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The Ascot of the East
Roy Richvine purchased the property now known as Williams Grove Speedway in 1937. It was previously known as the Grangers Picnic Fairgrounds. The first race was held on May 21, 1939. Joey Chitwood Sr. set the fast time that day by completing a lap in 26.03 seconds. Tommy Hinershitz won 40 laps, winning $400. The Flying Farmer won 19 sprint car races at the track, competing into the late 1950s! He also won 7 Eastern Sprint Car Championships and enjoyed top ten finishes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The only NASCAR Cup race at Grove was held on June 27, 1954. Herb Thomas won, leading 150 of 200 laps, at Hudson in 1954. He led the rest of the 50 laps and finished second with winner Dick Rutman, Herschel McGriff was third. Other notable drivers included Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Dizzy Dean, Ralph Liguri and Hilly Rife.
July 29, 1951 became known as “Black Sunday.” Two drivers, Cecil Green and Bill Mackey, were killed in the qualifying races at Winchester, Indiana. Also that day Walt Brown was killed in the Grove. He spun in the second turn while qualifying his No. 29 car. He overturned and Brown died in Carlisle Hospital later that day. 11 drivers lost their lives on the track, in addition to 1 official and 1 spectator.
Grove has a connection to the Indianapolis 500. The most recent connection is that of driver PJ Chesson, who participated in the event. Indian winners with sprint car victories at the track include George Robson (1946), Bill Holland (1949), Johnny Parsons Sr. (1950), Troy Ruttman (1952), Pat Flaherty (1956), Jimmy Bryan (1958), AJ Foyt ( 1961, 64, 67 and 77) and Parnell Jones (1962). Jan Opperman, Joey Chitwood Sr., Johnny Thomson, Duke Nalon, Duane Carter Sr., Eddie Sacks, Roger McCluskey, and Elmer George (whose family still owns IMS) won sprint cars here. Ted Horn won 14 Sprint Car (then known as “Big Car”) races here in addition to 3 National Driving Championships (1946-48)! He was killed at DuQuoin, IL in 1948, but had enough points to win the title.
Jack Gunn was the announcer and then took over as promoter. He added Selinsgrove, Penn National and Hagerstown to his list of promotional efforts. Gunn, whose last name was actually Gunnells, attended the Milton Hershey Orphan School with his brother Trim. Trim had a garage business in Lebanon, PA and was a track car owner for many years. Jack won Promoter of the Year in 1979 and passed away in 1980. Gunn is responsible for bringing the nation’s best drivers to the races in central Pennsylvania. He is in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
Since sprint car racing began on a weekly basis in 1967, Fred Rahmer became the most successful driver, winning 83 races. Lance Dewees has 75 wins, Donnie Kreutz Jr. has 54 wins and Keith Kaufman has enjoyed 51 wins. Kaufman has the most wins in a season with 13 in 1984!
The speedway has long straights and tight turns. It is said to be modeled after the Legion Ascot Speedway in California. It is also known for its spectator bridge that reaches across the back into the infield. Under the track at the first turn there is a tunnel that connects the front fans with the infield. Gone long ago were the field starting grandstand and covered front stretch grandstands. Did you know that at one point there was an airstrip off the back of the runway?
Williams Grove Speedway is mentioned in a Hollywood movie. The 1949 movie is called “The Big Wheel” with Mickey Rooney as the driver “Billy Coy”. After getting into trouble on the west coast tracks, he heads east. A newspaper headline showing his victory at the Grove is shown. It later reaches the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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