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The Speedway News

Some of my clearest memories are of waiting on the front porch of my house at 126 S. 43rd West Avenue in Tulsa. It was 1978 and I was 10 years old going on 11.  I was a reflective (some might say brooding) kid given to flights of fantasy and whimsy.

I sat there, while other kids rode their bikes back and forth, and waited for the mailman.  I’d come to expect our mailman on Saturdays around a certain time, I waited for him avidly every fourth Saturday.  If that delivery time was close I couldn’t be tempted by either the Toss Across or the Slip –N- Slide.  Not even by an offer to pitch our throwing knives into the tree in the front yard.

I was very intense, it was exciting, I was filled with anticipation, thank goodness the thing I awaited only arrived to my mailbox once a month, for I might have had a heart attack otherwise.  I idled my time away wondering what was going to be in this month’s issue of the National Geographic World.

Photo May 10, 2 43 47 PMI’d discovered a real love of reading the year before, back in ’77, and my dad had gotten me a subscription to the World.  Each issue took me away from where I was.  I sincerely wanted to be away from where I was, anywhere in the magazine would do. Or, I thought sometimes, maybe just the Tulsa Speedway, a place I attended every Saturday night during racing season, a place I imagined was haunted and lonely every other night of the week.  A place waiting to be reanimated.

I loved the Speedway and would wonder what the drivers did during the week.  I imagined they were like superheroes, living under some everyman identity, lying low until it was time to race again under the Saturday Night Lights.  I thought all the other heroes who built the cars and made the track run had to kind of lay low too, like squires being called back into weekend service. I knew even then that without the mechanics, the owners, the sponsors, you wouldn’t have the drivers. Thinking about this stuff made my waiting for the World a little more manageable.

In the summer I could wait on my porch (which was tiny, especially for an adult, maybe 4’X6’) Thursday, Friday or Saturday and wait for my magazine.  If it was a no-go Thursday, I’d be disappointed; if not Friday, I’d get pretty angry; and if the calamity of ‘not on Saturday’ happened, well, I’d be downright outraged!

Luckily that only happened once or twice, both in the same summer.

I’d watch the little white mail truck pull up and then I’d take the mail out of his hand before he had a chance to even open the mailbox door.  Junk mail – bills – bills – magazine!  I’d put the rest of our mail into our mailbox and slowly walk back to my porch with my head down, staring at the cover of the magazine.  Was it a frog or an insect or some picture from a faraway land?

I was never disappointed by either the cover or the contents.

National Geographic World was like the regular National Geographic (which I found really boring, who wants to read about Three Mile Island?) but spruced up for kids and wannabe travelers like yours truly. It had the familiar yellow rectangle on top and four or five subjects above it (Egypt – crabs – redwoods – Taj Majal), giving a tantalizing hint of what was inside.

I usually read the entire magazine on the front porch, only going inside to carefully pull out the poster so I could pop it on the wall.  Every new poster would replace the one before it, making that spot on the wall a place of honor.  The articles were well written and full of photographs that really took me out of my time and place.

I lived for the “What in the World…..” segment on the back cover.  It consisted of nine close-up photos of things in the world along with little haiku type hints.  I usually got them all, and just in case, the answers were at the beginning of the magazine.  I had trained myself to not peek as I was reading it, because I read it all in order, cover to cover, with “What in the World….” coming last.

On those rare ones that tripped me up, I’d see the answer and say “Dang….” in my Oklahoma drawl.

Photo May 10, 2 43 59 PMThose one or two times where it was Saturday and the magazine still didn’t come, I could only be mollified by thinking about the races that were to come that night, praying it wouldn’t rain.  If it seemed stormy I would literally go back to my room and get on my knees and pray that it wouldn’t rain.

I may have loved the National Geographic World, but I couldn’t live without the Saturday night edition of the Speedway News.  It was like getting a new updated copy of some survival handbook every Saturday night.

We’d arrive at the Fairgrounds and pay our entrance fees, the first thing my dad would do was buy the Speedway News and hand it to me without comment.  I’d do the same head down shuffle, trying to navigate the steps up to our seats, all the while staring at the cover and ignoring (temporarily) the concessions.

I had favorite drivers and some that nowadays we might call frenemies, but I’d be fooling myself if I didn’t admit I loved all of them.  In my mind, for every light like George Armstrong you needed a little darkness like Emmett Hahn.  And all the other drivers made everything so interesting.  If George retired early in a race I might well root for any of them!  But usually it was Ray Crawford, a man I imagined garbed totally in black (like Johnny Cash) the rest of the week, incognito.

