Thursday, July 19, 2018

July 19, 1958 - The debut of Fairgrounds Speedway

After decades of racing on the one-mile, dirt oval, horse racing facility at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, the Legion Bowl (later renamed Nashville Speedways), and other short-lived, Nashville-area short tracks, a group of local entrepreneurs and racing promoters envisioned something greater for fans.

Bill Donoho, Mark Parrish, and Bennie Goodman collaborated to build a new racing facility at the fairgrounds to replace the one-mile, dirt track. With an (advertised) investment of $200,000 and the cooperation of the Nashville Fair Board, the trio built two asphalt tracks - a half-mile outer track with an inner, flat, quarter-mile track.

Courtesy of Russ Thompson
Fairground Speedways was ready for its debut on July 19, 1958, with a slate of events for the modified racers. The half-mile didn't host its first race until about three weeks later - and it was a big-time event. NASCAR's Grand National drivers raced for the first time in Music City on August 10, 1958 in the Nashville 200.

The new track drew several drivers who would become local legends - and a few who even tasted a bit of glory in NASCAR's GN/Cup ranks. The list included Bullet Bob Reuther, Malcolm Brady, Jack Marlin and his brother Coo Coo, Jimmy Griggs, and Joe Lee Johnson (winner of the first World 600 two years later).

Rather than re-create what has already been written, Nashville racing historian Russ Thompson blogged a great recap of the opening of the track and its first round of races back in 2011. Highly recommended reading.

Charley Griffith (or Griffin as he frequently seemed to be known back then) captured the full slate of races. He won his 12-lap heat race, a three-driver match race, and the 30-lap feature.

Though Griffith dominated the win tally in the races in which he ran (with remaining heats and consolation races won by others), the night's events didn't lack excitement for the fans. During the second of three heat races, Brady got out of sorts in turn two and flipped multiple times down the backstretch.

After being extricated and heaving several gulps of fresh oxygen, Brady was transported to the hospital. He suffered a broken rib, was otherwise OK, and returned to racing and winning several times over the next few years.

Nearly ten thousand fans attended the opening night's slate of racing - all on the quarter-mile track. Donoho, Goodman, and Parrish were delighted at the prospects of what-might-be when the NASCAR big dawgs started rolling in three weeks later.

Griffith was not one of the local racers. He traveled from Chattanooga in southeast Tennessee. More specifically, he was from Red Bank - just outside of the city limits. For the first couple of years of my post-college life, I lived along the base of Signal Mountain - just five minutes or so from Red Bank.

Earlier this summer, a restored version of Griffith's race-winning modified was displayed for fans at the Fairgrounds. The car was restored by Al Jones who also owned a 1960s era late model raced by Marty Robbins. Jones later enlisted the help of Ray Evernham to restore the Robbins 777 racer.

Six months or so after wining the debut race of the newly opened Fairground Speedways, Griffith headed south to race in the inaugural Daytona 500. Balancing skill and good fortune - and racing a Pontiac raced a year earlier by Cotton Owens on the beach - Griffith combined his win on Nashville's new quarter-mile track with a third place finish on the 2.5 mile superspeedway in what became labeled as The Great American Race.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Nashville's Falls City 200 - part 2

The first three Falls City 200 late model sportsman races at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway were before my time as an avid race fan. Though I went to my first race sometime in 1974, I have no memories of the night, number of laps, or winner. I just know I liked it enough that I wanted to return - often.

My family and I began going to the Fairgrounds several times beginning in 1975 - though mainly for the nights of regular twin features of mini-stock, limited sportsman, and late model sportsman divisions. Attending the special Big Races with LMS racers didn't happen often - much less any Cup races. For those, I generally listened to them on WENO-AM radio.

The second triad of Falls City 200 races were smack dab in the salad days of my passion for Fairgrounds racing. Unlike Darrell Waltrip's sweep of the races from 1972 through 1974, fans saw three different winners in 1975-76-77.

Falls City 200 - June 1, 1975

The 1975 Falls City was scheduled for Saturday night, May 31. Fans had to wait another day for the results because of rain. The drivers instead took the green on Sunday afternoon, June 1, but fans had to wait another two days to learn the official winner of the race.

A bit of controversy following the race bookended some mild controversy before the race. The field arrived for practice and qualifying on Friday. Darrell Waltrip and his R.C. Alexander-owned Harpeth Motors Ford did not pass inspection, and a few drivers suggested they'd go home if Waltrip's #84 Ford raced "as is". Waltrip, the two-time Fairgrounds LMS champion and recent first-time Cup winner at Nashville less than a month earlier, was livid. He argued Alexander's Ford was being singled out and threatened not to race - in the Falls City 200 or any future events.

