It was as if the clock had been turned back 30 to 40 years. There they were the true legends of USAC racing assembled once again in Terre Haute.
Although they were a short distance from where many enjoyed their finest times behind the wheel of a sprint, midget or Silver Crown car it was as if they had just exited the cockpit of their machines at the Action Track.
For one memorable afternoon the true greats of the Action Track gathered to share stories of times spent competing at the local half-mile clay oval.
As they entered a crowded meeting room last Thursday, the feel of camaraderie abounded. The days of intense competition was now a thing of the past and it was time to renew friendships and swap stories that will only grow bigger and better with each passing day.
The informal luncheon hosted by Don Smith and sponsored by Jim Mills drew an overflow turnout of the finest driving talent that probably gathered on any given day in the city so rich in racing tradition.
Included in the band of 25 drivers were the racing greats Jack Hewitt, Gary Bettenhausen, Larry Dickson, Johnny Rutherford, Pancho Carter, Ken Schrader, Mel Kenyon, Joe Saldana and Tom Bigelow, to name only a few.
Following a photo session and lunch, the gathering of more than 50 that included everyone from former driving champions, mechanics, car owners and media made a tour of Don Smith’s immaculate collection of racing machinery and memorabilia.
Along the way the stories were shared of the proud times spent competing whether it had been in the Hulman Classic, Hut Hundred or SUMAR Classics.
Yes, time had taken a toll on some. The visible scars of injuries suffered while competing in one of the most dangerous forms of racing were still there. Still, they remained highly recognizable to those who followed their careers over the years.
Hewitt, ever the jokester, took charge most of the day, and Bettenhausen jumped at the opportunity to swap tales with long-time rival Dickson. Rutherford, still the constant pro, Bigelow with his customary wide and warm smile and Saldana, the quiet, unassuming competitor who always let his driving do his talking.
For Smith, the ultimate promoter who made it possible for the many great years of racing at the Action Track, still found time to savor the moment amid all the hustle and flurry of the day .
Mills of Turbines Inc., who spent countless hours enjoying the racing exploits of the racing greats probably summed it up the best. “I’m probably the big winner of the day. Getting to share times with these guys is something few get the opportunity to do. I don’t think you could ask for a better time.
n Wins abound — Of the 25 drivers on hand, 14 were former Action Track feature winners. With Bettenhausen and Hewitt leading the way with 10 USAC checkered flags locally.
Other former winners included Carter (5), Rutherford, Billy Englehart, Saldana and Bigelow two each and Steve Chassey, Mel Kenyon, Charlie Masters. Larry Dickson, Billy Vukovich and Brad Marvel one each.
n Looking back — Gary Bettenhausen took time to reflect on the past and look to the future of his sport. Gary still resides near Monrovia dealing in “development properties” near his home.
The normally reserved 500 veteran opened up on a variety of subjects surrounding the sport that had offered the best and worst of times for the legendary Bettenhausen family.
Only Gary and brother Merle remain of the family that left an indelible mark in open wheel racing. Gary noted that Merle still lives in the Indianapolis area working for the Ray Skillman automotive group.
When asked to give his assessment of the current state of racing, Gary offered a less-than-complimentary assessment of times for present day drivers.
“Today’s drivers are nothing more than programed robots. I don’t know how they can concentrate on their driving. There are so many outside factors within the sport they have to deal with today,” offered the outspoken Bettenhausen.
He discounts the belief that his career was shortened and less productive due to a near career-ending crash in a champ dirt car at Syracuse, N.Y., at a time when he had a much sought after Indy car ride with Roger Penske.
In fact, he feels he was as good if not better behind the wheel of a race car following the accident that left him with limited use of an arm and hand.
“If you check the records I had more wins after the accident than I did before. If anything I learned to drive more smoothly. Not try to manhandle a car. I have no regrets,” he added.
Of his 10 checkered flags at the Action Track, Bettenhausen says one still stands out today. “It was my first win after Syracuse. I think I beat Sheldon [Kinser] by less than a car length here at Terre Haute. It showed a lot of people I could still drive a race car,” he fondly recalled.
On today’s lucrative driver contracts and rich purses, Bettenhausen begrudges no one.
“Back in our days you had to be smart. If you had a good year you learned to put in the bank just as if you were having a bad year. You had to save. I was lucky my wife was good to look after that side of racing for me.”
He says he makes it to the race track maybe once or twice a year.