The photos in the middle were truly amazing

The photos in the middle were truly amazing

Why did I love the Speedway News so much?  Why, it made official all the amazing things I had seen the previous week.  It was right there in black and white, the official newspaper for racers and fans.  I could see in a glance the race results, the positions in the heats, the Trophy Dash and the Features.   Unlike with the National Geographic World, I would zip back and forth on the News, usually hitting the front and back covers first, checking out the centerfold photos and then filling in here and there, starting with ‘B’ Feature and Modified news.

If George had an ‘A’ feature win the previous week, I knew I could count on another dollar sign showing up next to his name on the back cover.  Bang, there it is!  “Look, he’s catching up to Emmett in the standings!”  Emmett always seemed to hold the pole position on the back cover.

I read the articles; I looked at all the Oklahoma-centric ads like those for Sooner Savings and was proud to consider myself a Sooner as well as an Oklahoma racing fan.  It was a hell of a fraternity we all belonged to and I hoped nothing would ever happen to that track.

Photo May 10, 2 42 24 PMAt some point I’d hand over the News, temporarily, to my stepmom while we waited for the lucky number to be called out.  I don’t believe we ever won (there were a lot of people there every week after all), but we considered it good luck anyway for it to be in Norma’s hands.  I’d look around and see everyone else kind of doing the same thing.  After the number was called I’d make sure I got the News back.

I was thankful to all the sponsors like Coca Cola and Brownies Hamburgers who paid for ad space and wished us a good time at the races.  The ads that featured drivers really intrigued me.  I actually expected to see Gene Daniels some night at Skate World, as my sister and I usually went to the one at Village Square on Friday nights.  Or maybe James Eubanks over at the Pool store.  Though we didn’t have a pool, I think you do catch my drift.  I remember the guy from the Swappin’ Swedes ad and the string around the finger in the Siegfried Insurance ad.

Photo May 10, 2 42 06 PMAll these people working together made the Speedway News the special publication it was.

A feature win by George Armstrong meant the next week’s cover was already a collector’s item.  Filing out of the stands and towards the pits we’d speculate as to the following cover.  If we kids were well behaved we’d get to the pits after the races and hunt for autographs, and usually these were appended to some blank spot on the Speedway News.

We’d look for the right spot because we knew it would be bad form to get one driver’s signature on a photo or story of one of his rivals.  We understood the honor that went along being a racing gladiator.

There was a racing fill in sheet offered too, but we rarely filled it in because I didn’t want to mar the newspaper itself.  Racer autographs were generally the only writing I allowed.  They also offered help finding typos but I never cared about that.  I never let anyone cut out coupons either, even if it was for Der Wienerschnitzel!

Photo May 10, 2 47 53 PMAfter we’d leave the Fairgrounds I’d maybe flip through the News one or two more times and then carefully store them in a box in my closet.  After every season they’d get put up in the attic, mothballed.  During the week I never looked at the prior, or any other, issue.  Once it was over it was over, plus doing so would make me anticipate the next Saturday a little too much.  Looking at it would make time move at an unacceptably slow pace.  That’s what the National Geographic World was for; I could look at that anytime.

As I got older I learned what we all do, that maybe trying to slow down time is not such a bad thing.  I moved away but none of those Speedway issues came with me.  I traveled light to California and started a new life with my mom.  My boxes sat in the attic for a while and were lost to the years.  All I know is that the next time anybody checked, they were gone, probably the victim of some spring cleaning.

And wouldn’t you know it; George Armstrong won it all in 1979, the year I left.  I wondered what those issues must have looked like.

This is a cover George made from '75

This is a cover George made from ’75

I eventually lost the agonizing anticipation of childhood; I got a subscription to National Geographic but never waited around for the mailman to deliver it.  Nowadays they just pile up in my basement, unread.

But over the years I thought about the Speedway, I’d wonder how it was doing.  What did later issues of the News look like?  For the first time I thought about the people who published this paper and took all those photographs and I silently thanked them.  It was a great record of the times.  One time in the mid-Nineties I started thinking about it all again.  I was in my mid-twenties and a little aimless, turning my thoughts back to the past to avoid the present.  I called the Speedway from my apartment in Brooklyn, New York.  It was a thrill to talk to a live person from that fabled place.  I didn’t know if or when my old drivers had retired but I asked how I could get my hands on copies of the Speedway News.  The lady on the other end didn’t really know but said she would look into it.

I called again and there wasn’t any good news, it seems there wasn’t much universal nostalgia for a past that was only fifteen years gone.  I let it go.