On Saturday, however, cooler heads prevailed. Waltrip and his crew returned, and tweaks were made allowing the car to pass inspection. After making the show, Waltrip ran a few laps during post-qualifying practice. His blood pressure likely soared again, however, when he lost control, popped the wall, and failed to start the race on Sunday.

Waltrip wasn't the only racer with pre-race issues. NASCAR national late model sportsman racers Butch Lindley and L.D. Ottinger captured the front row in qualifying. Lindley set a track record, and Ottinger was just a tick behind him. During post-qualifying practice, however, Ottinger blew an engine. Arrangements were made for Ottinger to take over the car of local rookie racer P.B. Crowell III.

Credit: Russ Thompson / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
The loss of Waltrip's car and Ottinger's engine was a sampling of what was to come during the race itself. Only thirteen of the race's 31 starters were still on-track late Sunday afternoon. Drivers making early exits including:
  • Reigning NASCAR national late model sportsman champion Jack Ingram
  • NASCAR veteran Tiny Lund
  • Defending Fairgrounds track champion Jimmy Means
  • Pole winner Lindley
  • Local racers such as Flookie Buford, James Ham, Phil Stillings, and Little Joe Mangrum.
Of the thirteen cars that lived to see the checkers, local Nashville racer (by way of Birmingham) Alton Jones was the first to see it. Trailing him by a full lap was fellow Alabama driver and third place starter, Neil Bonnett.

Ned Webb finished third, and Ottinger finished where he started: P4. I know nothing about Webb, but apparently he knew something about the Alabama Gang. A few years after the '75 Falls City 200, Webb wrote a book about the driver who finished ahead of him.

Following the race, however, Ottinger filed a protest against Jones. Ottinger claimed Jones' Nova ran oversized wheels. Bonnett got in on the protest action too by suggesting the scoring sheets were off and that he actually won the race.

Bonnett's complaint was soon resolved, but Ottinger's protest lingered with NASCAR for two days without a decision. Ottinger then withdrew his protest, and Jones was confirmed as the official race winner.

Long-time Fairgrounds racing fan and historian, Russ Thompson, captured some video from the race. It includes some fantastic footage; however, don't adjust your speakers as there isn't any audio with it.

  1. Alton Jones
  2. Neil Bonnett
  3. Ned Webb
  4. L.D. Ottinger
  5. Bob Burcham
  6. Walter Wallace
  7. Phil Stillings
  8. Don Guirnard
  9. Jerry Long
  10. Ray Skillman
  11. Clarence Kessinger
  12. Jim Berry
  13. Bill King
  14. Dave Mader
  15. Rod Stillings
  16. James Ham
  17. Jerry Lawley
  18. Flookie Buford
  19. Edwin Anthony
  20. Tiny Lund
  21. George Bennett
  22. Butch Lindley
  23. Jimmy Means
  24. Paul Evans
  25. Don Anthony
  26. Gary Sircy
  27. Jack Ingram
  28. Butch Allen
  29. Clyde Peoples
  30. Joe Mangrum
Falls City 200 - May 29, 1976

The attrition rate for the 1975 was really high, but the number of DNFs for the 1976 Falls City 200 was even worse. Yet three key players from the '75 race were back in the hunt a year later.

Midwestern late model ace Bob Senneker won the pole in only his second trip to the Fairgrounds. In his Nashville debut six weeks earlier, Senneker had finished sixth in the Winston Salute to America 200.

Though a handful of national drivers made the trek to Music City for the 200-lap event, most of the field was comprised of local racers - including The Kiddie Corps. The 1976 season featured a quartet of highly touted and skilled young'uns:
  • P.B. Crowell, III - "Chubby's" father was a Fairgrounds veteran as a winning driver and car owner
  • Mike Alexander - son of long-time owner and sponsor, R.C. Alexander
  • Sterling Marlin - son of Fairgrounds legend and Cup independent Coo Coo Marlin
  • Dennis Wiser - son of local racer and car builder Kenneth Wiser
Three of the four - Crowell, Alexander, and Wiser - joined the field, but all three parked their cars early as part of the heavy DNF count. Sterling skipped the race to serve as crew chief for his father's Cup team at Charlotte's World 600. Coo Coo was recovering from injuries suffered during an ARCA race at Talladega. Charlie Glotzbach raced in relief in the red and gold #14 Chevrolet, and Sterling led the crew with calls and over-the-wall work.

Alexander got the jump on Senneker at the start of the race and led the opening 17 laps. As Alexander's lead ended, so did Wiser's night. Once Wiser parked his #19 Chevelle, it seemed like another car joined him about every dozen laps or so. 

