Song of Susquehanna
Looking back, it seems as though the world in which I was raised in rural Central Pennsylvania was "pre" most everything. There were no drugs, although beer drinking was a rite of passage. There was no Pill and minors couldn't legally buy condoms in those days so there was very little premarital sex, at least none without a lot of worrying about the possible consequences! We had no television since no stations were within range of our home. We didn't get a TV set until about the mid-1950s when WGAL in Lancaster PA raised its broadcast power, giving us a single channel to watch Uncle Milty and Howdy Doody on! We also spent a lot of early Saturday mornings watching Westerns on Channel 8's Covered Wagon Theater.
As a boy, I remember sitting on the wooden platform covering our electric well pump, underneath a big buckeye shade tree, reading the same comic books, over and over again. I remember our 'forced labor' weeding the large garden our mother insisted we plant but I also remember eating all the vegetables we grew and being strip-searched for salt shakers by Mom before we were allowed to "just go for a walk" in the garden. She knew we hated the weeding but loved to pick and eat perfectly ripe Beefsteak tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers, warm from the sun. My love of good produce today probably began in that dusty plot. During the summer, Mom faithfully canned every variety from our garden so we would have some of each every week for the winter. We didn't get a freezer until I was in my early teens although Mom still continued canning after that since she didn't want to lose food to a power outage on our isolated farm.
The Pinetown one-room stone schoolhouse my younger brother Bobby and I attended was located about a mile down our one-lane dirt road. That was one of the longest miles in the world ever trudged on cold and snowy winter mornings and often one of the shortest ever walked on balmy spring afternoons knowing our chores awaited us at home. "Traveler", our male collie-mix dog, would spend his days lying in the cool hollow worn under our mailbox by the rural mail carrier's tires during his daily visits. After performing his usual morning duty chasing the mailman's vehicle off the property, our dog always resumed his post with both ears perked up for the sounds of recess when he would run to join us for play in the schoolyard. The teacher was afraid of our protective pet and guardian but "Travy", as my brother Bobby Whatnicknamed him, would always allow himself to be 'chased home' at the ends of our recess and lunch periods. He really deserves a story of his own; maybe several.
My father gave me a battery-powered radio for my 10th birthday, a vacuum tube portable with a 45 volt "B" battery that didn't last very long. I remember hiding it underneath my pillow and listening to the Grand Ole Opry late at night. That old-time country music sounded like the wind whining through rural electric wires on bitterly cold winter days. It made me feel lonely and spoke of faraway places. Places I wanted to go to someday, but that is another story entirely.
Some of my sharpest memories from those days are of warm summer Sunday evenings. My younger brother Bobby and I would walk down to the Bankes house on what my mother called "the back road". With perfect country logic, Tess Bankes also called the road we lived on "the back road". Along with her husband 'Big' Bob Bankes and the rest of the Bankes kids (4 or 5 at that point, I think) we would all pile into Big Bob's old flathead V8-powered Ford pickup for our weekly trip to Susquehanna Speedway. The Bankes family always got free admission as a perk from Big Bob's Saturday morning job of racetrack preparation while my brother Bobby and I had to pay a quarter each at the gate. Big Bob drove with Tess riding in front, holding their youngest infant, while my brother and I would ride in the bed of the truck with the rest of their family for our jaunt to the half-mile banked red-clay dirt oval Big Bob helped groom for racing each week.
Our conversations on the way to the races were always high spirited, loudly punctuated with opinions of which racecar was fastest, which driver boldest. There were no noise okay Google to find the Yiddish words stickcurfews in those long-ago days and racing would not end until all the events had been run. On nights with many yellow flags we often wouldn't head home before 1 or 2 in the morning, all 'raced out' and always under a starry sky it seemed. I'd give a great deal to relive one of those nights again.
The last time I was through those parts was many years later. I was riding a 2005 Harley Super Glide, making a run from Pittsburgh to Washington DC but had detoured through Pinetown to visit Tess. I was very glad I did as it turned out to be one of the last times we saw each other before she died. I was actually on my way to visit my cousin Jean outside Washington on that trip. I finally arrived, much later in the evening than planned and found my cousin had gone out dancing with friends but her daughter Alicia had waited with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, for me to arrive safely and both greeted me enthusiastically. We spent a pleasant hour catching-up as I unwound from the ride, now a fondly cherished memory. One may only aspire to have all their conversation as congenial and warmly reciprocated as ours was that evening before sleep finally caught up with me. I got along especially well with Alicia's fiancé who thought my road-warrior shtick heroic and my blacked-out Dyna "awesome". I'm only sorry I didn't make it to their wedding the following Summer on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I'm sure it was a grand party.
