HOUSEHOLDER: 1972 was pivotal year on local dirt tracks
- Jan Opperman won 39 sprint car races in 1972, while Kenny Weld won 30.
- The promotional rivalry between Jack Gunn and Hilly Rife continued in 1972.
- The racing scene was also impacted by Hurricane Agnes in the summer of 1972.
It's become a tradition here in the Dirt Trackin’ column.
Each year, I pick a year from the past with dates that match the current year. I then take a weekly look at the area’s sprint car winners during the course of the racing season. Last year I picked 1966, the final year before sprint cars became a weekly attraction in the area.
This year, I've decided to look at the 1972 racing season. That would translate to 45 years ago this season. It was a season that would place the local circuit firmly on the radar of sprint car fans around the world.
Before that season, the local sprint car circuit went through some growing pains, with drivers from the western part of the state and Ohio getting the early wins. Some relocated to this area because the purses were much better than elsewhere. That trend had continued, and as the 1972 season dawned, the area could boast of having the best sprint car racers anywhere.
In 1971, local racer Mitch Smith single-handedly put the area on the national racing map by trouncing the touring USAC sprint cars on several occasions. But Mitch was hurting by the end of 1971 and would sit out much of the 1972 season because of back surgery.
Opperman, Weld lead way: That left a couple of transplanted locals to carry the torch in 1972. They did it quite well. Kenny Weld had started coming to the East from his Kansas City, Missouri, home in the mid 1960s. By the time 1972 had rolled around, Weld was firmly settled in Loganville. He had tackled the local circuit in his own cars, and then in 1970, he subbed for injured legend Ray Tilley in Bud Grimm’s car.
He was back on his own in 1971, but at the end of that season, another injury would place Weld in the best situation of his career. A guy named Bob Weikert started a sprint car team in 1971. His driver was Richard Lupo, and together they won at Jennerstown. But Weikert was looking for a change, and had tabbed Texas transplant Dub May as his driver for 1972. Then, in a late-season race in Arizona, May suffered a serious arm injury that would force him to sit out the 1972 season.
Weikert hired Kenny Weld to drive his No. 29 racer in 1972.
At about the same time as Weikert was looking for a new driver, Selinsgrove area car owner Luke Bogar was also in the market for a driver. Bogar had fielded No. 99 racers for Gene Varner and Barry Camp, among others. Like Weikert, Bogar decided to go with outside talent for the 1972 season.
He hired Jan Opperman to drive his car. Opperman, a California native who had been racing in the Midwest, had come to the area at the start of the 1970 racing season. He drove for Etters’ Harold Hank much of that season, winning in his first-ever start at Williams Grove. In 1971, Opperman divided his time between Bobby Allen’s backup Emrich Chevy car and a midwestern No. 6x car. He was impressive in both.
So, to start the 1972 season, Weld and Opperman were in the cars that would really define their careers from that point onward. That year, Opperman won 39 races and Weld won 30. And those races were not just on the local circuit. Weld and Opperman developed a rivalry that is still storied in sprint car circles, and it followed them wherever they raced.
Opperman won in Florida to start the season, and they both won in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Weld won the Knoxville Nationals, and to end the season, they both won races at Manzanita in Arizona.
Other standouts: While Weld and Opperman topped the local win charts that year, there were others who fared well also.
Bobbie Adamson, a western Pennsylvania talent who had relocated to Wrightsville, was at the top of his game, driving Al Hamilton’s No. 77, winning 17 races that year. Steve Smith, a Florida native who relocated to the Hanover area, had a 15-win season in the O.J. Myers car. Emigsville’s Smokey Snellbaker was driving Roy Morral’s No. 880, and won 11 times that year.
Emrich Chevy drivers Lynn Paxton and Bobby Allen kept the Manchester car dealer in the public view. Paxton, who grew up near Williams Grove, won nine times, and Allen, another Florida transplant who settled near Hanover, had just one less win than his teammate.
Then there was Paxton’s old car. Manchester’s Eddie Zirkle bought Paxton’s 1971 Emrich sprint car and transformed it into the EZ Racers No. 33. Zirkle had his best season ever, winning the first five weeks Susquehanna raced and claiming that track’s point title.
Promoters and Agnes: The 1972 season was also one in which Jack Gunn and Hilly Rife were at it again in their promotional rivalry. Gunn had Williams Grove and Selinsgrove, while Rife added Fridays at Bedford to his Saturday night mainstay Lincoln Speedway. Rife also had an arrangement with Hagerstown on Sundays.
Finally, 1972 was the year that Hurricane Agnes hit this area. Amazingly, while Agnes flooded some tracks, most notably Hagerstown, which sits right alongside the Conococheague Creek, one local track did race that weekend, although a day late.
YCRC Banquet: The York County Racing Club has its annual Hall of Fame Banquet set for this Saturday.
The YCRC will honor six local racing personalities. There will be several other special awards presented and Spring Grove’s Greg Hodnett will officially be crowned as the Speedway Motors/Champion Racing Oil Central Pennsylvania Sprint Car Champion.
Tommy Sanders is the guest speaker. The banquet will be held at the Wyndham Garden in West Manchester Township.
Bryan Householder writes about dirt-track racing for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.