“I may go to the Chili Bowl or Bristol. I try to stay out of the way. Make room for the new kids. The sport belongs to them now,” Bettenhausen said.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
It was as if the clock had been turned back 30 to 40 years. There they were the true legends of USAC racing assembled once again in Terre Haute.
- Auto Racing
Kurt Busch to try Indy 500, Coca-Cola 600 on same day
It’s been 10 years since a driver last attempted running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, a feat so grueling that only Tony Stewart has successfully completed all 1,100 miles.
Now Kurt Busch wants to give “the double” a try and he will have cars capable of winning both races.
Kurt Busch 70 percent sure he’ll run in Indy 500
Kurt Busch put his chances at “70 percent” at running the Indianapolis 500 this year because of recent developments that have pushed a potential program along.
Doctors tell Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti he can no longer race
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti said Thursday that doctors have told him he can no longer race because of injuries sustained in an IndyCar crash last month.
Trackside: Burns, Fitzpatrick provide fun moments at Putnamville
In a season that has generated more than its share of down moments for Wabash Valley fans and racers, last Saturday’s “King of non-wing Sprints” program at Lincoln Park Speedway served notice that there are still a few positive storylines to be found in the wild and unpredictable sport of sprint-car racing.
One such storyline unfolded this past weekend on the rough and challenging 5⁄16-mile Putnamville dirt oval. That’s where the runs of Eric Burns and Blake Fitzpatrick sent fans home feeling that if the season has to come to a close, it couldn’t end on a happier or brighter note.
Coons Jr. wins USAC Tony Hulman/Jim Hurtubise Classic at Action Track
For all but one race during its 2013 racing season, the Terre Haute Action Track has taken a beating from Mother Nature.
Trackside: Stewart proves versatility is one of his strongpoints
At a time each summer when stock-car racing takes center stage in the heart of open-wheel racing territory, it was Tony Stewart who emerged the big winner last weekend.
No, not Tony Stewart the race driver but Tony Stewart the owner. He’s the undisputed leader on two racing fronts — the car owner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series with Ryan Newman as his driver and the owner-operator of Eldora Speedway. The popular Indiana native posted impressive showings in both ventures.
Precipitation has been unkind to Action Track in 2013
Bob Sargent has seen it all and done it all in 30 years of motorsports track promotion. The Terre Haute Action Track promoter isn’t going to be fazed by much, but even he had to admit there is one thing that has sent a shiver down his spine in 2013.
The weather forecasts. He was asked if watching the weather has given him anxiety in a wet year.
“Sometimes,” Sargent chuckled. “But doing it this long, it becomes normal. I don’t if it’s nervousness so much as it’s frustrating. Rain is a big letdown.”
Trackside: Sprint Week is fun week for USAC fans
With three rounds down and four to go, the 2013 version of Indiana Sprint Week is ready to take center stage at the Terre Haute Action Track tonight — weather permitting, of course.
It’s hard not to mention the elements when talking racing at the Action Track this season.
Race organizers Reece O’Connor and Bob Sargent have felt the sting of Mother Nature worse than most Midwest promoters this spring and summer with all five of their scheduled shows washed out.
Track opener is facing another iffy forecast
Two of the biggest challenges facing race organizers are the constant bouts with the always unpredictable ways of the weather and trying to please the insatiable appetites of a fickle fan base.
TRACKSIDE: Crossroads Dragway hoping to build off big event
It was a day of firsts at Crossroads Dragway this past weekend.
No, not because the sun actually made its first all-day appearance of the season at the drag-racing facility, but for the unveiling of a new racing format that just might alter the looks of 1/8-mile member track NHRA bracket racing.
Metro roundup: For 2nd time, Hulman Classic postponed
Qualifying laps had concluded for the 43rd running of the Tony Hulman Classic on Friday when the weather struck for the third time this season — second time for the Classic — at the Terre Haute Action Track.
Hulman Classic on Friday at Action Track
With rainouts having postponed his only two Terre Haute Action Track cards so far in 2013, promoter Bob Sargent remains optimistic about the rescheduled Tony Hulman Classic for U.S. Auto Club sprint cars taking place Friday night.
Finding best talent the key to all sports, including auto racing
The success of any sporting franchise often rests with the ability of owners to find and mold talent into a winning combination.
Kanaan can: Tony Kanaan finally wins Indy 500, ends heartbreak
Tony Kanaan had been so close so many times in the Indianapolis 500 until Sunday. Now he’s a winner.
