Thursday, September 20, 2018

Nashville's 1966 Southern 300

The eighth running of Nashville's Southern 300 at Fairground Speedways was scheduled for Sunday, October 3, 1965. Two weeks before race weekend, however, the Fairgrounds property suffered a disastrous blow.

The annual Tennessee State Fair opened Monday, September 20th. Attendees had a great time throughout the day on the midway with the rides, exhibits, and caloric consumption.

Source: The Tennessean
That evening, however, sparks from faulty wiring ignited within the exhibit halls behind the speedway's grandstands. Within moments, fire consumed the top side of the fairgrounds property and heavily damaged the track's grandstands.

Source: Nashville Public Library
As expansive as the fire was, fortunately no one perished. The exhibit buildings were destroyed, and much of the speedway office space and large portion of the grandstands were lost. Fire crews and safety inspectors surveyed the damage, and local officials decided to re-open the midway on Tuesday and for the remainder of the fair.

Source: The Tennessean
Though a portion of the wooden grandstands was burned, track promoters Bill Donoho and Bennie Goodman rallied temporary, replacement boards. Remarkably, two days of IMCA sprint car races ran as scheduled on September 25-26.

With the track having lost its PA and scoring systems and suffering extensive damage to restrooms and concession stands, however, Donoho and Goodman were left with little choice but to cancel the 1965 Southern 300 as well as the season-ending 400-lap Open Competition race.

Right after the IMCA races and conclusion of the state fair, track personnel began the project to rebuild the grandstands so racing could return in 1966. As a nod to the recovery from the devastating fire, the Flameless 300 opened the 1966 season. When October rolled around, the Southern 300 was back again after a one-year absence.

As a ticket sales promotion and B2B sponsorship program, Donoho and Goodman collaborated with the Nashville Dixie Flyers minor league hockey club. Fans buying a ticket to the Southern 300 also received a ticket to a Dixie Flyers game. Though many believe fans of racing and hockey are mutually exclusive, I have long believed NASCAR and the NHL should make efforts to create new fans from each other's base.

As race weekend approached, Donnie Allison predicted fellow Alabama Gang member Red Farmer would be the driver to beat. Though Farmer didn't race at the Fairgrounds week to week, he was always competitive in the big races he entered.

Local racer Charlie Binkley had a different perspective. He not only predicted fellow local driver Coo Coo Marlin would win - but also that Farmer wouldn't last the full race.

Choosing Marlin as the favorite wasn't much of a stretch for Binkley or anyone else. Coo Coo already had a dozen trophies on his shelf from 1966 wins as well as the top spot in the points standings.

With the track experiencing a new beginning of sorts, the Fairgrounds unveiled a newly designed trophy for the race winner. As was the case in the first few years of the Southern 300, the trophy was again a tall, sleek version. The two favorites posed with the new hardware along with Jim Donoho, son of track promoter Bill Donoho.

Farmer and Marlin began the weekend by being as fast as predicted. Red captured the top starting spot with a track record followed by Coo Coo.

Bob Burcham of Chattanooga qualified third followed by an impressive lap by country music star and part-time racer Marty Robbins. Burcham returned in 1966 after brutally losing the 1964 Southern with engine failure as the leader and only two laps to go. Coo Coo's brother, Jack Marlin, rounded out the top five starters.

The remainder of the top 20 starting spots were set by qualifying speeds. Drivers claimed the last 10 spots by their finish in a 20-lap consolation race.

The race itself unfolded as expected - largely a battle between Red Farmer and the farmer Marlin. At the drop of the green, Farmer seized the lead and paced the first quarter of the race. Marlin then slipped past Red to take the lead, and he retained it until making his first of two stops just past lap 140.

As the two favorites swapped the lead every so often, others behind them had a multitude of issues. Ten cautions chewed up 102 laps - a third of the race distance. Despite the frequent yellows and restarts, Farmer and Marlin continued as the big dawgs of the afternoon.

Farmer went back to the point when Marlin made his first stop and held it until making his one and only stop at lap 175. A few others briefly cycled through the lead as Farmer and Marlin bubbled back to the top.

With 65 laps to go, Marlin found a bit more speed and went after Red. As the two sailed through turn 4, Marlin's car twitched. He gathered it back, found his rhythm again, and made the pass cleanly two laps later.