Neil Bonnett returned for his fourth consecutive Falls City 200, and he led for a 30-lap hitch during the middle stages of the race. Crowell also led for ten laps late in the race before losing a transmission. Senneker took the lead from Alexander near lap 20 and pulled the field for about 15 laps. But his night was done just after halfway after being involved in an earlier accident and then losing an engine.

With about 20 laps to go, the standings mirrored the 1975 finish with Alton Jones out front and Bonnett in second a half-lap back. Bonnett had fallen a lap behind Jones but had made it up. Still, he needed help to close the remaining gap - and then he got it. A fortuitous caution allowed Bonnett's #12 Nova to restart behind Jones. 

Over the next 16 laps, Bonnett followed Jones' tire tracks. Then with four to go, he made his move. Bonnett eased past Jones, gapped him a bit, and took the checkers - reversing the prior year's results. Only nine cars out of 25 starters were still around to see the finish.

Source: TMC Archives
  1. Neil Bonnett 
  2. Alton Jones
  3. L. D. Ottinger
  4. Art Sommers 
  5. Gary Sircy 
  6. Kenny Wiser 
  7. Dorris Vaughn
  8. Jerry Long
  9. Jim Berry 
  10. Eddie Kissinger
  11. P.B. Crowell III 
  12. Charlie Chamblee
  13. Ray Skillman 
  14. Windle Webster
  15. Bob Senneker
  16. Carl Langford
  17. Jerry Sisco
  18. Donnie Anthony
  19. Wayne Carden
  20. Charlie Whitefield
  21. Mike Alexander
  22. Buzzy Reynolds
  23. Ralph Jones
  24. Dennis Wiser
  25. Jerry Lovell
Source: TMC Archives
Falls City 200 - May 22, 1977

The final Falls City 200 went off more like a fizzled bottle rocket than an exploding shell. The 23 starters were the fewest in the five Falls City races held on the 18-degree banked track and the second fewest overall. And for the third year in a row, fans endured a high DNF count.

The race did, however, draw several of the national LMS drivers. In the field were stars such as Harry Gant, Jack Ingram, Butch Lindley, and L.D. Ottinger. Even Darrell Watrip made a return trip to his home track during an off weekend between Cup races at Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover and Charlotte's World 600.

Three of the track's four Kiddie Corps driver raced.
  • Marlin had about as good a night as a local racer might expect with the big dawgs in town. 
  • Alexander hit the wall early and was never a factor. 
  • Wiser had just a so-so night.
  • The fourth, P.B. Crowell III, wasn't in the show, and I have no idea why.
The theme of the night apparently was Tennessee Trash. Many cars suffered cut tires. The fortunate ones hit pit road but lost a few laps. Others hit the wall and were done for the night.

Jack Ingram won the pole and notched a top 5 finish, but he was a handful of laps off the race because of an unscheduled stop for one of the multiple cut tires. Ditto for Newport, Tennessee's L.D. Ottinger.

Waltrip's #88 Gatorade Nova was never a factor. The car began smoking right from the jump. Within the first quarter of the race, Waltrip pitted twice in an effort to resolve the problem. With no success, he finally parked it, finished deep in the field, and headed home to Franklin, TN for a night's rest.

With the majority of top competitors laps down or loaded on their trailers, Harry Gant set sail. He somehow managed to avoid whatever tire grelim that plagued others. He put his #77 Chevrolet on the point and just clicked off laps. When the checkers fell, he earned a two-lap win over second place Marlin.

For Marlin, it was another close but no cigar finish. During his rookie season in 1976, Sterling watched as Alexander and Crowell took home trophies. His best finish a few times was second. He earned yet another P2 with his runner-up to Gant. His accumulation of seconds without a win mirrored his Cup career in some regards. (Sterling did finally break through for his first career win two weeks later in a 100-lap LMS race.)

In post-race inspection resembling today's Seriously? Not Again Cup tech, officials found a loose lug nut on Gant's car. He was docked a hundred bucks for the infraction.
  1. Harry Gant
  2. Sterling Martin
  3. L.D. Ottinger
  4. Jack Ingram
  5. Benny Kerley
  6. Buzzy Reynolds
  7. Randy Tissot
  8. Dennis Wiser
  9. Carl Langford
  10. Butch Applegate
  11. Tony Cunningham
  12. Gary Searcy
  13. Grant Adcox
  14. Jim Berry
  15. Butch Lindley
  16. Ricky Marlin
  17. Walter Wallace
  18. Steve Spencer
  19. Darrell Waltrip
  20. Ronny Hutton
  21. Mike Ferguson
  22. Mike Alexander
  23. Dorris Vaughn
Source: TMC Archives
After a six-year run, the Falls City branded races ended. Over the next several years, availability of the beer faded significantly as well. Recently, however, the Louisville-based brand re-booted and is again available in several markets.

