A Farce on the High Banks or Fun in the Dirt?
I certainly hope you enjoyed watching that whatever-it-was-but-not-racing at Daytona the other weekend. Restrictor plate tracks aren’t my cup of tea, so I passed and wandered out for some real roots racing, which also provided a glimpse into NASCAR’s long-ago past.
I almost went to see the Super Cup Stock Car Series run twin-50s at Jennerstown Speedway, a pretty big paved track about an hour east of Pittsburgh. I know the SCSCS puts on a good show, having seen the Dominion Speedway event earlier this year, and I like Jennerstown, but I had made a commitment to add a pair of new tracks to my resume; tracks that escaped me two years ago when rain spoiled my visit. This year the forecast was really good, so I was off to New Stateline Speedway in Busti, N.Y., and Old Bradford Speedway near Bradford, Pa. (home of Zippo lighters).
The cool thing to me was that both tracks, while the epitome of off-the-beaten-track local racing-on-dirt today, were part of the NASCAR Grand National (now Monster Cup) schedule in 1958, 60 years ago!
Thanks to TMC Chase and Racers Reunion, I can show you a photo from that 1958 Grand National race at Bradford. That’s local racer Squirt Johns spinning in front of Jack Smith (47) and Buck Baker. Johns was disqualified for supposedly having fuel injection in his car, and he later was quoted as saying that the GN drivers got their promised payout, with the locals being handed what money was left to divvy up.
An ad for the Bradford race. Stateline promoted the same group of drivers for its event, but almost none of them showed up. The story goes that they were in North Carolina fighting with Raleigh Speedway and NASCAR over the purse for a rain-shortened race there nearly two weeks earlier; however, many had raced in Asheville in between those two events. Something was clearly wrong, but the details seem a bit odd.
This isn’t from Stateline’s GN race, but it’s Chuck Piazza, later a familiar face in Carolinas racing, in victory line at the New York track about 50 years ago.
Some quick background: In those days, Big Bill France still wanted to establish NASCAR as a national organization and would race pretty much anywhere a promoter would sign on the dotted line. 1958 wasn’t the most eye-popping example of that policy, but still 11 of the season’s Grand National races were run north of the Mason-Dixon Line (two more in California). Stateline and Bradford were both new tracks then and probably wanted to show the locals that they were worthy entertainment options, so they scheduled GN events.
Bradford ran on Thursday, June 12 (after a rainout the night before), as part of a three-race Pennsylvania swing that also included stops at the famous Reading Fairgrounds and my current “home” track, Lincoln Speedway in New Oxford. Junior Johnson won over a 21 car field with Lee Petty finishing second and local driver Bob Duell coming home third in a Julian Buesink car. Buesink was the New York car dealer whose driver Bill Rexford had won the 1950 Grand National Championship. Actually, local driver Squirt Johns had finished third, but he and two compatriots were disqualified for running afoul of Mr. France’s policies.
The next month, on July 23, Stateline ran as the first of six stops on a second “Northern Tour” that would end at the old Bridgehampton, Long Island road course. Unfortunately, Stateline got the tour off to a bad start, with only a couple of NASCAR regulars showing up; the field was filled with locals (including the “disqualified” racers from Bradford), and GN regular Shorty Rollins collected his only series win, topping Duell in a Buesink car, with three local racers rounding out the top five. Lee Petty led the most laps but broke down with just a few laps left.
Neither Bradford nor Stateline would show up on the Grand National schedule again, but both have remained in operation for most of the half-century-plus since then, so let’s fast forward to July 2018.
Here’s a good crowd at a Stateline Speedway race.
Stateline is a one-third mile, slightly banked dirt track, a pretty nice and nicely maintained facility. The weekly Saturday night show features super late models and “crate”/limited lates, crate modifieds and another limited mod class, street stocks and “challengers” (mini-stocks). Bradford is a quarter-mile, higher banked dirt track, a bit more rustic but with great bleachers purchased from a downsizing Cup track. The weekly Sunday night show features the same crate late models and modifieds (and some of the same drivers), plus pure stocks, mini-stocks and “kids” mini-stocks.
The “Old” in Bradford’s name and logo seems to be a dig at a previous promoter who isn’t too fondly remembered. He threatened to destroy the track after he closed it, but things seem much better these days.