Coo Coo's lead was short-lived though. He needed a second stop because of heavier than expected fuel usage. Farmer re-assumed the lead at lap 140 and soon built a one-lap cushion over Coo Coo during Marlin's stop. Coo Coo kept digging, and he unlapped himself in 12 laps.

Just as Marlin passed Farmer to get back on the lead lap, Binkley's prediction came true. Red blew a right front tire which in turn bent his tie rod. He limped to the pits on lap 252, and he watched the remainder of the laps from the sideline.

Marlin put his Chevrolet on cruise control, and he led the remaining 48 laps to notch his 13th win of the year. He also won the track's LMS championship for the second consecutive year and fourth time overall. His brother Jack inherited P2 followed by Gary Myers, H.D. Edwards, and Asheville NC's Jack Ingram.

Marlin returned for a final run at a fifth title in 1967. He banked another nine victories but came up short in points against Walter Wallace. Coo Coo then began devoting most of his time to his Grand National efforts where he struggled as an independent over the next dozen years or so.

Finally, footage from the 1966 Southern 300 race was incorporated into Marty Robbins' movie Hell on Wheels. In addition to the excellent, color footage, a cameo is made by Robbins' real-life mechanic, Charles "Preacher" Hamilton. Hamilton was the grandfather of future NASCAR driver, Bobby Hamilton.

The movie also captured Robbins' spin and wreck during the race. Unlike his actual DNF results, however, the movie rightfully opted to script the protagonist as having a successful day.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Nashville's 1964 Southern 300

The 1964 racing season at Nashville's Fairground Speedways brought significant change for drivers, owners, and fans. Gone were the modified coupes of the past six years. Replacing them were late model modifieds - full sedans.

Similar to NASCAR's top series, track promoters opted to have cars on the track that more closely resembled those in the parking lot. Also, several other Southeastern regional tracks made the switch to late models. Many drivers raced multiple tracks over varying weekday and weekend nights. So the alignment with other tracks helped Nashville continue to draw top racers who could continue to race the same equipment in different locales.

The decision to switch divisions went over with many about as well as a fart in church. Many owners, particularly owner-drivers, were less than thrilled with the idea of ditching perfectly good cars and spending hard-to-come-by dollars to buy or build entirely new cars. A couple of drivers retired rather than begin anew with the replacement division. In 2011, Nashville racing historian Russ Thompson blogged about the new era of racing at the Fairgrounds.

Despite the complaints by some, the switch was made. Though the late models replaced the modifieds, many of the same players returned for the traditional Southern 300. The seventh annual Southern was slated for Sunday, October 4, 1964.

Beginning with the first Southern race in 1958, the track wanted to build significance to the race by awarding a large trophy. Though the trophies were large in stature, they varied in design over the years.

The double-handed, fat jug design awarded to Friday Hassler for his 1963 Southern 300 win returned for the winner of the 1964 race. The size of it was compelling to the young... well as to the restless!

The track offered fans a full weekend of track activity to enjoy: Sunday's 400 lapper, Saturday's qualifying, and Friday's Figure 8 races.

Figure 8 races have long since disappeared from the Fairgrounds, and much of the 1/4-mile track's infield has been paved. Some vestiges of the "X marks the spot" track, however, are still identifiable.

Bob Burcham from Chattanooga arrived in Nashville with a bit of momentum. About a month earlier on Labor Day, Burcham won a 100-lap feature at the Fairgrounds in somewhat of a tune-up for the Southern 300. He picked up where he left off and captured the Southern 300 pole.

Fellow Noogan Freddy Fryar qualified on the front row with Burcham. A year earlier, Fryar and Burcham started second and third, respectively, to pole winner Bobby Allison. The brothers Marlin - Coo Coo and Jack - took the second row. Local racer Charlie Binkley qualified fifth followed by  Hassler, the 1962-63 Southern 300 winner and a third Chattanoogan in the field.

The race had fans watching action on the track - and possible action in the skies. Hurricane Hilda battered the Gulf Coast in the days leading up to the race. Its remnants of heavy rain began making their way up through the south, and the hope was to complete the race before storms arrived.

The field included many top flight racers including several out-of-towners, but local favorite Binkley gave his guests quite the challenge. Charlie passed cars seemingly with ease throughout the race - including the leaders. After making his second stop of the race, Binkley found himself two laps down but kept digging. With about 50 laps to go, however, Binkley's engine had no more to give. The solid effort quickly devolved into a 13th place DNF.

