By Kyle Ealy
Reading, Pa. – For some 25 plus years, it was tradition for the sprint cars of the United States Auto Club to kick off its season at the historic half-mile of the Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds.
The event would see its fair share of exciting finishes, jubilation and heartbreak, and legendary drivers in victory lane…
It all started on April 29, 1956, as Tommy Hinnershitz took the victory on a day that saw three drivers hospitalized and another requiring special treatment after some furious action on a cold and wet afternoon.
Chuck Weyant of Springfield, Ill., took an ambulance ride to the local hospital with a broken right arm after his car bounced off a fence, flipped over in the air and ripped through a fence on the second turn during time trials.
Hinnershitz almost found himself in the hospital instead of victory lane after he barely avoided a huge pileup on lap 12 of the scheduled 30-lapper.
Bernie Hart, who was running dead last in the field, hit a hole in the track, rolled over and came to a stop in the middle of the race track. Hinnershitz, who started on the pole after setting fast time (25.01) was leading the pack and had to squeeze through on the rail, barely avoiding Hart’s machine.
“There was just enough room to get through,” Hinnershitz would say later. “I even pulled in my shoulders in because I was sure I was going to hit him.”
Hart, meanwhile, unbuckled his belt and was attempting to exit his car when Jiggs Peters struck head on. Peters was knocked unconscious and Hart was thrown from his car. Al Herman, coming out of the turn, narrowly avoided running over Hart, who was now crawling across the track.
Bill Brown and Len Duncan, running side by side happened upon the scene, with Brown tagging Peter’s car head on. Duncan swerved to avoid that mess only to hit Hart, who was on his feet now. Duncan would drag Hart 100 feet down the backstretch before getting his car to a full stop.
Surprisingly, Hart remained conscious through the whole ordeal although he did suffer a broken leg and several abrasions. Both he and Peters, who suffered a concussion and lacerations, would be hospitalized for several days. Brown suffered only minor bruises and was released. The fact that no one died was a miracle.
After a long delay to clean the mess up, the race was restarted only to see rain come on lap 24. Official attempted to wait it out but finally awarded the victory to Hinnershitz. Gene Hartley of Indianapolis was second and Rex Easton of Springfield, Ill., was third. A crowd of 10,200 watched what became an eventful day of racing.
Johnny Thomson - 1957 Sweepstakes Winner
The March 31, 1957 race would see two records broken on the track, not to mention a record payout to the winner. Johnny Thomson would be the beneficiary of all three of those records.
A crowd of 7,500 enjoyed a warm, sunny Spring day and watched Thomson break the track record in qualifying, running the half-mile in 23.94 seconds, breaking Jud Larson’s mark by one-hundredth of a second. He would also set a record in the 10-lap qualifying event, winning in the time of 4 minutes and 11 seconds.
Thomson had everything going his way in the 30-lap main event as well, shaking defending race winner Tommy Hinnershitz’s advances early on and then putting some distance between him and the rest of the field. Don Branson, Charles Musselman, Jiggs Peters and Ernie McCoy would round out the top five.
Promoter Russ Moyer presented Thomson with a check for a whopping $1,456, the greatest amount ever presented to a sprint car winner on a half-mile track in Eastern Pennsylvania.
The winner of the April 20, 1958 race (now called the Reading Inaugural Sweepstakes) was a late entry because winning car owner John Fray of Bridgeport, Conn., couldn’t decide who should drive his newly-built Offenhauser. As Fray would say later, “I was looking for the right man”. Because of his long thought process, Fray would be assigned the final entry for the race, but after the checkers waved, there was no doubt that he definitely had found the right guy.
Jiggs Peters of Plainfield, N.J., who was almost killed in the ’56 race, snatched the lead from defending champion Johnny Thomson on lap 14 and increased his margin from there, winning handily. The race actually covered only 29 laps due to a scoring error by USAC officials but an extra lap wouldn’t have helped those chasing Peters.
Tommy Hinnershitz, who started fourth, would eventually get by Thomson for second on lap 26 and Van Johnson of Norristown, Pa., would pick up third passing Thomson on the final turn on the final lap.
It was a disappointing day for Thomson, who was fast qualifier on the day and dominated his 10-lap qualifying event. During the feature, however, he found himself struggling as the track became more slick as the laps wound down. While all of the other drivers changed to slick rubber before the main event, Thomson decided to gamble and go with knobby tires. “I figured knobby tires would give me more bite on the outside cushion but it got slick in a hurry. I had nowhere to run,” he explained. “Sometimes you gamble and win. Today I gambled and lost.”
