By Kyle Ealy
Indianapolis, Ind. – When mentioning the USAC stock car division and one-mile dirt tracks, the Springfield Mile and Du Quoin usually come to mind first.
But there was another one-mile dirt oval track that that these full-bodied stockers competed on, yet the event was over looked by most, mainly because it was run in the heart of sprint car country.
The Indiana State Fairgrounds was more noted for one of the biggest sprint car races of the year; The Hoosier Hundred, which started in 1953 and still runs to this day, every September.
In 1962, though, the USAC stock cars came to town and would start a tradition of their own that would last 14 years; the State Fair Century.
On Wednesday night, September 5, 1962, Paul Goldsmith, St. Clair Shores, Mich., led all the way and won the first USAC 100-mile stock car race ever run on the Indiana State Fairgrounds track. Goldsmith was more than one mile in front of second place Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, at the finish. Goldsmith would collect $4,300 for his dominant victory.
John Rostek of Fort Collins, Colo., Eddie Sachs of Coopersburg, Pa., and Elmer Musgrave of Niles, Ill., would round out the top five in a race that averaged 71.768 miles per hour in a race that was slowed with 19 laps run under caution.
A spectator, Jack Abbott of Indianapolis, was injured when Skeets Wyman of Chicago spun into the rail midway in the race. Abbott was knocked temporarily unconscious when a piece of the broken rail hit him in the chest.
1963 State Fair Century Program - Photo Courtesy of Doug Abry
A hard charger from Houston, Tex., by the name of A.J. Foyt, would increase his point’s lead by claiming his fourth USAC stock victory of the season, when he grabbed the win at the fairgrounds on September 4, 1963.
Foyt had trailed Keokuk’s Don White for the entire race and it looked like victory was well in White’s grasp until mechanical problems arose on his machine with 6 laps to go. Foyt charged past and pulled into victory lane five laps later.
Foyt, driving a Ford for the first time this season, covered the distance at an average speed of 74.69 miles per hour. Gary Bettenhausen of Tinley Park, Ill., and John Rostek would follow Foyt across the finish line.
The 1964 event proved one thing…that A.J. Foyt could win a race no matter what obstacles were thrown in his way. The Indianapolis 500 winner not only impressed those watching from the grandstands but most certainly left an impression on the 29 other competitors who showed up that evening.
On September 9th, Foyt, who blew the engine of his own 1964 Dodge in practice, would borrow the car of teammate Len Sutton of Portland, Oregon and started in 30th place, the last spot in the field.
The Houston charger passed 13 cars in the first two laps around the one mile dirt track. With the help of some cautions, would eventually get around pole sitter Bobby Marshman of Pottstown, Pa. and Don White of Keokuk for second place at the halfway point of the race.
On lap 56, race leader Parnelli Jones would be involved in a skirmish with Lloyd Ruby sending him to the infield and allowing Foyt to inherit the lead. From there, Foyt held strong over the remaining 39 laps to seal the deal. Foyt would cash in on $4,315 for his heroic efforts.
The old saying, “Better lucky than good” would apply to Foyt for the 1965 race. Once again, much like the 1963 race that he won with only laps remaining, Foyt would find himself in victory lane because of someone else’s misfortune.
Paul Goldsmith, driving a 1965 Plymouth, had led for 76 laps after moving to the front when pole winner Parnelli Jones of Torrance, Calif., made a pit stop. Goldsmith was leading Foyt by about three-fourths of a mile and appeared to have the race wrapped up as he took the white flag for the 100th lap.
But entering the backstretch, Goldsmith suddenly lost power and started coasting slowly as he entered turn three…he was out of fuel.
Foyt, piloting a 1965 Ford, would catch Goldsmith with less that a quarter-mile to go and take his third straight win in the event as Goldsmith sputtered along, helpless. Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., Canadian Billy Foster and Don White would follow as Goldsmith would limp across the finish line to take fifth.
Don White would finally release the stranglehold that Foyt had with an impressive victory on August 26, 1966. White, the 1963 USAC stock car champion, took the lead on the 35th lap and steadily pulled way from the field.
Even a self-induced spin on the 99th lap didn’t stop White from taking the checkered flag nearly half a lap ahead of Norm Nelson. A. J. Foyt, running up front most of the day, but never a factor, would finish third. A pair of Plymouth’s, driven by Chicago’s Sal Tovella and open wheel star Jim Hurtubise finished fourth and fifth respectively.
