Fan Notes from the 1977 Knoxville Nationals Part 2

Saturday, February 4, 2017
1977 Knoxville Nationals Program1977 Knoxville Nationals Program (Tom Myers) Needless to say, when I found out we were going to the Sprint Car Knoxville Nationals, I was ecstatic. What were the Nationals? I didn’t know too much but I knew enough to know that this was big. The Nationals were in Iowa. And it was far away. All of the racers would be there. And it was the big race. And it was 4 days of racing! So off we went. 

We didn’t have tickets or reservations, but we did have a 1974 Olds Cutlass station wagon, pine green with imitation wood vinyl wrap on the bottom half of the car all around.  In it we loaded a cooler with ice, pop and a few sandwiches along with our suitcases. Watching the scenery on the way was great and crossing the Mississippi River was really cool. The size of the river left quite an impression on me. It was so wide where we crossed and after seeing it I could say that it is the mighty Mississippi! After travelling on 80 for awhile, we finally made it to our initial destination, the Newton exit.  As we pulled onto highway 14, we saw hotels but when we checked, there were no rooms available so…. we ended up sleeping in the Olds wagon that first night. It’s a good thing those cars back then were much larger than they are now! 
Johnny Beaber in 1977Johnny Beaber in 1977 The next morning we started asking around in earnest and we were told of a place just north of the interstate on 14. A guy had a small motel next to his house, or maybe it was part of his house, I can’t remember. Anyway, he said he wasn’t open during the races because of bad experiences with race fans staying there. Dad convinced the man that we would be model guests and he reluctantly agreed to let us stay there the rest of the week. I don’t remember the name of the place and I don’t know if it is there anymore but at the time, we were really happy to find it. A very big thanks goes out to that man again…. from pops and I. 

After unpacking and showering, we went for breakfast before heading south to Knoxville to see the track. At the Newton exit, there were a few restaurants we checked out. I don’t remember the name of the place where we ate, but I remember our waitress. She had jet black hair and a thick, foreign accent. She reminded me of a gypsy lady you might see on a TV show or in a movie. She was very nice and after that first day I looked forward to having her as our waitress the following mornings. Does anyone remember this waitress?  Does anyone remember the cinnamon rolls? This place served the largest cinnamon rolls I have ever seen, the size of a dinner plate in circumference. I had one each morning we were there! 
After breakfast, we took off and headed for Knoxville. Getting there took longer than I expected, but it was cool to drive over the Des Moines river……That is a long bridge! When we got to the Knoxville city limits, and after a few more miles south, I remember finally getting to the track and the fairgrounds. The first turn fence was up against the road. Old, rickety looking boards painted white and then just past the fence I saw the old grandstands.  We pulled in the area behind the stands and there were a few big trees and people parked with their campers and lanes that led back to livestock barns. 

Shane Carson in 1977Shane Carson in 1977 After finding a place to park, we got out and immediately made our way over to the grandstands. Dad was saying we needed to get tickets so we went looking for the ticket window.  The lady asked us what nights we needed tickets for and Dad told her that we needed to buy all four nights. She looked at us with some apprehension and said that there were no more tickets left for Saturday night. When I heard that, dread filled my heart! After Dad had asked the lady again, more than a few times about the tickets, he looked around and said “what are we going to do now?” So we just stood there for a little bit. We stood there by the ticket booth. We stood there watching the other race fans milling about with happy, carefree faces and Saturday night tickets in their pockets no doubt.  As we were standing there, not knowing what to do, a man came walking up to us. He was a total stranger but he must have heard our conversation with the ticket window person.  Anyway, he asked us if he could help us.  Dad told the man we needed Saturday night tickets but they were all sold out. Then the man pulled out two tickets for the Saturday night show and handed them to us and off he went. Dad cannot remember the man’s name but he doesn’t think it was Ralph Capitani. Maybe Ray Grimes? Ralph wasn’t the race promoter until the following year….but I faintly remember the guy looking like Ralph. Who knows? Anyway, we had tickets and we were grateful!  Whomever it was, Thank you! 

We then decided to walk around the fairgrounds. There were race cars all around, parked in different places, or in line by the track entrance or pulling into the grounds or driving up and down the road past the track. The cars were all on open trailers back then. You could see racks of racing tires, fuel cans, sometimes a spare rear end wedged in the trailer along with the race car. We walked back to the barns and there were cars in there. I remember seeing Johnny Beaber’s blue 3x. We knew him from Ohio. We saw a copper colored Nance chassis car that Shane Carson would be driving. We knew about him from earlier in the year when we saw him race in Florida. There was also a beautiful car from California driven by Billy Felts. It was a crème white color with sparkle red trim, gold lettering and numbers, a black chassis and chrome plating everywhere.  There was a crowd gathered around the car and some were commenting how heavy the car must be with all the chrome. Much of the talk was about Doug Wolfgang’s Trostle car that was super lightweight and all the races he had won with it during the season. 
Steve Kinser was a rookie in 1977 aboard the Smith #86Steve Kinser was a rookie in 1977 aboard the Smith #86 After touring the grounds for awhile, we found ourselves walking amongst the campers behind the grandstands. I heard a woman yell, “Hey Boys!” As I turned to look in the direction of the woman’s voice, my Dad quickly covered my eyes with his hands. I was like, “what, what are you doing?” But I couldn’t see anything as Pops whisked me away. Evidently, the young lady had lifted up her shirt to show off her assets to the camper fellows, not knowing a little kid was walking by with a clear view of the goings on.  Dad told me a few seconds later what was happening…I laughed a little but Dad laughed harder because no one was there to cover his eyes!

It was hot and you could only walk around the place so long before you needed a break. It was still a few hours before the racing started later in the evening…so we found a place on 14 there, in front of the plaza just north of the track, that had soft serve ice cream. We would get a chocolate- vanilla swirl cone there every day before hot laps. Does anyone remember the name of that place? 

And the finally, it was race time…….and the opening night of the 1977 Knoxville Nationals.