Winning at Port Royal
Fall in Pennsylvania is a nice time of the year. The racing season is winding down yet many big dollar races are still on tap. The Juniata County Fair begins on labor day weekend at the fairgrounds in Port Royal and there are grandstand events every day for the week long festival right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The Fair ranks as one of the oldest in the country dating back over 150 years. The town surrounds the fair and as with most older fairgrounds, there is a racetrack. Originally for horses, this one is a 1/2 mile, now banked clay, with a traditional covered grandstand . The front row seats are elevated 8 ft above the track surface with the spectators sitting right at the wall. (They tore down the grandstands over the winter and have new metal stands in place for 2001). The track is host to weekly Saturday nite sprint car races thoughout the year and for fair week they add two more races.
During Fair week they hold the regular race on Saturday nite. Then on Monday is the annual "Labor Day" afternoon race. On Friday of fair week they hold the "Tuscarora 50" (50 laps) named for the mountain range that flanks the village.
The Labor Day race is a classic fair race. No other races are running in the area so cars are drawn from all around for the larger purse and another opportunity to race that weekend. The fair is packed with race fans that fill every seat from fourth turn to first. The track is usually dry, as day time races tend to be, but the fair activities, large field of cars and big crowd make this race a very special event for fan and racer.
This particular year had been a good season of racing for us, although we had broken our good Hutter motor and had a frankenstein 377 in the car. This motor was home built with a 350 Chevy truck crank in a junk yard 400 block and using the good parts from blown up motors. The heads were from the Hutter motor as well as the cam and injectors so the top side did make some power.
The Bobby Allen chassis was new that season. Skeets Gamble and his racing crew had been helping maintain the car from his Central Penn Speed Shop in Lebanon, PA since he had quit driving. We had new tires for the race and plenty of very experienced help. Duval and Skeets planned the tire strategy for the day and I was able to wander around the car and worry about the race.
They ran off the heats and we qualified for the feature with a 5 place starting spot. All the best were there. Doug Wolfgang had been racing and winning in the Weikert's Livestock #29, while rival Keith Kauffman ran Al Hamilton's red 77. Randy Wolfe , Van May, Steve Smith Sr. Jim Nace....all the winners from all of Central Pennsylvania were on hand.
The sun was bright and the track had dried out and was smooth but didn't glaze over. The cars were being pushed out for the feature. Duval always checked tires and while I was sitting in front of the push truck, he measured the pressure in the new right rear we had chosen. It had lost two pounds since he last checked and he was sure it was going down, leaking out somewhere around the bead lock. The spare he had readied, if we needed it, was a Hoosier that had been run in a heat race a week ago. It was the right size for stagger but not a hard daytime compound.
As we sat in the pit lane making this last minute tire change, Davey Brown Jr. from Wolfgang's car came over to see what this tire was that we were putting on. He figured that Skeets had gotten some special trick tire through his speed shop for this day race. We really had him psyched out. When he saw the used tire going on and the new one coming off he shook his head, turned and walked away.
I was usually easy on tires and this one was scuffed and we found that scuffing would toughen them up some. Duval tightened the nut, dropped the car and they pushed me off.
Inside of row 3, a heads up start from the heat finishes, fast cars up front. Into the third turn the field picks up speed and in four they all stand on it spinning their tires and drifting out of the fourth turn wide open! My car hooked up and right there I passed two or three cars and at the end of the straight went for the bottom of turn one passing another car. Coming out of two I was second, Jim Nace leading and running the cushion.
I've always been patient and would race the car to the ability of the tire. Jim ran high and hard on the throttle, I ran low, it seemed like I was creeping through the turns. I had built a throttle linkage that really let the engine come on smoothly and I was able to get a hold of the track without spinning. Coming out of two, if I waited to get the car straight on the bottom, I could catch a tacky patch that had been a puddle earlier in the day. When I got on that spot I could stand on it and the car would charge forward off that sticky clay like it was shot out of a gun. I'd just let the car take its own line diagonally across the track and then I'd turn at the wall, letting the car gain speed in a straight line from that tacky patch.
Lapped traffic was either trying to get a hold of the bottom and drifting up or trying to run the powdery cushion and wasn't much of a problem. Little by little I was catching Jim Nace. About mid way through the race I was even with him. I nailed that tacky patch coming out of two and shot past him down the back-stretch. The laps went by and I stayed my ground expecting Wolfgang, Kauffman or any number of other hot dogs to come racing along side or tuck their nose under me entering the turn.
With five to go, a caution. I sped around the track trying to keep the lapped cars I'd passed behind me as the flagman tried to slow me down. After they motioned the lapped cars around, I knew there would be more than one contender that could now close up on my rear bumper. I didn't know who was there but I knew that the fastest way around for me, was the line I had run for the last 25 laps; the bottom, they would have to go around the outside.
In three I slowly picked up speed as the green dropped, and when the car came off four I was headed straight with good bite, wide open, as the car drifted out to the wall. By the time I hit the back stretch I had a straightaway lead and was able to run harder through the turns than I had all day as the cooled tire hooked up. Duval spread his arms wide, standing at the fourth turn guardrail, to let me know I had a big lead.
When the checkers finally fell I was a very happy racer. It was my first win at Port, in front of a capacity crowd with all the names finishing the race behind me. Steve Smith Sr. had finished second after coming from twentieth. He was a master on the dry tracks. Wolfgang and Kauffman had challenged each other all race for seventh and eighth.
I set a record that day, in Victory lane that is, naming all of my sponsors and discussing the race in a very long interview. I think it went 20 minutes but I had a lot of catching up to do for all the times we had races won and something would happen, or all the second place finishes we had where nothing would happen to the leader. (The little curly haired kid, down front, second from the right end, is Brian Paulus; but that's another story).
It was good to hear the crowd cheer. As I stood there getting my picture taken with the crew, I looked up and saw Bobby Allen and his partner Richard Lupo leaning over the grand stand rail waving. They hadn't raced this day but they were happy for me and their chassis.
Wolfgang's mechanic, Davey Brown Jr. walked out onto the track and took a look at the right rear tire. No blisters, grooves still left, the compound number too soft for a day race. He shook his head and walked away.
That night we went to Selinsgrove. There was a shower just before the race and the track was wet and tacky. We did everything we could to unhook the car but we couldn't get the push out of it. Had it been dry as usual we would have done well but our setup was so far off and our small motor not up to the task of a heavy track that we didn't make the feature. That didn't dull the excitement of winning that afternoon though.
The next Friday we were back at Port Royal for the Tuscarora 50. This last race of the season also brought in all the local big names as William's Grove was dark for the nite. It was a typical cool, night time, dry track kind of race and we were fast on the cushion. Wolfgang led the race and I ran second, trying to pass low but needing the cushion to keep the small motor's rpm up.
Toward the last part of the race Jim Nace got past me and settled in for second. With only a few laps to go the car slid through the third turn and I caught it before it spun. Then the yellow came out. Smokey Snellbaker had spun in three. On the restart I chased Jim and Doug to the line, in third, for a very good payday. In the pits we noticed that the left side water hose that feed cooling to the side of the block had slipped off. I had run the caution and the last 4 laps without any water and Smokey had spun in the water I dropped.
The temp gauge had read about 170 on the restart and had only been at 200 before that. I had figured that the temp went down during the caution and didn't realize that the engine was dry.
When you're lucky, you're lucky.
We pulled the motor apart that week and put in new rings, bearings and gaskets.
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