“Knoxville”……in sprint car circles around the world, you may as well be saying, “Heaven”. This week we celebrate fifty years of greatness. When I was five years old, all I knew was Knoxville was a short drive from our Monroe home. It was where we watched drive-in movies and got groceries at Hy-Vee. My how that changed the night my dad said, “Let’s go see what this Wolfie is all about.” “Knoxville has a zoo?” I asked myself. Soon I found out it was a zoo, but a much different one than I imagined. As I tackled my first tenderloin (a huge undertaking at the time), I knew this was a place that I would like.
As other children cried, I breathed in the fumes and reveled in the explosion of noise as the sprinters came to speed, whipped by the bleachers and blew my hair sideways with the breeze as they faded into turns one and two. Then down the back chute past nothing, no Hall of Fame or backstretch stands, just the silver sheds. Then they would scream by for more. Yes, we saw what Wolfie was all about as he took the trophy home with him that night. A fan was born. Unfortunately, my dad was not the biggest racing fan, though he did take me on occasion after that. My buddy’s dads were though, and I tried to get a ride to the races with them as much as possible. I don’t know how many parents would want to bring extra kids with them every week, but maybe these guys saw my love for this great experience we call Knoxville. When I got a little older, mom would drop my friends and I off (Can you imagine what legal ramifications that might come about today?) outside turn two at what would eventually become Bailey’s Donut Shop and then Subway. She would return to pick me up at 11, but would wait if she still heard the roar. There isn’t a year that goes by that I still don’t thank her for what she did for me before I got to driving age.
No, I haven’t been here the whole fifty years, but I can attest that the last 25 have been just awesome! I can honestly say that one of the biggest reasons I never got involved with alcohol, drugs or other stupid stuff was Knoxville. When your Saturday nights are planned, there’s something to do and see. In a small town like Monroe, you have the temptation to believe there’s nothing better to do than something stupid. I met and lost girlfriends because of my racing addictions. I’ve met so many good people, from fans to drivers to owners over the years. I now enjoy bringing my four boys out and watching their reactions.
Knoxville’s allowed me to have my own website at Hoseheads.com and other spots on the web like TJSlideways.com, be a part of a webcast (USA Dirt Racing Report) and to write for papers like RaceTalk, and that has allowed people at Williams Grove in Pennsylvania to say, “Oh, you’re Bill W, we read your stuff! Come on in, here’s your wristband!” I’ve made friends from Maine to Australia, England, Canada, Washington, Montana, Florida, etc., etc. The racing community is a family and I have Knoxville to thank for that. Though I have now ventured far and wide to see sprint cars on dirt, this is still home. This is the Mecca, the ultimate in our sport. The improvements have been unbelievable over the years. I’ve sat in the suites in the hall of fame, and I’ve done a little radio work up top. But give me Section D, row 20, because that’s where it all began and that’s where you can find me every Saturday night. One of the great things about Knoxville is the only certainty is the unexpected. You never know who will pull in to town and give us our thrills. A few (just a few) remembrances for me over the last 25 years……..
Track champs who dominated like Doug “Wolfie” Wolfgang, “Magic” Mike Brooks, “The Rocket” Rocky Hodges, Randy “Rim Rider” Smith and “The Dude” Danny Lasoski…..The other nicknames over the years like Johnny “Lightning” Stevenson, “The Jedi” TJ Giddings, “Jungle” Jim Grafton, “The Ohio Traveler” Rick Ferkel, “The Janitor” Jimmy Bell, “The Big Mac Attack” Mackie Heimbaugh, John “Hole in the Wall” Hall, “Buckwheat” Jimmy Sills, “The Big Toe” Danny Thoman, “Scruffy” Bobby Allen, “The Flying Shoe” Ron Shuman, “Champagne” Shane Carson, “Toolin’” Tod Bishop, “The Beast” Bob East, “Little” Joe Saldana, “The Tempe Tornado” Lealand McSpadden, “The Wild Child” Jac Haudenschild, “The Mouse” Kenny Jacobs, “Do It” Jack Hewitt, “The Buckeye Bullet” Dave Blaney, “The Flying Fireman” Sean Michael, “The Cricket” Craig Keel, “The Fox” Jeff Tuttle, “The Apollo Rocket” Ed Lynch Jr., “Bullet” Bob Ewell, “Razor” Ray Lipsey and on and on…..