The victory, White's third in a row on the USAC stock car circuit, netted him $6,122 from a total purse of nearly $22,000.
Don White would end A.J. Foyt's domination of the State Fair Century, winning in 1966 and 1967. White would go on to win the event a record five times.
White would return to the fairgrounds on August 25, 1967 and successfully his State Fair Century title. Including a win at the Hoosier Classic there in June, It marked the third straight victory for the Iowan on the Indianapolis dirt. It would also strengthen his point lead, in which he would eventually lay claim to the national title that year.
He steered his Dodge Charger through the 100-mile run at an average speed of 83.97 miles per hour, well the standard of 86.393 miles per hour he set last year. White wrestled the lead on the 70th lap and held it to the finish.
Parnelli Jones and A. J. Foyt, the main battlers in that year's Indianapolis 500 classic, gunned it out with White through the mid-way point for the lead with Foyt leading the first 37 miles. Both White and Jones would pass A.J. when the Indy 500 champ took an unscheduled pit stop. As it turns out, Foyt would develop front-end problems on his Ford, finally bowing out on lap 83.
White pocketed $6,707 for his first place finish and Jones, driving a Ford Fairlane, grabbed $3,400. Al Unser of Albuquerque, N.M. was third, Paul Goldsmith fourth and Norm Nelson in fifth.
When A.J. Foyt was in his prime, he took a backseat to no one and when the State Fair Century rolled around on August 23, 1968, Foyt made sure there he was the man standing in victory lane when the dust had settled.
A.J. Foyt would win the State Fair Century for a fourth time in 1968.
Foyt led 99 of 100 laps and battled back challenger Butch Hartman to win the 100-mile stock car race. The victory at the Indiana State Fairgrounds strengthened Foyt's position as the U.S. Auto Clubs' leading stock car driver that season. Foyt picked up nearly $7,500 for winning with his Ford Torino. Foyt would go on to clinch the national title that year.
Hartman, from Zanesville, Ohio, dogged Foyt tracks from the 64th lap until his Dodge Charger tagged the wall with 5 tours remaining. He would still manage to hold on to second place and a $3,800 payday.
Roger McCluskey of Tucson, Ariz., took third followed by Al Unser. Don White, the defending two-time race champion and winner of the last four events at the fairgrounds, earned the pole position and stayed up front with Foyt in the beginning until engine trouble sidelined him for good on the 35th lap.
Whatever A.J Foyt could do, Don White proved he could do could do it better and on August 22, 1969, the 43-year-old veteran would lead 99 of 100 laps to win the State Fair Century for the third time in four years.
A record crowd of 19,270 paid a record purse of $30,190 of which White earned $10,300. Foyt pressed White for most of the race, but an extra pit stop for tires dropped him to seventh place.
Bobby Unser of Albuquerque, N.M. and his brother Al finished second and third. White led all but one lap. Al Unser took that one during flurry of pit stops under the caution light after a three-car wreck midway in the race that would delay the race for almost an hour. Jim Lord of Colgate, Wis., rolled completely end over end, taking out a light pole and cutting off power to the backstretch in the mishap. Lord was unhurt and power was restored but it didn’t stop White in dominating the race.
White, piloting a 1969 Dodge Charger, would grab his second consecutive State Fair Century victory on August 28, 1970, in a race halted twice by accidents. Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa was second in a 1969 Plymouth followed by Norm Nelson in a 1970 Plymouth, Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio, in a 1970 Ford and Butch Hartman behind the wheel of a 1969 Dodge.
Butch Hartman (75) and Don White (3) lead the field to green in the 1970 State Fair Century. - John Mahoney Photo
Nineteen of the 30 starters were running when the race ended. Bowsher, the top qualifier at a speed of 89.820 miles an hour, led the first 26 laps. Bowsher drove the car that was originally assigned to A.J. Foyt. Foyt failed to make the race in time, because he was practicing for the California 500 in Ontario, Calif.
Lem Blankenship led on the 27th tour then Bowsher took over from laps 28 to 33. Blankenship would regain the point until White took the top spot for good.
J.C. Klotz of Fort Wayne escaped harm when his car slammed into the inside wall of turn one, halting the race on lap 10 for 1 hour and 4 minutes. The long delay was necessary to repair the wall. Billy Ries’ car hit the outside wall of turn two, stopping action 10 minutes on lap 91.
