KNOXVILLE — It was May 1, 1982 — the regular season opener for the Knoxville Raceway.
A large crowd was on hand to watch the wingless sprint cars race on the biggest half mile track in the country. The heats were completed and the cars were lined up for the A-main.
After two false starts the green flag finally waved and 22 anxious drivers mashed the gas, bringing the cars to life. It was a beautiful sight as the colorful cars rocketed down the front stretch battling for position.
Suddenly things went terribly wrong. A black car toward the front of the pack flipped violently down the front stretch, cars ducking and diving to get out of the way.
A red car launched high in the air sending the flagmen running for cover. Another car barrel rolled into the infield. Only moments before the air that was full of fun and excitement was now replaced with deafening silence.
The smiles were replaced with shock. A piercing scream penetrated the air as horrified onlookers saw what was left of a brave driver lying on the track in front of the flagstand. Gary Scott from Holts Summit, Mo., died right there on Knoxville’s black ribbon of dirt.
His safety harness had failed, allowing him to eject from the safety of his cockpit. Cliff Woodward was the driver, launched above the green lights, hanging across the track. His Shady Oaks Steakhouse Special was a wad of crumpled steel. Cliff and Ricky Weld, the other drivers involved, would spend weeks in the hospital recovering.
Bob Trostle, the legendary car builder from Des Moines, loaded up his car and told officials he would be back when they put wings on the cars. Too many drivers had been killed. Darrel Dawley, Rodger Larson and Dick Stoneking had all been killed in a three year period at Knoxville.
The era of wingless sprintcar racing ended that night at Knoxville. It was announced on the following Monday Knoxville would require 25 square foot wings on the cars.
The wings would be taken off only for the USAC Sprint Cars a few weeks later, then the wings would go back on forever. Non-winged cars would not race at Knoxville again until 1990 when California’s CRA Tour made a stop during their summer midwest swing.
Cappy had cited engine and tire cost for the reason not to run wings but the safety that wings provide made the benefit worth the cost. Wings stick the cars to the track and absorb the energy created during a crash making the flips less violent.
There was not a fatality at Knoxville again until 1995 when Danny Young was killed in a turn three crash. It was a freak accident, people said. Yeah right. A string of fatalities followed over the next several years, all in winged cars, three at Knoxville.
You see wings make cars faster, a lot faster. So fast in fact that drivers were being killed because their speed was exceeding what their safety equipment could withstand. That was until Dale Earnhardt was killed and new standards in safety equipment were put in place, especially the Hans device.
This was good news for the wingless crowd. Wingless cars provide tighter racing, more exciting wheel stands and closer finishes because the fastest car doesn’t always win, the craftiest driver does.
USAC had not returned to Knoxville since June 5, 1982, but Sunday night they came back to the Sprintcar Capitol of the World for the 1st Annual USAC Knoxville Nationals. A one night stand for the wildest most exciting racing on earth.
They did not disappoint as all three heats were close. Cars raced three and sometimes four wide with their left front tires rarely touching the ground. Wheelies were common thrilling the large crowd in attendance. Most importantly not one wingless car got upside down. Bud Kaeding prevailed over Brady Bacon in an exciting race that only entered lap traffic in the waning laps.
The Amsoil USAC Sprintcars race again tonight at the Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa in the Ultimate Challenge non-wing sprintcar race. This race was won by less than three inches last year and this year promises to be just as exciting.
So USAC has returned, from Iowa Speedway to Knoxville they are back and believe me if you liked them at Iowa Speedway you will love them on dirt. You don’t want to miss it.