As someone who is now on the far side of young racing (and beer) fans, I appreciate one of Falls City's newer brands that is right in my wheelhouse: Hipster Repellant IPA.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Nashville's Falls City 200 - part 1

For many years, Falls City was a coming of age and working man's beer. The Nashville-area distributor leveraged the brand as a frequent sponsor at the track most refer to as Fairgrounds Speedway through much of the 1970s.

Drivers such as James Ham, Flookie Buford, Charlie Binkley, Bobby Isaac, Buddy Baker and ... Darrell Waltrip sported the red and gold colors of Falls City at the Fairgrounds.

Falls City also sponsored an annual, late model sportsman race at the Fairgrounds from 1972 through 1977. Except for the first one, the Falls City 200 was scheduled between late May and mid-June. This post will highlight the first three editions - all of which had a common denominator.

Falls City 100 - July 29, 1972

The first Falls City race was 100 vs. 200 laps and the only one on the track's 5/8 mile, high-banked configuration that lasted from 1970 through 1972. Run under Nashville's lights, the race was scheduled the same day Joe Leonard won the second annual Schaefer 500 at Pocono.

Waltrip, Nashville's 1970 late model sportsman champion, won the pole and dominated the race for the win. The victory was his sixth of the season.

On lap 45, James Ham passed Charlie Binkley to move into third place. Jerry Long ran second early in the race, but he blew an engine just past the halfway mark. When Long's night became short, Ham took over the second spot behind a disappearing Waltrip.

Something broke on Ham's car with about 15 laps to go. He sailed head-on into the wall between turns one and two and burst into flames. Ham stopped along the inside hall, and he quickly bailed out. A year later in Nashville's Uniroyal 100, Ham suffered a similar wreck - including another fire - but once again escaped relatively unscathed.

Binkley was following Ham and slid down along the inside wall in an effort to avoid him. He needed an assist to get back in the action, did so, and finished the race in second.

Waltrip was greeted in victory lane by flagman Don Donoho and Ellis Cook, Nashville's Falls City distributor.

Source: Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
  1. Darrell Waltrip 
  2. Charlie Binkley
  3. Flookie Buford 
  4. Joe Mangrum 
  5. Ben Pruitt
  6. James Climer
  7. Windle Webster
  8. Jim Berry
  9. Jerry Sisco 
  10. James Ham 
  11. James Veach 
  12. Jerry Long
  13. Ray Chitwood
  14. Freddy Fryar
  15. Carl Layne
  16. Rod Stillings
  17. Everett Barnes 
  18. Bill Morton
  19. Jimmy Benson
  20. Ronnie Dickson
  21. Clyde Peoples
Falls City 200 - June 2, 1973

The third configuration of the Fairgrounds track (and the one still in place today) debuted in 1973. The banks were dropped to 18 degrees, and the official length of the track was reduced to .596-mile. Even though the track's length was no longer .625-mile, that didn't stop track management from boasting about the World's Finest 5/8 Mile Track. The same 5/8-mile reference continued to be used on programs through 1978.

Courtesy of Russ Thompson
Waltrip's crew brought two Chevelles to the track for the 1973 running of the Falls City 200. His plan was to race a newer car and have Walter Wallace pilot the older model.

After qualifying, Waltrip made a relatively last minute decision to swap cars. Wallace had qualified the older car fourth, but he exchanged seats with Waltrip. The decision turned out to be the right one.

Occasional Winston Cup racer Charlie Glotzbach came to town and won the pole in a Dodge. The car, owned by M.B. McMahan of Sevierville, TN, was already a two-time Fairgrounds winner in 1973. Cup regular Dave Marcis was at the wheel of McMahon's Mopar for two 30-lap features in the month of May.

McMahan wanted Marcis to race his car yet again - especially since Nashville had a $500 bonus for any Dodge that could win a national championship race. Practical logistics of shuttling Marcis between the Cup race at Dover and Nashville, however, could not be arranged. McMahan also considered Pete Hamilton and James Ham. Hamilton was already committed to a ride in a 200-lap LMS race at Middle Georgia Raceway near Macon, and Ham already had a ride in Nashville.

Glotzbach got word of McMahan's need for a driver while hanging out in Dover. His Cup owner, Hoss Ellington, opted not to race at Dover following a tough effort a week earlier in the World 600 at Charlotte. Glotzbach contacted McMahan and agreed to fly to Nashville in his own plane.

Waltrip needed only five laps to take the lead, and he set sail once he got it. Eight cautions during the race helped make things closer for Waltrip than he would have liked. With each restart, however, Waltrip again pulled away from the field.

L.D. Ottinger finished second with Freddy Fryar in third - the only other cars on the lead lap. Jimmy Hensley made a rare trip to Nashville and returned to Virginia with a P4.

