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HOUSEHOLDER: The 1964 dirt-track season was a pivot point on the area circuit

BRYAN HOUSEHOLDER
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Four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt won three times on the local dirt-track racing circuit in 1964.
  • The 1964 racing season was a pivotal one in area racing history.
  • Cut-down racers, known as bugs, took home most of the racing laurels that year.
  • There were, however, still a few good-running, full-sized cars that earned wins.
  • A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser earned local wins that season.

The year was 1964.

The Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the Beatles were taking the nation by storm and the U.S. Surgeon General reported that smoking may lead to lung cancer.

Oh yeah, it was very interesting year on the local dirt tracks, too.

Each year, I try to choose a year with matching dates to the year at hand, and then review what happened in local racing history during that year. This year is a little tougher, since it's a leap year, and there aren't all that many years where the dates match up. However, I have discovered that the dates from the 1964 racing season do match with this year. Of course, 1964 was also a leap year.

An interesting year: Since 1964 was a very intriguing year on the local circuit, I’ve decided that will be the year I use. I have records from most of the local ovals from that season, although I am missing the results from the old South Penn Speedway near Everett, and that will limit the number of wins I can document for several drivers, most notably Gerald Chamberlain, who won 16 times at South Penn that year in the Don Rice Ford-powered racer. Boyd Arnold won there twice that year and John Cragen won once.

I do have records from Williams Grove, Lincoln, Selinsgrove, Port Royal, Susquehanna, Hagerstown, Dorsey and Winchester speedways. I even have a handful of race results from St. Thomas. 

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The United States Auto Club and the United Racing Club both visited the area in 1964 and also raced at Reading and Bedford. I have those records. 

So as the year progresses, I will note the winners from those tracks each week.

Pivot point: The 1964 season was pivot point in some respects on the local tracks.

For the most part, the local tracks were seeing the cut-down racers, known as bugs, taking home most of the laurels. There were still a few good-running, full-sized cars and they did win a few of the races. Fuel injection was allowed that year, although it would be banned at some tracks the following season.

The neat thing was that a few of the tracks offered a bonus for the carburetor cars that did well. In fact, Williams Grove and Selinsgrove named co-champions that year with the top point man from the fuel-injected cars and the top point man from the carburetor cars each being named a champion.

The top drivers: The supercharged car that had been driven by Bud Folkenroth the previous several seasons was not legal that year. Folkenroth still won the Lincoln point title that year with a fuel-injected engine in his car.

A few local teams even fielded two cars, one with a carburetor and one fuel injected. The most successful of those teams was the locally-based Emrich Chevy team. Davey Brown, who is still one of the top mechanics in the nation, wrenched the Emrich No. 1, which was a fuel-injected car driven by Dick Tobias, who won 36 races that year. The second car was No. 1e and was driven to three wins by Fawn Grove’s Milford Wales.

The southern part of the circuit was dominated by the famed Lee Stultz No. S3 car driven to 21 wins that season by Bill Nalley.

Wrightsville’s Bobby Abel started the season with an older car, but built his own “four-bar” car that came out about midseason and quickly became one of the top cars on the circuit, ending the season with 16 wins.

One other interesting car that season was the No. 6 fielded by Regester Chevy. Dick Hench and the boys built a car that stretched the rules a bit. The lower-frame rails were not the 2-by-4 steel tubes that were standard in the day. As a result, most tracks didn’t allow the car to race. In fact, driver Ray Tilley only raced at Port Royal that season. He won 12 times there that year. And yes, that is the same Ray Tilley who would go on to so much fame in Bud Grimm’s Ford-powered cars in the following year. Tilley did drive a Chevy for a Chevy dealer that year.

Also in 1964, the Ford cars and Chevy cars did battle every week. Tobias, Tilley, Abel, Nalley and others held up the honor of the Chevy cars. Meanwhile the Ford camp had top runners such as Stoverstown’s Gene Goodling, Chamberlain, Neil Haight and Bobby Gerhart. Stewartstown’s Frankie Thompson even won a few races with a Buick engine.

Change brought on by tragedy: The 1964 season also was one of some change brought on by tragedy. The locally-based Trone No. 39 had to get a new driver for the season when popular driver Bobby Hersh was seriously injured at the end of the 1963 season. Johnny Dubendorf drove for the Trones that year, winning seven races. Five came at his home track in Port Royal, where he was the track champion.

At the end of the season Gene Goodling’s career was cut short by serious injuries suffered at Susquehanna. Goodling was the point leader at three tracks when he was injured. He held on to be named the champ at Susquehanna and the co-champ at Williams Grove, while Folkenroth edged him out for the title at Lincoln.

Bobby Gerhart drove the Gettle No. 77 most of the season, but then took over Goodling’s ride in the Ken Appler No. 77 at the end of the season. He won in both.

As mentioned previously, Tilley would team up with Bud Grimm a year later. That happened because Grimm’s driver up to that point, Neil Haight, was injured in the big season-ending race at Langhorne and wasn’t able to start the following season. Haight had won three races at Lincoln that year while shaking down the car that, with a few changes, would win more than 40 times the following season with Tilley at the wheel.

The 1964 season also saw several drivers invade Port Royal from New York state. The one who became most popular in the area was Bryan Osgood, who won twice at the Port and once at Williams Grove that year. The most interesting New Yorker was perhaps Nolan Swift. Swift was one of the top racers all time at the paved Oswego track. He ventured to the Port one week with his asphalt racer and won the feature.

Some drivers just starting to earn notice: Several drivers who would go on to popular careers were just starting to make their names known in 1964. Manchester’s Ed Zirkle was driving the Ordt Brothers' Ford-powered No. 36 that year and scored his first career win at Susquehanna in July. He would go on to win two more races that year — one at Lincoln, and another at Susquehanna.

Irvin King, a dairy farmer from West Virginia, would win his first race at Lincoln in June of that year. What’s neat is that, more than five decdes later, both Zirkle and King are still around and make occasional visits to the tracks.

Big names made local appearances: The 1964 season was also one where Indy drivers still fared well in sprint races. 

In fact, that year between Williams Grove and Reading, three drivers who had or would win the Indy 500 won on the local circuit. All are now legends in auto racing history. Four-time Indy champion A.J. Foyt won twice at Williams Grove and once at Reading that year, while Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser both won at Reading.

The 1964 season didn’t start until late March, but keep reading. I will cover the 1964 season, week by week, once it does start.

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