Elmer George, the heavy-footed chauffeur from Speedway, Ind., had an easier time winning the Inaugural Sweepstakes race on April 5, 1959 than he did just getting into the main event.
George, the day’s second fastest qualifier with a time of 26.63 seconds, jumped into the lead at the wave of the green and treated the 5,000 plus fans to some fancy driving, holding off Jud Larson of Kansas City, Mo., who was behind the wheel of the Bud Sherk Offy. Van Johnson of Pittsburgh would finish third followed by Jim McWhitney of Anderson, Ind., and Eddie Sachs of Center Valley, Pa.
At the beginning of the day, it didn’t appear as though George would even make the field. Despite being second fastest in time trials behind Larson, George was forced out in his first qualifying heat and finished fifth in the second. Since only four cars out of each heat earned berths into the starting field, George was forced to qualify through the consolation, which he would win easily.
Larson set fast time at 26.18 seconds, won his match race with the Midwestern sprint champion Eddie Sachs, obliterated the field in his heat and clearly looked like the man to beat in the 30-lap main event. So George went out and beat him…
When A.J the driver teamed up with A.J. the car owner, you had to get up pretty early in the morning to get ahead of them. On Sunday, April 17, 1960, no one got up early enough.
Foyt, of Houston, Tex., drove Watson’s Offenhauser to victory in the 30-lap Reading Inaugural Sweepstakes before a paid crowd of 3,094 fans. And the feat was accomplished with a motor that would have kept most men out of the race.
But A.J. Watson wasn’t most men…
The Watson car had actually been tested in March and upon their arrival, it was quickly discovered that some water had been left in the radiator. Somewhere between Houston and Reading, the water became frozen and split the block on the side and on the top. Watson and his crew sealed the top and with a borrowed water plate, made the necessary repairs on the side as well. As one observer remarked, “With anyone else, they would have been out of business. But not with Watson; he always finds a way to win.”
Foyt started on the front row alongside fast qualifier Don Branson and grabbed the lead on the first lap. His only serious competition was Jim Hurtubise in the Barnett Brothers Chevy, and he beat the Lennox, Calif., chauffeur by four seconds at the stripe. The rest of the field was pretty well stretched out with Jiggs Peters taking third, Branson in fourth and midget driver Bob “Two Gun” Tattersall taking the fifth spot.
Foyt would return to the Reading Fairgrounds the following year, this time as the defending USAC national sprint car champion. He would once again, claim victory in the season opener on March 26, 1961. This time, however, Foyt would not run away from the field like the year before.
A crowd of 5,026 watched A.J win it the hard way by spotting Jim Hurtubise the lead and then come charging back to collar “Herk” on the 23rd lap and go on to win by nearly a quarter of a lap.
When Hurtubise, who started on the pole, moved into what looked like a commanding lead in the early going, most were willing to concede victory. A.J. Foyt wasn’t part of that group. Foyt, who said that his car was “operating smoothly” despite a rough track, put the Offenhausers one up in what would be a season-long duel with the Chevrolets.
Hurtubise, Cotton Farmer, Roger McCluskey and Hurtubise’s teammate, A.J. Shepherd, rounded out the top five. Bobby Marshman was the fastest qualifier with a time of 25.75 seconds but had motor issues and didn’t finish the race.
Jim Hurtubise would make one small mistake on March 25, 1962 at the Fairgrounds and it would cost him $10. During the first qualifying heat, Hurtubise had the lead and it appeared he was going to win, but on the final lap he slipped high going though the first and second turns, allowing Don Davis to slip under him and take the win. Davis won $40 and Hurtubise received $30.
That would be Hurtubise’s last slip of the day…
“Herk” would have things pretty much his way the rest of the afternoon as the transplanted California, now living in North Tonawanda, N.Y., set a new one-lap record in qualifying with a time of 23.85 seconds and then led from start to finish in the 30-lap feature.
A crowd of 5,170 saw Don Davis start on the pole but it was Hurtubise who was first to the corner and as they exited onto the backstretch, he was clearly in command. Reading Eagle sportswriter Bob Riegner put it best when he wrote, “Hurtubise drove like a bank robber the rest of the way”.
The best battle of the day was between Davis and Parnelli Jones of Torrance, Calif. They battled wheel to wheel for the balance of the race with Jones finally getting the nod on the very last lap. Fourth went to Bobby Marshman with ’59 winner Elmer George in fifth.