Jack Ingram somehow managed a fifth place finish despite being involved in a multi-car accident a few laps after the halfway point of the race. Much of his Chevelle's sheet metal was mangled, but he soldiered on to a top 5 finish. His tenacity in the Falls City 200 and throughout the rest of the season helped reward him with NASCAR's 1973 national late model sportsman division championship.

Waltrip got the repeat win, and others scored some valuable points for the national title. Red Farmer, on the other hand, had a trip to Music City that he'd just as soon forget - and perhaps has. The truck hauling his race car broke down on I-65 as he drove from Birmingham. After arriving, practicing, and qualifying third, he developed an overheating problem early in the race. His crew addressed the issue during a pit stop, but their efforts didn't last. More engine woes put Farmer's car back on the sketchy truck after 82 laps.
  1. Darrell Waltrip
  2. L. D. Ottinger
  3. Freddy Fryar
  4. Jimmy Hensley
  5. Jack Ingram
  6. Jimmy Means
  7. Rod Stillings
  8. Jerry Lawley
  9. Robert Wales
  10. Charley Glotzbach
  11. Charley Binkley
  12. Don Smith
  13. Ronnie Blasingim
  14. Neil Bonnett 
  15. Walter Wallace
  16. Wayne Carden
  17. Alton Jones
  18. Donnle Anthony 
  19. Sammy Ard
  20. Windle Webster
  21. Steve Spencer
  22. Jerry Sisco
  23. Dorris Vaughn
  24. Gary Myers
  25. Red Farmer
  26. Charley Greenwell 
  27. Bill Morton 
  28. Flookie Buford
  29. James Ham
  30. Dan Lawson
  31. Terry Flynn
  32. Carl Lane
  33. Bobby Baucom
Falls City 200 - June 1, 1974

Waltrip returned in 1974 as the two-time defending race winner. He also returned as a two-time Fairgrounds track champion after having won the LMS title a second time in 1973. On top of his busy late model sportsman schedule, Waltrip had also launched his Winston Cup career.

The Falls City 200 lineup included a solid balance of local regulars and national hot shoes. Drivers such as James Ham, Flookie Buford, and Paddlefoot Wales got to race with Bobby Allison, Butch Lindley, and Jack Ingram.

A true out-of-towner who made the trek was Ray Hendrick. A winning, late model veteran of tracks in the eastern time zone, Hendrick had only raced at the Fairgrounds one time previously. He and Waltrip qualified on the front row for the track's 1974 season opener, the Permatex 200. The two raced hard and generally clean - until. The two came together, Waltrip sailed into the fence, Hendrick slid to the inside, carried on, and then raced Bobby Allison hard down the stretch.

Hendrick was back and ready to tangle with Waltrip, Allison, and others again about two months later. The Falls City 200 was Hendrick's second and final start in Nashville.

To the surprise of few, Waltrip won the pole and barely missed the track record in doing so. Hendrick lined up sixth but picked his way through traffic soon after the start. Within 15 laps or so, Hendrick found his way to second behind Waltrip.

The two stayed nose to tail through the first half of the race. Morgan Shepherd hounded Hendrick from third. He managed to take second but for only a lap before Hendrick roared back with a focused intent on tracking down Waltrip.

Allison, racing during an early June break in his Cup schedule, posted a poor qualifying lap and started 22nd. Once the green fell, however, he found his groove. He worked his way through traffic and tracked down Shepherd by halfway to take third.

As Allison eased into P3, a three-car accident slowed the field. Waltrip and Hendrick hit pit road with Hendrick getting the edge on pit exit. Both, however, were behind Allison who had made the decision to run the full race without pitting.

Waltrip needed only a couple of laps to pass Hendrick once the green returned. Allison did a yeoman's job of holding Waltrip and Hendrick at bay with their fresher tires. With about 50 laps to go, however, Allison's resistance was futile. Waltrip sailed around him - followed by Hendrick. Gremlins soon hit Allison, and the choice not to pit was moot. He cruised back to pit road and was done for the night.

With clean air, Waltrip put his Harpeth Motor Ford into the wind. He may have saved a bit from the early stages of the race, and he most likely remembered his previous Nashville encounter with Hendrick. Waltrip opened a comfortable margin and won his third consecutive Falls City race by about ten car lengths over the Virginian.
  1. Darrell Waltrip
  2. Ray Hendrick
  3. Jerry Lawley
  4. Richard Orton
  5. Bob Burcham 
  6. James Ham
  7. Ray Milligan
  8. Donnie Anthony
  9. Wayne Carden
  10. Dave Mader III
  11. Jim Berry
  12. Buck Hinkle
  13. Wayne Gower
  14. Dewayne Chaffin
  15. Jack Ingram
  16. Neil Bonnett
  17. Bobby Allison
  18. Phil Stillings
  19. Robert Wales
  20. Butch Lindley
  21. Clyde Peoples
  22. Bobby Hargrove
  23. James Climer
  24. Larry Catlett
  25. Jimmy Means
  26. Morgan Shepherd
  27. Flookie Buford
  28. Charlie Binkley
  29. Red Farmer
  30. Terry Miller
  31. Chet Williams
  32. Boscoe Lowe
  33. Walter Wallace 
Part 2 about 1975, 1976, and 1977 Falls City 200 races will follow next week...


