This past Thursday, the Tony Hulman Classic celebrated its 40th anniversary right where it all started, the Terre Haute Action Track. The drivers that have either competed or won the event are practically all legends of the sport. The 1976 race was seen by millions on national television and brought in a whole new generation of sprint car fans.
We’ll take a look at the first 10 years, the races that shaped the history of this great Indiana spectacle.
The inaugural race was a tribute to Anton (Tony) Hulman, a native of Terre Haute, the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and one of the biggest names in racing at the time. The event, which would coincide with the opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the month of May, would be televised live on ABC Wide World of Sports for a full hour on Saturday afternoon, May 1, 1971. "It will be the first sprint car race ever televised live on a dirt track," mentioned director of competition Don Smith.
Smith added that with a purse that was expected to be near $25,000, he was hoping that it would attract the top drivers from all over the country. It did exactly that…top names like Gary Bettenhausen, Larry Dickson, Carl Williams, George Snider and even the legendary A.J. Foyt were entered for what was quickly becoming the race of races.
Come the day of the event, an estimated 14,000 fans were on hand to view the race that was covered live by ABC's Wide World of Sports and broadcast nationwide. The purse that officials were hoping would reach the $25,000 mark exceeded that, paying out a whopping $28,538 in cash and merchandise. It was the richest purse ever for a USAC sprint car race.
After a few moments Nordhorn settled down and discussed the problem in a quiet manner with USAC officials. At one point in the discussion Nordhorn remarked that this was not the first time a flagman had cost him prize money.
Bruce Walkup (29) of St. Paul, Ind., slides thru traffic en route to winning the 2nd Annual Tony Hulman Classic - Bob Mays Collection
Lil' Joe Saldana avoided all the bumps and bruises on the track to win the 1973 Tony Hulman Classic. - Bob Mays Collection
Veteran Gary Bettenhausen slipped past former winner George Snider to win the 4th Annual Tony Hulman Classic on April 14, 1974. - Bob Mays Collection
Duane "Pancho" Carter won the Tony Hulman Classic on May 4, 1975 despite engine woes early in the contest. - Bob Mays Collection
It worked perfectly for the remaining laps. Opperman held Carter at bay and snatched victory from USAC’s elite, collecting $11, 429 from the rich $43,000 purse.
On Saturday, May 5, 1979, Bubby Jones of Danville, Ill., chances of winning a Hulman Classic went from hope to heartbreak. Jones was leading the 40-lap feature when his car broke a front axle and flipped over a guardrail during the 28th circuit.
Forty years down for the Tony Hulman Classic; an impressive list of winners and memories to last a lifetime. Open Wheel times’ Kevin Eckert said it best; Christmas used to come in May to those who won the Tony Hulman Classic, once the richest prize in all of sprint car racing.