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:

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for the picture of #22 Bud Fox. I first saw him race at Winchester (TN) Speedway. I want to say that Pete Page drove that car at one point in time.

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  2. Wow,Russ,what a neat piece..The open competition races were a sight to behold,I bet the local fans were stunned by the wings and the lack of sheet metal!..I can not imagine a track promoter doing this thing now,and there where in lies some of the problems with racing today! Thank you, for all the great historical information concerning our beloved Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway!

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  3. I remember one season Bud Fox #22 was banned from the Winchester speedway. Him in his 32/4 ford sedan with a flathead ford raced Charlie Hullett who was driving a #308 cu in Hudson Hornet. They raced toe toe over one summer. I am not sure who one the most races but the fights after the race were pretty much draws. Bud had a faster motor on the straightaways while Charlie was a lil faster in the turns. I am a fan today but their time was just a magical as the Sprint Cup boys are now. God Bless those old time stock car racers.

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  4. The Fox and Hullett races were at McMinnville Speedway

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  5. I talked to Ellis Palasini about three years ago, he's still a character. He has grandsons racing in the northeast Mississippi area now.

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  6. Hi Russ, my name is scott johncock my great uncle was nolan johncok was wondering if you could share any stories, pictures or videos of him. My email is scottjohncock@gmail.com or scottjohncock@yahoo.com
    Thank you and God Bless

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  7. Walter wallace needs to be the next one in the hall of fame at the fairgrounds

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  8. CAN ANYONE TELL ME THE SECRET TO CHARLIE'S WIN ?
    KEN BINKLEY KBMINISTRIES@COMCAST.NET

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