When I had stopped to visit with Tess earlier that evening, I could hear the 410 Sprint cars on their warm-up laps and running their first heat races at nearby Williams Grove Speedway, probably the best dirt track in the East, certainly in the Central Pennsylvania of my remembrance. Opened in 1939, Williams Grove has always been billed as a half-mile race track but I'm sure a truly-accurate measurement would show the banked clay oval to be closer to 5/8 of a mile in circumference, at least around the outside fence. The Grove was the go-to Friday night track on Central Pennsylvania's wildly popular weekly dirt racing circuit during my teen years and was where I usually attended the races most Friday nights once I had my driver's license. We hardly ever paid to get in. Bobby and I would drive to the track, park in the lot beside the third turn fence near what is now known as Beer Hill and watch the races until track security chased us off.
Williams Grove Speedway featured barnstormers, AMA flat-track motorcycles and touring Offenhtheauser-powered Sprint cars along with the longer wheel-based AAA Championship 'Big Cars' when it first opened. Later, after World War II, both Central Pennsylvania and the tracks of its weekly dirt racing circuit moved through a period featuring weekly flathead-powered coupes, then upgraded to Modified Stock cars with their OHV engines in the earlier to mid-1950s. The more powerful Modified and later Super Modified race cars were much better suited to Williams Grove's paperclip-shaped track with its very long straits and tight corners.
In addition to weekly races, special events appeared regularly on the famed clay of the Grove. 1959 was the last year that Indianapolis 500 stars toured across the country after their big race on Memorial Day, drawing huge crowds to major dirt tracks. It was also the first time I saw the Williams Grove Speedway as a spectator. Our Dad took us there to see the ‘big cars’ he liked so much. I really think he was trying to wean us away from what he viewed as Susquehanna Speedway’s 'rougher fare' of Modified Stock car racing. My father was something of a racing purist, having been a fan of professional “big car” dirt track racing during the earlier "Tummy" Hennershitz-Joey Chitwood touring era. He was also quite insistent that we only listen to big-band jazz at home, since that was the music of his youth. He didn't seem to care very much for either the music or the type of racing I liked.
I vividly remember the dark rooster-tails of clay arching high over the speedway's back fence, thrown up by the spinning rear tires of the circling race cars searching for grip in the high-banked corners during their warm-up laps as we first approached the track. The accompanying, inimitably deep growl of the unmuffled four-cylinder Offenhauser engines along with the blended fragrances of methanol, hot castor oil and concession stand food cemented a thrilling and unmistakable ambience I remember to this day. Pretty heady stuff for a 14 year old boy!
The feature race that day was rained out after about six laps, but not before tragedy had claimed the life of nationally famous race driver Van Johnson whose car flipped violently going into the third turn. It seemed as though the angels must have cried because at that very moment the heaviest thunderstorm I'd ever seen burst forth and completely soaked the place. The open trailers transporting the racecars, parked on the infield side of the front straightaway, were unable to leave for several hours as their tow vehicles rear tires could find no traction in the slippery mud of the race track. In those days, the old fairground-style wooden grandstands at Williams Grove were still roofed, so we remained dry during the worst of the deluge. In my mind, I can still see the hundreds of motorcyclists in attendance who were forced to slog home through the rain that lingered for hours. My first sprint car race and a guy got killed!
Modified Stock cars became the popular staple fare at all the top-tier weekly dirt tracks in Central PA during the later 1950s until the Super Modified and then "Bug" eras began in the early 1960s. At first, Super Modifieds were just fenderless Modified coupes equipped with fuel injection. They still had relatively stock suspensions and mostly uncut stock steel bodies. These quickly evolved into Bugs, smaller and much lighter race cars built on 30" x 90" frames constructed from the shortened and narrowed rails of repurposed stock frames. These rather crude race vehicles were soon further engineered into purpose-built racing machines with tubular frames, true race car suspension systems and drastically-downsized or even handmade custom aluminum sheet metal bodies. Those rickety, home-built, backyard Bugs ultimately matured into the sleek modern Sprint car, then they grew wings!