Another local racer, Walter Wallace, triggered the day's most frightening caution soon after the 100-lap mark. Wallace spun in the third turn, and Bill Gregg and Fryar soon found themselves sideways after both clobbered the guardrail.

Fryar took the worst lick of the three. Track crews pulled him from his car and loaded him onto a stretcher as he complained of some whiplash. The rest of the field filed by as other workers began to sweep the debris.

When Allison rolled by, a spark from his car ignited a pool of fuel spilled from Wallace's Ford. A huge fireball suddenly erupted behind the yellow #62. Fortunately, Wallace, Gregg, Fryar, nor any of the track crew were injured.

Photo sequence courtesy of Russ Thompson
Over the next 200 laps, action at the front included Red Farmer, Coo Coo Marlin, pole winner Burcham, former NASCAR Grand National racer Joe Lee Johnson, and Binkley.

As the race headed into its final 50 laps or so, things began to sort out themselves.
  • Farmer made an emergency stop to change a cut tire.
  • Binkley fell out with his blown engine. 
  • Coo Coo had to manage his fuel mileage to make it until the end.
  • Burcham, Allison, and Johnson built a one lap-lead on the rest of the field because of the misfortune of others.
Burcham found his groove in the remaining laps and gapped Allison and Johnson a bit. With five to go, it was Burcham's race to lose. Then with two to go, that just happened. The Plymouth's engine delivered a crushing gut punch to its driver, and Burcham unwillingly traded a win for a third-place finish.

Allison lucked himself into the lead via Burcham's failed engine and completed the final two laps to win over Johnson. Joe Lee immediately cried foul believing Allison lost an additional lap during his pit stop than was scored. After a re-check, however, Johnson's protest was denied as Allison celebrated his unexpected W.

Burcham returned to the Fairgrounds over the next several years and won Flameless 300 races in 1967 and 1969 as well as three additional 100-lap features. Following the Fairgrounds' rebuilding of the track to its high-banked design in 1970 and subsequently the 18-degree configuration that remains today, however, Burcham could no longer find victory lane.

Source: Nashville Banner
Allison had a couple of Grand National / Cup starts in his pocket from 1961. After winning the 1964 Southern 300, he raced another eight Cup starts in 1965. He essentially became a full-time Grand National driver in 1966; however, he continued racing modified and sportsman events whenever and wherever he could - not just in 1966 but for pretty much the next 20 years.

For the first time since the track's opening in 1958, the Southern 300 wasn't the final race of the year. Two weeks after the Southern, the Fairgrounds hosted a 300-lap Open Competition race. The field was again comprised of local and out-of-town racers but with a different twist. Late model sedans, modifieds, and winged sprints all raced together in somewhat of a run what ya brung format.

Source for articles: The Tennessean and Nashville Banner


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Nashville's 1962-1963 Southern 300s

The Southern 300 reached a bit of a milestone with its fifth edition in 1962. The season ending race for Nashville's Fairground Speedways was held on Sunday, September 30th.

About a month before the Southern 300, Jimmy Griggs of nearby Donelson wrapped up his first and only Fairgrounds modified title with his fourth win of the season. The final race of the year was now simply about the best of the locals vs. the out-of-town ringers.

Bobby Allison won the first two features of Nashville's 1962 season. It was his brother Donnie, however, who captured the pole for the final race of the season. Fellow Alabama Gang members Red Farmer and Bobby Allison qualified second and third. Local racers L.J. Hampton and Charlie Parrish rounded out the top five starters.

As the race grew in stature over its first five years, it also meant some racers loaded up before the race even began. Forty drivers arrived to claim 33 spots. Speaking of stature, the race winner's trophy continued to be a sizable one coveted by all.

Donnie showed early his pole run wasn't a one-lap flash. At the drop of the green, he held the lead for the first 100+ laps. A cut right-rear tire, however, sent him to the pits and ended his lead. He remained in the race but had to settle for a fourth place finish.

About the time of Donnie's issue, things went even worse for track champ Griggs. He broke something in his steering, popped the wall, and collected several others - most spectacularly Bud Fox. No one was injured, but five of six cars involved were done for the day - including Griggs.