The A.J. Foyt/Don White stranglehold on the State Fair Century had to come to an end sometime and on August 29, 1971, it finally did as a new face, other than Foyt’s or White’s, graced victory lane for the first time since the inaugural race in 1962.
In copping the 10th annual event, Bobby Unser proved not only to be the fastest, but perhaps the strongest of those who survived this pseudo-demolition derby which forced three re-starts. The victory was the second straight on the USAC stock car division circuit for Unser, who had won two weeks earlier at Milwaukee.
Defending USAC stock car champ and current point leader, Roger McCluskey of Tucson, Ariz., was a close second with the nose of A.J. Foyt’s Ford Torino just inches from the bumper of his Plymouth Super Bird. Foyt was the fast qualifier on the day, posting a time of 39.515 seconds, or a speed of 91.033 miles per hour. NASCAR star Bobby Allison of Hueytown, Ala., took fourth place in a car originally entered for Unser’s younger brother, Al, who couldn’t make it in time from the Indy car race in California. Twenty-one cars still were running at the finish out of a starting field of 30.
Other leaders in the race were Les Snow of Bloomington, Ill., who led for 19 laps and Tiny Lund, Cross, S.C., who was in control for 10 laps (27 through 37) until his engine went sour.
The junk production started on the fourth lap when Leonard Blanchard of Louisville Ky., wiped out about 30 feet of the inner guard rail while coming out of the second turn. That action stopped the race on the ninth circuit. Later on the 66th lap, Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, crunched a gaping hole in the outside fence between the first and second turns and again the race was halted.
On the 71st lap, just after the race had restarted after another caution, A.J. Foyt tried to pass race leader Les Snow of Bloomington, Ill., but began to skid sideways. Other cars attempting to avoid Foyt went to the outside and by the time you could say “look out” at least two-thirds of the field was standing still midway through the first and second turns. The cars of Mark Dinsmore, Woody Wolcher, Paul Feldner, and Denny Wilson were retired from the spartanic clash.
Because the one-mile dirt oval at the fairgrounds was initially designed for horses to race on, no guardrail on either the inside or outside of the track had ever been constructed. So every time a car tore a piece of the flimsy cyclone fence down, the welding crew had to be called and the long patch-up work was done while the race is halted.
Race fans were expecting a battle between Roger McCluskey and Jack Bowsher to materialize. But Bowsher, who was trailing the first place McCluskey by just 22 points in the USAC stock car division, called it quits in his Ford after completing 34 laps. Don White, qualified for the event, but later blew an engine and was forced to withdraw from the contest.
Al Unser, driving a 1971 Ford Torino owned by Rudy Hoerr, would win State Fair Century on Sunday afternoon, August 27, 1972 before a paid crowd of 11, 300 race fans. The victory paid Unser $4,450 out of a $15,000 total purse.
The two-line Indianapolis 500 winner completely dominated the 30-car field by leading every lap except the 31st lap when he made his mandatory pit stop giving the lead momentarily to Ralph Latham of Cincinnati, Ohio, in a 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Latham and Unser shared the front row starting position with Unser on the pole after a record breaking run of 38.86 seconds (92.64 mph) around the one-mile dirt oval. To show on dominant Unser was, on lap 19, of the 100-lap race, he turned in an amazing lap time of 38.20 seconds in traffic. He continued to build an insurmountable lead, which Latham could not contend with.
Two yellow flags slowed the action in the first 50 laps. The race was stopped on lap 61 after a chain reaction pileup occurred on turn two caused by Al Bunkofske spinning his '72 Ford and being hit broadside by Dan Dickey in a ‘70 Dodge Charger. Lem Blankenship, Chuck McWilliams, and Bud Schroyer were also involved.
After a delay of 17 minutes the race resumed until six laps later when Butch Hartman spun his ’72 Dodge causing another six-car pileup and yet another red flag. Ray Bolander's ‘72 Monte Carlo, Bay Darnell's ‘72 Dodge, Tiny Lund's ‘70 Chevelle, Ramo Stott’s ‘72 Plymouth and Jim Tobin’s ‘70 Dodge were all crunched in the fracas with only Bohlander, Hartman and Tobin able to continue. It took almost 25 minutes to clear the wreckage.
