Dover’s first NASCAR race was fit for a king

Dover might have started with a crowd of only 10,509 race fans and curiosity seekers who turned out for that first race at the “Monster Mile” on July 6, 1969, but the track began increasing its seating capacity throughout the 1990s until it had 135,000 grandstand seats by 2000. Millions have flocked to the track in the five decades since, even though the seating capacity has been reduced to around 88,000 in recent years. (Getty Images photo)

DOVER — The breezy summer day of July 6, 1969, marked a maiden voyage for both NASCAR drivers and spectators alike as they all descended on Dover Downs International Speedway to see what this new high-banked, one-mile speedway with a horse racing track in the middle was all about.

NASCAR drivers hauled their cars to race at Dover just two days after LeeRoy Yarbrough won the Firecracker 400 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The 24-degree banking in the corners and hard boilerplate outside walls were intimidating to many drivers, especially considering the tires weren’t nearly as durable back then and safety measures were almost prehistoric.

George Keller, the track historian at what is now called Dover International Speedway, vividly recalls that historic day at the racetrack.

“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 (on the east side of the track) since.”

Richard Petty, who went on to earn seven Cup Series championships and became known as “The King,” won that first race at Dover in a Ford, collecting a winner’s purse of $4,725. He finished a whopping six laps ahead of runner-up Sonny Hutchins and third-place finisher James Hylton.

“Coming to a brand-new track and I’d waited so long and being a Petty fan, I’d never seen him win when I was going to Darlington (South Carolina) all of those years,” Mr. Keller said. “Finally, being able to see him in victory lane was a thrill for me.”

Richard Petty, top, relaxes on a stack of tires in the Dover garage area on May 19, 1984. The following day he won the Budweiser 500 for the 199th victory of his legendary career. Just a few weeks later, Petty captured the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway for his milestone 200th career triumph. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

A crowd of 10,509 race fans and curiosity seekers turned out for that first race at Dover.

Millions have flocked to the track in the five decades since.

But there’s always something special about that first one, and several Delawareans were there 50 years ago to take it all in.

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.”

Hot drinks lead to unforgettable day

William “Bill” F. Winters, who owns an accounting firm in Dover, found himself working for concessionaire Nilon Brothers for that first race at Dover. By the end of the day, he said he had one of the best seats in the house.

He said the company hired high school students to sell orange drinks in the grandstands. They had to be at the track at 7 in the morning and the race started at noon.

“It was a really hot day (I think in the 90s) and the concession area was a long walk to the grandstands,” Mr. Winters said. “We carried trays of orange drink up to the top of the grandstand to sell. The orange drinks didn’t stay cold very long and about halfway through the race my working partner Sam Birch and I turned in our trays and cashed out our sales because nobody wanted hot orange drinks.

“I don’t know how we did it, but we were able to get into the air-conditioned VIP glass-enclosed area level with the track. We watched the rest of the race and celebrated watching Richard Petty in the No. 43 cross the finish line and win the inaugural Dover Downs race. I guess I should have offered to pay (Dover Motorsports President and CEO) Denis McGlynn for the cost of at least half a ticket.”

Mr. Winters added that after he graduated from college he worked in the Philadelphia office of the international certified public accounting firm Price Waterhouse and Dover Downs was a client and he was part of the audit team working at the track for several years.

Fan ‘hooked for life’ at Dover

Robert “Bob” Farrell, of Milford, ended up attending the first NASCAR race at Dover’s Speedway by chance.

He joined the Air Force in May 1968 and, after finishing tech school, his first duty assignment was Dover Air Force Base. That is what led him to witnessing the first NASCAR race at Dover and the first one he ever attended in person.

Richard Petty straps in for another race.

“Sitting on the open wooden bleachers, hearing the roar of the engines, seeing the cars racing around a mile-long asphalt track was truly fantastic,” Mr. Farrell said. “One thing I found interesting is that the flag stand and start/finish line were on what is now the backstretch, but having the seating across from the pit area, where you could see all the action, was truly amazing.

“After experiencing NASCAR for the first time I was hooked for life. In 1992, I took my wife and 11-year-old son to Dover for their first NASCAR race. We have never missed a race at Dover since. In 2005, after I retired from Verizon, we moved from New Jersey to Milford so we would be close to the track. Dover has really grown from the original 10,000 seating capacity to a great place.”

Sadly, he said, he does not have any old photos or memorabilia from that first race.

Missed historical race by one year

Rick Davis has several vivid memories about moving to the Dover-area on July 10, 1970, as an airman during the Vietnam War. He might have missed the inaugural race at Dover, but he made one a year later.

