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For many years the annual Saturday afternoon sprint car racing program was the anchor event for the Allentown, PA Fair’s grandstand entertainment. The half-mile at Allentown has a long history of auto racing, playing host to the sprint cars, stock cars, and midgets over the years. In addition, Agricultural Hall on the fairgrounds presented both micro-midget and three-quarter (TQ) midget racing indoors on a flat concrete oval for several winters during the 1960’s. Of all the events presented, however, the sprint car programs were the longest running and most historically significant.
The Allentown Fair half mile was constructed as a horse racing track in 1888 and the current 7500 seat concrete, brick, and steel grandstand was added in 1911.
|8-time Allentown Fair champion, Ira Vail |
The first recorded auto racing event at the Allentown Fairgrounds took place on July 31, 1915 with Joe Lambert taking the first 5-mile event in his #11 Stutz and Geroge Jessup claiming the final two 5-milers in a #7 Chevrolet.
When racing resumed after World War I, Ira Vail drove his Philbrin-Duesenberg Special to fast time of 33.6 seconds and the victory in the 5-mile feature during the first fair program of auto racing at Allentown on 9-27-19. Vail was the dominant driver over the next seven years, winning on 9/25/20, 9/22/23, 11/29/23, 9/27/24, 9/25/25, 9/26/25, and 9/26/26.
|The 1928 Allentown Fair lineup.|
The 1921 Allentown Fair Sweepstakes was won by Bob Hoffman and Larry Beals drove his Hisso to win the 10-mile feature on 9-23-22. A special 4 th of July event was won by Tom Dawson, defeating a strong field of thirteen entries, which included Indianapolis veteran, Russ Snowberger. Bob Robinson won the 9-24-27 event in a Miller after Vail retired as a driver.
In 1928, Ray Keech, famous for his world's land speed record set on the sands of Daytona Beach , FL where he drove a 36-cylinder Triplex Special at an average of 207.55 m.p.h., drove his Duesenberg Special to tie the Allentown 1-lap record set by Vail four years earlier at 30.5 seconds. This was the same two-man car Jimmy Gleason used to lead the 1928 Indianapolis ‘500' for many laps. Although Keech won both the dash and the third heat, Herman Schurch won the 10-mile feature driving the Hollywood Special, which he towed east from California .
Zeke Meyer won the 1929 race in his beautiful #16 Miller, a car that took second place on the board track at Woodbridge , NJ in both 100-mile races won by Lou Moore. In 1930 sprint car racing was attracting larger fields with quality cars and longer races were the order of the day. Ten cars started the 9-20-30 Allentown Fair feature event with 20 miles the new distance. Fred Frame drove his light green #4 Miller to take the win at Allentown . Frame won his share on both the board tracks and dirt tracks, including a 100-lap event on July 4 th at Langhorne. Had points been awarded in 1930, Fred Frame would surely have been national champion.
Billy Winn scored two consecutive wins at Allentown in 1931 and 1932, driving his famous #36 Fronty on 9/26/31 and moving to the Murray Tire Special #1 to claim the 9/24/32 event. Winn lowered the Allentown track record to 29.1 seconds on 9/23/33, but Johnny Sawyer put the Burd Piston Ring Special #36 into victory lane.
Winner Bob Sall (5) and Tommy Hinnershitz (9) duel at Allentown during the 1935 Fair Sweepstakes.
September 22, 1934 found another mid-western driver in victory lane over a field that included Doc MacKenzie and Chet Gardner. Floyd Davis, who was to share victory in the 1941 Indy ‘500' with relief driver Mauri Rose, drove the blue #24 Bagley Cragar to victory. This car was used by Doc McKenzie to win the 1935 sprint car title.
Local favorite Bob Sall scored a popular win at Allentown on 9-21-35 in his revamped #5 McDowell Special. Johnny Ulesky surprised the crowd by setting fast time of 29.0 seconds in his #3 Blackbird Special. Frank Beeder, in the Bagley Cragar #1, won the Allentown Fair Sweepstakes on September 26, 1936 and repeated at the wheel of Ben Shaw's #48 Curtiss Special on September 25, 1937.