Crowd, competitors erupt in celebration for Brazilian driver
Tony Kanaan has always been philosophical about his not winning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Rookies fare well in 97th running of the Indy 500
Rookies did real well in the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Top guns, again
For the sixth time in his Indy career Friday, three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves won the Pit Stop Challenge on Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Looking for Indy breakthrough, Kanaan enjoying role as team mentor
Ask any IZOD IndyCar series champion and he’d say he would gladly give up that championship to win one Indianapolis 500.
TRACKSIDE: Local drivers, owners looking to have strong night at Tony Hulman Classic
In its rich 43-year history, the Tony Hulman Sprint Car Classic has long carried on a strong local racing tradition.
From its early beginnings starting in 1971, the U.S. Auto Club-sanctioned event has been the annual centerpiece of the racing calendar at the Terre Haute Action Track as well as a key stop on the USAC sprint schedule and one of the most sought after wins in big league sprint-car racing.
Carpenter arrives as Indy 500 threat
And the crowd went wild.
Not only did Ed Carpenter win the pole for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500, he is the hometown son. Carpenter, the stepson of Tony George, completed his rookie orientation in 2004 and has spent the last several years, proving he deserved to be the IZOD IndyCar Series. There is no questioning his credentials now.
Carpenter wins Indy 500 pole
Ed Carpenter is on the pole for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500.
The native of Marshall, Ill., earned the No. 1 spot for the May 26 race with a strong run in the Fast Nine competition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday. He is the first American driver on the pole since 2006.
TRACKSIDE: Rain still a pain for Wabash Valley racing organizers
Soggy weather conditions, which have rightfully drawn the ire of Wabash Valley race fans and crews in recent days, continue to plague promoters where it hurts the most — their pocketbooks.
TRACKSIDE: Tough to rise from sprint-car racing, especially in challenging financial times
Open-wheel sprint-car racing, whether it be at the national or local level, has earned a reputation over the years of generating its share of thrills and excitement for its fans and a valuable training ground for drivers seeking to hone their skills that someday might elevate them to the “major leagues” of their sport.
METRO ROUNDUP: Rose baseball wins another thriller
Rose-Hulman earned its third victory in its last at-bat in the last five days with a 6-5 win over Franklin in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference baseball Tuesday night at Art Nehf Field.
East gets jump at SUMAR Classic
In his relatively brief but successful racing career, young Bobby East has at times unfairly been labeled as a driver who could master the pavement ovals but one who was still a work in progress on the dirt.
Hurtubise, Sumar races on Action Track slate this weekend
Championship racing is scheduled this weekend at the Terre Haute Action Track with U.S. Auto Club features set for today and Saturday.
One USAC championship will be decided and the spread in the other division could widen or tighten up as a result of the races.
The Jim Hurtubise Classic for sprint cars is today. Only 26 points separate three drivers in the point totals.
TRACKSIDE: Chase Stockon hopes momentum stays with him in Terre Haute
Momentum, an element that can be as elusive to a race driver as that perfect setup, can spell the difference in winning or running at the rear of the pack.
It’s a force difficult to achieve and maybe even harder to maintain. One learns quickly to make the most of the opportunity when it comes his way.
It’s something Chase Stockon will carry with him coming into today’s Jim Hurtubise Classic at the Terre Haute Action Track.
Only days following the biggest victory of his young and promising career, the $10,000-to-win USAC feature at Lawrenceburg, Stockon followed that up with another rich payday this past weekend at Tri-State Speedway.
IndyCar celebrates return to Pocono
IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter had the chance to take a drive around Pocono Raceway, and promptly handed the car keys to racing great Mario Andretti.
METRO ROUNDUP: Rain forces postponement of Jim Hurtubise Classic
Rain and the chance of inclement weather forced postponement of the Jim Hurtubise Classic scheduled for Saturday evening at the Terre Haute Action Track.
METRO ROUNDUP: USAC points leader Levi Jones out for season
Levi Jones, the five-time and reigning United States Auto Club (USAC) National Sprint Car champion, will undergo season-ending surgery on Tuesday to repair two herniated discs in his neck. While a full recovery is expected, the 12-week rehabilitation period will not allow for Jones to finish out the 2012 season, where he has competed in the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car and TRAXXAS Silver Crown divisions for Tony Stewart Racing (TSR).
- More Auto Racing Headlines
- Kurt Busch to try Indy 500, Coca-Cola 600 on same day