Friday, May 28, 2010

The Tony Hulman Classic; The first 10 years

By Kyle Ealy
Terre Haute, Ind. – From its humble beginnings in 1971, it quickly became the crown jewel of USAC sprint car racing. At its peak, it was one of the richest prizes in all of sprint car racing. It’s a race that’s seen its share of controversy and great finishes.

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.
George Snider won the inaugural Tony Hulman Classic in Terre Haute, Ind., on May 1, 1977. - Bob Mays Collection

George Snider walked away with top honors as he captured the feature event. Snider was followed closely by Don Nordhorn and then by Sam Sessions who started sixth in the lineup. The remaining top 10 finishers in order included, Jim McElreath, Larry Cannon, Rollie Beale, Merle Bettenhausen, Dutch Wilkerson, Karl Busson and Jimmy Oskie.

The official results of the feature were not obvious at the finish as Nordhorn, who finished second, protested for what he thought was a violation of USAC racing regulations.

Nordhorn's protest originated between the first and second turn when Johnny Parsons Jr. lost a tire with only three laps remaining in the 40-lap feature event. The accident forced the waving of the yellow flag until the car could be removed from the track.

Under USAC rules, laps on the yellow flag do not count so as a result of the cars and their drivers circled the track awaiting the final three laps to begin. At this point in the race, Nordhorn was in first place, a lead that he had taken away from George Snider only the lap before.

After circling the track for about four revolutions, the green flag was finally dropped. It was here that George Snider shot around Nordhorn and into the lead. Nordhorn seemingly had momentary engine trouble but quickly recovered only to finish second.

On his return lap around the track, Nordhorn pulled his sprint car up in front of the control tower and jumped out, yelling at anyone who would listen. "I was trying to run a fair race. Snider went around me before the green flag went out," he asserted. He then ran up the stairs, followed closely by his mechanic and one member of his crew. Once in the tower, Nordhorn exclaimed, "You are not going to do that to me this time."

Don Nordhorn (7) races against Tom Bigelow (25) and Leigh Earnshaw (27) during action at the Tony Hulman Classic on May 1, 1971. Despite protests, Hordhorn would be credited with runner-up honors. - Bob Mays Collection

He protested that Snider had passed him before the green flag went out. Nordhorn maintained his poise but was vehement in his protest. USAC officials called for Snider and then asked for Sam Sessions, who was behind both drivers.

Sessions later said, "I saw the green flag go out and Snider was entirely right. When the green flag goes out, you're supposed to stand on it. Nordhorn was caught sleeping, plain and simple."

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.

After about a 30-minute discussion USAC officials declared George Snider the winner with Nordhorn finishing second. They did state, however, that Nordhorn had the right to protest the results.

Probably the loudest protesters of the afternoon were the fans, most of who felt that Nordhorn was in the right. A young race fan approached Sessions afterwards, saying that was the dirtiest deal he had ever seen giving Nordhorn second place. The usually congenial Sessions momentarily lost his cool. "What did you expect Snider to do?" he yelled. "Wait up for him?"

Rains forced a one-day delay in the second running of the Hulman Classic but the ending couldn't have been more exciting. Toss in the spectacular flips, the over-flow crowd and the celebrities on hand and you have an event that would be regarded as one of Terre Haute's finest.

On Sunday, April 30, 1972, Bruce Walkup and George Snider nearly repeated the same dramatics that happened in the inaugural event as the race once again went down to the wire.

The rich ($22,000) race was won by the popular Hoosier, Bruce Walkup. Walkup had led 17 laps and then Snider took the lead. He kept it until the lap 23 when a young USAC sprinter named Billy Cassella ran into some traffic, making contact and then slowing Snider just enough for Walkup to regain the lead. Snider, in fact, was fortunate he didn't incur more serious damage.

Bruce Walkup (29) of St. Paul, Ind., slides thru traffic en route to winning the 2nd Annual Tony Hulman Classic - Bob Mays Collection

Walkup maintained his lead until the third turn of the final lap, the 40th go-round. Then, Snider passed him - just a few yards from where he had made his 1971 move. But Walkup wasn't to be denied a win, and he passed Snider in the final turn and held last year's winner off by a "hair" to triumph. After a not so great 1971 season for the St. Paul (Ind.) resident, the victory meant the world to Walkup.

He started the feature on the pole, while Snider was second fastest qualifier among the 20 cars in the feature and was farther back in the lineup. Even though the Saturday "live" telecast was called off because of the rains, ABC-TV recorded Sunday's show and showed an hour-long replay a week later.

The race was highlighted by some spectacular flips and rolls. Karl Busson flipped right on the starting line on a restart during the semi-feature. Busson was okay but had a badly damaged car and wasn’t able to make the feature. Gary Bettenhausen made contact with another car on the first turn on the third lap of the feature. In spite of flipping two or three times and nearly landing on the outside railing, Gary scampered free of the vehicle and wasn't hurt. On the 22nd lap of the feature, Dick Tobias started going sideways in traffic on the back stretch and flipped. He was treated and released at a local hospital.