Following Donnie's tire issue and the Griggs-initiated, multi-car wreck, Farmer inherited the lead. Red held it until a scheduled stop near lap 150. As Farmer made his stop, Chattanooga's Friday Hassler ascended to the top for a few laps before his own stop.

Malcolm Brady, the 1960 Southern 300 winner, took over from Hassler and seemingly had the race in hand. Somehow, however, he and his crew misjudged his fuel mileage or didn't add enough fuel to his modified.

While leading at lap 265, Malcolm unexpectedly ran dry. He coasted to pit road, got a few gallons to last the remaining 35 laps, and returned to action. Though he salvaged a good finish, Brady lost his shot at a second Southern win.

By that point of the race, the Alabama Gang was no longer a factor. Donnie couldn't regain his early race mojo, Farmer had fallen out with engine issues, and Bobby Allison lost several laps after an accident with Coo Coo Marlin and subsequent tire issue.

Hassler re-assumed the lead following Brady's misfortune. Friday continued the remaining few laps and won by about a half-lap over second place Brady.

Carol Steele (Miss Fairground Speedways), Hassler, 
Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley, and Margaret Petty (Miss Tennessee)
Though Donnie Allison could not convert his pole start into a pole win, he did ultimately win five races at Nashville between 1965 and 1978 - including the 1976 Winston 200 that coincided with Sterling Marlin's first professional racing start.

The racers returned a year later for the sixth Southern 300 slated for Sunday, September 29, 1963.

When racers and fans arrived on Saturday, September 28th for practice and qualifying, soaking rains unfortunately greeted them. The full schedule was moved back one week with the race rescheduled for Sunday, October 6. The 1963 race was the first of only two Southerns postponed by rain with the second soggy one happening in 1975.

After things reset a week later, some fans may have experienced a bit of deja vu from the 1962 Southern 300. As he did a year earlier, Donnie Allison again won the pole. He also did so by setting a track record - just as he'd done in '62.

Unlike qualifying in 1962, a couple of Chattanooga-area drivers nabbed the next two spots instead of Alabama Gang racers. Freddy Fryar qualified second followed by Bob Burcham. Both drivers would have plenty of success at the Fairgrounds throughout the remainder of the 1960s on the track's original half-mile configuration.

The top three qualifiers posed for a promotional photo for the local paper along with young fan Opie Taylor. - Wait, check that. - The young fan was actually Russ Thompson, known today by many across the web as Calhoun98 and a walking encyclopedia of racing knowledge from Nashville, NASCAR, Indy Car, and karting.

A lap-80 wreck eliminated several contenders including Fryar and Burcham. Mechanical woes doomed Red Farmer and NASCAR's Joe Lee Johnson.

Consequently, the top two finishers from 1962 - Friday Hassler and Malcolm Brady - once again found themselves at the head of the field again in 1963 for the better part of the final 200 laps. The duo separated themselves from the remainder of the field and were soon the only two cars remaining on the lead lap.

Hassler and Brady had differing race strategies. Hassler needed only one pit stop whereas Brady required three. Adding to deja vu feelings for Brady perhaps was his third and final stop. In 1962, he had to make an unscheduled stop for fuel. A third stop was needed in 1963 with 70 laps to go, but miscues extended the stop and put Malcolm well behind Hassler.

With 50 laps to go, however, Brady was down but not out. He closed the gap on Hassler and maintained pressure in an effort to force Friday into a mistake. Hassler didn't crack though, kept his rhythm, and crossed the finish line to secure back-to-back Southern 300 wins.

Not only was the race meaningful for Hassler individually, but it also marked a point of significant demarcation for the Fairgrounds. After six years of the modifieds as the featured division, big changes were ahead.

The track moved to full-bodied late model modified sedans beginning in 1964. The change was in line with other regional short tracks, but the news didn't come without come controversy and grumbling from the area racers. In 2011, Russ Thompson blogged about Nashville's new division that followed Hassler's win in Nashville's final modified race.

Source: Eddie Shaub / Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
Friday took home the trophy for the 1963 season-ending race, and Coo Coo Marlin secured his second of four track championships. Marlin's first two titles came in Nashville's modifieds, and he earned his other two in the successor late model division. Interestingly, Coo Coo didn't win a single feature during his 1963 title run.

Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Hassler continued to make the trek between Chattanooga and Nashville to race regularly at the Fairgrounds. Though he only returned home with four trophies, at least two of them were from the increasingly prestigious Southern 300.

