Go Reino! Cheering for a Ghost in the Cup Field at Kentucky
When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series green flag drops on the Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway, anyone who has tried to recite that in a single breath will be gasping and may miss the Boogity-Boogity-less excitement. That would be a shame.
What those winded fans won’t miss, though, is a recitation of the starting field, because, except for a couple of Rick Ware and Premium Motorsports seats, it will be the same lineup as for every other race this year.
In this corner, that’s not a good thing. I’d like to see a place available for Reino Tulonen.
Here’s Reino Tulonen in a supermodified described as having been very much ahead of its time
OK, there will be three or four unfilled spots in the field, so theoretically, I could enter, as could you, but the cars and engines have gotten so obscenely expensive that it’s not likely we could find friends and family to cover that cost, nor the expense of a pit crew and assorted other people. I’m pretty sure NASCAR frowns on asking the driver to make his or her own tire changes as some were known to do in the really old days.
Wait a minute, you say. Go back to the previous paragraph and explain this Reino Tulonen reference.
OK. Here’s the rest of that story. Reino Tulonen was born and raised in Lunenberg, Mass., but lived much of his life in Fitchburg. For most of that life, he had a front-end alignment business, but he also was a racer, good enough that he’s enshrined in the New England Antique Racers Hall of Fame.
He died in 2015 at age 89, and most of this information comes from a good story about him by Lou Modestino, who noted that he was known as “the Flying Finn.” I found his name while playing on RacingReference.info, where I had seen a 1951 race at the half-mile dirt track in Morristown, N.J., that had more entrants (44) than Kentucky, despite the much smaller purse and the crowd that created on a short track.
Tulonen was one of those entrants. Driving a Henry J he also owned, he finished 27th that day, falling out of the race before the midway point.
This isn’t Reino. Rather, it’s Jack McClure, whose entire Grand National career also took place in 1951 – two races, both run in a Henry J, like Tulonen – the photo is just to show a Henry J in NASCAR racing trim.
At age 26, Tulonen raced in four Grand National (Cup) events that season, the only time he ventured into the series. The first three had uninspiring finishes, but at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut, he came home fifth, two spots ahead of Tim Flock.
Because the rules were simple and building/converting a street car into a race car was easy, this happened a lot in early NASCAR. Local stars – even local drivers who were far from being stars – took a shot at NASCAR. Some only ran one race, some a few dozen.
When my love of the sport began in Richmond, Va., the local short-track scene was dominated by “the 4-H Boys”: Ray Hendrick, Sonny Hutchins, Runt Harris and Ted Hairfield. Hendrick ran 17 GN/Cup races over an 18 year period, earning a pair of top-five finishes. Hutchins drove part-time for Junie Donlavey for several seasons and had four top-fives in 38 starts, plus that memorial Martinsville race when he put Emmanuel Zervakis’ Chevy on the outside pole and outran Richard Petty into the early lead. Harris had eight starts and Hairfield two. Other area racers – whose names didn’t start with “H” – took the plunge occasionally, too.
Not a good moment – the car is blowing its engine – but this is Sonny Hutchins in Junie Donlavey’s Ford at the Daytona 500, when the two were the kind of occasional-but-competitive Grand National/Cub entrants the rules today make virtually impossible.
Those locals in the field brought out fans, both in Virginia and in New England, where I’m certain there were cheers for Reino Tulonen at Thompson when he was racing with Tim Flock, Herb Thomas and others.
While I haven’t seen anything about Kentucky, it’s been announced that Rick Ware Racing will have a couple of New England drivers on board for Loudon. That’s good, and some fans might respond, but it’s not quite the same as when Reino or “Rapid Ray” took their shots at the top, because they were in their own cars or rides created for them. With all due respect, Rick Ware Racing has no chance whatsoever at a top-five finish, and even the top 20 would be a shock. These are cars that economics dictate stay near the rear.
The old way won’t return until NASCAR changes its attitude toward cars and rules and makes racing affordable to more than the ultra-well-connected/sponsored. Unfortunately, I don’t see any interest in moving in that direction, and to me, that’s a huge impediment to recovering the sport’s lost glory.
Reino Tulonen in a classic modified coupe
It may be too late for another effort by “the Flying Finn,” but tomorrow’s generation of racers in New England, the South and elsewhere surely would take the plunge if a realistic opportunity to take on the big guys existed. When they took that plunge, their fans would be behind them, and tickets would sell.
Isn’t that what we’re trying to accomplish?
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
As the Trico Speedway ad above notes, local drivers trying their luck in GN/Cup competition were matched in the “old days” by top NASCAR racers racing in weekly events. Allison was everywhere, as were quite a few others, and that doesn’t seem to happen much anymore, either – at least not in asphalt stock car racing.
A Bobby Allison late model from the era when he showed up on Easter Monday at Trico Speedway
In dirt sprint car racing, though, things are different. When Pennsylvania Sprint Speedweek was underway last week (actually, more like week-and-a-half), the weekday races between Cup events had Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell in competition, with Bell winning one race and Larson finishing second in another. Tony Stewart, who devotes most of his time these days to sprints (via his ownership of the Ollie’s All Star Circuit of Champions), ran in several races and also had a runner-up finish.
That used to be a big boost for short paved short tracks – and it drew those fans’ attention to NASCAR in return, so everybody was a winner, but you seldom see it today.
There was one interesting connection at Sprint Week: Lance Dewease was the only winner of more than one race (I write this with one event remaining), and he runs for Donnie Krietz, Jr., who years ago took a brief fling at NASCAR in what is now Xfinity
Donnie Kreitz Jr., shown here in victory lane about six years ago (before his retirement as a driver), drove five races in what is now Xfinity in 1987 with three Top 10 finishes.
I wonder if fans of future generations will get to see those connections. Of course, I wonder if they’ll get to see racing at all.
On that note, if the weather is anywhere near decent, join me in going to a short track somewhere this weekend. You can certainly go to Kentucky if you want, but I’m thinking the short track might put on a better show.
(Note: My desire to help return NASCAR to its former popularity keeps me writing about this topic. I’ve used Joe Mihalic as my example in the past and written repeatedly about Ray Hendrick, Sonny Hutchins and the other great Virginia modified and late model drivers of my youth. If you’ve gotten tired of hearing this drum beaten, I apologize, but I would love nothing better than to have today’s young fans see their local heroes test the NASCAR waters the way the hot shoes did half a century ago.)