PDT Staff Writer
There was a time when guys took to the track on a Sunday afternoon and there wasn’t much money involved. They did it anyway.
“It sure has changed. The racing business has grown by leaps and bounds. Big money now,” Bobby Morgan, who drove a race car back in the fifties, said. “We didn’t get rich back then. We did it for fun.”
Morgan was one of hundreds of people, including race car drivers from the fifties and sixties, who turned out for “Thunder Returns 4” Saturday at Lazy Village Campgound and RV Park, the site of the old Portsmouth Speedway.
“We’ve got a good turnout,” organizer Gary Meade said as he directed traffic onto the property. “We’ve got a lot of cruise-in cars, some that have never been here before. There’s some race cars that haven’t been here before, and we’re still waiting on more to arrive. We’ve got the old Sam Irwin car here too.”
“This was Sam Irwin’s old 710,” John Lemaster, the current owner of the car, said. “It ran in this area for quite a few years and then Pappy Singleton got a hold of it. The last guy I know who raced it was Michael Wolfenberger from up in Wheelersburg.”
Lemaster found the car in an old tobacco barn in Cincinnati about 20 years ago and bought it. It has a 36 Plymouth front end and a truck steering box underneath because back in the fifties, race cars were made out of whatever the driver could find.
“It’s just a piece of racing history around here that you don’t see anymore,” Lemaster said. “You can’t find original parts anymore. If you’re going to do it you have to make them yourself.”
When you speak of racing history in southern and central Ohio, one name comes up in any conversation. Dean Knittel is a racing legend in these parts. Now, Tom England, of Chillicothe, proudly displays one of Knittel’s legendary race cars.
“I have had it probably five years or so,” England said. “There has been a lot of conversation over this car. Dean Knittel and Tommy Vaughters had it originally. They started racing in (19)54, and they quit running this car in 1969. This used to run at old Atomic Speedway. It still holds the track record in modifieds. It won nine or 10 championships up there.”
The car had a “for sale” sign in the window and there was no shortage of guys who looked like they would like to get their hands on it.
Ross Hamilton is a walking, talking encyclopedia on “back in the day,” at Portsmouth Speedway.
“They started out with one class. Then they divided up into two by motors - they had the flat heads and the straight-six cylinders. They called them modifieds. The straight-sixes, they called them sportsmen. They ran them together and called them modified sportsmen. They would have a modified winner and a sportsmen winner,” Hamilton said. “When they got more cars they split the classes up. If you had 30 cars here you had a big turnout. We thought it was enormous.”
Hamilton said there is a large list of names of people who drove the track including racing legend Gordon Johncock.
One of the cars that turned heads when they hauled it into the mix was the Comstock Midget, owned by Aaron Fry of Chillicothe.
“This car was built and raced by Gene Comstock of Chesapeake, Ohio,” Fry said. “This is one of his earliest midgets. It was the one that he had the most success with. It was built in the late 1930’s and it ran up until 1951. Around 1950-51 is when he went to NASCAR. He had 29 NASCAR Grand National starts, but he won a lot of races here at the old Portsmouth Speedway. I got the car from his wife, and she told me that this car raced here for sure and she is pretty sure it won races here.”
Meade said the event is special because of the opportunity for people who drove or followed the drivers back in the fifties to come together and reminisce.
“The wander around and look at old pictures - relive the old days - and meet everybody they haven’t seen for years and just have a good time,” Meade said.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at email@example.com