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Earnhardt's final race in Music City

Dale Earnhardt began making the trek to Nashville Speedway in the mid 1970s. His first race at the Fairgrounds was the June 1976 Union 76 200, and he finished second to fellow North Carolinian Harry Gant.

Source: The Tennessean / TMC Archives
A little over a year later, Earnhardt and his crew towed to middle Tennessee again for the August 1977 World Service Life 200. He finished fourth in the race won by Butch Lindley.

Credit: David Allio / Racing Photo Archives
Earnhardt headed to Winston Cup full-time as a rookie in 1979; however, he still returned to the short tracks as he advanced in Cup. Sure, track promoters had to cough up some show money and frequently provide a car. The trade-off, however, was generally a boon with increased sales of tickets and concessions.

During his Wrangler era with Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt returned to Nashville in July 1987 and raced a car provided by Tony Formosa Jr. From the 1960s through the 1990s, Formosa and his family raced at the Fairgrounds. Today, Tony Jr. is the leaseholder and promoter of the track now known as Fairgrounds Speedway.

NASCAR pulled its two Winston Cup dates from Nashville following the 1984 season. Earnhardt hadn't raced at the Fairgrounds since until his return for the one-off event in 1987. He started and finished sixth in the 250-lap race.

Source: Tony Formosa Jr. / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
The Nashville track went through all sorts of operational and managerial turnover through the 1980s...and arguably beyond. But two truths remained:
  • Nashville racing fans remained loyal. They loved their Fairgrounds racing and traveled in large numbers to Cup races in most southern states.
  • Drivers dug racing Nashville's .596-mile track - and still do.
Earnhardt returned to Nashville yet again - and for the final time as a driver - in May 1990 for the Motorcraft 200. Former Nashville track champions, Sterling Marlin and Bobby Hamilton, were also recruited to participate in the race. Marlin was in his third Cup season with owner Billy Hagan, and Hamilton was in his rookie Busch Series season with FILMAR Racing.

The race was strategically scheduled for Saturday, May 12 - an open weekend for the Cup Series between Talladega's Winston 500 on May 6th and The Winston at Charlotte on May 20th.

A car was arranged for Earnhardt, and Hamilton agreed to shake it down and set it up for him. He apparently did so with the assistance of a pooch named Elwood.

Source: Joe Ryman / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
Source: The Tennessean
Hamilton crammed a good bit of racing - and travel - into a single day. After finishing eighth in a Busch race at Pennsylvania's Nazareth Speedway, he hopped a plane and buzzed home to Nashville to race in the 200-lapper at the Fairgrounds.

He also offered somewhat of a prescient quote noting the race was
...a chance for a local driver to attract a little attention. In this sport timing is everything, and a good showing against a big-name driver might give a local driver his big break.
Source: The Tennessean
With Earnhardt and Marlin in town, Hamilton on his way home, and plenty of local racers ready to rub fenders with the big dawgs, all looked set. Lo and behold though, one of the worst things that could befall a race promoter and a fired-up set of fans happened. Rain.

Nashville racing historian Russ Thompson passed along this memory from driver Dan Ford:
They had to postpone the race. They got all the drivers together to tell them. Everyone was disappointed because Dale was here, and they all really wanted to run the race with him here. Dale spoke up and said, "Would y'all want to run the race Wednesday night? I've got commitments Monday and Tuesday, but I can come back and run on Wednesday." It was a unanimous vote. That's how they came to run it on Wednesday.
Weeknight racing was a regular thing in the late 1960s at the Fairgrounds, and track management experimented with a few Tuesday night shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Motorcraft 200 was the first Wednesday race, however, since Red Farmer won a modified feature during the Tennessee State Fair in September 1961.

Russ Thompson recalled:
[The Motorcraft 200] was scheduled for Saturday night and got rained out. They ran it on a Wednesday night and to everyone's surprise Earnhardt came back. Earnhardt was driving a black Goodwrench #3 that looked just like his Cup car. Gray Bickley was the owner.
The similarly prepared Olds of Hamilton and Chevy of Earnhardt were parked side by side as crews made final adjustments before qualifying.

