Tampa, Fla. – Al Fleming, the veteran Richmond, Va., driver roared to an easy victory on the opening day of the Winternational Sprints on Tuesday, February 5, before the biggest opening day crowd, 10,000, ever at the Florida State Fair.
Fleming had a comparatively easy time in the 10-lap final event, getting out front at the drop of the green flag, and never being threatened for the remainder of the event. He finished 50 feet in front of “Bullet Joe” Garson, the Texas star who was a car length ahead of Jack Holmes, the daredevil pilot from Winter Haven, driving the car owned by Sgt. Lil’ Abner Anderson, the popular pre-war driver.
Herschel Buchanan, the fast timer, and a two-time winner in the program, broke the axle on his car, keeping him out of the money in the feature event, and no doubt, proving to be a major break in favor of Fleming, as the Shreveport, La., driver had figured to win any event he entered. Time of for the feature was a slow 5 minutes and 55 seconds, slower than the average for a 10-lap event.
The Florida State Fairgrounds half-mile was in sad shape, in use for the first time since the Army had taken it over early in the war. The rough racing surface slowed down speeds considerably but added to the thrills as the cars bounced around, swerving close to the retaining wall, and on several occasions, scraped wheels.
Only one major accident occurred when Frank Popp, the Detroit driver, spun around after hitting a big bump in the south turn during the feature. Popp was unhurt but his car was out of competition.
In the consolation race, Garson sped to an easy win. Driving the Jack Sheppard Special, he proved to be the class of the field, winning the 8-lapper in 4 minutes and 26 seconds. Buchanan, Jack Holmes, and Bill Mocca of St. Louis were heat winners.
Buchanan tore around the track in 1 minutes and 43 seconds to win the 3-lap match race by a car length over Popp. Popp had led most of the way but wasn’t able to withstand the veteran Louisiana driver in the home stretch.
Buchanan would return on Saturday, February 9, and kept another record crowd of 10,000 plus on their toes with a brilliant victory in the 10-lap feature. The Shreveporter sped around the rough and bumpy half-mile clay in the creditable time of 5 minutes and 6 seconds, finishing two car lengths ahead of opening day winner Al Fleming.
It was a bitterly contested race from the start, and the big crowd, jamming the aisles of the grandstand and bleachers, hanging precariously on the fences in the turns, standing on top of buildings on the backstretch, enjoyed every wild second of it.
Only once did Fleming pull up to the point where he could look Buchanan in the eye, but there was never a moment in the slippery ride around the track, that Buchanan could relax. Fleming made his bid on the 9th lap, pulling abreast of Buchanan in the north turn, but failing to get ahead of the future IMCA stock car champ as the hard-driving Louisianan stomped on the gas and never let up.
Finishing third was Frank Popp with Joe Garson taking fourth. Garson brought the big crowd to its feet in the final lap during his battle with Popp for third place. In attempt pass a slower-moving car at the top of the stretch, Garson car skidded briefly, almost overturning. For a brief moment, it appeared that he would crash into the line of mechanics and attendants at the inside rail, but he regained control, and sped over the finish line.
Johnny Hicks, the daring Tampa pilot, won the consolation of seven laps in 3 minutes and 51 seconds. In a match race of 3 laps, Buchanan beat Fleming in 1 minute and 34 seconds. Buchanan won a heat as did Fleming and Garson.
Frank Popp, the lead-footed driver from Detroit, would shock many when he would win the main event on Friday, February 15. Popp took advantage of several breaks and drove a masterful race at Plant Field before 7,500 fans. His victory in the 10-lap feature, was a two-car length triumph over Joe Garson.
The break in Popp’s favor came on lap 6 when Herschel Buchanan was forced to the pits with engine woes, after he and Popp had dueled hub to hub for more than half the race.
Garson, a Texan, but popular with the Tampa fans, ran a good race in the feature, picking up where Buchanan had left off, and challenging Popp late in the race. He nosed his car ahead of Popp’s but the midget driver lacked the finesse to keep his racer out front, and he lost a close battle in the final 200 yards.
Time for the race was 5 minutes and 42.40 seconds, fairly fast for the rough and slippery track, which was still suffering the effects from an all-day rain on Thursday.
Coming in third place was Jack Holmes of Indianapolis, and finishing fourth was the pride of New Haven, John “Lil’ Abner” Anderson, who was making his first public appearance after five years serving in the Army, the final two of them spent in the China-Burma-India theater.
Neither Holmes or Anderson challenged Popp or Garson, but they waged quite the battle for third place with the Indiana driver winning by 40 feet.
Popp was also the big noise in the consolation, winning the 7-lapper over Johnny Hicks of Tampa after a close duel. Popp was also the 3-lap match race winner, churning around the rough track to outdistance Herschel Buchanan by 10 feet at the finish. Buchanan, Anderson, and Al Fleming were heat winners.
Buchanan would survive a crash with Al Fleming to win the 10-lap feature during the fourth and final program of the Winternational Sprints on Sunday, February 16.
The crowd of 10,000 came to its feet on the 5th lap when Buchanan attempted to sneak past Fleming almost 300 feet away from the judge’s stand, smacked into the wall, then locked wheels with the Virginian’s car.
Fleming’s car was forced to the middle of the track as the interlocked wheels came apart, and almost overturned. Fleming, although dazed by the incident, righted the car, and stopped it several feet from the judge’s stand, after forcing a dozen mechanics and attendants to run for cover as he swerved towards them.
Neither driver was seriously hurt although Fleming required first aid after his car was towed to the pit area. Buchanan finished the race with a badly bruised arm and cuts on his cheek.
Buchanan claimed that Fleming was in the wrong and should have pulled to the center of the track when he tried to go past him. Fleming, afterwards, passed off the accident by saying, “It was just a case of bad racing luck for both of us.”
Frank Popp, Saturday’s winner, finished second to Buchanan, and three car lengths ahead of “Lil’ Abner” Anderson.
Speedy Wynn of Tampa was the consolation winner, coming from far behind to overhaul the leader, Johnny Hicks, on the last lap to win. Popp took the Australian Pursuit race and also won the second heat. Buchanan was the first heat winner and Joe Garson won the third heat.