Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Nashville's 1969 Southern 300

The eleventh running of Nashville's Southern 300 at Fairground Speedways was on Sunday, September 28, 1969. The race concluded the track's season and was also the final race on the original half-mile surface.

Jim Donoho, son of track promoter Bill Donoho, worked in the family business from childhood and served in varied positions. Bill elevated Jim to track president in July 1968, and dear ol' dad further honored his son by attaching his name to the 1969 Southern 300.

Jim, still a University of Tennessee student at the time of his presidential promotion, ran point on the track's largest project since its original construction in 1958. After plenty of planning, the half-mile track was to be converted into a high-banked, 5/8-mile oval following the 1969 Southern 300.

David Sisco of Hohenwald, TN captured the track's 1969 late model sportsman title with three feature wins and consistently solid finishes. The perks of being the champ included sharing time with a couple of pretties as they promoted the season-ending event. (For the record, neither of the two women below won the Miss Southern 300 contest.)

A couple of years after his LMS title, Sisco embarked on a career as an independent NASCAR Winston Cup driver. He competed pretty much full time from 1973 through 1976. Sadly, however, he retired from racing in 1977 a few weeks after the death of his mother in a Talladega infield traffic accident.

Freddy Fryar - Nashville's 1964 track champion and 1967 Southern 300 winner - captured the pole during Friday's qualifying. Red Farmer qualified second as he prepared to defend his 1968 Southern 300 title. Farmer started on the Southern front row for the fourth consecutive year.

Charlie Binkley lined up third with P.B. Crowell timing fourth in his familiar orange-and-white #48 Chevelle. Qualifying set the remainder of the top 23 cars. The finishing order of a 30-lap consolation race determined the final ten starters similar to what had been done the previous two years.

The field included several regional drivers who'd eventually become well known at NASCAR's Late Model Sportsman, Busch Series, and Cup levels including Sisco, Darrell Waltrip, L.D. Ottinger, Gene Glover, and Benny Kerley. Waltrip needed an assist to make the show. He was not among the quickest qualifiers, but he did win the consolation race to start the 300 in 24th spot.

The drivers had some financial incentive to chase the lead in the 300. In addition to $3,000 payable to the race winner, the track paid a $5 per lap bonus to the leading driver.

Fryar roared to the lead at the drop of the green and established himself as the lap bully. He pocketed one fiver after another as he led the first half of the race.

Farmer had the car to beat in the 1966 and 1967 Southerns, but misfortune busted him both years. He finally put a full 300 laps together in 1968 and won the race. Hoping to go back-to-back in '69, it just wasn't meant to be. He made an early exit and was never a factor.

When Fryar pitted on lap 165, Binkley assumed the lead and began to assert himself as the big dawg of the race's second half. With Binkley in the lead, fans witnessed an awful wreck on lap 214 involving Ronnie Blasingim and popular Jimmy Griggs, winner of the 1958 and 1959 Southerns and Nashville's 1962 modified division championship.

Though some believed Griggs blew a tire as he headed for turn one, Griggs' crew believed he passed out in the car. Either way, Griggs spun and was center-punched by Blasingim.

Both drivers were rushed to the hospital. All things considered, Blasingim escaped with minimal damage though he did need surgery and treatment for eye, cheekbone and other head injuries. Griggs, on the other hand, was critically injured and struggled for several weeks during his recovery.

When racing resumed, Binkley retained his top spot. He continued pacing the field though he had to pit for fuel with 20 laps to go. Unfortunately for Binkley, however, his crew added only a smidgen to his tank. He ran dry a second time with victory in sight.

After losing a cylinder, Fryar struggled a bit with horsepower during the second half of the race. His gear shift also broke, and he had to coax his car to get-up-and-go on restarts while in high gear. He had conceded the win to Binkley - until Charley's crew didn't add enough gas to get him to the win.

With new life, Fryar swept across the finish time and captured his second Southern 300 win in three years. Binkley faded to a seventh place finish as his crew fumed and feuded in the pits over their fueling miscue.

Fryar's win in the final race on the half-mile track also created a bit of Nashville racing trivia. He also won the Nashville 100 on October 5, 1957 - the final race at the dirt, quarter-mile Nashville Speedways on Cowan Street. The predecessor to the Fairgrounds facility is more commonly remembered by its original name: the Legion Bowl.

After some touch-and-go days, Jimmy Griggs' health began improving steadily as the calendar moved into November. Though the accident ended his racing days, Griggs remained an important part of Nashville's racing past and present. When the Fairgrounds resumed LMS racing on its new 5/8-mile track in August 1970, Griggs served as the Grand Marshal for the Flameless 300.

Nashville racing historian Russ Thompson shared some video footage from the weekend including qualifying and/or practice by cars including Fryar (301), Sisco (15), and Alton Jones (50); driver introductions; the start of the race; the aftermath of the Griggs-Blasingim wreck; and Fryar's victory lane celebration.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


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