Remember…..when “The Flying Shoe” and “Scruffy” were surprise Nationals winners…..when modified sprints were added to the program…..the first 360 Nationals…..Danny Thoman making the Nationals A main in 1987…..the USA series and the match race with the big three…..the Justice Brothers stable consisting of Bob Hop, John Stevenson, Jim Kouba, and Joe Kouba was a mainstay every Saturday night…..the first Larry Ball Jr……Terry McCarl returning from California to race weekly and proclaiming, “There’s a new sheriff in town!”…..Glen Birchner from Sleepy Eye, MN…..Jim Moughan Jr., Andy Hillenburg from Indiana, Danny Smith and McCarl racing the Merrill 5m…..John Sernett, Todd Mack and Rick Ungar in the Forbrook 5…..Scott Ritchart, Jim Grafton, Mackie Heimbaugh, TJ Giddings, and Jerry Janssen in the Sonner 47…..it was tough to be in second place on the same straightaway as Steve Kinser (wait that’s still happening)…..the “Return of the Wolf” Nights…..Australian Pursuits…..when these guys/gals raced here: Ken Schrader, Dave Blaney, Jason Leffler, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Billy Boat, Sarah Fisher, Robby Unser…..the night Jimmy Evans took it out of the park and Dan Motter said, “Brian told me these Schnees would fly!”…..Jerry Richert Jr. doing the same thing…..the horrific heat race crash in the 1988 Nationals when several cars were destroyed including Marlon Jones who went through the fence and ended up by the restrooms in turn one…..the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you knew that a crash “just didn’t look right” and one of our heroes had paid the ultimate sacrifice…..the tremendous and well trained fire crew doing their job time and time and time again…..when wings were made mandatory…..when Mike Peters snuck in and stole one from Lasoski’s streak and slipped back to Kansas…..Jack Miller did the Nationals and counting how many times he said, “folks” (we miss that)…..the World of Outlaws were sponsored by Pennzoil and you could count how many times Johnny Gibson said “Pennzoil”…..the World of Outlaws were sponsored by Copenhagen Skoal…..the World of Outlaws did not have a title sponsor…..the World of Outlaws did not exist…..trophy dashes…..the returns of Kenny Weld and Butch Bahr…..Jerry Beeck Jr.’s neon orange wheel covers…..Bob Vielhauer bringing two cars #12x and #11x…..Rick McClure’s pink bus…..Larry Week’s station wagon…..Gary “Boge” Johnson and the always respected Doug Clark on the flag stand…..Norm Wadle from wherever…..the Wednesday World of Outlaw show during the fair…..the non-wing shows (bring ‘em back)…..the fall World of Outlaw shows…..the WoO twin features…..the campground behind the stands…..Fireworks…..Rain delays followed by racing…..Cappy…..the mysterious disappearance from the track by Toby Lawless…..and Tony Armstrong…..Mike Chadd in the 55 dominating the 360 class…..David Hesmer doing the same for so many years…..when Danny Smith brought the Gambler #18 in with the first enclosed trailer…..the living legend Bob Trostle…..when shirts were under $10…..the Redmond’s, the Ergenbright’s, the Kinser’s, the Swindell’s, the McCarl’s, the Smith’s, the Alexander’s, the Heimbaugh’s, the Moore’s, the Lasoski’s, the Saldana’s and so many other racing families…..the first live TV race when we had to wait an hour to see the C (we don’t miss that)…..Carmen Manzardo holding off the King…..the day shows…..the Sunday after the Nationals features…..Stevie Smith finishing third in the Nationals the first time he saw the place…..Jeff Gordon driving the Trostle and McBride and Shoff cars…..Twin Features Night…..the times someone got their first win.
These and many more flow into my mind, but some things remain the same. I still get that chill, breathe in those fumes, revel in the noise (despite the mufflers), eat that tenderloin every week and feel a bit of sorrow when the racing comes to an end. This is Knoxville. Hopefully, the next fifty years will find me doing the same every week. We can only imagine what the future may bring as we look to the past.