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



  2. Thanks Russ for the great article and photos of the modified specials. That is my first memory of the Fairgrounds and what a show these guys would put on for the fans. Charlie Griffin drove the car owned by Shelbyville's Hart Hastings and was always competitive. Jimmy Griggs, Eddie Mitchell and many others just made the show better week after week. I really enjoy reading the old stories and seeing the photos from that era.

  3. Crash Bond is a rather unfortunate name for a driver!