Throughout the course of time, there have been many local dirt track legends that have been fostered in the Tri-State Area — such as the Boggs, Coleman, and Conley families, to name but a few.
The legend of Dean Knittel, who raced all across the Tri-State Area, belongs on that list as well. Need proof? 12 track championships, while owning a successful auto repair business in the Southern Ohio area simultaneously, certainly puts Knittel among that class.
Now, Knittel, who passed away in March at the age of 83, will have a race named in his honor.
On Saturday evening, Atomic Speedway will be hosting the very first edition of the Dean Knittel Memorial, which will host the Kears Speed Shop/VMS Heating and Cooling 410 Winged Sprints and will be paying out a very strong winner’s purse of $10,054 — with each of the 11 finishers behind the winner each obtaining at least $1,054 — as a way to honor the memory of the legendary racer who passed away on March 12.
“We’re just really appreciative of all of the people who have reached out to support what is going to be a great feature,” J.D. said. “Dad would love this. It’s going to be a fun night and it’s going to be hopping.”
Knittel, who started racing back in 1954, was a feared competitor in his No. 54 supermodified — so much so that powers that be from the world of NASCAR came calling.
“He was pretty successful,” J.D. said. “He always looked out for the other guys on the track, too.”
However, the veteran, ever true to his roots, stayed home to support his family.
“He had an opportunity to go bigger,” J.D. said of his Dad. “He was approached when he was younger to get up into NASCAR, but he didn’t want to leave his family. So he stayed right here in the local area.”
Knittel’s 12 track championships, however, were even more special when one considers that the dirt track pioneer, who had one of the fastest cars on a weekly basis at what was then called K-C Raceway, usually started from the tail of the field due to inversion, which takes the fastest cars and puts them at the rear of the field while putting the slower machines at the front of the pack.
To make that success story even crazier, Knittel was able to master the inversion process and take home features — without power steering.
“Back when he raced, he was one of the fastest cars every week, and back then, your fast cars started on the tail. Now, the fast cars start up front,” J.D. said. “He always had to do a lot of work in order to pass cars and get up to the front, but he sure won a lot of races. It wasn’t unusual for those guys to race 50 or 100-lap features. It was a feat for them. They were tired when they got done racing.”
The Pennsylvania Posse, which is a famed winged sprint car group that still exists today, found out how talented Knittel was, as well.
“They won a lot on their tracks in Pennsylvania, and of course, these race car drivers always read about each other,” J.D. said. “There were three big racing papers at the time, and a lot of the drivers would keep up with the other drivers. Well, these Pennsylvania boys thought that they were going to teach these Atomic guys on how to drive a race car, and Dad still beat them. He sent them back home. They came in for a special race that week, and then they came back the next week. People were asking them why they had come back, and they all said, ‘We just want to see if he can do it again,’ and he did.”
But while the racing was fierce on the track, it was nothing more than a hobby and a friendly rivalry off of the circuit, as opposed to today’s dirt track features.
“They all appreciated each other,” J.D. said. “It was a hobby for these guys back in the 50s and 60s. Dad sure did like his racing, that’s for sure.”
Later in his career, Knittel helped unearth the talent that was Charlie Swartz. An inaugural member of the 2001 National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame along with dirt track-to-NASCAR sensations Rodney Combs and Jeff Purvis among others, Swartz is still regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest late model racing talent in America.
“Charlie and Audie came down from Indiana to race one night,” J.D. said. “They may have beat Dad; I can’t remember, but they kept coming back to race. I kind of got hooked onto Charlie’s Dad and Charlie kind of got hooked onto my Dad, and we all just became good friends. At one point in time, Charlie moved in with us and lived in our house for about three years. He stayed with us out on Edgewood, and he’d work on the race car and stuff when Dad had it and kept things going. Sometimes, he’d take it out of town when Dad had it.”
Working on a race car full-time, however, was only going to be temporary for the younger Swartz, who later won the 1979 Southern 100 and the 1979 Southern Ohio Speedway Track Championship en route to an outstanding and highly-touted racing career.
“Charlie was a driver,” J.D. said. “My Dad knew it, too. He was tickled to death to find that one last race car, and be able to put Charlie in it. They were pretty successful.”
As J.D. got older, the questions were raised of whether or not he would drive his Dad’s own race cars. Dean cleverly gave J.D. additional workloads at the family shop in order to steer him away from dirt track racing, which, by the mid-80s, produced faster machines as additional dollars came from more national attention.
“Jeff Gordon raced up at Alma when he was 13, and I think that hit home with Dad,” J.D. said. “He realized that, ‘Man, there’s a possibility that I might have my own son racing at that same age.’”
Hot laps for the Dean Knittel Memorial, which also features the $2,554-to-win Ohio Pest Control 305 Sprint Feature and the $400-to-win C&M Racing Equipment Sport Mods Feature, begin at 6 p.m.
The 410 Sprint Feature, in addition to paying $10,054 to the winner, pays $554 each just to start the race, and, in a twist, will pay more to the 12th-place finisher ($1,254) than the 11th and 10th place finishers ($1,054). That is being done to honor Knittel’s track championships (12) and his old car number (54), according to the Dean Knittel Memorial Facebook page. Each heat race winner earns $154, while the fast time and fash dash winner will obtain $354 apiece. The hard charger award, which is awarded to the driver who gains the most positions from his starting spot during the race, will earn $754.
General admission will be $15 for the event, with kids at or under the age of 12 getting in free. A pit pass will cost $30.
For more information, visit https://www.atomicspeedway.net/ or go to the Dean Knittel Memorial Facebook page.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT