Thursday, February 24, 2022

1971 Winternational Sprints

Tampa, Fla – A crowd of 4,500, the largest gathering ever for a Wednesday night program, kicked off the 1971 Winternational Sprints. The experiment to go night racing during the mid-week, aided by beautiful warm weather, proved to be a success.

Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., took up right where he left off at the Florida State Fair last February by winning the opening night feature. He did it like a champion should, leading 19 of the final 25 laps, after establishing himself as the fastest man at the track with a top time of 25.71 seconds in time trials. Last year, he had won the finale of the series.

Blundy survived a first lap tangle with Buzz Barton of Tampa and Jim McCune of Toledo, Ohio, to come from his sixth starting position to gain the victory. The brush with Barton’s car caused him to lose his front bumper and grill work but did no serious damage.

Earlier, he blew a head gasket which caused him some minor trouble and gave him some doubts whether he would finish the feature. But finish he did, sailing along in front of the rest of the field after passing Amati on the sixth lap.

Behind him as he caught starter Johnny Hick’s checkered flag was Ron Perkins of Wood River, Ill., who passed Chuck Amati of Greenfield, Tenn., on the final lap to claim runner-up honors.

The lighting around the half-mile was poor, except for the frontstretch and the first turn, but Blundy claimed it wasn’t that great in turns three or four either. Despite that, he was satisfied with the experiment.

“It was better than daytime,” he remarked. “In the daytime, you have sun and all of that dust.”

Perkins and Amati were the hit of the opening night. The two staged a wheel-to-wheel battle in the middle to late stages of the feature that kept the fans on their feet. Amati, a newcomer to Tampa racing, won his heat and the 5-lap match race.

Heat races were won by Barton, Amati, and Dick Schmelyum of Westminster, Mich. Cliff Cockrum of Benton, Ill., who was badly burned during the races last year, came through to win the 10-lap consolation.

Before a turn away crowd of 8,200, Blundy followed up his opening night win with another victory on Saturday, February 6. It was Blundy’s second straight feature win and his third straight stretching back to the finale of the ’70 Winternational Sprints.

The capacity crowd was treated to a series of crashes, spins, and flips which brought out the yellow flag four times and the red flag once.

In the 30-lap main event, two cars came together in front of the grandstands, and one bounced into the pit area, smashing into two tow trucks. A spectator on one of the tow trucks was tossed into the air and landed on the ground. He suffered only bruises.

The consolation was almost as hectic, with four restarts before it could be waved off, once when Bill Roynon performed a slow roll coming out of turn two. Dick Schmelyum also did four rolls in the north turn but emerged only shaken.

Blundy’s dash to the front came just after that accident in the pit area, when the restart put him on the tailpipe of Bob Kinser of Bloomington, Ind., and gave him a chance to change goggles.

“We had so many yellow flags, I used up all of the lenses in my goggles,” Blundy said. “I was trying to wipe them off, but they all smeared. I couldn’t see a thing.”

Blundy was using a smaller 302 cubic inch engine in Saturday’s races, expecting hard, slick track where a big motor causes wheel spins. But a hard rain on Friday night left the track heavy and caused the smaller engine to labor.

“Actually, I was under horse powered,” he admitted. “I couldn’t use much of the cushion at the top of the track.”

More than once, he got too deep in the in the piled-up clay cushion and his car bogged down.

Blundy didn’t get his lead until the 23rd circuit but there was still excitement left. Chuck Amati came up on Kinser and started a challenge for second place. Once, Amati hit a hole and bounced so high that his right rear wheel tore a hole in the metal fence atop the concrete wall.

On the final lap, Amati brought the crowd to its collective feet as he stormed past Kinser down the front straightaway to claim second place at the finish line.

Heat wins went to Kinser, David James of Arlington, Tex., and Jan Opperman of Hayward, Calif. Dick Gaines of Seymour, Ind., won the consolation and Amati won the match race.

Everything that could happen did in the feature, including a tow truck breaking down in the turn and calling for another tow truck for a push.

An argument developed in the pit area after two cars tangled, sending the machine of Jan Opperman into two tow trucks in front of the grandstand. Opperman threatened to punch Elmo Smalley of Waverly, Ohio accusing him of putting a wheel into his car and sending him spinning.

“If I had a quarter right now, I’d punch you,” an angry Opperman said to Smalley. “I would, but I just can’t afford it.”

J.D. Leas of would have been halfway home to Winterville, Penn., on Sunday, February 7, instead he was taking the checkered flag during the third leg of the Winternational Sprint Series.

Leas had crashed his sprinter on Saturday night and his car owner, W.J. Watson, wanted to go home. But the crew pitched in, straightened things out, and finished a couple of car lengths ahead of Jerry Blundy and Jay Woodside of Kansas City in the 30-lapper.

