USAC SPRINT HISTORY IN FLORIDA DATES TO THE VERY BEGINNING
By: Richie Murray
As the competitors of the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship ready themselves for the start of the 2016 season February 18-19-20 at Ocala, Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park, one shall not forget the beginnings of the series and its connection to the state of Florida. For it was 60 years ago that the USAC Sprint Car Series made its on-track debut in the “Sunshine State.”
Nineteen fifty-six was a year of transition for automobile racing in the United States. The American Automobile Association (AAA) was the foremost sanctioning body of auto racing in the U.S., specifically championship car, sprint car and midget racing. Due to the tragedy that occurred during the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June of 1955, the AAA decided to cease their involvement in auto racing, thus leaving open wheel racing in the U.S. in a precarious position heading into the future. In 1956, under the direction of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman, the United States Auto Club (USAC) was created, taking over from where the AAA had left off.
The first three USAC Sprint Car events were scheduled on consecutive weekends in February of 1956 in Florida. The first of these three races was held at Southland Speedway in West Palm Beach on February 5, a 20-lap feature won by previous year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Bob Sweikert. One week later, 1955 Hut 100 winner Chuck Weyant took home the trophy after winning the feature at Jacksonville Speedway on Feb. 12. The final event of the “Florida Winter Sprint Car Series” at Medley Speedway in Miami was won by Pat O’Connor, who would go on that season to win the 1956 USAC Eastern Sprint Car championship. On the strength of 2nd, 2nd and 3rd place finishes in the trio of events, Don Branson had accumulated enough points to earn the USAC Florida Winter Sprint Car championship.
Throughout the years, USAC has sanctioned 76 races in Florida including numerous notable events such as the “Tangerine Tournament” for midgets that consisted of 11 events at eight different tracks in February and March of 1957. Andy Linden scored four wins on his way to the mini-series title in his Lee Elkins-owned number 73: one triumph at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa and all three 30-lap features held at Sunbrock Speedway in Orlando.
USAC Championship Cars made their first visit to Florida in April of 1959 to the world’s newest superspeedway facility, the blistering-fast 2.5 mile Daytona International Speedway. Jim Rathmann took the win in his Simoniz-sponsored Watson/Offy during the “Daytona 100” and followed that up with another victory later in the day on the high banks in a 20-lap USAC/FIA Formula Libre race. However, in what would be the last event run by USAC at Daytona, the weekend was marred by the death of driver George Amick on the final circuit of the 40-lap event.
In 1985 and 1987, the dirt mile at the Florida State Fairgrounds hosted the USAC Silver Crown Series. George Snider won the first, a 50-lapper in February of 1985. Two years later, Larry Rice scored one of his five career Silver Crown wins in a 100-lap event at the track.
In 1996, USAC was the sanctioning body of the Formula 2000 series. The first event of the season was held at the newly-built Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando and won by current IndyCar Series team owner Sam Schmidt. One day later, USAC officiated the first ever event held by the Indy Racing League, won by eventual series co-champion Buzz Calkins.
On March 24, 2006, Aaron Pierce recorded the fastest single-lap in the history of the Silver Crown series during a qualification run at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway with an average one-lap speed of 175.012 mph!
In 2010, a new tradition began with the introduction of the Winter Dirt Games series for the USAC National Sprint Cars. Damion Gardner, who owns more victories in USAC competition than any other driver in Florida with five, collected the first victory of the series at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton. In fact, Gardner won five of the first six events in the history of Winter Dirt Games between the years of 2010 and 2012!
Now in its seventh edition, Winter Dirt Games has quickly become a staple of the early season racing scene, annually playing host to drivers, teams and fans alike who are eager to escape the winter doldrums and enter the playgrounds of horsepower. In 1956, a number of teams and drivers migrated south to Florida during the winter, arriving for a trio of races to kick-off their season and began the storybook history of the USAC Sprint Car Series. Six decades later, with today’s racing heroes such as Ballou, Darland, Stockon, Bacon and Clauson at the forefront heading to Ocala for the start of the 2016 season to write the next chapter, the sentiments remain the same as the rich tradition of the United States Auto Club continues.