Thursday, March 22, 2012

1968 - That Was the Year of the First Cyclone 50



Lawton, Okla. – If you are a newcomer to southwest Oklahoma, you'll soon learn that calendars are only part of the method used to mark the passage of time.

There's also the matter of spring storms, summer droughts, winter blizzards - and tornadoes. Or cyclones, if you please.

For instance…

“That was the winter we had snowdrifts eight feet high”…or…”That was the year we went nearly six months without a rain”…or…”That was the same spring that we had those gigantic hailstones”…or…” And that was the year the Cyclone 50 got its name.”

The first three instances could apply to several different years among the past 50 in southwest Oklahoma. The fourth applies to 1968 and, more specifically, the Memorial Day weekend of 1968.

The Lawton Speedway had, for several years, scheduled a special racing program for the Memorial Day weekend. It included a 50-lap feature for super-modifieds. But it didn't have a special name. It was simply, the “Memorial Day 50-lap feature for super-modifieds.”

Until 1968 that is…

The setting that evening was typical for late May - warm, humid and relatively calm. The combination of high humidity and little wind made the Speedway’s racing engines sound even louder than usual to the more than 4,000 racing fans who packed the grandstand.

The calm part, though, didn’t last through the night. Anyone who was around Lawton that weekend remembers how the evening progressed. And no one has ever volunteered to take part in a replay of the events which unfolded at the Lawton Speedway and over most of the southern part of Comanche County.

Before that evening no one had even considered coming up with a special name for the Memorial Day 50-lapper. After that night, it didn’t take any great imagination to find an appropriate title. It was quickly dubbed, and still remains, the Cyclone 50.

And the 4,000-plus racing fans and the crowd of drivers and mechanics who had jammed the Speedway grandstand and pit area would unanimously confirm the circumstances leading up to the naming of the race.

The evening started the same way most May evenings at the Speedway begin. Hot laps, hot dogs, heat races, popcorn, cokes and trips to the bathroom. It wasn’t exactly a quiet night, because of the race cars. But the skies were calm, and so were the fans.

Then, late in the evening, an ominous, heavy black cloud began to build in the southwest and started competing with the races for the fans’ attention. By the time the super-modifieds began moving onto the track for the start of the 50-lapper, the bank of clouds, by now stunningly punctuated by thundering flashes of lightning, began to move in on southwest Lawton.

It arrived in stages…

The first thing the fans felt was a gusty wind, which hit the Speedway grandstand suddenly, sending popcorn boxes and race programs flying. As the wind’s velocity increased, longtime Speedway fans began checking out the situation more, carefully. Speedway facilities weren’t as well planned then, as now, and one of the immediate dangers was a series of electrical lines which carried power from the infield to the press box and directly over the heads of those fans sitting in the center section of the standings.

When the wind really began to whip the lines frequently bounced together, sending off, diminutive, copies of the electric flashes higher in the air. Even more important, they were flopping with such intensity that there was a growing danger they might break.

Then something happened which made everyone forget about the thrashing of the electric lines. One alert spectator, seated just in front of the press box, pointed toward the rapidly-approaching cloud bank. Everyone, around him, including the workers in the press box, took a look.

As the crowd’s attention concentrated on the clouds, a flash of lightning outlined what, the first fan had seen - a whirling funnel which was dropping out of the cloud. It was no more than half-dozen miles away. Maybe less…

What happened next probably, should have been expected from native Oklahomans, who have learned the importance of both, speed of action and orderly movement, when tornadoes are around. In unison, everyone gathered up their children and their seat cushions and headed for the parking lot.

Surprisingly, no one panicked. The fans moved quickly out of the stands, in orderly fashion, through the gates and into the parking lot to their cars. They carefully followed directions of traffic control officers in the parking lot, and within 15 minutes from the time the fan had pointed out the twister, only a handful of racing fans were left at the Speedway.

A few, who didn't want to take a chance on becoming part of a parking lot traffic jam, elected to find their own protection.

They took what was available, mostly mud and water filled ditches around the track and the parking tot. Later, when the danger had passed, they climbed out of their impromptu storm cellars and sloshed back into the still lighted grandstand area – covered with mud and drenched to the skin.

The tornado missed the Speedway; In fact, it veered to the south: and missed everything in Lawton; So did five others which were spotted that evening by Lawton policemen and Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers who rushed into the area to observe the clouds and report their progress.

The only permanent product of the frightening weather was the unexpected postponed 50-lap race. It was stopped, incidentally, without any official action on the part of Speedway personnel.

The drivers, who saw the same sight as the fans and at the same time, forgot all about the race. They quickly drove their cars onto their trailers in the pit area, loaded up their pickup trucks, and joined in an orderly departure from the track.

After thinking it over, track manager Lanny Edward decided he would never have a better opportunity to provide the Memorial Day 50-lap feature race for super modifieds with a special name.

So, from then on, the top super-modified cars and drivers from all over the Southwest gathered at Lawton Speedway - to compete in the Memorial Day Cyclone 50.

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