50 Years of nascar racing ~ Islip: Long Island Speedway (Post 63)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
A long, long time ago, in a geographical sector far, far away, Bill France and NASCAR decided to try to expand the base of stock car racing outside its natural element of the Southeast. As part of the experiment, throughout the 1960's came the annual NASCAR Northern tour. In the dog days of July, when the weather in the South was stifling and the sun unbearable anyway, the Grand National circuit would move North of the Mason Dixon line, a part of the season most traditional stock car fans viewed with all the warmth and anticipation the Suzuka exhibition race gets today. In fact, many of the drivers and teams decided they'd just as soon stay home and catch up on their fishing. But the serious title contenders, big names like Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Bobby Allison, would pack up their trucks and head North up Route one to visit such tracks as Malta New York, Thompson, Connecticut, Trenton, New Jersey, Oxford, Maine, and eventually Dover Delaware. Of all the stops the circuit made "up north", few were as peculiar as the tiny little .2 mile Islip Speedway, which hosted six Grand National races during its storied history. Islip was located on Long Island, New York, better known as the summer beach destination of the fabulously rich and famous... the Hamptons, and the storied North Shore, the home of the blue bloods and the fictional Great Gatsby. But Jay Gatsby wouldn't have soiled his loafers at Islip, a track that catered to the blue jean and t shirt crowd, running modified races, figure eight races, sportsman type races and even demolition derbies. (A historical note: The first auto race ever televised live was a figure eight race at Islip) But during July from 1964 to 1968 and again in 1971, the big Grand National cars came calling at Islip, providing some memorable racing, unforgettable wins by underdogs and the occasional fit of fiery bad temper that seems part and parcel of short track racing. And they don't get much shorter than two tenths of a mile, which is less real estate than a drag strip. With 33 cars out there (1971) things were bound to get exciting fast, even if they were running around fifty miles per hour. (About half the speed most fans drove coming down Route 100 to get there).
The first Grand National race at Islip was held at July 15th, 1964. The two front row qualifiers were Billy Wade on the pole and Ned Jarrett on the outside pole. There had been bad blood between the two drivers for a long time, and on the tiny track there was bound to be more fireworks. Wade won the drag race to the first corner and held off his rival for the first 97 laps, before Jarrett pushed his way past. Throughout the race the two drivers did a lot of rubbing and banging, and it only got more intense when Wade found himself in second. On lap 193, he retook the lead and continued on to win the 300-lap 60-mile race. For Wade it was a very successful Northern tour, as he won four out the five races in a row. Tragically, he would be killed in tire testing before the next season began, one of four drivers who lost their lives in NASCAR racing that year.
When the Grand National circuit returned to Islip in 1965, the race length had been shortened to 50 miles, or a mere 250 mile laps. Marvin Panch, driving for the Wood Brothers, led the entire race, though at one point Junior Johnson seemed poised to challenge. When Junior tried to make the pass, his throttle hung wide open and on a .2 mile race track there wasn't any time for him to cut the engine. Junior went through a guard rail, got airborne and slammed a telephone pole. The car landed upright, but burst into flames. Fortunately Johnson was able to leap to safety. Panch cruised on to victory.
Bobby Allison was running on a shoestring budget and a prayer when he decided to run the Northern Tour that year. His only race car was a 66 Chevelle, co-owned by JD Bracken, that had been declared totaled by an insurance company after suffering flood damage. The engine for the race car came from a Camaro a local kid had totaled. Bobby and his brother Eddie worked around the clock to turn those humble pieces into a race car. Even one they had it assembled they were spotting the other competitors about 100 cubic inches with their little 327 loaded down with borrowed and used hot rod parts. Amazingly the hard driving Alabaman and his giant killing little Chevelle were able to take the win at Oxford Maine, Bobby Allison's first Grand National win. But the Cinderella story seemed to have come to an end at the race in Fonda, New York two days later. J.T. Putney went up and over the bank, winding up on a dirt road beside the track. He kept his foot buried and charged back onto the track…..right into the path of Tiny Lund. Allison's little Chevy was also swept into the melee and badly damaged. (Incidentally Tiny thought so poorly of the miscue on Putney's part he chased him down in the garage area and slugged him hard enough to knock him out cold.) But for Allison that was little consolation. His only race car was all torn up, and it looked like he would have to pack up what was left of it and head back down South with his tail between his legs to resume racing modifieds. But Allison had more fight than a kennel full of pit bulls and he and his crew worked around the clock piecing the Chevy back together. Other drivers and crew members pitched in to help in NASCAR's version of the ending of "It's A Wonderful Life." The result wasn't pretty, but it ran, and the story had a happy ending at the Islip race held two days after Fonda. Tom Pistone led early but suffered mechanical problems, giving the lead to James Hylton. Hylton seemed comfortably in command of the race until he ran out of gas with seven to go. Bobby Allison wheeled his bruised up Chevelle into the lead and took the win. Ironically, Hylton was one of the drivers who helped Bobby piece the Chevelle back together. The $300 top prize was a Godsend for Allison.