Photo May 10, 2 41 35 PMThen came the internet and EBay; and then Facebook.  A couple of years ago I joined a group on Facebook called Vintage Supermodified. I’d been looking at the amazingly detailed website called “Racing from the Past” and was glad there was a Facebook page connected to it.  It brought back memories I had no idea were still there.

I then befriended a nice guy named Clayton who was generous enough to send me a few copies of The Speedway News for free!  And they were from the Seventies, some from the very weeks I knew I had been there.

He texted me and told me he had mailed them.  And a couple of days later, for the first time since I was a kid, I sat on my front porch (this time in Georgia) and waited for the mailman to come.  The mail truck looked different than in the old days but my anticipation was the same.

Photo May 10, 2 47 34 PMI received the package from Clayton and scratched it open.  Wow, they were bigger than I remembered and made from really good paper!  They had hardly yellowed at all.  Maybe these very issues were kept by another little kid in Oklahoma who stored them, not wanting to be reminded how far away race day was.  Clayton sent me two from 1975 and two from 1976.  I pored over them in detail, remembering.

Clayton, awesome guy that he is, also sent along a Tulsa Speedway patch.

I have to say, and not just paper-wise, they have held up very well over the years.  The content is just as interesting.  I still loved going over the standings, the ads and stories, chuckling at the lucky number.  But one difference is that I read through it a lot faster.  The articles were short and sweet.  The pictures really took me back to that lost era of Oklahoma racing.  It seemed like a long time ago but I remember it so well.

Photo May 10, 2 41 13 PMI heard the track’s been gone a long time, most of gladiators have retired (except for Mike Peters – how does he keep doing that?!).  Now the drivers are passing on, George Armstrong years ago and Harold Leep just a few months ago.

But the Speedway News, printed on what is apparently archival paper, will always be there.  And of course all of our memories. Thank you to the makers of the Speedway News, the writers and the photographers and editors; you all did something great that my 11 year old self really appreciated then and my 46 year old self does now.  And, looking ahead, I’m always looking to refill my collection of late 1970’s issues.  I know they’re out there now and I will keep checking places like EBay for a good deal!

6 replies
  1. Clayton Veale
    Clayton Veale says:

    Bill……wow, I too had a subscription to the National Geographic World…..I too lived for Saturday nights at the race track……Dad would stop us by Der Winerschnitzel for dinner, then stop by the liquor store at Mayo Meadow for something for himself. You have written damn near the same feeling and experiences I had…….Those were times kids today will never know, and we still had a better time on Saturday night without the internet, sports, the mall, or any hand held personal communication device. Go spend a Saturday night at a dirt track kids!!

    Reply
  2. Clayton Veale
    Clayton Veale says:

    Was at the last race at the wooden grandstand speedway, and the first and last nights at the Fairgrounds……as John Lee Hooker said, “It’s in him, and it’s got’s to come out”

    Reply
  3. Ray Cate
    Ray Cate says:

    I am little older than you but love the race. My uncle was Norman Gumm and he owned the 3 modifieds from Wichita that all looked a like. Mike peters drove the #71 for him. the standings that you posted above was a very special night for us. Norman’s car finished 1,2,3 in the feature. Gene See won in the 117,James Warren was second in the 17 and Mike was third.
    There is an old sight on the internet it is called Racing from The past. There are hundreds of old stories form the Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, region form the good old days. Go to the Forum the best one is What Ever Happened to? I think you will enjoy the stories and photos. Feel free to E mail me at any time to talk about the good old days from Tulsa. Harold Leep’s owner was Raymond Caates and we are not related.

    Ray

    Reply
    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      While I was writing this thing I couldn’t remember the name ‘Racing From the Past.’ I’m going to go back and attribute the site in my essay. Thanks Ray. I remember the name Norman Gumm very well from the old days.

      Reply
      • Ray Cate
        Ray Cate says:

        Bill I am new to this computer stuff. It was Racing From the Past that got me into computers. I still remember the first thing that I posted on that sight. It was the summer of 2006 and I told all the fans that Norman had passed away in 2004. He moved to Tulsa from Wichita and lived about a mile from me. He always would ask me if I had heard anything about Mike Peters. he called Mike “My Boy” Norman spent a lot of money on racing. he and Mike raced over 80 times in 1975. They raced anywhere there was a race. I only made it to 60 of those races. I noticed that you are from the west Side of Tulsa, I am also. I live by the Oaks country club. Since we live in Creek county I had to go to School in Sapulpa even though Webster was a lot closer. The program that you have above with the standings and the photos from the center is my all time favorite. Mike was still racing last year and had a bad wreck He broke his neck. There was no permanent damage but they had to fuse it. He will be 64 in August, I hope he does not try to race again.

        Ray

        Reply

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