In addition to Walkup and Snider, Sam Sessions, Lee Kunzman, Larry "Boom Boom" Cannon, Jim McElreath, Tom Bigelow, Don Nordhorn, Billy Puterbaugh, Larry Dickson and Carl Williams rounded out the top 10.

Lil' Joe Saldana avoided all the bumps and bruises on the track to win the 1973 Tony Hulman Classic. - Bob Mays Collection

On Saturday afternoon, May 5, 1973, Joe Saldana weathered a soggy, bumpy track and outlasted a charge by Rollie Beale to win the rain-delayed feature race. The Lincoln, Neb., driver led the 28-car field from wire-to-wire on the 1/2-mile Wabash Valley Fairgrounds dirt track, in a race in which no times were kept because of four yellow caution flags. A brief shower delayed the start of the nationally televised race for about an hour and turned the track into a quagmire of mud.

Beale, of Toledo, Ohio, went the final five laps with smoke streaming from his car, and trailed Saldana by only two seconds at the checkered flag, while third place finisher Don Nordhorn of Wadesville, Ind., and Bruce Walkup of St. Paul Ind., were well behind the leaders. Sammy Sessions, defending USAC sprint champ, took fifth place, despite spinning his car out in the middle of the race. John Toth, Lee Kunzman, Tony Simon, Jerry Poland and Johnny Parsons followed the top five.

There were no serious accidents, but drivers experienced overheating problems because of mud being kicked up on the wet track.

On April 14, 1974, before another capacity crowd and a national television audience watching, Gary Bettenhausen grabbed the lead after a yellow late in the race and roared on to win the 40-lap feature on a Sunday afternoon.

       Veteran Gary Bettenhausen slipped past former winner George Snider to win the 4th Annual Tony Hulman Classic on April 14, 1974. - Bob Mays Collection

The Indianapolis 500 veteran flashed past George Snider with about 10 laps to go. Snider had pulled ahead of the pack after early leader Jackie Howerton brushed the wall for the second time on the ½-mile dirt track. Jan Opperman, the fastest qualifier during Saturday qualifying, came in second ahead of Snider, who couldn’t keep up the pace in the late stages. A.J. Foyt and Duane "Pancho" Carter brought up the top five.

A sick engine didn’t prevent Duane "Pancho" Carter from winning the Hulman Classic on Sunday, May 4, 1975 but tinkering with it almost did.

Carter said the engine felt unresponsive when the race started, but a spectacular first-lap crash involving Chuck Booth and Jim McElreath red-flagged the race. Before the 40-lap feature was restarted, Carter's crew made adjustments they hoped would remedy engine problems. "We were running a lean fuel mixture and on the restart we leaned it down even more, thinking that would correct the problem," the defending USAC sprint car champion said. "Instead we made it worse."

Duane "Pancho" Carter won the Tony Hulman Classic on May 4, 1975 despite engine woes early in the contest. - Bob Mays Collection

But a combination of a new set of tires and a deteriorating track gave Carter a traction advantage over the rest of the field. He led all but the first two laps around the ½-mile Vigo County Fairgrounds dirt oval, picking up an estimated $12,000 of an estimated $40,000, still considered sprint car’s richest prize.

Defending Hulman champion Gary Bettenhausen, who led the first two laps was the victim of two near spins and finally looped his machine into the wall on the last circuit that eliminated him. The race, which had been postponed from Saturday, when it had been scheduled for national television, ended on a yellow caution light, which, according to the rulebooks, it cannot do. Caution laps are not counted but the officials' decision was not challenged.

Jim McElreath suffered a dislocated elbow and other minor injuries when his car became airborne on the first turn, left the track and flipped into the parking lot. Carter, who was also the fastest qualifier, was trailed to the finish line by Lee Osborne, George Snider, Tom Bigelow and Sheldon Kinser.

It was 1976 and "Speedy" Bill Smith had entertained the thought of taking on the USAC drivers in their neck of the woods. He could think of only one driver to pilot his new ride, the hippie Christian from Montana, Jan Opperman.

Two other USAC-sanctioned events earlier in the spring had netted Opperman sixth and second place finishes. There was no doubt that he was ready to take on the best of the best on their own turf.

