By Joe Buckles
Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
One of the many fans that viewed Elliott Sadler’s wild crash at Pocono over the weekend with more than casual interest was former Terre Haute racer Paul Sizemore.
Watching Sadler’s Ford Fusion slam into the track’s backstretch inside guard rail stirred memories for Sizemore, who went through a similar ride at almost the same spot on the track’s 2 1/2-mile track years ago.
A series regular on the USAC stock circuit back in the 1970s, Sizemore and his southside Terre Haute-based CDWM race team made the long trek to the Pocono Mountains to compete in the Pennsylvania 500.
Although he hadn’t planned on running the event, Sizemore and his all volunteer pit crew answered USAC’s call to help insure a full field in its inaugural appearance at the new oval.
The date was July 25, 1971, and Sizemore joined a field that contained the likes of Richard Petty, Al Unser, Gary Bettenhausen and eventual race winner Roger McCluskey.
“They [USAC] called a couple days before they were to run, so we put everything together at the last moment,” recalled Sizemore.
“It was quite an experience. I remember the appearance money they gave Petty and some of those NASCAR drivers was more than the total purse for the USAC guys.”
Starting at the rear of the 40-car field, Sizemore was the victim of an early multi-car accident that sent his Plymouth on a wild ride he still vividly recalls 39 years later.
“Somebody spun in front of us and all I could see was the dust,” Sizemore said. “It was like running a dirt track. I got into the grass and didn’t think I was ever going to stop until I hit that guard rail. It was like getting shot out of a sling shot.
“They didn’t have the dirt mounds behind them back then, so I jumped the rail and ended up on some side road. We got the car back to the pits. But we had broken an oil pump, so we were through for the day. I think I made $500 for running 39th.”
Like many of last weekend’s competitors, Sizemore spoke of the need for increased safety at the high-speed tri-oval. He says from a physical standpoint, it’s not much different than when he ran there nearly four decades ago.
“I was watching the race Sunday and I couldn’t believe how everything looked the same as when we ran there,” Sizemore mentioned. “It was dangerous back then and even more so today. They were lucky they didn’t get somebody hurt badly. They need to make changes.”
A frequent visitor to short-track victory lanes early in his career, Sizemore never won on the highly competitive USAC circuit but came so close at Champaign, Ill., back in 1975 when he crashed while leading in the closing laps of the 100-lap feature when his brakes failed.
He was named the division’s Most Improved Driver in 1972 and still owns the track record for winning time in a USAC semi-feature at the Terre Haute Action Track.
That’s not too shabby for a guy who went USAC racing with a home-built car.
“It was a used West Terre Haute police car that I got for $600 back in 1967. We put a ’68 body on it to run USAC. Things were a lot simpler back then,” he said from his Jacksonville, Fla., home.
Once his USAC racing days ended, Sizemore and his family made their move to Florida, where they operate a lucrative auto-salvage business.
“Life had been good to my family down here,” said the modest Sizemore. “We probably salvage 120 cars a day. We ship parts all over the world — places like Egypt, India and all over South America.”
Once Sizemore stepped out of racing, his sons Will and Marion carried on the family’s passion. They dominated the short-track scene in central Flordia for a number of years.
“I think we won 11 track championships. Marion won like 80 percent of his features, so we weren’t all that popular with the promoters. We won too much,” voiced the proud father.
The family business has taken his sons out of racing, but Paul is planning to end a 25-year racing hiatus by returning to the sport next month when he climbs back behind the wheel of his Master Built dirt car.
“It will be a full-blown race car,” the 73-year-old Sizemore insisted. “We’re putting a 1968 Olds Cutlass convertible body on it. It will be in a series for guys from all over the country. Guys in their 70s. Some in their 80s. It’s just for fun. But racers will be racers.”
Yes, some things in racing don’t change over the years, such as the urge for man to compete and the ever-present dangers that loom on that long backstretch at Pocono International Raceway.
Just ask Paul Sizemore.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.