The 1937 sprint car champion and winner of two consecutive events at Allentown was fatally injured, as was fellow driver Roy Lake, during the running of the 1938 Allentown event on September 24 th . Duke Nalon's spectacular drive to victory at the wheel of Pop Dreyer's #25 was overshadowed by the double tragedy.
Ted Horn in Allentown victory lane, 9-21-40.
Reading , PA 's Joie Chitwood was on the warpath on September 23, 1939 as he notched his only Allentown win at the wheel of the Hank O'Day Offy. The O'Day sprinter would return to Allentown 's victory lane with Tony Willman at the wheel on July 6, 1940. It still carried the #2, but sported a beautiful cream and blue paint combination. The Fair held its race on September 21 and Ted Horn crossed the line first n his #1 Riverside Tire Special. Joie Chitwood, in the #5 Peters Offy, had fast time at 26.4 seconds. Horn repeated at Allentown in 1941 when many drivers left the AAA sanction in favor of the Central States Racing Association (CSRA).
World War II brought an end to all racing for 1942-44, but the end of hostilities on September 2, 1945 allowed time for Jimmy Wilburn to dust off his gold colored Offy #39 and claim victory at Allentown in one of the first post-war events.
AAA returned to Allentown as the sanctioning body for the September 23, 1946 event and Bill Holland scored the win in Ralph Malamud's famous #29 white and red Offy.
1947 was a historic win for Oley, PA's Tommy Hinnershitz. His victory on September 20 th at the wheel of his own #5 Offy was the first of seven for “The Flying Dutchman” at the Allentown Fair half mile and his legion of fans celebrated each one of them.
A still date (non-Fair date) on May 1, 1948 was a win for Bud Randall in his own #38 Offy, but Tommy Hinnershitz claimed the Fair date on September 25, 1948 at the wheel of the Bob Blake Offy #3.
Bill Schindler, the great midget driver who posted 53 midget feature wins in BOTH 1947 and 1948, began showing his ability in the bigger cars in 1949 and put the Ted Horn Estate #18 into victory lane at Allentown on September 24th.
Mike Nazaruk lowered the lap record at Allentown to 25.47 seconds in the #36 Mike Caruso stretched (to sprint car specifications) midget, but Californian Duane “Pappy” Carter drove his J.C. Agajanian owned #98 to victory on 9-23-50.
Bill Schindler in the Earl Beal deuce at Williams Grove on 9-14-52, just six days before his final ride at Allentown .
|Oley, PA's Tommy Hinnershitz was the '53 Allentown winner. This Pennsylvania Dutchman and his Miracle Power sponsored sprinter were national heroes. |
The September 22, 1951 event is regarded by many veteran race observers as the greatest event ever contested at the Allentown Fair. Johnny Parsons in the #38 Auto Brite Special took the win by inches over Bill Schindler in the #58 Beal Offy after the pair ran side by side for the entire distance.
September 20, 1952 marked the third Allentown career win for Tommy Hinnershitz in his own blue #1 Offenhauser, but is perhaps best remembered for the grisly crash which took the life of Bill Schindler. An axle assembly came loose from a slower car and was struck by Schindler's #2 Beal Offy, causing Earl Beal's pride and joy to catapult through the backstretch fence and into a tree outside the track. A track worker outside the speedway was injured, but Schindler was decapitated and died instantly.
Win #4 for Tommy Hinnershitz came a year later on September 26, 1953 when he again drove his Hiram Hillegass-built Offy, now in #1 Miracle Power Special livery, to victory at Allentown . Hillegass built many famous midgets and sprint cars in his south Allentown shop and was voted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1997.
Chicago driver, Danny Kladis, conquered the Allentown Fair half mile on September 24, 1954 driving Ted Nyquist's powder blue and white Offy #29, which was completely rebuilt by Hiram Hillegass after Wally Campbell's fatal trip over the wall at Salem , IN on July 17th.