The May 1, 1976 Hulman Classic pitted the brightest and best USAC had to offer, Duane "Pancho" Carter, against the "King of the Outlaws" Jan Opperman. It was almost more than any promoter could dream of. The race drew an estimated 8,000 race fans and with the race being intercut with the Kentucky Derby on national television, millions more were watching at home.
The "long-haired hippie" Jan Opperman, powered the Speedway Motors sprinter to victory in the Tony Hulman Classic before a nation-wide audience on May 1, 1976 - Bob Mays Collection

Opperman qualified fifth fastest in time trials and won his heat. He started on the front row alongside one of his best friend’s, Bubby Jones. Carter would start behind Opperman in the inside second row. Opperman would quickly grab the lead, using the upper cushion to his advantage. Carter, Jones and Jimmy McElreath followed suit and also rode the cushion. In trying to keep up with Opperman, Carter’s driving was so erratic that at one point, he got up on two wheels, almost tagging the corner fence.

A yellow flag came out with 10 laps to go for lost wheel on Tom Bigelow’s ride. It also bunched up the field and gave the Carter the opportunity he was looking for. As the green waved restarting the race, Opperman went from his high cushion driving that got him a healthy lead and dropped to mid-track. He was now in defensive mode, able to block any attack that Carter put on him from every angle.

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.

Carter of Brownsburg, Ind., settled for runner-up honors. Bubby Jones was third and Carter's brother, Dana took fourth. Bruce Walkup, who had to qualify for the main event through the semi-feature, finished fifth. Chuck Gurney of Hayward, Calif., got into trouble on some loose dirt and went over the wall. Bruised but not battered, Gurney was credited with a sixth place finish and a trip to the local hospital.
James McElreath displays perfect form en route to winning the 1977 Hulman Classic.

On Saturday, May 7, 1977, a young 23-year-old Texan decimated the field in a wreck-marred Hulman Classic. While his 49-year-old father was in Indianapolis preparing for the 500, Jim McElreath Jr’s margin of victory was nearly 10 car lengths ahead of pole sitter Clark Templeman.

McElreath started fourth and grabbed the lead on lap 16 of the 40-lap contest kept it up front for the remainder of the race. Roger Rager was third, Billy Cassella took fourth and Jerry Weeks fifth in the $52, 000 grinder.

Before a full lap was even turned, Joe Saldana flipped over the third turn fence escaping with a small cut. A little later on, Steve Chassey was battling for sixth when he was bumped and began flipping in the third turn. In the melee, Bob Frey hit Chassey’s ride and suffered a bad gash on his right arm.

Dick Tobias is interviewed after his Hulman Classic victory.

Dick Tobias was towed into the winner’s circle after his Hulman Classic victory on May 6, 1978. Mere moments after taking the checkers at the eighth annual event, Tobias’ rear torsion bar gave way. They say timing is everything and it couldn’t of been truer in this race. Tobias, of Lebanon, Pa., was only seconds ahead of Duke Cook of Sidney, Ohio when he finished the 40 laps of the feature event. Leland McSpadden of Tempe, Ariz., was third, followed by Rich Leavell of Elwood and Rick Vogler of Glen Ellyn, Ill.

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.

Running second behind Jones at the time, Duane Carter of Brownsburg, Ind. took the lead after the accident and held it the rest of the way. Sheldon Kinser, Larry Rice, Johnny Parsons and Bob East, who qualified through the B-main, rounded out the top five.

As the event started a new decade, it was Eddie Leavitt of Kearney, Mo., who already owned two Knoxville Nationals titles, adding a different trophy to his ever-growing mantle as he took home the Hulman Classic win on May 3, 1980. Leavitt out dueled Steve Chassey for top honors. "Pancho’ Carter, Sheldon Kinser and Bobby Olivero rounded out the top five.

As the years have gone by, some of the biggest names in sprint car racing have won the Tony Hulman Classic; Sheldon Kinser (1981), Jack Hewitt (1983 & 1995), Ron Shuman (1985), Rich Vogler (1986 &1989), Steve Butler (1987 & 1988), Dave Darland (1993), Tracy Hines (2001), J.J. Yeley (1997 & 2003), three-time champion Levi Jones (2005, 2008 & 2009)) and most recently Jerry Coons Jr.

Still, there were other big name drivers who never saw victory lane. Norman "Bubby" Jones of Danville, Ill., was one of the most successful sprint car drivers in his era, yet "Stormin’ Norman", as he was sometimes called, took third in 1976, sixth in 1977, was leading the 1979 race when he broke and finished fifth in 1981, but that was as close as he ever got.

The event has also made some unknown drivers household names after winning. Cary Faas was just another face in the crowd, winless in a four-year career, when he won the Hulman Classic in 1992. Faas would go on to add two more Hulmans in 1994 and 1998. The "Sikeston Sawblade" Daron Clayton etched his name into Hulman Classic history in 2006 with a dazzling performance.

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.


  1. Trying to locate a pit crew member of Larry Boom Boom Cannon. His name is Dave Smith from Fithian,IL area. Does anyone know of this guy or his wearabouts thanks call me 727-573-3439 Randy Miller

  2. I'm proud of how my Dad raced in the Tony Hulman Classic.... Jan Opperman the Original Outlaw dominated the race in 1976.