Marlin's son Sterling's Winston Cup stock car. Glover nor Pruitt were seriously injured in the accident. After avoiding the accident, Marty Robbins continued on to a 4th place finish.

The final Open Competition race was held on October 15, 1967. One of the most radical cars ever seen at Nashville was brought in from West Tennessee for Walter Wallace to drive. It was a low-slung rear-engine car with a cage and a huge wing. Wallace adapted quickly to the car and qualified on the pole at the all-time track record for the half-mile track at 19.14 seconds, or an average speed of 94.04 miles per hour. The following photos all come from Walter Wallace's collection and were taken by Fred Marchman.

Staring alongside Wallace was Jimmy Griggs driving the same car in which he swept the 1966 races. Wallace told me he sat so low in the car that on the pace lap he looked to his left and all he could see was the right front hub on Griggs' car.

Wallace and Griggs line up at the front of the field

Wallace led the first 7 laps before Griggs took the lead. Wallace's day came to an end on lap 40 when he was caught up in a wreck on the backstraight with Don Nordhorn.

Wallace leads Griggs early in the race

End of the day for the rear-engined rocket

Griggs held the lead to lap 115 when his sway bar broke and forced him to the pits. Nolan Johncock from Hastings, MI, cousin of future Indy winner Gordon Johncock, took the lead and won by two laps over Herman Wise of Atlanta.

With the cars getting so exotic and more out of towners coming in and knocking the local guys out of the field (only 9 locals were in the '67 race) and the crowd dropped off to 5,500 for the '67 race, the Open Competition races were dropped after the 1967 season.

But in the seven races run over 4 seasons, race fans saw some incredibly fast racing, some scary crashes, and a lot of innovation. Another chapter in racing at the Fairgrounds had come to a close.

Some recently located 16mm film of one of the Open Comp races:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Modified Specials - And Special They Were

Here’s another answer to a request. I’m trying not to force my opinions within these stories. And when I do, I hope I make it clear when they are opinions. My goal is to make these factual stories on the grand history of racing at the Fairgrounds.

But I’ll admit up front, my arm didn’t have to be twisted to do this story. Of all the divisions through the years, my favorite has to be the coupes, or the Modified Specials as they were known officially.

I covered opening night in one of the early stories. This will be an overview of the six seasons the coupes were the headline division of the weekly Saturday night programs.

I think it’s safe to say that most people who saw them in person has the same opinion I have. There was something special about the coupes beside just their name. Two vastly different body styles were a trademark of the division – coupes, or the cars with a distinct roof and trunk, and the other body style which was called sedans, or cars with a roof that ran to the back of the car and dropped straight down with no trunk to speak of.

Herb Lewis leads Charlie Griffin on opening night. The next week ripple strips would be added inside the turns to keep drivers from dropping the left side wheels in the infield

Jimmy Griggs in 1958. This car won the first Southern 200

Joe Lee Johnson from Chattanooga was a winner in the coupes

Charlie Griffin won the opening race and was one of three drivers to win in 1958

The coupe body style was much more dominant. Few ran the sedans. One who did was Malcolm Brady. Brady related a story that when they first started running the sedans on the half-mile the rear end would get light and try to lift off the track at the end of the straights. Brady had a friend who worked at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville. The friend suggested cutting louvers, or slots, in the rear bodywork to allow the air to escape. That one change really brought the sedan to life, and Brady became hard to beat on the half-mile.

Malcolm Brady in victory lane at Bristol. The louvers can be seen through the numbers across the back of the car

The coupe body style most cars used were around 30 years old. Most were 1932 to 1934 models. The engines had straight pipes coming out of the heads which made them unbelievably loud and also made the flames shooting out plainly visible to the fans in the stands. The interiors were gutted, and many drivers used military surplus aircraft seats. The seats were mounted much further back than the stock seating position, with the driver’s head right at where the rear window would be located.

Contrasting body styles. 1959 - Coo Coo Marlin in a coupe leads Crash Bond in a sedan.

This is all they used for headers. It's hard to imagine how loud these were

Bob Reuther picks up the checkered flag after a win

During the coupe era, drivers would make a victory lap after a race win carrying the checkered flag. Because of the seat location, many drivers would hoist the flag out the rear window. Bob Reuther, the first track champion, was a polarizing personality. Much like Dale Earnhardt, fans either loved him or hated him. On many of Reuther’s victory laps the crowd would loudly boo him. Instead of holding the checkered flag out the window, Reuther would raise his arm and hold up a finger to the crowd that would earn him a fine were he to do that over 50 years later during an NFL game.

The first year on the paved track at the Fairgrounds, only three drivers figured out the powerful coupes on an asphalt track. Reuther, Jimmy Griggs, and Charlie Griffin won all the features in that first season.