The September 25, 1955 Fair race was postponed one week by rain, but those who returned on October 2 nd were rewarded with another dirt track clinic by “The Flying Farmer”, Tommy Hinnershitz, who took his 5 th win in his #2 Miracle Power Special over Johnny Thomson, Danny Kladis, Fred “Jiggs” Peters, and Charlie Musselman. Tommy Hinnershitz became the final AAA eastern sprint car champion as the sanctioning body withdrew from auto racing at the end of the 1955 season.
Thomson on the cushion in Sam Traylor's deuce in 1957.
Sprint car racing returned to Allentown in 1956 under the sanction of the United States Auto Club (USAC). Tommy Hinnershitz and his Miracle Power #1 captured a still date at Allentown on July 7 th and returned to sweep the Allentown Fair date for the 6 th time on September 22 nd . Tommy was the last AAA champion and the first USAC title holder.
Boyertown , PA 's Johnny Thomson began a two-year dominance at the Allentown Fair, driving Sam Traylor's #2 Offy to the win on September 21, 1957 and repeating in the same car (now #3) on September 20, 1958. Allentown 's Sam Traylor (the hotel at 15 th and Hamilton bears the family name) fielded some of the best sprint cars in the country during the 1950's and no victory was sweeter than to claim the Fair trophy. Sam Traylor was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville , IA in 2002. Thomson preceded him in 1996.
Tommy Hinnershitz and theJohn Pfrommer Offy #4 won the Allentown Fair and the USAC eastern title in 1959.
Tommy Hinnershitz returned to victory lane at Allentown for the seventh and final time on September 26, 1959, driving the John Pfrommer #4 Offy. Points from the Allentown victory led to Hinnershitz's second USAC title and seventh eastern sprint car championship overall.
Tommy Hinnershitz was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1990, the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, and finished second to Steve Kinser in 2000 balloting for the greatest sprint car driver of the 20 th century, amazingly 40 YEARS AFTER HIS RETIREMENT IN 1960.
September 24, 1960 added Jimmy Packard in the Walt Flynn #58 to the list of Allentown Fair winners. This race marked the retirement of Tommy Hinnershitz and the accident which claimed the life of the much admired Johnny Thomson.
On the opening lap of the main event, Thomson's Stearly Motor Freight Special crashed through the inside fence on the backstretch, not a hundred feet from where Bill Schindler disappeared through the outside fence eight years before. Thomson's car was previously the Beal Offy #2, the same car that carried Schindler to his death. Schindler had lost his left leg in a sprint car crash on September 25, 1936 and in an attempt to save Thomson's life, surgeons amputated his leg – his left leg.
To add even more irony to this day, Jimmy Packard's celebration of his Allentown victory was short-lived as he was killed in a USAC midget race the next weekend in Fairfield, IL.
Regional titles were abandoned in 1961 in favor of one national title and Californian Jim Hurtubise, driving the Barnett Brothers #56 Chevy, captured the 30-lap feature at Allentown on September 23 rd . Hurtubise finished second in driver's points and the Barnett Brothers captured the 1961 USAC car owner's point championship.
1960-61 National Sprint Car Champion Parnelli Jones of Torrance , CA repeated as champion in 1962 while adding an Allentown win on September 22, 1962 en route to his third consecutive crown. His Fike Plumbing Chevy #1 returned to Allentown 's victory lane with Johnny White as the chauffeur on September 21, 1963.
Nazareth PA 's Mario Andretti made his USAC sprint car debut in 1963 at the wheel of Allentown , PA garage owner, Charlie Sacks' Chevy #18.
Andretti switched to Rufus Gray's GAPCO #83 for late season events, including the Fair race. Andretti's subsequent sprint car exploits earned him membership in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1996.
Andretti set fast time in the GAPCO Chevy at Allentown on August 15, 1964 as the Fair moved one month earlier to beat the traditionally wet September weather. Jud Larson drove the #4 A.J. Watson Offy to victory in the 30-lap main event.