Source: Sparky Harrington / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
Source: Sparky Harrington / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
The black #3 won the pole, and Jeff Green from Owensboro, KY qualified alongside him. When the green flag fell, Green buried his foot and got the jump into the first turn. Earnhardt may have been the star attraction - but he was hardly the only big dawg that night in Nashville.

Courtesy of Mark Gregory
Fans witnessed high attrition throughout the 40-car field. Only sixteen of 40 cars remained at the finish. Hamilton was one of the drivers who loaded his car early. He and P.B. Crowell III tangled going into turn 1, and both were done for the night.

Green led frequently and in large chunks as others fell by the wayside. Marlin stayed in the hunt and was able to see clean air in the second half of the race - especially after Green made a pit stop. With fresh shoes, however, Green tracked down Marlin and went back to the point with about 30 laps to go.

Though Green dominated much the race, Earnhardt kept him honest. As he pursued Green for the lead late in the race, however, Earnhardt cut a tire, spun, gathered it back up, but didn't lose a lap. Fans got to see his experience and car control that was frequently on display during Sunday Cup races. During the yellow, Earnhardt changed tires and returned to the top five. He then battled with Dan Ford the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Green pulled away and captured his fourth win in five starts of the season.

Source: Joey Kincaid / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
Local racer Ford wasn't intimidated by The Intimidator and held on for second. Earnhardt sandwiched his P3 at Nashville between his Cup wins at Talladega and in The Winston. Marlin and Jason Kennedy rounded out the top five.

Source: The Tennessean

Green's win was more than just another notch in a dominating season at Nashville. Back to Hamilton's pre-race quote, Earnhardt took note of Green's performance. Five years later, Green was hired to race DEI's #3 Goodwrench Chevy in NASCAR's Busch Series.

Russ Thompson also noted:
Two months later, that same car was green with a #33 and Skoal on it. Harry Gant finished 4th to Jeff, Dan Ford, and Michael Waltrip [in July 14 Ford Dealers 200]. Ten days later, in another rained out race [July 24], Bobby Hamilton drove the same car in the same scheme and won. It was one of very few races that year Jeff didn't win.
Source: Bob Ray / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
Hamilton set up the top-shelf late model for Earnhardt to race at Nashville in 1990. I'm sure he was glad to see Earnhardt remembered that arrangement six years later when the two of them battled in the late stages of the Cup race at Rockingham. Oh. Wait. OK, never mind.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

1971 Flameless ... err, Permatex 200

Beginning in 1966, Nashville's Fairground Speedways opened each season with the Flameless 300. The banking was raised to a Talladega-esque 35 degrees when the track was rebuilt in 1969-1970, and the toll on the cars, tires, and drivers was felt immediately. During the 1970 Flameless 300, the majority of the field was gone by lap 200. Darrell Waltrip cruised the final third of the race and won by five laps over the second place finisher.

Following the race, track promoter Bill Donoho floated the idea of cutting the race length to minimize the risk of another ho-hum affair. Sure enough, the lap count was cut by 100 laps, and the Flameless 200 was set for April 17, 1971.

Ticket and Nashville Banner photo courtesy of Russ Thompson
The race distance wasn't the only change for 1971. For the first time, the season opening race received a title sponsor, Permatex.

The changes marked a transition for the track.
  • More than five years had passed since the September 1965 fire that destroyed the track's grandstands.
  • Gone was the original half-mile track.
  • A new track now stood along with brand new, covered grandstands.
  • Increased corporate dollars were beginning to flow into motorsports - both at the national level with NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds and at the local level such the Permatex support and branding at Nashville.
In the weeks leading up the race, however, the local paper (and the tickets) still referred to the upcoming Flameless 200. Why The Tennessean mentioned the Flameless vs. Permatex race name isn't known (at least to me).

Perhaps the paper intentionally avoided referencing a sponsor that hadn't bought advertising in the paper - or the announcement of Permatex as the race sponsor came closer to race day  - or old habits were just hard to break. One could consider the race as the final Flameless 300/200 or the first Permatex 200. Either way, it was time to race.

Source: The Tennessean
Source: The Tennessean
Source: Nashville Banner /  Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
After missing the Flameless for the first time in 1970, two-time race winner and two-time pole winner Bob Burcham was back. Unlike his winning ways on the old track, however, Burcham would have a tough night in his first Flameless on the new surface.

Source: The Tennessean
Freddy Fryar, two-time Flameless 300 winner in 1966 and 1968, did not return for the final one in 1971. He instead dominated a 25-lap late model sportsman race at Jackson International Speedway in Mississippi.

Source: The Tennessean
James Ham backed up his fast test session by winning the pole with a track record speed. He broke the record previously held by Red Farmer set just a few months earlier in the 1970 season-ending Southern 300.