It didn’t take the other drivers long to figure things out. In the second year, no less than 11 drivers won features with Jimmy Griggs winning 4 to lead all drivers. Coo Coo Marlin won his first of what would be 4 track championships.

Jack and Coo Coo Marlin lead Jimmy Griggs off turn 4 in this 1961 shot

Malcolm Brady and Jack Marlin sit by Charlie Stofel's car in the late 1980s

There were 11 different winners again in 1960 with Brady winning five and Bobby Celsor winning the championship. The 1961 season saw 13 different winners in a 21 race season! Coo Coo Marlin won 3 features to be the driver with the most wins for the season and Brady was the champion. When the fans walked through the gates in 1961 they really didn’t know who would win the feature at the end of the night.

The 1962 season was almost as competitive, with 12 different winners. Jimmy Griggs and P.B. Crowell led all drivers with 4 wins each and Griggs won the championship. The final year of the coupes again saw 12 different winners with Brady and Celsor both winning 3 features and Coo Coo Marlin being the most consistent to become the first driver to win multiple championships.

1963 - Bill Morton gets out of shape on the half-mile

1963 - Crowd favorite Eddie Mitchell in the "Poor 4"

1963 - Jimmy Griggs on the quarter-mile.

May 1963 - A graphic example of how far back the drivers sat as Griggs' head snaps out the window in this half-mile accident

Over the six years the coupes raced, 21 different drivers won races. Here’s the complete list of feature winners in the Modified Specials:

15 – Jimmy Griggs
13 – Bob Reuther
12 – Malcolm Brady
11 – L.J. Hampton
 8 – Bobby Celsor
 8 – Crash Bond
 8 – Coo Coo Marlin
 7 – P.B. Crowell
 7 – Charlie Parrish
 4 – Bill Morton
 3 – Friday Hassler
 3 – Charles Stofel
 3 – Red Farmer
 3 – Charlie Griffin
 2 – Bobby Allison
 2 – Eddie Mitchell
 2 – Jack Marlin
 2 – Marvin Caylor
 1 – Herb Lewis
 1 – Joe Lee Johnson
 1 – Dean Jennings

At the end of the 1963 season track management made the decision to do away with the coupes. Parts were getting harder to locate and because the body styles were so old, fans couldn’t identify with the cars like they could a late model car. Many of the cars lingered around for a few years, running at Highland Rim, Sulpher Dell, and in the Open Competition races that were held at the Fairgrounds for the next 4 years. Herb Lewis won the final race on the quarter-mile track and Friday Hassler won the Southern 300 to be the last driver to take a checkered flag in a full field of coupes.

That checkered flag signified not only the end of a race, but the end of an era. An era that was “Special” in more ways than one.

October 6, 1963 - The final checkered flag falls on Friday Hassler and ends the Modified Special division

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fire and Rain (with apologies to James Taylor)

I’ll start by also apologizing for doing two Grand National stories in-a-row, but oddly enough I’ve had a couple of requests for a story on this particular race.

The 6th annual Nashville 400, run on August 4, 1963, looked to be just another typical Grand National race – along with the Southern 300, the highlight of the racing season at the Fairgrounds in the late 50s and early 60s.

Twenty-one cars started the race, and it was a relatively star-studded field for the 39th race of a 55 race schedule. Rex White, the 1960 champion who always ran well at Nashville, started on the pole. Richard Petty started 2nd. At this point in his career, the future King had only won 24 races in his career. Starting third was Richard’s Petty enterprises teammate Jim Paschal. Paschal was looking for his third consecutive win in the big summer race. Other big names in the field were Fred Lorenzen (on his way to the first $100,000 season in stock car racing history), defending series champion Joe Weatherly, Buck Baker, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Isaac, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, and ’63 Daytona 500 winner Tiny Lund. Local favorite Jimmy Griggs secured a ride for his hometown race.

Petty jumped ahead of White at the drop of the green flag and led the first 96 laps. Lund took the lead on a series of pit stops.

It was at this point that the race became anything but typical. Jim Paschal had taken the lead by using savvy pit strategy. Lund was still running well on lap 194 when his engine blew at the end of the back straight. As Lund’s car slid into the guard rail, he was hit by David Pearson. Pearson’s car pushed Lund’s on top of the railing, destroying two of the billboards that surrounded the track. Rex White was following close behind and ran under the rear of Lund’s car as it was on the guard rail, ripping the right front corner of the roof off just as if you’d used a giant can opener. White received lacerations on his arm that required stiches.

Lund’s car, after being hit in the rear where the gas tank was located, burst into flames with the nose of the car through the guard rail and the back pointing down the banking. Debris, smoke, and leaking fuel littered the track.