The various race tracks' regulations initially required most of the early Bugs to continue using stock solid front axles suspended by across-springs until the innovative fabricator, Kenny Weld, began moving most Pennsylvania chassis builders into the modern age with several revolutionary dirt cars he built and drove extremely successfully. He won almost every race he entered with the Modified he built and drove for legendary Central Pennsylvania racecar owner Bob Weikert. The famed # 29 Weikert 'Beefmobile' full-bodied race car featured a much lighter torsion bar front suspension and 4-link coil-spring rear suspension. Kenny began fabricating some of his first integral down-force wing structures within the bodywork of this AMC Gremlin-based racecar for better traction on the often-slippery dirt racing surfaces without adding weight. He also developed a very effective side "aero panel" by filling in the rear rear side windows of the Gremlin body with sheet metal which helped prevent the relatively light racecar from over-rotating as it was pitched hard into the corners.
Probably Weld's most striking creation was a true Bug, a small-bodied Super Modified he later constructed from a radically-modified Lincoln body that was nothing but wing, On its first outing, this revolutionary race car beat the existing track record by better than a full second a lap during qualifying on the dirt mile at Syracuse for their Fall Classic Modified race. A lot of other race teams scrambled to add some down-force to their Super Modifieds before the race the next day!
One of the most popular mid-era Bugs in Central Pennsylvania was built by Bobby Abel and featured an extremely light tubular chassis made of thin-wall electrical conduit tubing. The race car also had a handmade body, a highly-modified iron-block Chevy V8 with direct fuel injection and an all-aluminum quick-change rear. Bobby was later quoted as being very glad his revolutionary creation, which only weighed about 1200 pounds, was never in a serious wreck as the frame would probably have folded under a hard hit. That car was one of the first dirt cars with a totally tubular frame, a prescient forerunner of most modern dirt racing machinery. By this time, I had joined the Navy and was stationed in Millington TN near Memphis for Avionics School. I remember visiting a small 'black gumbo' dirt track in West Memphis Arkansas one Saturday night in 1964 where the famed local fabricator Hooker Hood was racing a Bug he'd built that looked very much like Bobby Abel's.
The Bug era lasted only a few years but lead directly to the development of the modern dirt race car, especially the Sprint car, with strong tubular steel 'cage' frame, torsion bar suspension and fully-integrated roll cage. These modular style racing machines, with various suspension setups, airfoil additions, body types, power plants and other refinements have now been the backbone of American dirt racing for well over 50 years as has the ubiquitous GM V8 engine.
When I was a teenager, I always rooted for the homemade Trone's Sunoco # 39 Modified coupe driven by Bobby Hersh. He had some wonderful on-track battles with the high-dollar # 1080 Modified driven by Johnny Mackison (Sr.) and wrenched by the legendary Davey Brown (Sr.) During my high school years, it seemed every gas station in town had a least one racecar.
I moved from Central Pennsylvania about the middle of 1962, just after finishing high school and about the same time Central Pennsylvania's dirt tracks were moving into the full-blown Bug era , leading the switch to to Sprint cars by the later-1960s. I joined the Navy about a year after leaving my boyhood home and, except for brief visits, was gone for nearly 20 years. When I finally returned to Central PA, it seemed as though a whole way of life had disappeared. Man had walked on the Moon, Elvis had come and gone and the fields and woods I'd hunted as a boy were now housing developments. I had grown and changed and so had the world. Nothing seemed secure, nothing intact. I searched for some connection to my past, some fertile soil in which to plant my roots anew. That need to find a tradition was fulfilled at the race track. Racers still ran several times a week. If you broke or wrecked on Friday, repairs were made so that Saturday night's events could be run and then, racers readied their equipment for Sunday night. Sometimes events were scheduled for weekend afternoons as well is the same evening. Midweek events often appeared on the schedule as well, yet teams answered the Call. They were ready when the green flag flew and most were competitive.
What wonderful values for a changing world! The racing community had held firm those traits I so admired in my youth. No one has a more concentrated dedication to goals than a racer; no one a deeper commitment to stated purpose. The heroes we all need are no further away than our local dirt tracks and never have been.
© 1996 & 2021 Will Eberle