On the restart Latham gave a quick challenge to Unser coming out of turn two but Unser pulled away and sailed on to victory by a seven second margin. Latham managed to beat out Roger McCluskey by six seconds while McCluskey's ‘70 Plymouth finished about five seconds ahead of Sal Tovella's ‘72 Plymouth. Paul Feldner of Colgate, Wis., in a ‘70 Dodge finished fifth one lap back with Butch Hartman taking sixth in a fender less ’72 Dodge.
Jack Bowser would win the State Fair Century on August 26, 1973, leading 84 of 100 laps. The last two laps of the race were the hardest by far for the Springfield, Ohio veteran. Bowsher, who led second place Butch Hartman by more than 14 seconds with 10 laps to go, was forced to slow down perceptively when his right tire shredded near the start-finish line on the 98th lap.
He was barely one car length ahead at the end after Hartman brought the crowd of 7,877 to its feet by creeping closer and closer on the backstretch and through the final two turns. Bowsher never lost control despite the flat.
“I knew it was going bad. I kept signaling the pits, but we couldn't come in,” said an exhausted Bowsher, who grabbed the lead for good on the 36th lap of the 100-mile race on the one-mile fairgrounds dirt oval.
Bowsher, who collected about $7,500 for the victory, averaged 84.517 miles per hour for the race. Veteran Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., making his first start on dirt in more than two years, finished third, followed by Ralph Latham and Ramo Stott.
Stott began a record breaking day by lowering Al Unser's 1972 track qualifying record of 38.86 seconds to 38.41 in a Dodge Charger. Bowsher also broke Unser's record, pushing his Ford Torino around the track in 38.73. Bowsher also established a one-lap race record, clocking 38.20 seconds on the 50th lap. Unser had held the old race record of 38.28.
Every event, it seems, has that one upset, where some underdog surprises everyone and takes the win against all odds.
That was until the 43-year-old driver from Deerfield, Ill., outdueled the top names in USAC stock car racing to win the 13th annual race and a check for $4,500.
Bay Darnell is all smiles after winning the 1974 State Fair Century, his first career USAC stock car victory. - Kyle Ealy Collection
He did it driving the wrong car, heavily taped because of a broken shoulder and fighting the burden of never having won a feature race in all of those years on the tour. Darnell, known as “The Great Pumpkin” because of the bright orange driving suit he wears when racing, said “I can't even tell you how I felt when I saw the checkered flag out there. There were just too many things to think about.”
“I won with a 1974 Dodge and it's my asphalt (track) car. I totaled out my dirt car and broke my shoulder last week at Springfield, Illinois, and I didn't even think I’d be here,” Darnell said.
But he credited a “miracle doctor” with patching him up well enough to go a grueling 100 laps on the Indiana State Fairgrounds one-mile dirt track.
“The shoulder didn't give me any trouble. I didn't even feel it once we got started. I put this thick padding in back of me in the seat. It was so comfortable it's never coming out of here.”
USAC stock division stock car leader Norm Nelson finished second, followed by defending USAC stock car champion Bart Hartman and former USAC national driving champion Roger McCluskey.
The 5-foot-8, 200-pound Darnell started sixth in the 28-car field. Hartman held the lead for the first 44 laps, Nelson kept it until McCluskey took it for one lap while Nelson pitted on lap 69, then Nelson held it again until Darnell took over for good on lap 95.
It was only fitting that a dominant winner of the State Fair Century win the last event and that’s what happened on August 25, 1975.
After driving for Ray Nichels for many years and dominating the USAC stock car circuit, Don White had become an independent car owner in 1972 and victories, once a common occurrence for the Keokuk, Iowa veteran, were few and far between. The four-time winner of the State Fair Century had seen better days.
But a huge victory in the 200-miler at the Milwaukee Mile in July of 1975 and a couple of top-five finishes at both the Springfield Mile and the Du Quoin Mile in August had given White some much-needed confidence when the circuit came to Indianapolis.
Sure enough, White would win his record fifth State Fair Century stock car race and break his own track record by almost 2 minutes in the process.
White, driving a Dodge, took the lead on the 73rd lap of the 100-lap race and finished nearly one lap ahead of his Keokuk, Iowa counterpart, Ramo Stott, driving a Plymouth. White, who set the previous record of 1 hour 9 minutes 26.9 seconds, or 86.4 miles per hour in 1966, finished the 100 miles in 1 hour, 7 minutes and 34 seconds for an average speed of 88.8 miles per hour.
It would be the final State Fair Century at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
While sprint and champ cars rule Indiana all season long, for 14 years the USAC stock cars were king for a day in the Hoosier state.