A racing reunion: Jack Whitby takes a spin in Dover’s first pace car

Jack Whitby stands alongside the original pace car he drove at the first race at Dover International Speedway in 1969. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — The history books might say that Richard Petty won the first race at Dover Downs International Speedway — the Mason-Dixon 300 — back on July 6, 1969, but it was Jack Whitby who led the 32-car field to the green flag of that milestone event.

Mr. Whitby, the retired owner of Kent County Motors in Dover, served as the pace car driver at what is now called Dover International Speedway for 19 years until NASCAR hired a full-time pace car driver in 1988.

He is certainly no stranger to the high-banked, one-mile oval known as the Monster Mile.

In advance of Sunday’s Gander RV 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover, speedway officials set up a reunion on Thursday morning as they were able to locate the original Dover pace car — an Oldsmobile 442 — in a garage in Wilmington and invited Mr. Whitby to take a couple of laps around the oval to help celebrate the racetrack’s golden 50th anniversary.

One could not possibly wipe the smile off Mr. Whitby’s face after he climbed into the driver’s seat of the Oldsmobile and turned several laps around the racetrack, surely bringing back fond memories of days gone by.

“It brought back a lot of old memories,” said Mr. Whitby, now 86-years-old. “I (drove the pace car) here for 19 years until 1988 when NASCAR decided to go with a full-time pace car driver.”

He laughed as he thought about the stark differences between the Grand National (Cup) division back then compared to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series of today.

“The most memorable thing about the whole situation is the changes in safety that I’ve seen in the last 50 years,” he said. “Look at this car here. We had a seatbelt. That’s it. At that time the drivers raced back to the (caution) flag when there was an accident. They didn’t stop or slow down immediately, they raced back to the flag. There was no speed limit on pit road. So, we came barreling onto pit road as fast as we could go to get away from the field off turn four.

Former car dealership owner Jack Whitby crosses the finish line after a couple of laps in the first pace car he drove in the first race at Dover International Speedway in 1969.

“We paced here 60 miles-per-hour and when the yellow came out, we were parked up there near the garage (in turn one) and it takes a little bit of time to get up to speed until we’d get caught up to the lead car. It wasn’t uncommon for us to run 110 miles-per-hour in a car like (the Oldsmobile) with the top down … today the pace car driver wears a helmet.”

Susan Whitby, Jack’s wife, wasn’t married to him back when he was a pace car driver. So, she enjoyed getting the chance to go around the racetrack in the back seat of the pace car while Mr. Whitby’s grandson Mike Best rode along in the front passenger’s seat. Of course, the top was down on the classic convertible.

“It was wonderful. It was a real hoot,” Mrs. Whitby said. “I never had a chance to drive around the racetrack and the way it’s curved, it was really very exciting. I’m glad I got to do it because I was not with Jack when he was doing all these things, so I’m glad now I have a little part in his history.”

Mr. Best agreed. He said he was too young to really remember his grandfather leading all of NASCAR’s biggest stars such as Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt Sr. around the track under caution.

“It was great,” Mr. Best said. “It was fun to get out on the track and see the track from a different point of view and be a little part of history, that’s for sure. I really enjoyed it. We grew up hearing about it and got to see a little bit of it, but we were so young that I don’t remember a lot about it. So, it was fun at my age now to kind of re-live what he got to do.”

Jack Whitby behind the wheel of the original pace car he drove at Dover International Speedway during the first race in 1969. Riding with him are his grandson Mike Best and wife Susan.

Mr. Whitby said his connections with NASCAR in the early days allowed him to live out several unforgettable moments.

“I’ve been very blessed,” he said. “I drove the pace car (at Dover) for 19 years, at Pocono for 15 – when they opened up Pocono they called me – and I did all the races up there for 15 years and a lot of races at Darlington (S.C.), a lot of Southern 500s, Atlanta and drove the pace car at Michigan even. I was connected for a long time.

“But my favorite track is this one here (in Dover) — absolutely.”

Gary Camp, vice president of marketing and communications for Dover International Speedway, said everything just came together perfectly for Mr. Whitby’s reunion with Dover’s first pace car.

Travis Bowers, of Bowers Signs, lettered the car in black vinyl to make it look just like it did when it started a 50-year run of history at the Monster Mile on that hot summer day back in 1969.

“It’s so great for us,” Mr. Camp said. “We’ve been planning for our 50th anniversary for two years now and this was one of the things that we were really excited about when we found that the original pace car was local (in Wilmington), so well-maintained, and the woman who owns it was so kind to just kind of hand it over to us and let us have it on display all weekend.

“We found it in a nondescript garage. We went to open the garage door and there’s this really cool car that’s in really good shape.”

Karryl Hubbard and Mabel Blackmon now own the Oldsmobile that was bought after the first Dover race by their parents Clifton and Annette H. Hubbard.

The Oldsmobile 442 pace car will be on display in the FanZone near the Monster Monument outside of Turn 4 all weekend.

It’s all part of looking back at Dover’s motorsports history this weekend.

“The idea came up to allow Jack (Whitby) to relive the glory days from 50 years ago when he used to drive this (pace car) to start the races. He was excited,” Mr. Camp said.

“We’re just trying to pay proper respect to everybody who has laid the groundwork to get us to where we are today.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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