Put the Local Heroes Back in the Field and Bring Back Variety in Cup Racing
When the stars and cars of NASCAR venture to Dover International Speedway this weekend, around 36 or 37 teams will unload equipment for the event, leaving the field a handful shy of full. Anybody want to go in on a car we could enter and have some fun?
The fact that my question will certainly be answered with an emphatic “NO” is – to my mind – another of our sport’s current ills, albeit maybe a smaller one.
Except for one or two of those cars at the back of the pack, all the teams you’ll see this weekend will be the same ones you’ve seen at every other race so far, and with the same driver. The one or two exceptions will involve new chauffeurs whose qualifications start with having the money to finance the ride. Some may bring some friends and family to the track, but I can’t see that making a significant difference in the overall attendance, which from what I’ve seen of the stands at recent Dover races, could certainly use some help.
When they first raced at Dover, the start-finish line was on what we now know as the backstretch. There’s Richard Petty, who would dominate.
It used to be different, and I’m going to say here that, just maybe, this is an instance where going back to the old days might just help.
Dover’s first race, that 1969 oddity that was held two days after the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, probably wasn’t conducive to bringing in non-regulars, because getting the regulars up from Florida in time to race was trouble enough. Still, New Englander Roy Hallquist brought a car down and ran. He would end up competing occasionally for about a decade and even drove in SCCA Trans-Am, but his legacy is probably as a late model standout “back home.”
Roy Hallquist raced this car at home in New England but had another to enter in the occasional Grand National race, including the first one at Dover.
The next couple of years saw some locals give it a shot in their own cars. Joe Phipps from Newark and A.J. Cox from Wilmington both made a handful of GN starts. Then, in 1973, guest drivers with more name recognition began to be entered. The first was Eddie Pettyjohn of Milton, one of the top late model aces in the region through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Unfortunately, Pettyjohn wrecked and finished last, but that would only be his first appearance. In that fall’s race, he would drive Junie Donlavey’s Truxmore Ford to 10th.
Also in the field in the fall race was Pennsylvania modified star Dick “Toby” Tobias, driving a car that was pretty local to Dover. Federalsburg, Md., farmer Norris “Speedy” Reed owned the car, sponsored by Smithville Farms. Over the years it competed in more than two dozen Grand National/Winston Cup races.
In the spring of 1974, Pettyjohn would return to Donlavey’s #90, but the Smithville Farms #83 wouldn’t have a local driver. Instead, Midwestern legend Ramo Stott would be behind the wheel and would guide the car to a 9th place finish.
That fall, though, another regional short-track “name” driver, Pennsylvanian Kenny Brightbill would finish 8th in the 83, while Pettyjohn came home 24th in the 90.
Things started to slow down for local-interest/guest drivers after that – Brightbill ran again in 1977 but was involved in a crash with Indy veteran Jim Hurtubise early and finished last – but there still were plenty of other non-regulars showing up at Dover.
Kenny Brightbill in the car that would tangle with Jim Hurtubise in 1977.
In the spring of 1978, unfamiliar faces in the spring Dover race included road racer Al Holbert (driving for Donlavey), Virginian modified standout Don “Satch” Worley, western Pennsylvanians Joe Mihalic and Nester Peles, and Maine’s legendary Dave Dion. Other names, familiar and unfamiliar, raced in subsequent years.
Another “local,” Jerry Bowman from Havre de Grace, Md., finished 13th in 1983, part of a 19-race Cup “career” over six years, but Dover remained first of all a place where a part-timer could make the field and race with the future Hall of Famers. In the spring of 1984, the field included Bowman, Jimmy Ingalls, Tommy Crozier, Joe Fields, Phil Good, Gene Coyle and Johnny Coy Jr. Coy was part of a generational New York racing family and well known as a midget racer.
Here’s Johnny Coy before a start at Pocano in James Hylton’s car.
Occasionally, someone would come close to becoming a regular. Jimmy Horton, a truly great modified driver from New Jersey, first ran Dover in 1988 and drove in 48 Cup races over a decade. His record overlapped that of Ohio late model standout Rodney Combs, who drove 55 Cup events. On the other hand, another Jersey modified pilot, Jerry Cranmer, managed 10 starts over two seasons, and Coy started three races in four years of trying.
In 1991, another local-ish racer, Jerry Hill from Brandywine, Md., made one of two starts at Dover (he must have liked mile tracks, because another four of his eight career Cup races were at Rockingham). Later he spent a couple of years as a Truck Series regular, and today he watches his son Timmy try to climb the steep ladder of success.
Jerry Hill, shown here at Rockingham, was one of the last local drivers to race at Dover with his own team.
There were still a few part-time cars in Dover races in the early ‘90s, but clearly NASCAR was heading for an all-regulars identity, in part because of provisional starting positions that gave regulars starting spots regardless of how fast or slow they were, but mostly because the cars were just getting too expensive to buy one and let it sit for most of the year. The charter system formalized that situation, and today you can count on one hard the number of part-time teams likely to show up for a Cup race.
Bad thing or good thing? I’ll make the argument for “bad” by asking how many fans those part-timers brought to the track. Joe Phipps and Jerry Hill probably brought some, while Kenny Brightbill and Eddie Pettyjohn may have brought a good number. Would that fill more seats today than a low-buck charter team? Maybe.
It also would make the racing more interesting and less same-old, same-old, and maybe that’s what I long for most. Knowing exactly what to expect every time might be good in pizza, but at the track, I vote for variety – time to give the weekly racers another shot.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
A couple of the teams mentioned in the story above had great moments for low-buck “independent” teams that weren’t mentioned above. The Smithville Farms Grand National team scored a shocker in 1976 when Ramo Stott put it on the pole for the Daytona 500 (albeit, after two faster times were disallowed because of legality issues). The party for “Speedy” Norris and his team probably went on for a while.
This great quote came from another story about that day, and it couldn’t be truer:
“You couldn’t do today what Speedy did in 1976,” said Roy Lare, who knew Reed. “NASCAR gave the underdogs a chance to go to Daytona and be successful. Today, there is so much money involved with research, engines and development that it is very difficult to qualify, let along win a pole. Speedy built his cars in a little shop at the farm here.”
Second, no Dover story is complete without mentioning 1981, when Jody Ridley gave the immortal Junie Donlavey one of his Grand National wins. Today there’s nobody to cheer for like Junie, and NASCAR is a LOT poorer as a result.
Negative and cruel, but I can’t help it – One of the worst higher generals in the Civil War was Braxton Bragg, who single-handedly crushes the myth of naturally superior Confederate leaders. Complain about my assessment if you want, but it’s true. Unfortunately, one of Bragg’s critical shortcomings – his valuing loyalty over ability – was shared by his boss, President Jefferson Davis, who kept the loyal Bragg around. Late in the war, when Wilmington, N.C., was the last major Confederate port not in Union hands, Davis sent Bragg to that unfortunate city to take over defensive operations.
A Richmond newspaper assessed the situation in this headline: “Bragg to Wilmington. Good-bye, Wilmington.”
I know it’s not fair, and I feel guilty, but I thought of that story when I read that NASCAR had acquired ARCA.