Waltrip, Nashville's 1970 late model sportsman division champion, returned for another full season in 1971. Gone were the traditional orange-and-white colors of owner P.B. Crowell. The #48 Chevelle instead sported a red-and-gold scheme tied to Waltrip's new sponsor and lined up alongside Ham on the front row. Coincidentally, the front row matched the two cars side-by-side in the track office's mural.

Farmer arrived in town but hardly ready to race. He suffered a broken leg on April 5th in a multi-car accident during a 100-lap race at Smoky Mountain Raceway in Maryville, TN. Farmer was a two-time, back-to-back NASCAR national late model sportsman champion in 1969 and 1970. Though early in the season, Farmer was already in a tight points battle with Georgia's Sam Sommers.

Two weeks after breaking his leg, Farmer somehow managed to belt into the car, make a pace lap, and then turn his car over to relief driver Tommy Andrews. Reason? Simple. That's what racers of that era did. Andrews did just as he was asked. He took care of Farmer's ride and managed to finish one spot ahead of Sommers. Farmer's commitment and toughness were rewarded when he won his third consecutive LMS title in 1971.

Tiny Lund was a somewhat surprising entrant. The big fella came to town with somewhat of a dual agenda (and the legendary experience of destroying his car and part of the track during the 1963 Nashville 400). He planned to race in the 200 of course. His second plan, however, was to promote the Baughman Hi Speed 100, a NASCAR Grand American division race for "pony cars" scheduled for three weeks after the 200. After qualifying mid-pack, Lund never got to tackle objective #1. He burned a clutch and didn't even start the race.

At the drop of the green, Ham took advantage of his top starting spot and led the first 48 laps. But  with a good rhythm rolling, Ham suddenly lost a water pump, had to make an extended stop, and struggled to a 20th place finish. For the second consecutive year, Ham had a fast car but little to show for it.

Waltrip won the 1970 Flameless 300 in dominating fashion, but the same couldn't be said a year later. Though he qualified second and led a few laps, a blown right front tire slowed his roll. When the night was done, he finished 21st - one spot behind pole-winner Ham.

Burcham won the Flameless in 1967 and 1969. He had to like his odds of winning his third one in an odd year, but a blown engine at lap 150 pretty well ended that quest.

Local driver Flookie Buford went to the point as Burcham exited and seemed to be in control for the win. A cut tire with about 20 laps to, however, doomed his chances. He made his stop and returned to action, but he was in third and a lap down to two drivers in front of him.

As Buford limped to pit road, Chattanooga, TN's Friday Hassler took the lead. Hassler, the 1970 Flameless 300 pole winner, had to be pleased with his reversal of fortune. A year earlier, he fell out of the race after only 10 laps. In 1971's race, he found himself sitting pretty with only 20 quick laps standing between him and the trophy. But then Hassler had to have exclaimed you've GOT to be kidding me! With just six laps to go, Hassler's Chevelle broke a driveshaft. Though he had enough laps on the car behind him to not lose a position, the P3 finish was little consolation.

By process of attrition and misfortune of others, journeyman racer Art Ellis found himself out front in a lap of his own. He knocked down the handful of remaining laps and headed to victory lane. Buford finished second after his late pit stop but was still a lap down to the winner.

Source: The Tennessean
Tragically, Ellis was able to savor his big win for only a couple of months. During a 30-lap, LMS feature race at the Fairgrounds on July 3rd, Ellis veered towards the inside of the backstretch while running fourth. He struck a large tire surrounding a utility pole, flipped several times, and was killed.

Source: The Tennessean
The Flameless race era was over - and Ellis was its final winner. The race began following a disastrous fire in 1965, and the final one was tied to tragedy with Ellis' death. Nashville continued hosting 200-lap season openers through 1978. Permatex returned as the race's title sponsor through 1974, and R.J. Reynolds' Winston brand sponsored the races in 1975 through 1978.

Finishing Order:
  1. Art Ellis
  2. Flookie Buford
  3. Friday Hassler
  4. Jerry Echols
  5. David Sisco
  6. Dorman Adams
  7. L. D. Ottinger
  8. Dexter Brady
  9. Red Farmer
  10. Sam Sommers
  11. Bob Burcham
  12. Rod Stillings
  13. Ben Pruitt
  14. Harold Carden
  15. Bill Morton
  16. Charley Binkley
  17. Bob Brown
  18. Robert “Paddlefoot” Wales
  19. Rhea Greenwell
  20. James Ham
  21. Darrell Waltrip
  22. Chester Albright
  23. Clyde Peoples 
  24. Junior Caldwell
  25. Don Anthony
  26. Bobby Walker
  27. Paul Lewis
  28. Ronnie Blasingim
  29. Chuck Hunter
  30. Tiny Lund (DNS)