Lund was slow to crawl from the wreckage. Part of the reason was because, in spite of his nickname, Tiny Lund was a big man. He stood over 6 feet tall and weighed in at over 250 pounds. So his race car is on fire, he’s been through a harrowing crash, and he climbs out on top of a banked turn. The cars on the track have slowed for the wreckage and debris scattered across the track. As Lund stumbled down the banking, he staggered right into the side of the car driven by Cale Yarborough, putting a huge dent in the passenger door. Cale’s car owner, Herman “The Turtle” Beam, wasn’t very happy with Cale when he brought the car back with a dented door that didn’t result from an accident with another car.

Lund's car blazes before rescue workers arrive on the scene

The crash as seen from the stands. White's car on the left with the roof peeled back, Pearson's car rests nearby at the bottom of the banking while the Acme fire crew tries to extinguish the blaze

Lund's car is pulled from the crash site

Just 7 laps after the crash, as it has been know to do in Nashville on a hot summer day, an afternoon thunderstorm moved across the Fairgrounds, stopping the race for an hour and 24 minutes.

Between the red flag for the crash and another for rain, darkness was now an issue. Officials decided to stop the race after 350 laps. Jim Paschal scored his third straight Nashville 400 win, followed by Billy Wade, Joe Weatherly, Richard Petty, and Buck Baker.

Paschal passes the scene of the accident on his way to his 3rd straight Nashville 400 win

Just past the scheduled halfway mark, local driver Johnny Thoni took over as a relief driver for Jimmy Griggs. He spun the car coming off turn 4 and was narrowly missed by oncoming traffic. He got the car going and brought it home to a 12th place finish, still running when the checkered flag was displayed.

As the Grand National circuit loaded up in the dark to leave Nashville, the 6th Nashville 400 had been anything but a typical race.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Don’t Let Off ‘Til You Get to the Gate

A couple of different recent things reminded me of this story. One was a story of how Darlington Raceway attempted to honor the 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees by putting their photos on the race tickets. That was a nice idea, except they used a photo of Bud Moore the race car driver (known in his driving days as Little Bud) instead of Bud Moore the war hero.

The other thing that reminded me was a photo I saw on the Fairgrounds Facebook page of the actual car taken on the day of the story.

A little background info first. In 1980 Lake Speed made the decision to make the gigantic leap from karts to Cup. He decided to do it on his own. I had already known him about 15 years through karting, so I offered any help I might provide. He had a couple of guys working on the car in the shop, but no pit crew, so three guys from Nashville and I became Lake’s crew.

He hired former driver (with 7 Cup wins) Darel Dieringer to be team manager.

In 1964 Dieringer was driving for Bud Moore, who had won the championship the previous year with Joe Weatherly. Dieringer was to be Weatherly’s teammate for the ’64 season, but Weatherly was tragically killed at Riverside.

Now that you’re up to speed on the background here’s where it all ties together. Dieringer told this story one night at dinner during the 1980 season.

On August 2, 1964 the Grand National cars rolled into town for the Nashville 400. Imagine a typical hot August day in Nashville. The cars were practicing for the 400, but Dieringer wasn’t happy with the way his Mercury was handling. He would complain to Moore, the crew would make adjustments, Dieringer would practice some more, but he still wasn’t happy.

After a couple of adjustments, Moore suggested the problem might not be with the car, but instead with the driver. Moore told Dieringer the car would handle the banked turns just fine if Darel would, “Drive to the gate before he let off the throttle.”

Another explanation is due here. The half-mile track didn’t have a tunnel. To get into the infield, you either had to cross at turn one as you still do now, or if you went to the sign-in booth behind the backstraight you followed a road parallel to the backstraight and entered the track at a crossover gate near the end of the backstraight just before turn three.

So the guy who had won the NASCAR Grand National points championship the previous year as car owner and chief mechanic was strongly suggesting to his driver that in order to turn a quick lap at Nashville he shouldn’t let off the gas until he got to the crossover gate near the end of the backstraight.

Being a fairly smart driver and knowing who signed his paycheck, Dieringer said he would oblige. He crawled back into his #16 Mercury, gave an extra tug on the belts (thinking they were about to be used), and headed out for more practice.

After warming up a couple of laps, Dieringer came off turn two and headed down the backstraight. Sure enough, following his boss’s orders, he stayed in the throttle until he reached the gate. 

As you might guess, he never made it to turn four.

The wrecker towed the Mercury with the badly damaged front end back to the pits. Darel said he was happy to report to Moore that he had followed orders and indeed, “Drove it to the gate, just like you said.”

Remember, it was a hot August day. The crew went to work repairing the car. Dieringer went to his rental car, got in turned on the air conditioner, and relaxed in the comfort of a nice cool car.