“I was amazed coming down (U.S.) 13 for the first time and seeing that great big Union 76 sign standing tall in turn three plainly visible above the high-banked wall,” said Mr. Davis, who has been a race fan since the mid-’60s. “That, and the covered grandstand for the horses, was all that was to be seen.

“At that time there was only a small patch of woods along (U.S.) 13 and some open fields — the only business I remember was Nichols (department store) on the corner at Leipsic Road, and the State Police barracks north of that. Coming here as a one-striper with a pregnant wife did not offer any expendable income, but I wanted to attend a race there as soon as I could.”

He said Dover hosted a Grand American race on Aug. 9, 1970, and that was when he got his first up-close look at the “Monster Mile.”

Richard Petty celebrates in victory lane after winning the 199th race of his career in the Budweiser 500 at Dover International Speedway on May 20, 1984. Petty led 129 of the 500 laps that afternoon.

“Wanting desperately to attend a race at the track but not having the money for gas to even drive there, I did the next best thing,” Mr. Davis said. “DAFB was offering the opportunity to those that wanted could work the race as an usher. It paid a whole $5 for the day so I jumped at the opportunity.

“The race was the Grand American (Camaros, Mustangs and Javelins) race featuring Tiny Lund and won by Jim Paschal. During the race I was able to buy a hot dog and a cold drink that consumed two of the five bucks with the balance going into the tank. I wanted a program but did not want to sacrifice the two dollars from my tight budget.”

He added, “Early in the ’90s I found that program at a memorabilia show at the Sheraton and paid $20 for it, which I still have. Times got better and I was able to start attending the Cup races on a regular basis beginning with the September 1972 race, and haven’t missed a Sunday (Cup) race since.”

Strong family memories at Dover

Barry Stine Sr., of York, Pennsylvania, said his mother and father started going to NASCAR races at Dover in 1970. For as long as he can remember, they sat in Section 101, seats 1, 2, 5 and 6 and always took friends with them.

He and his wife have been attending Dover races since 1992 or ’93.

“I remember when Kyle Petty won there after they (put a concrete surface on) the track, and there was a big wreck coming out of turn four,” Mr. Stine said. “After the race they asked Kyle how he avoided the big wreck, he said he was so far back at that time, that they had the wrecked cleaned up before he got there.”

Dover holds some profound personal memories for Mr. Stine and has been a big part of his life.

“My dad got liver cancer in January of 2000 and was given a month or so to live,” he said, “but he wanted to see the first truck race at Dover and he did. We took him to see Kurt Busch’s No. 99 Ford win. Dad died in December of 2000. Maybe that’s why the truck races are so special to us.

“My mom is 83 now and decided last year was her last. Her and dad have seen a lot of their favorites win at the Monster Mile: Bobby Allison, Harry Gant, Cale Yarborough and Dale Jarrett, to name a few. My wife and I now sit in seats 1 and 2 and my sister and her husband in seats 5 and 6 — and will, until we can’t physically come anymore.”

Chance meeting leads to amazing day

A chance meeting — twice — with a pace car driver led to some unforgettable memories for Glenn Gallo, who said he is 54 and has a rare muscle disease called Arthrogryposis.

When he was 11 or 12, he said he was in the lobby of Kent Christian Academy playing around when he saw a man outside the building dressed in a racing uniform. He let him in to use the phone because his truck had broken down.

“After he made his call, we started to chat and I found out that he was the official pace car driver,” Mr. Gallo said. “Back in the ’70s they used an actual NASCAR (car) as the pace car. I asked him if I could see the car and he said sure. That was the biggest highlight of my life, at least I thought it was.

“A couple of days later, my mom came to my school to pick me up, she told me I had a doctor’s appointment. She said she needed to stop by the Blue Hen Mall to pick something up. Once we got into the mall, what do I see? The pace car and the driver and a few reporters. This time, I was able to sit in the car.”

Cars fight for position on the track in Dover in 1969.

He said the pace car driver gave him two tickets to the Dover Cup race in the enclosed, air-conditioned stands where he got to sit beside Miss Winston for the whole race. He was also able meet most of the drivers, as well.

“The only disappointing moment was, I was supposed to get a ride in the pace car around the track but the person that took me to the race took me to the wrong gate,” said Mr. Gallo. “By the time I convinced him that we were at the wrong gate, it was too late. But it was still an amazing day that I will never forget as long as I live.”

Those are just a few of the millions of memories that have been forged at Dover International Speedway over the past 50 years. Perhaps it’s not such a monster after all.

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

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