#53 - Trenton ~ The Speedway of the North
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
Long before Bill France Senior was even born, much less NASCAR, a race track opened in Central New Jersey. The Trenton Speedway was opened in the year 1900, one of the first such facilities of its type in the country, back when automobiles were still rarities. The half mile dirt oval was replaced by a one mile dirt track just prior to World War 2, then paved in 1957. It took 58 years after the track opened for a NASCAR Grand National race to be run on the track, but the spiritual forefather of Pocono and Dover hosted 8 Grand National events in its history. Trenton also served as one of the most exciting stops for the Northern Modified series for many years.
The first Grand National race at Trenton was held on Memorial Day weekend of 1958. NASCAR's rising superstar of that era, Fireball Roberts, won the race handily over another star of the era, Junior Johnson in a Ford. (Junior was back competing full time that year, after a brief stint in jail for making moonshine.) In an odd development, the pole winner for the event, Frank Schneider, never started the race. The automobile factories had withdrawn their support of NASCAR in 1957, so it was not uncommon for drivers to ask promoters for appearance money for showing up at the track, to offset expenses. Schneider got a little greedy and the promoters refused to pay, so he hauled his car home. NASCAR suspended him for the stunt, and Schneider never raced again in the Grand National series.
The 1959 Trenton race was won by Tom Pistone, one of the few Northern drivers of the era. (Because of his Italian ancestry and Chicago home address, Pistone was dogged by accusations he was funded by the mob throughout his career. Chris Economaki once quipped Tom's race car was the only one with a hood behind the wheel.) Pistone rubbed out the competition that day, and held off a hard charging Cotton Owens by 12 seconds for the win. Lee Petty, who would win that year's championship, came home third. His son Richard, still a part time racer at that point, had a less successful run at Trenton that day. The King-to-be brought out the day's only caution flag when he slugged the wall on lap 95. Richard would get his vindication at the track, but it was going to take a while. After the 1959 race, the Grand National series didn't run at Trenton again until 1967.
NASCAR had come a long way in those intervening years, and Bill France was trying to bring his organization to the next level. Part of the plan was for stock car racing to lose its image as a strictly regional sport, indigenous to the Southeast. Thus France added the "Northern Tour" to the schedule each summer. Some, but certainly not all, of the big name drivers would head North each year to compete against the locals at tracks like Thompson Connecticut, Malta New York, Islip, Long Island, and of course Trenton. Richard Petty had also come a long way in those intervening years. No longer a rookie, he had become a driver as dominant as the sport had ever seen, and Trenton was one of his 27 victories that year. Darel Dieringer did make Richard work hard for his money that day, and the two swapped the lead back and forth between them throughout the race. Despite finishing ninth, one of the heroes of the day was underdog Bobby Allison. Allison, a racer's racer, wanted to compete in every race he could. Thus he assembled a race car, with a small amount of financial help from a gentleman by the name of JD Bracken. The car was a low budget effort, a 65 Chevelle, that by some accounts was an insurance write off after being involved in a flood, equipped with a small block Chevy. Most of the Northern tour races were run on short tracks, so with the weight break NASCAR gave small block equipped cars, Allison could at least hope to run with the big dogs. At Trenton however, he was at a decided disadvantage to the big Hemis and Ford 427s. Allison manhandled his car to the lead pack, only to be felled by overheating problems and a blown tire. Still, that spirited drive, along with a win at Oxford, Maine and a second at Fonda NY during that year's Northern Tour, helped Bobby Allison catch the eye of Fred Lorenzen. Lorenzen would give Allison his first factory backed ride later that year.
LeeRoy Yarbrough had replaced Dieringer as Junior Johnson's driver in 1968. The pairing had failed to yield the expected results. Yarbrough turned his season around at Trenton in 1968, beating David Pearson by over a lap. Once again driving an independent small block Chevelle that year, Bobby Allison managed to finish third. The combination of Yarbrough and Johnson would go on a tear on the big tracks in 1969.
The Trenton track had been lengthened to 1.5 miles when the Grand National circuit paid their visit there during the annual Northern Pilgrimage. The new length came with an odd feature. The track owners had wanted to lengthen the track, but an elderly woman whose property they needed to buy behind the back straight refused to sell. Thus they were forced to put a big dog leg that went into the infield along the back straight to have the track lengthened. The resultant track was not a true oval, but was shaped like a kidney. Drivers were forced to take a right halfway down the back straight. If the drivers were a little confused, the tire engineers were even more baffled. The high loads the track put on tires caused rampant failures. Recall the cars, with their heavy weight and ever escalating horsepower output, were already on the ragged edge of tire technology of the day. The situation would culminate with the infamous Talladega boycott. Bobby Isaac's Hemi Dodge was clearly the class of the field that day, but problems with tires blistering late in the event dropped him to third, a lap off the pace. Petty's day was also hampered by tire troubles. David Pearson "slowed down to go faster" and won that race in a Holman-Moody Ford. He would go on to win that year's championship as well.
When the Grand National scene returned to Trenton in 1970, they brought along a strange looking menagerie of cars as well, including a flock of Superbirds and Dodge Daytonas with their trademark high tail fins. Richard Petty's Superbird just wasn't up to speed in practice for the event, and the crew couldn't figure out what was wrong. Richard wound up slapping the wall. Because it was the only car they had with them, the Petty Engineering crew made hasty hammer and duct tape repairs to the Plymouth. When Richard returned to the track, he was a half second faster a lap. Both the King and the crew were left scratching their heads, but the tale had a happy ending, when Richard won the race. It was only Richard's second superspeedway win of the year, and it seemed appropriate the race on the oddly shaped hacked together track, was won by an oddly shaped hacked together car. Bobby Allison, a perennial Northern Tour favorite, came home second.
The King won again at Trenton in 1971. Early in the going he was dogged by Pete Hamilton, but Buddy Baker, who had lost his brakes, wound up smashing into Hamilton's Plymouth. Despite the wreck, and not having brakes, ironically enough, Buddy managed to finish second. Once again Allison had a fine run, and wound up third.
The Northern Tour was no more in 1972. Most of the events on the annual swing north had been held on short tracks, and NASCAR's new title sponsor, RJ Reynolds, was not interested in any race of less than 250 miles being on the schedule. Of all the tracks up North, Trenton was the only one left of the old Northern Tour stomping grounds. (Dover Downs had also started holding races in 1969.) Bobby Allison, who had always run so strong at Trenton finally got the victory that had eluded him that day. Ironically enough, considering Allison had started racing up North in those old Chevys, he was at the wheel of a Richard Howard owned Monte Carlo that year. It was the first season a Chevrolet was competitive since the early 60s. Bobby Isaac actually seemed to have a faster car, and gave Allison all he could handle, but had to settle for second, 1.4 seconds behind Allison. Richard Petty was third.
No one knew it that day, but the 1972 event was to be the last of NASCAR's top league events as the track. The track did have a date on the 1973 schedule, and in fact the teams showed up and even had qualifying for that race. Rain moved into the area and the race had to be canceled. It was never rescheduled.
There is talk now of returning NASCAR racing to New Jersey on a superspeedway outside of Atlantic City. While the plan's future is currently uncertain, one thing is for sure. The track will not be kidney shaped, like the odd old track in Trenton.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.