Dover International Speedway celebrates 50 years

DOVER — The gold-painted “Dover 50” signs that adorn the walls at Dover International Speedway and the gold-colored trophies awarded to all NASCAR race winners at the track this weekend serve as a reminder:

This is a special time for the speedway.

Today’s Gander RV 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race marks a golden year for the track known as the Monster Mile as it celebrates its 50th anniversary year.

It hosted its first NASCAR race — the Mason-Dixon 300 — on July 6, 1969.

The unique dual motorsports and horse racing facility that sits in north Dover was the brainchild of “before his time” visionary and former Delaware Gov. David Buckson, who passed away in 2017, and it remains the only one of its kind in the world.

Mr. Buckson sparked the idea, former Lt. Gov. John Rollins provided a large chunk of the funding and Georgetown construction magnate Melvin Joseph turned the dirt starting in August 1967 and shaped the race track at the site of what previously was vast farmland and a local airstrip.

The high-banked, one-mile racetrack has certainly made its mark in NASCAR history in the 50 years since that hot July afternoon when Richard Petty won the first race at Dover by a whopping six-lap margin.
Pat Buckson, David’s widow, recalled those days when her husband would excitedly talk about his grand idea that would become Dover Downs International Speedway.

“It was the most awesome vision and all he really wanted to do was bring this kind of entertainment – he called it the Dover Downs sports complex,” she said. “He wanted sports fans to come and he wanted other events here, too, besides just the racing and the harness horses and all.

“When it was first built, he had a great big huge walkway inside where all the windows were (enclosed air-conditioned grandstand). He would walk there, they had (concerts) in there, you could do all kinds of things, so he had a great vision for bringing all this to Delaware.”
Rep. William Carson remembers that first race at Dover quite well.

“I was at that first race as a fireman back in 1969 and they came around and asked the fire companies to come be ushers that day – with no pay,” he said, with a laugh. “So, we wore our uniforms and we were out in the stands and we were ushers that day. We did get to see history get made and I still remember that day and I talk about it very fondly in the fire department.”

First race at Monster Mile
George Keller serves as the track historian at Dover International Speedway and he also can still recall vivid details from the first race on the “Monster Mile.”

“The concept was Dover Downs was a new idea in automobile racing and there were grandstand seats that were air conditioned, so the start/finish line was right there on the (current) backstretch for the first race,” said Mr. Keller. “But when those people that paid the money for the air-conditioned seats realized that they weren’t going to see any pit stops, because they were on the frontstretch, they almost rioted.

“So, the start/finish line was moved quickly right after that and it’s been there since.”

Richard Petty relaxes at Dover Downs Speedway in 1984.

The track has mirrored NASCAR’s growth, and contraction, in recent years.

Dover International Speedway routinely drew crowds in excess of 135,000 in the late 1990s and early 2000s behind the star power of legendary Cup Series drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon.
Now, after removing thousands of seats in recent years following the nation’s economic downturn a decade ago, the facility seats around 85,000 fans.

It still gives Pat Buckson chills when she walks on the speedway grounds.
“It was an unbelievable project but (David Buckson) got through it,” she said. “I’m very amazed at how it’s grown. I remember when we put the first 10,000 seats in. It was quite the vision and he did a hell of a job.”

Gov. John Carney certainly agreed with her.

“(Dover International Speedway) has been a real landmark here in central Delaware, a driver of economic activity and growth for 50-plus years,” he said. “We now have the hotel and casino and we derive quite a bit of state revenue from that and our partnership is important to us. I just want to thank all of the people who made it happen, particularly the Joseph, the Rollins and Buckson families. This is a really important thing for our state.”

Lots of miles and memories
A lot has changed since Mr. Petty won that inaugural race back in 1969, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the demand that the track’s 24-degree banking in its corners puts on the drivers who have tried to tame the track.

The track changed from an asphalt racing surface to a concrete surface in 1994, races were shortened from their traditional 500-mile races to 400 miles and speeds have increased exponentially as NASCAR has evolved over the years

In the 98 Cup Series races contested at the Monster Mile, including that first race, a total of 36 different drivers have made their way to Dover’s victory lane.

Jimmie Johnson has enjoyed the most success in the Cup Series at Dover with an unprecedented 11 victories. Mr. Petty and Bobby Allison have both notched seven wins apiece at Dover while Mark Martin finished his career with four triumphs at the track.

One thing that is assured of, it often takes the skill of a champion to take a checkered flag at Dover.

In fact, the past 20 races at Dover have been won by 10 drivers, nine of which are Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions, including: Mr. Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.). A total of 20 of the 36 total drivers to triumph at Dover have been past champions.

Mr. Johnson would obviously love to return to victory lane at Dover. His last Cup Series win came at the Monster Mile a distant two years ago.

“Clearly, I’m very biased about this race track,” Mr. Johnson said. “I think it’s the best one out there. I think all drivers appreciate just the challenge that comes with this track, the banking, the speed, the transitions from the straightaways through the corners.

“I noticed on social media before we got here that drivers and crew members and crew chiefs were all talking about how much they love coming here. It’s just a very unique challenge and a totally different race track than anything else we race on.”

Fans fuel Dover’s longevity
Mike Tatoian, the president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, said the track is focusing on making its fans a large part of this weekend’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Weather permitting, it will all hit a crescendo with today’s Gander RV 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

While the main focus today will certainly remain on the Monster Energy Series drivers, fans will also get the opportunity to take in a free concert by the Charlie Daniels Band today as well as performances by the legendary Harlem Globetrotters, with many other things to see and do in the FanZone near the Monster Monument.

“We really made a commitment,” Mr. Tatoian said. “Our planning really started a couple of years ago for this event and it really was keeping our fans in mind, as we always do, but especially elevated because the last 50 years really has been successful because of our fans, our sponsors and our network partners.

“We think every weekend, of course, is special, but there’s some things were doing this weekend, just from an elevated perspective to help our fans really kind of enjoy this and it’s also a way to say, ‘Thank you’ to them.”

He added, “NASCAR works extremely hard to put a great product on the track and that’s their expertise, so we leave that to them and they leave what happens off the track to us, so it’s our responsibility to the sport to provide that kind of entertainment and I think we’ve nailed it this weekend.”

Mr. Tatoian was even thinking about Dover’s platinum 100th anniversary this week. Well, just a little bit.

“This facility absolutely has a chance to have another 50 years in it,” he said. “There’s a pretty good chance I won’t be here to celebrate the 100th platinum anniversary, but it’s such an iconic track. It provides great racing and I think over the last 50 years it’s been proven, so to be part of the NASCAR landscape in the next 50 years is going to be great for us in the future.”

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

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment