This is an article that was written by Doc Lehman almost a decade ago. We appreciate the fact Doc thought this highly of the DTWC and hope he knew we appreciated him and all he did for dirt track racing. He was one of the best. RIP Doc and we hope you get your wish about reliving those most precious moments.
WHICH ONE IS THE ONE?
If you had the opportunity to go back in time and see just one race again, what race would it be? That is a question I have been asked many times. For me that is an easy question. There can be no other race that will ever stand out in anyone's mind that was lucky enough to be there the way the first Dirt Track World Championship does. If you were there, you know what I am talking about. Even without all of the story lines that played out that weekend, you knew you were witnessing history.
To help those that weren't there understand a little bit better, we'll go way back to 1981. To say way back to 1981 sure sounds strange because it seems like yesterday and in my mind's eye I can still remember all of the sights and sounds from that weekend in October that forever changed dirt track racing. You would have to say it had more influence on the big purses that you see today than any other race ever. In fact most of the trade papers called it "The Race." Stock Car Racing magazine called it "The Most Incredible Race."
BACK TO BEGINNING
If you turn the clock back to 1981 and look at where dirt track racing was, you will understand why they said that. When Carl Short announced he was going to pay $30,000 to win at Pennsboro Speedway, almost everyone thought he had lost his mind. You see, the biggest dirt track race on the planet was the World 100 at the famous Eldora Speedway and in 1981 it was only paying $14,000 to win. Short was going to more than double that but that was only part of the reason people thought he had lost his mind. Eldora was one of the best tracks in the country as far as having the infrastructure, lots of room, etc. Pennsboro Speedway had none of that. Very limited in the room department, almost no infrastructure, and a reputation for one groove racing, Pennsboro was one of the last places you would have thought of putting on an event like Short was planning.
NEIL BONNET AND PORTER WAGONER
If more than doubling what had been paid on dirt before wasn't enough, Short brought in Neil Bonnet to race with the dirt boys and for entertainment, he brought in Porter Waggoner. This was before you saw promoters providing big name entertainment at a race and to the best of my recollection, the first time I had seen a performer of this magnitude at a dirt track race. Short had Grand Pa Jones at the Hillbilly 100 a month and a half before but he wasn't considered to be the same magnitude performer Porter was and I'm quite sure no where near the money. He performed on a stage in the infield while water trucks were running the track in. His performance was cut short because so many people were yelling to get on with the race as soon as the track was ready. It told me that the big majority of race fans would rather see the biggest paying dirt race ever than wanted to see Porter.
On Saturday night Short had provided a free ox roast along with free beer. Yes, I said free beer! I think that was a first for me also because I couldn't remember any track ever giving away free beer to the masses before. I'm not sure it was a real good idea because as usual there were some who took a little too much advantage and totally over indulged. I think it was a good time had by all though, even with the rain coming down at differing intensities during the night.
Short also had a local band on hand for entertainment that kept the party going until about 2 AM. I guess that very first DTWC sort of started a pattern. It had started raining just as the last heat race was pulling off of the track Saturday afternoon and never really stopped until about 10:30AM on Sunday morning. If Short's weekend hadn't been stressful enough, mother nature sure didn't help any. For the most part I think the third weekend of October has had many more bad weekends than good and that in a month that has traditionally been the driest month of the year. Even through all of the rain, sleet, and snow that I have seen at the DTWC, Short has held steadfast to the original third weekend of October date.
CINDERELLA STORY OF ALL TIME
That first DTWC produced what has to be called the Cinderella story of all time. Jim Dunn who was known as a good regional driver but certainly not a super star had crashed in his heat race on Saturday afternoon just before the rain started. Jim had announced he was retiring and this was his last race. Since this was to be his last race and the car was pretty badly damaged, he decided to load up and head back home to Roseville Ohio. Of all things, the car hauler wouldn't start. Unable to get it started, Jim called his dad Carrell that owned a trucking company in Roseville. His dad told him it would be sometime Sunday before he could possibly get there.
After some discussion, Jim and his crew decided to work on the car all night to try to make a little money in the consy the next day. With Jim starting in the rear of the consy on a track that was never known for multi groove racing his hopes weren't really high. When the green flag flew on the consy it was evident Dunn had hit on something. He was picking off car after car but I don't think anyone including myself could have ever imagined where this day was going. Against what most people thought were insurmountable odds Jim won the consy. His work had just begun because now he had to start at the rear of the feature with what could arguably could be called the best field of late models that had ever been assembled starting in front of him. After about half way the fans started to realize that something magical was going on. Just like in the consy, Jim was picking off car after car. He didn't seem to push it or get excited. He seemed as cool, calm and collected as I had ever seen him. His march to the front continued until only Rodney Combs stood between him and the biggest win of his life. Well actually the biggest win of any dirt racers life. This reporter will never forget Jim going high coming out of turn 4 and passing Rodney Combs for the lead. To say the place erupted is a gross understatement. Then Jim just had to keep it together for the last 10 laps. I am sure every noise he heard for those last 10 laps was magnified 100 times. When the checkered flag flew Jim had won the biggest payday that had ever been paid on dirt. Oh, did I mention this was supposed to be his last race?
6 FOOT TROPHY & 3 $10,000 CASHIERS CHECKS
When Jim climbed out of the car he still had that cool Jim Dunn demeanor. I don't think it had really sunk in what he had actually done. It seemed like that cool exterior changed just a little though when Carl Short presented him with that 6 foot trophy and those 3 $10,000 cashier checks. Needless to say, Jim's retirement plans went right out the window.
YEAR AND A HALF LATER: TRAGEDY!
After Jim's DTWC win he became more of a national driver. He started doing more traveling and hitting more of the big shows. In May of 1983 Jim traveled to Paducah, KY. for a NDRA show. It was originally scheduled for Saturday night but got rained out and was rescheduled for Sunday afternoon. The track got extremely dusty and the way the track was situated, you had the afternoon sun right in your face when you were going down the front straightaway. There's no use going into to details but Jim was involved in a crash and his car was engulfed in flames. There was no fire department there and just nothing could be done. Dirt racing had lost one of its truly great ambassadors and the very first Dirt Track World Champion. I really hate to even bring up what happened on that Sunday afternoon in May of 1983 in a discussion about the one race I would like to be able to relive, but regretfully this story just wouldn't be complete without it.
FINALLY...THE ONE THAT MADE A DIFFERENCE!
There have been hundreds of races that I have attended and lots of memorable moments but nothing else can compare to that first DTWC. It totally changed the face of dirt track racing and possibly even reached into NASCAR itself. At that first DTWC I was talking to Neil Bonnet and he told me he was going to have to talk to NASCAR because if Carl Short could pay what he was paying at a place like Pennsboro, the NASCAR tracks should be paying more. We'll never know if Neil actually said anything to them or not and if he did whether it had any effect but it wasn't long after this that NASCAR started raising their purses which they hadn't seemed inclined to do until then.
MAYBE A CHANCE AT A REPLAY
If there is any chance the good Lord will grant us a replay of our most memorable moments down here on earth when it's our time to go and I really hope there is, when it comes to racing, that very first DTWC will sure be at the top of my list.