My weekend was fun. Both tracks drew decent crowds with lots of kids, because it was autograph night both nights. At Stateline that resulted in the program running very late, but it didn’t really hurt at Bradford. Car turnout was nice Saturday but a little light Sunday, although starting fields of nine cars in both “crate” classes didn’t look too bad on the smaller track.
Stateline spiced things up with a “run-what-you-brung” super late model race, in which a handful of cars mounted the old plexiglass “billboard” sideboards popular a couple of decades ago. Those things make a difference – these two cars lapped everyone else in the field, and the fans seemed to enjoy the novelty.
The racing was good. Passing isn’t easy but is certainly possible at both places, although several races were dominated by the winner. Bradford got pretty dusty, but the track may have dried out more than usual because of the autograph session break.
The “vibe” at both places was nothing like a Cup race. Families were well represented, and drivers regularly came up in the stands to sit with spouse and kids between races. T-shirts promoted both the regular winners and the racers outside the top ten. At one track, I sat next to and struck up conversations with a former commercial fisherman now working at an area apartment complex; at the other, I talked with a former racer who was there with his wife and daughter. Friendliness was pervasive. Tickets were in the $10-$12 range, and concessions, while not outstanding (except maybe for the freshly-made mini-donuts truck at Bradford) were pretty cheap. I spent less than $25 each night.
Here’s a pure stock race from Bradford earlier this year. Note the guy toward the back in the ’72 Chevelle. Awesome looking car, even if it wasn’t particularly fast. Both tracks have affordable starter classes, which drew good starting fields.
Obviously, having to drive four to five hours to get to these tracks means neither will be a regular habit, but I’d gladly go back, and I hope both continue to prosper. The area is hardly an economic boom zone, and running a race track isn’t easy anywhere, but these folks have the right idea: good competition, good value, and good family fun without a huge commitment.
Why watch ultra-high-dollar race cars torn up at a track where the insane rules dictate an outcome that’s more freak show than competition when you can settle back on your bleacher bench at a Stateline or Bradford, have fun with your friends, and afford to do it again next week?
See you down at the fourth turn.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
I think a lot about that Stateline race, when most of NASCAR’s regulars basically boycotted the event, yet somehow, somebody was able to line up enough locals to have a 23-car field. TEN of those drivers ran their only Grand National race that day (another ran there and at Bradford), and half a dozen had career totals of between four and a dozen NASCAR events.
Squirt Johns, shown here in 1959 with a car that lacks a square inch of undented sheet metal, was one of the top drivers in the area in the 1950s through the mid-‘70s, winning hundreds of races. He raced in the Bradford Grand National event, finished third, and was disqualified, but when NASCAR needed locals to fill the field at Stateline six weeks later, he raced there, too.
That means there were a lot of racers in that neighborhood willing to take on the “big boys” (such as Grand National drivers deserved that label in 1958), so the racing locally must have been pretty darned good.
One of those drivers was Bradford’s own Carl Tyler, son-in-law of Ray Schimp, who built and operated the track – it had moved from its original, 1953 location to the current one at the beginning of the 1958 season. Tyler raced 10 times in Grand Nationals in ’58 and twice the next year. His best finish was 11th at Wilson County Speedway.
It’s understandable that fans would feel cheated when the NASCAR stars failed to show, but having a few locals in the field probably would have been a plus, and NASCAR rules back then made that possible. Too bad those days are gone.
The next GN stop after Stateline was across the border in Toronto, and some of the NASCAR regulars had rejoined the tour by then, along with one sort-of newcomer: Lee Petty’s son Richard made his first GN start at that far-from-home speedway.
During a break in the action at Bradford, the announcer started talking about the action at Daytona the night before. He began his comments with, “If any of you still watch NASCAR on television…
Some videos if you’re interested:
Here’s the crate late model feature from Stateline:
Here’s the mini-stock feature from Bradford, with a car doing a 360 roll in one wreck:
Here’s a cool piece from just a few years ago with Squirt Johns after a video was produced about his career:
Lots of research for this week’s piece, with special thanks to the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in New York, the Stateline Legacy group that keeps that race track’s history alive, and the “usual suspects,” Racers Reunion and RacingReference.info.