He balanced his late model racing career with an increasing number of starts in NASCAR Grand National competition. Sadly, Friday died in a wreck during his 125-mile qualifying race for the 1973 Daytona 500 while driving his familiar red, See Rock City-sponsored, #39 Chevelle.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Nashville's 1961 Southern 300

The fourth annual Southern 300 was held at Nashville's Fairground Speedways, Sunday, October 1, 1961.

A storyline going into the race was the discussion among some about the racing future of Bullet Bob Reuther, the track's first modified champion in 1958.

A 10-time feature winner from 1958 through 1960 and the track's first modified champion in 1958, Reuther had only one win in the ledger in 1961.

Reuther's cars were prepared by Charles 'Preacher' Hamilton, grandfather of future late model and Cup racer Bobby Hamilton. He also had sponsorship from country music singer (and future part-time racer) Marty Robbins.

Some began to refer to Reuther in the past tense. Rather than discuss whether he remained competitive at Nashville, they instead recalled his remarkable 150 MPH down Daytona Beach's Measured Mile in 1957.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal
Source: Getty Images
A few days before the race, Coo Coo Marlin just happened to be in the neighborhood and wanted to run a few test laps. He took an afternoon break from farming and made the trek up Highway 31 from Columbia, TN - about an hour or so south of Nashville - to make some practice laps.

Unbeknownst to Marlin, the track had applied new asphalt in turn 3 to smooth out some rough areas. Coo Coo managed to get on the track despite the repave. He wasn't looking for speed runs. Instead, he was looking to estimate fuel mileage.

Unlike the previous Southerns, no scheduled stage breaks were planned. Coo Coo's plan was to go the entire distance on a single tank of fuel. If he could make it work, he could gap the field significantly and almost certainly put himself in a position to win.

Speaking of practice, Charlie Binkley pulled a fast one on co-worker and fellow racer Jack Hildebrand a few days before race weekend. Both raced in the hobby division on Nashville's quarter-mile track. A 100-lap race for the hobby class preceded the Southern 300.

Miami's Red Farmer captured the Southern 300 pole with a track record. (Farmer later relocated to Alabama but was originally a Nashville native.) Chattanooga's Friday Hassler, who finished second in the first Southern, qualified second. Locals Eddie Mitchell and Crash Bond made up the second row.

Front row starters Farmer & Friday
Farmer's pole run was no fluke. At the drop of the green, he buried his foot and towed the field for nearly all of the first 60 laps before mechanical gremlins parked his car.

As Farmer slowed while leading, Reuther pulled a somewhat unexpected move. He slowed himself, pulled in behind Red, and pushed him to the pits - costing himself track position.

Jimmy Griggs, the 1958-1959 Southern winner, took over from Farmer. Griggs' lead was short-lived, however, as engine woes sent him to the trailer at lap 77. Crash Bond then took the lead and paced the field for the better part of the next 50 laps, but he too was bitten by mechanical issues and loaded up early.

The discounted-by-some Reuther rallied back from his goodwill gesture towards Farmer; found himself out front following the losses of Red, Griggs, and Bond; liked it there; and stayed there until the two-thirds mark of the race when he had to pit.

Following his stop, Reuther returned to the track nearly a lap down to leader L.J. Hampton. Reuther, however, wasn't known as Bullet Bob for nothin'. He quickly found his rhythm and set sail in an attempt to catch Hampton who had already made his stop as well. Lap by lap, Reuther cut into the lead.

Reuther needed only 25 laps to catch and then sail by Hampton to retake the lead. He led the next 40 laps before rain arrived to end the race. For the second time in four years, the race was shortened - the other being the 1958 Southern 200 because of darkness.

Reuther continued to race at the Fairgrounds and elsewhere through 1963. After winning the Southern 300 in 1961, he won only once more in Nashville - a 30-lap modified feature in 1963.

In his heyday, Reuther was frequently booed by Nashville fans. Once he stopped racing, however, a fondness set in for him. The track recognized Reuther by naming two 100-lap late model features in his honor in 1968 and 1969.

Many years later after attaining his pilot's license, Reuther became the personal pilot for his godson, Bobby Hamilton. Reuther passed away in 2008 at the age of 80 - a year after Hamilton's death.

Source for articles: The Tennessean