He said he’d regularly check on the progress of the repairs. About every ten minutes he’d honk the horn, roll down the window, and ask Bud, “Hey. You got that car ready for me to drive to the gate again?”

And if you’re wondering, Dieringer did finish 6th in the race the next day.

To give a perspective of where the gate was located, here's how the gate looked from the stands. It's the opening between the Pure sign and the Chevyland billboard. 

This Fred Marchman photo shows the entrance road from Craighead across the bridge past the pit sign in booth, along the backstraight to where it entered the track.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

University of Nascar - Nashville campus

I don't intend for this site to get political. I envision it as a place for younger folks to come and see how things got to where they are and maybe learn a few things. To see the foundation. And for old far, uh, more mature people to maybe relive some fond memories and hopefully go, "Oh yeah, I had forgot all about that, but I was there. I remember that race / day / car / fight."

But I do feel the need to make this point.

The list time I looked at these numbers was 2004. And I took a look today.

In the 2004 Daytona 500, 20 years after the last Cup race at the Fairgrounds, 32 out of the 43 drivers who raced in the 500 had raced at the Fairgrounds. All but 11 drivers, 20 years after it left the Cup schedule.

From the 2011 Daytona 500, I can document 22 drivers of the 43 best stock car drivers in the nation who took the green flag who raced at least one time at the Fairgrounds, including winner Trevor Bayne. Nearing 30 years after its final Cup race, the Fairgrounds is still relevant in the current racing scene.

One final stat. (Hey, it's what I do.) Nine of the 12 Daytona 500 winners since 2000 have raced at the Fairgrounds. Only Ward Burton, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman never turned a lap in competition at the Fairgrounds, as far as I can tell.

What that tells me is, if you want to get your PhD in racing, and you're attending the University of Nascar, you'd still better take some advanced classes at the Nashville Fairgrounds campus.

Nascar wannabes huh?

We now return you to your historical Fairgrounds blog.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Out with the Old, In with the New

I've had some readers tell me they enjoyed the post on the 1970 season, especially the construction photos. So this installment will just be photos of the old half-mile being demolished and a few construction photos of the current facility. I had more construction photos but lost them in a hard drive crash. The one that taught me the lesson about backing everything up.

Before we tear down the half-mile and build the high-banked five-eighths-mile track, lets look at some photos that are fascinating to me. Did you ever wonder about in the days before computers and cad programs just how construction projects were envisioned?

These photos show how they figured out what the new banking would look like. They made what appears to be grids made out of string and put them in place out on the track. These string models show on the old track what the banking would look like on the new track. At least best I can figure that's what these are photos of - if anyone can add to or enlighten me, I'm all ears!

All photos are from the Jay Donoho collection, although I have a feeling some, if not all construction photos were taken by Fred Marchman.

So now we have an idea of where the new track will be and what the banking will look like. It's time to demolish the half-mile.

There are a couple of more demolition photos in the story on the 1970 season.

Now that the half-mile is gone, it's time to build the new facility. As with most construction projects, this one got a little behind schedule. The 1970 Flameless 300 season opened was scheduled for May 30. Tickets were printed with that date. But as of May, the track was no where near ready. June 30, still not ready.

The Nashville 420 Grand National race (now Cup) was originally scheduled for Sunday, July 26, 1970. There is a photo of Bobby Allison sitting on the couch in Mr. Donoho's office in front of a painting of the scoreboard with that date on the scoreboard.

Television would change the plans. In December of 1969, ABC's Wide World of Sports announced they would televise five of the 1970 races live, being joined in progress with the final hour and a half being shown live on Wide World.

Nashville was selected as one of the races to be shown. To accommodate the television schedule, the race had to be moved back to Saturday, the 25th of July. That also meant the track must be completed!

Construction crews were put on overtime and at 2:30 in the afternoon on a blazing hot July 25th, with ABC cameras looking on, the Nashville 420 took the green flag. The race was joined live on the network at 4:00 local time, and finished in time to do an interview with winner Bobby Isaac and got off the air on time at 5:30. It was the first nationally televised live sporting event from Nashville.

Some construction photos:

Adding fill dirt for the high banks

The track under construction and the stands with no roof

The scoreboard being lifted into place

A little about this final photo. This was taken during the 420. Click on the photo to enlarge it and look at the white booth in the center top of the stands. That's the broadcast booth where Jim McKay and Chris Economaki called the race from. You can see the Wide World of Sports banner at the bottom.

Also notice the facility wasn't quite completed yet. Look between the top of the stands and the roof - no windows, no offices for the track or the Fair Board. They wouldn't be completed until later, but they also weren't needed in order for the race to make the scheduled tv date.