Richard Petty was on a tear during the 1967 season that saw him win 27 races. Bobby Allison was still struggling along and won the Oxford race again during that year's Northern tour. The Islip event seemed like it would be a shoot out between Allison and James Hylton, who dominated most of the race. But on a small track like Islip the leaders were constantly having to deal with lapped traffic. Hylton spun trying to get around a slower vehicle and while he continued, he was not able to contend for the win afterwards. Bobby had even worse trouble, getting involved in a wreck with veteran independent driver Wendell Scott. The damage drove him to the pits for seven laps worth of repairs. A surprised Richard Petty, who had been nursing a transmission hung up in top gear, found himself in the lead and finished three laps ahead of Hylton, who recovered well enough to take second. During his record shattering season, while he normally outdrove the other drivers, occasionally even the King had to out-luck them and that was the case at Islip that day. Petty went three for four on the Northern tour that year, with Allison claiming the other win.
Petty and Allison were back at it again at Islip in 1968. Once again the King was in a factory Plymouth while Bobby had to make do with an independent Chevy, having recently quit the factory Ford team because they wouldn't let him run all the races. That year the Islip race was the first on the Northern tour, and it must have been quite an adjustment for the drivers, running there only three days after the race at the 2.5 mile Daytona Speedway. At Islip, Buddy Baker led early, but Richard Petty was able to get around him on lap 95 to take the lead. Richard had been leading almost 100 laps when he tried to put Allison a lap down. Allison fought to stay on the lead lap and the two cars made contact. The fender on the 43 car was shoved in against the tire and Petty had to duck into the pits for emergency repairs, handing the lead to David Pearson. Allison was able to pass Pearson and take the lead with 27 laps to go and held on for the win. But the fireworks weren't over. After the race, Maurice Petty and Dale Inman of the Petty team hunted down Bobby Allison, ganged up on him and gave him a good beating, even kicking him once he was on the ground, the latest episode in the ongoing Allison/Petty feud. Initially, Allison was going to call the police and have them arrested but NASCAR talked him out of it. Inman and Maurice Petty were fined $100 and $250 respectively. It seemed like a whole lot of fussing and fighting over a $1000 purse.
The last Grand National race to be run at Islip was held on July 15th, 1971. There were 33 cars in the field, but an ongoing protest by independent drivers about the size of the purse and appearance money saw seven of them take a few laps and park their cars even though there was nothing wrong with them. Their reasoning was that anyone who started the race received $100, and even if they somehow worked their way up into tenth, no small order, the purse was only $260, which wouldn't even cover the cost of the tires to compete the extra distance, much less any damage to the car they might suffer. Richard Petty led that race from the green flag to the checkers. Somehow or another, NASCAR and the track crew lost count of the number of laps run and accidentally threw the checkered flag when there were actually 20 laps left to go in the scheduled distance. Rather than resume the race, the officials decided to leave things as they were, much to the relief of many of the drivers. Richard Petty was quoted as saying, "Don't tell nobody about them 20 laps they forgot to run. It seemed like we ran 500 laps out there…. You relax one moment and you've run over three cars." Ironically perhaps, Bobby Allison finally showed up at Islip in a factory car but could do no better than fourth.
A decision by new series sponsor, RJ Reynolds, doomed Islip's chance to hold any more races in NASCAR's top division. It was decided that no event of less than 250 miles could be part of the Winston Cup schedule. A 250-mile race at Islip would have entailed running 1,250 laps and a five hour plus marathon, too much for any driver to consider, and all but the most diehard fans from attending. The "250" mile rule also ended the old Northern Tour. Islip Speedway itself fell victim to the growing Suburban sprawl on Long Island and shut down at the end of the summer in 1984. The track was torn down and a cookie factory was built on the site. But no cookies could ever be as sweet, as the chance fans "Up North" used to have to watch their heroes racing around the tight confines of Islip Speedway.