It may as well been called “Chase A.J. Foyt Day” at the Reading Fairgrounds on March 24, 1963, as no one was able to catch the speedy Texan. The winner of the 1961 Indianapolis 500 turned in a letter perfect performance before a paid crowd of 5,126 as he captured the Reading Sweepstakes race.
A.J. had the fastest qualifying mark in time trials with a time of 24.24 seconds, won his 10-lap qualifying heat and led from start to finish in the 30-lap main event. Foyt walked off with $1,254 out of a purse of $6,245, well over the guarantee of $5,000 offered by Reading Fair President John Giles, who was in his first promoting venture.
It wasn’t all gravy for Foyt however. Some of it was hot water...
Just as he took the checkered flag, a hose let loose and he was sprayed with hot water on his legs. He jumped up on the back of his car, got runner-up Roger McCluskey to push him around the track and then was treated for some painful (but not serious) burns on his legs, thighs and hands.
Foyt and MCluskey were followed by Don Branson, driving the Beletsky Chevy, Allen Crowe in the Iddings Chevy and Elmer George in the HOW Special.
Injuries to two of USAC’s brightest stars marred the Reading Sweepstakes event on March 29, 1964. A.J. Foyt won his record third Sweepstakes race on the half-mile, but that accomplishment was overshadowed by the injuries that Roger McCluskey and Don Branson sustained in the event.
McCluskey was injured when he flipped his racer just as he was finishing his second lap of qualifying. The accident occurred in the same spot that he spun out during warm-up laps. He suffered a compound fracture of the left forearm, bruising on his right shoulder and hand, and a concussion to boot.
Branson suffered a compound fracture of the right forearm when he was struck by a flying dirt clod. He and McCluskey were both hospitalized and were reported in satisfactory condition, although it was questionable whether either driver would be healthy enough to compete in the Indianapolis 500, which was a month away. (McCluskey didn’t recover in time to compete – Branson recovered and would finish 13th in the race).
Jud Larson’s baby needed a new pair of shoes and papa took car of her nicely on Sunday, April 4, 1965, as the strapping blond Texan, now based out of Indianapolis, pocketed nearly $1,000 for sweeping the USAC Sweepstakes program before a Reading Fairgrounds crowd of 8,000. Larson’s wife had given birth to their third child just weeks before.
Cornering several drivers before the race, Larson warned, “When you fellows get over my way, you better stop and see the new baby or my wife will skin me alive.”
Don Branson, who would spend the afternoon chasing and finishing second to Larson in the race, jokingly called Larson “unsociable”. He said, “I wanted to get a look at the new oil pans on your car but he never let me get close enough to look at them.”
Larson, who dominated the feature from start to finish in his A.J. Watson sprinter, and Branson pretty much controlled things throughout, although a couple of IMCA speedsters, champion Jerry Richert of Forest Lakes, Minn., and Greg Weld of Kansas City - gave strong indications that they should not be overlooked in future sprint car events. Richert was third fastest in time trials, third in his heat and third in the feature. Weld, a recent graduate of the super modified ranks placed a solid fourth. Asphalt specialist Jim McCune of Toledo took the fifth spot.
An estimated crowd of 6,500 shivered their way though the Reading Sweepstakes program on March 27, 1966 as Jud Larson would give a repeat performance, winning his second 30-lap main event in a row. Any chill Larson experienced during the afternoon matinee was warmed by the $710 he earned by winning the feature and an additional $200 for being fast qualifier on the day (24.42 seconds).
Jud started on the pole, surrendered the lead to Red Riegel on the first lap, regained it on the seventh circuit and then outran everyone in sight from there on. Reigel would settle for second, Arnie Knepper of Belleville, Ill., took third, Roger McCluskey fourth and USAC national champion Mario Andretti of Nazareth, Pa., rounding out the top five.
Ironically, the same track that Larson would experience triumph in March is where tragedy would strike on June 11, 1966. During a USAC-sanctioned sprint car race, Larson and William “Red” Riegel would tangle in the first turn, both flipping over the three-foot concrete wall and rolling seven or eight times. Both were killed instantly. Larson, the hard drinking, chain-smoking Texan was 43 years of age.
Jerry “Scratch” Daniels was running high and Rollie Beale was running low. Larry Dickson of Marietta, Ohio, piloting the Nesler-Venezia Racing Special was running anywhere he pleased because that’s a luxury you have with leading a race.
