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On dirt tracks, 1966 was pivotal year

BRYAN HOUSEHOLDER
505-5403/@ydsports

As has become a tradition, each year I pull my records from some local racing season in the past, and each week list the winners from that year.

The only requirement is that the calendar dates that year match those of the present year. As it happens, for 2016, the dates from 50 years ago in 1966 match those of the present year. So, this season’s year will be 1966.

That year was perhaps one of the most interesting in local history. The previous year, Bob Richwine had outlawed fuel injection at his Williams Grove and Selinsgrove speedways, but for 1966 he allowed its return. Richwine was also grooming a man named Jack Gunn to take over the as the promoter at his tracks.

At the same time, Lincoln’s Hilly Rife saw the need for some competition to Richwine’s two-track circuit. So, Rife added the promotional duties at Dorsey, Maryland, on Friday nights and Susquehanna on Sundays to his duties for 1966.

The cars on the local circuit had undergone the transformation from the full-sized coupes and coaches of the 1950s to the “cut-down” bugs, and at least one team went to sprint car builder Floyd Trevis to construct a “bug” that met the 30-inch-by-90-inch chassis rules for the “bugs” while incorporating much sprint car technology. There were still a few of the coupes and coaches competing as well. So, for that time,  there was a great mix of technology in the cars.

The circuit was much bigger at that time. On Friday nights, Williams Grove competed with Dorsey, Winchester (Viriginia), Bedford and Hesston for cars. The Saturday slate found Lincoln, Selinsgrove, Port Royal and Everett’s South Penn in competition for cars. Sunday, both Susquehanna and Hagerstown were in action. Williams Grove also held a number of Wednesday races during the season. The races at the Bedford Fairgrounds were promoted by Roy Morral, who would go on to local fame as the owner of the No. 880 sprint cars.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many records from Hesston, but I’ve got the rest covered.

Tilley was big winner: Ray Tilley was driving Bud Grimm’s new No. 88. That was the Trevis-built “bug” that was powered by a big 427 Ford engine. Tilley would lead the season in wins with 42 victories. An amazing 21 of them came at Williams Grove. In fact, Tilley was so dominant at the Grove, that by early September, Richwine and Gunn opened up the rules to allow the sprint cars to compete with Tilley.

The first weekly sprint car race at the Grove was held on Sept. 2, 1966, and the winner was Don Kreitz Sr. Kreitz, of course, is the father of Sprint Car Hall of Fame driver Donnie Kreitz Jr., who retired this season. Tilley won the next week, but the final three races went to the sprint cars of Gus Linder, Mack Clingan and Lou Blaney. Blaney’s win came in the National Open. Blaney was the father of sprint car stars Dave and Dale Blaney, along with being the grandfather of current rising NASCAR star Ryan Blaney.

Mitch Smith was the second biggest winner of the season. That year, Smith was driving the orange, tiger-striped No. 2 for the Flack Brothers. Smith and the “Tigerrr 2" won 22 times that season. Wrightsville’s Bobby Abel was the top gun on Rife’s three-track circuit, and he won 20 times that season in his own orange-and-blue Gohn Jewelers' No. 2. One of those wins came in the circuit’s only race at the Cumberland, Maryland, Fairgrounds.

Ray Dovel in the yellow-and-blue Lee Stultz No. S-3 was the hot shoe on the southern part of the circuit, picking up 19 wins that season, mostly at Winchester and Hagerstown.

While there were a lot more races than we currently see, that’s four drivers who won more races than 2015's leading winner, Greg Hodnett, who had 18 wins last year.

Interesting facts: There were some other interesting facts about that season. While the old coupes and coaches were definitely on the way out, they did have a few winning swan songs. Bobby Ballentine drove Reds Kagle’s blue No. 8 coupe to two Susquehanna wins that season, while “Big Daddy” Vic Lewis claimed a single Susky win in his blue coach No. 116. Near as I can tell, Ballentine’s win on Aug. 28 was the last for a full-sized car on the local circuit.

A youngster from Kansas City, Missouri, had been joining his brothers in making the trip east each year for the National Open at Williams Grove. In 1966, he made the trip early, and hit the local circuit on a regular basis for the second half of the season. Eventually Kenny Weld would settle in Loganville and become “the man” on the local tracks. In 1966, he scored his first local win at Bedford on June 10. Weld would pilot his family-owned, white-trimmed-in-blue No. 94 to seven local wins that season, including the last three of the season at Lincoln.

Another future star, Lynn Paxton, started the season with three career wins on the local tracks. He won 13 times in 1966 while driving a Ford-powered No. 1 racer owned and wrenched by Ree Smith. Smitty, of course, is the father of current 360 sprint star Mark Smith.

Gerald Chamberlain would go on to fame in the stock cars at the Reading Fairgrounds, but in 1966 he was in his prime on the local tracks, driving an orange No. 31 owned by Bedford Ford dealer Don Rice. Chamberlain won 10 times that season. Jack Denniston was also a 10-time winner that season in a white bug that carried the “$” as its number.

The 1966 season was also the first for the radical “sidewinder” built by longtime car owner Harry Fletcher, who died last September. Fletcher’s No. 66 featured a big-block Ford engine mounted to the left side of the car. Driver Johnny Grum sat more to the right side of the car. There were some early problems. Grum did win at Bedford on May 6, but didn’t win again until a Hagerstown race on July 24. He ended the season with seven wins, including two on the last weekend in September.

While fuel injection was legal in 1966, there was bonus money for cars with carburetors. Several drivers collected on the “bonus money.” The most successful was Paxton, but others included Bobby Gerhart, Paul Miller and Johnny Crawford.

Gerhart’s own orange No. 5 was wrenched by legend Davey Brown Sr. and they won seven times. Miller drove Ken Appler’s No. 76 to three wins in four weeks at Lincoln late in the season. Crawford also won three times in the Kuhn Brothers No. 8.

Sold-out crowd at Allentown: The first indoor race in Allentown since the winter of 1966 drew an overflow crowd. The event held in the PPL Center where Allentown’s ice hockey team plays, sold out on Saturday evening. Earlier in the day, the pit area was declared sold out when no tickets remained for that area.

There were 74 three-quarter midgets and 40 slingshots in competition. The event marked the first time in 14 years that Len Sammons Promotions had a complete sellout for one of its indoor events.

No official crowd numbers were offered. Since some of the lower seating offered for hockey couldn’t be used because of how close they were located to the racing surface, it’s unknown how many seats were available, but at all the higher elevations, all the railing was lined as well.

YCRC banquet: The York County Racing Club will hold its annual Hall of Fame banquet this Saturday at the Wyndham Garden in West York.

Former Kasey Kahne Racing sprint car crew member Kolten Gouse will be the guest speaker. Gouse is the new general manager of Susquehanna Speedway.

Bryan Householder writes about dirt tracing racing for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sports@yorkdispatch.com.

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