Two races were scheduled at Allentown in 1965. Jud Larson repeated with the Watson #2 on Saturday, August 7 th , and Red Riegel of Leesport PA scored on Wednesday afternoon, August 11 th , at the wheel of John Wergland's Chevy #14. Ironically both Larson and Riegel would perish together in a violent two-car crash at Reading , PA on 6/11/66.
USAC's tenure as the sanctioning body at Allentown ended with a 30-lap feature on August 14, 1966. Dick Atkins won the final event in Wally Meskowski's #9 after also setting a one-lap track record of 24.30 seconds in time trials.
The tragic 1966 USAC sprint car season concluded with a western swing. Dick Atkins and veteran Don Branson were both killed in a fiery crash at Ascot Park , Gardena , CA on November 12, 1966. Rookie Ron Lux was also killed in a Tulsa , OK flip on July 16, 1966.
In 1967 the Allentown Fair Board contracted the International Motor Contest Assn. (IMCA) to sanction sprint car events at the Fair. IMCA was well known throughout the fair circuits of America 's heartland and brought the best mid-western drivers to do battle with the top eastern racers.
Pennsylvania supermodified standouts Bobby Adamson, Gus Linder, and Ronnie Rough led IMCA regulars Karl Busson and Benny Rapp to the checkers in the 30-lap main event on August 5th .
The IMCA returned for twin 30-lap features on August 12 th with veteran Benny Rapp taking the opener over Karl Busson, Dean Mast, Darl Harrison, and Chuck Partello for an IMCA sweep. Bobby Adamson claimed the nightcap 30-lapper over IMCA stars Jerry Richert, Busson, Harrison, and Jon Backlund and parlayed his two victories and a sixth place in the first feature on August 12 th to claim the overall title. Adamson received treatment at Allentown Hospital after warm-ups on the final day of racing when he was struck above the left eye by a flying rock, but he returned to the track for the afternoon program.
At the urging of the horsemen who shared the half mile at Allentown , the Fair Board covered the speedway with crushed limestone for the 1968 races. The new surface sandblasted paint jobs, ate racing tires while producing little traction and considerable dust, and signaled the end of sprint car racing at the Fair.
On Saturday, August 10, 1968, Darl Harrison won the 50-lap IMCA main event over Bobby Adamson, Ray Tilley, Bill Roynon, and Ronnie Rough. Gene Varner, Benny Rapp, Johnny Auxter, Jim Fowler, and Gus Linder completed the top ten for the final sprint car event contested at the Allentown Fairgrounds.
Name the drivers from August 5, 1967 photo: 63-Jerry Richert, 4-Bill Roynon, 98-Ronnie Rough, 88-Ray Tilley, 16-Gene Varner, 69-Gus Linder, 24-Buzz Rose, 38-Lynn Paxton, 44-Darl Harrison, 14-Benny Rapp, 2-Jerry “Scratch” Daniels, 35-Bobby Adamson, 89-Jim Guisbert, 19-Dick Kistler, 66- Surge Tesolin, 65-Jim Fowler, 71-Unknown.
Editor's note: The above text was compiled by Paul Weisel, Jr. and the late Bruce Craig. A 24' long display depicting the history of sprint car racing at the Allentown Fair has been constructed by the Eastern Auto Racing Historical Society. This display was inside Agricultural Hall during the 2003 Great Allentown Fair and is now a permanent part of the EARHS showroom in Orefield , PA. Photos for the display and the above article are from the Bruce Craig Collection and the personal collections of Lynn Paxton, Buster Warke, and Paul Weisel.
List of the cars and drivers in the Bill Dimmich photo:
63 - Jerry Richert
4 - Bill Roynon
98 - Ronnie Rough
88 - Ray Tilley
16 - Gene Varner
69 - Gus Linder
24 - Buzz Rose
38 - Lynn Paxton
44 - Darl Harrison
14 - Benny Rapp
2 - Jerry "Scratch" Daniels
35 - Bobby Adamson
89 - Jim Guisbert
19 - Dick Kistler
66 - Surge Tesolin
65 - Jim Fowler
71 - Bill Compton