Dickson drove to an easy Reading Sweepstakes victory in April 2, 1967 as USAC launched its season opener before an estimated crowd of 6,500 at the Fairgrounds. It was Larry’s second straight USAC victory at the historic half-mile and it came on the heels of his Reading Fair win last September.
When Larry got cranked up, no one could come close to him. But he got himself in some second-lap congestion that put top qualifier Greg Weld and Jerry Richert on the shelf for the afternoon. Dickson was riding the inside, struggling with Rollie Beale for the top spot when his magneto switch cut out and his car slowed rapidly. Weld, who was right behind, said, “I saw Larry slow down and I had almost came to a stop and was going to go around when Jerry hit me from behind.”
Dickson was able to continue but Weld, suffering major suspension trouble after the hit, had to withdraw and Richert, who spun around and hit the outside wall, also was unable to go on.
When the green flag dropped after the restart, Dickson hit the gas and took off on Beale and the race was pretty much over. Beale and Daniels would battle for second spot with Daniels finally getting the nod. Beale, Bobby Unser and Toledo’s Karl Busson followed.
Dickson would continue his streak at Reading the very next year, although his victory on March 31, 1968 would be anything but easy. Dickson out dueled Pennsylvania super modified star Ray Tilley for the full 30 laps before prevailing before 9,000 race fans.
Even though Dickson was scored as the leader for 27 laps after securing the point on the third lap but Tilley had his nose out front on several occasions throughout the contest and threatened to steal all of the marbles in the late going against the USAC veteran.
“I told myself that I needed to go after him, even though I was really tired,” Dickson would say from victory lane. He would manage to keep the nose of his sprinter in front of Tilley’s and won by a few feet at the finish, securing the fat part of the $6,675 purse offered by Reading Fair President Lindy Vicari.
Bill Puterbaugh of Roxana, Ill., who was the fast qualifier (23.85 seconds) for the first time in his USAC career, wound up third and gained one spot when hard-charger Chuck Booth who was running a strong third and challenging Dickson and Tilley, broke his axle on the final lap of the race. Rollie Beale finished fourth but was never a serious threat to the top three, and Bobby Adamson, the second quickest qualifier, rounded out the top five.
Dirt track racing can be a guessing game at times and on March 30, 1969, Jerry Daniels guessed right at the Reading Fairgrounds and Larry Dickson guessed wrong. And that’s why Daniels, of St. Paul, Minn., walked off with fat share of the lucrative purse for winning the 30-lap feature during USAC’s sprint car season opener before a chilled crowd of 5,000 fans.
Dickson, the fast qualifier, winner of the first heat, and the defending race winner, wound up placing 14th when he tried to change a tire during a caution period and got caught up on the jack when the green flag went out. “We changed tires before the main,” Larry said, “but it wasn’t the hot setup we wanted. So I gambled on getting the tires changed but we didn’t make it.”
Dickson, who did most of his racing in the early afternoon, tried to guess what the track conditions would be like for the 30-lap main event – it was not a good guess.
Polesitter Mickey Shaw grabbed the initial lead before mechanical problems sidelined him on lap four. Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg, Iowa, fresh off a 100-lap USAC midget victory in the Astrodome, took over the reigns with Daniels hot on his tail. But Daniels, who said he felt he “could catch” Kunzman, found the opening he needed on the 27th lap, when Lee got caught up behind a lapped car on the backstretch.
On the same lap, Herman Wise of Atlanta, Ga., went by Kunzman as well for the second spot. Kunzman would settle for show spot while Bill Puterbaugh and Bob Pratt of Union City, Ind., would follow.
Daniels was quick to call his wife on the phone to inform her of his first Reading victory, which was also a first for car owner Ray W. Smith of Eaton, Ohio. Smith, who had Dickson as his driver for the ’68 season, said that the car had just been put together the night before and Daniels put the car through its paces flawlessly.
The 1969 race would be the last year the Reading Fairgrounds would play host to the season opening race for the USAC sprint car division. Starting in 1970, the season opener would not have a regular home. Over the next few years, several venues such as Eldora, Tri-County and Salem would be the sites of season openers.
In 1979, just like the days of old, the Reading Fairgrounds hosted the USAC sprint car season opener on April 14th, with Paul Pitzer, driving Bob Sweikert’s sprinter, winning the 40-lap main event. It would be Pitzer’s first career USAC win in what would be the last USAC race at the track.
The Reading Fairgrounds track closed for good on June 29, 1979.
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