“You should have seen the car last night,” Leas said, pointing at his steaming machine after crawling out and receiving his victory kiss from Winternationals speed queen Barbara Clack. “It was a mess.”

“But everyone got busy and worked Saturday night and well into Sunday morning and got all of the pieces together.”

The day didn’t start out too well when Leas smashed into the wall during qualifying on his second lap and he was forced to take the first lap time, which incidentally, was eighth fastest in the field. Chuck Amati was fastest with a time of 26.504 second but missed the feature with a broke rear end.

Leas was challenged repeatedly by two-time winner Jerry Blundy during the late laps, but the Galesburg, Ill., speedster couldn’t get the momentum for a clean pass.

It was a completely different type of track that the sprinters enjoyed for the first two programs. The surface was packed and turned slick, with the groove down on the inside. The loose stuff at the top was too dry and light to give the rim riders a cushion to push their right wheels.

Heat races were won by Jim Murphy of South Haven, Mich., Jim McClean of Joliet, Ill., and Elmo Smalley of Waverly, Ohio. Bill Cassella of Weirton, W.Va., won the 6-lap match race and set a new track record in the process, finishing in 2 minutes and 44 seconds. The old time was 2 minutes and 46 seconds set by Leas two years ago. Bob Kinser of Bloomington, Ind., started on the pole of the consolation and led from start to finish.

Eddie Leavitt, the gas man from Kearney, Mo., would apply the heat as he won the 25-lap sprint car feature at Plant Field on February 10. The 28-year-old propane salesman gunned his patched-up sprint car to victory on a frigid night as he flew by five sprint cars at the start of the feature and kept up the hot pace all the way to the checkered.

It was the only heat that night…

Temperatures in the low 30’s thinned the fans in the stands in what promoter Al Sweeney called a “record crowd.” Sweeney estimated that the crowd was maybe at 2,200.

“That’s the smallest crowd to watch an IMCA race in the 25 years I’ve been promoting races here,” Sweeney remarked. A half hour before the first race, Sweeney said he, “personally felt like shaking the hand of everyone that turned out to watch the races. They ought to be congratulated.”

Prior to qualifying, Leavitt tangled with two other cars during hot laps and badly damaged the rear end drive of his sprinter. A hasty patch job put Leavitt back on track in time to nab the fast time of the day, a 26.469 second clocking on the half-mile.

Leavitt started six spots off the pole position by but by lap 2 he had the lead all to himself. He went the entire distance unchallenged. It was two laps from the end that Bob Kinser nearly caught the flying Leavitt as they both entered heavy traffic. But the checkered flag fell with Leavitt almost two car lengths ahead.

Jerry Blundy finished third with Chuck Amati fourth and Dick Sutcliffe of Greenwood, Mo., fifth.

Most of the action happened in the consolation. The 10-lap race wasn’t even a lap old when six cars tangled in the third turn. There were no injuries in the pileup, but two machines, driven by Buzz Barton of Tampa and Cliff Cockrum, were out of the race. Gene Gennetten of Gladstone, Mo., eventually won the race.

Bill Cassella, Amati and Hank Albers of Bismarck, N.D., were heat winners while Bob Kinser won the match race.

After steady top-five finishes in the four previous programs, Bob Kinser picked an excellent time for his first victory of the series, winning the 50-lap finale on February 13. Kinser led from start to finish, earning the maximum $1,700.

Kinser not only battled the competition but had to give ground on five different occasions after building a comfortable lead as yellow flags came out for spinning cars. But each time on the restart, Kinser would set sail once again and re-built his comfortable margin.

The track was heavy from intermittent rains that once forced a stop to the program. There were delays as two trucks and a wrecker ironed out the surface and squeezed some moisture out of it. But it made for a lot of action and plenty of passing during the rest of the program.

Kinser was one happy driver in winning the big purse, $1,000 for the victory and $700 for every lap led.

“Happy?” he repeated a query. “You’re damn right.”

It was his first feature victory on the Tampa half-mile in three years.

Blundy, the defending IMCA national champion, had his troubles in the feature, although he finished third behind Dick Sutcliffe.

On the ninth lap, he stopped dead in the north turn, stalled by a nail in his tire. His crew made a quick change, but it demoted the car to the rear of the field. Then on the 26th lap, Herman Wise spun in the south turn, was rammed by Buzz Barton and Blundy slid to avoid them both and spun. Again, he was relegated to the rear of the field.

But in the final 24 laps of the race, Blundy picked car after car and moved into third place, garnering enough points to claim the ’71 Winternationals overall point title. He ended the five-race series with two feature wins, a second and two thirds.

Heat races were won by J.D. Leas, Buzz Barton and Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., and Ron Perkins took the consolation.

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