Trio brought life to Dover speedway

Richard Petty takes the checkered flag to score the victory in the Budweiser 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Dover Downs International Speedway on May 20, 1984. He recorded his milestone 200th win at Daytona International Speedway. (Getty Images photo)

DOVER — It was once a farm, a cornfield and a local airstrip for small planes that sat on dozens of acres of land in quiet north Dover in the mid-1960s.

However, in the late ’60s, the vision of former Delaware Gov. David Buckson, the funding provided largely by Delaware businessman and former Lt. Gov. John Rollins and the construction expertise of Georgetown’s Melvin L. Joseph, combined to bring to life the largest sports and entertainment complex in Delaware — Dover Downs International Speedway, known today as Dover International Speedway.

Construction on the unique high-banked, one-mile long racetrack began in August 1967.

On July 6, 1969 — 50 years ago — Dover hosted the Mason Dixon 300, the first NASCAR race to ever take place in the First State. Some 10,509 race fans and curiosity seekers turned out on that breezy summer afternoon to witness Richard Petty take the first checkered flag at the track by a whopping six laps over the second-place finisher.

NASCAR’s top stars returned to Dover in 1970 and began making biannual spring and fall stops in ’71 at the track that has developed the nickname the “Monster Mile” in the 98 races since that historical day in ’69.

Mr. Buckson, Mr. Rollins and Mr. Joseph made NASCAR Cup Series drivers Mr. Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and others, household names to Delaware residents over the course of five decades.

Dover will host its milestone 100th Cup Series race when the NASCAR stars return to the capital city on Oct. 6.

Pat Buckson, David’s widow, recalled those days when her husband would excitedly talk about his grand idea that would eventally 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 (car) 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 (inside the 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.”

Dover International Speedway’s place in Delaware history was forever marked when the state placed not one, but two historical markers on the sprawling entertainment complexes’ grounds before the NASCAR races in May — noting the legendary mile-long NASCAR racetrack, as well as the five-eighths mile horse racing track that sits within the confines of the high-banked concrete-surfaced speedway.

The historical marker commemorating Dover International Speedway’s 50th anniversary was unveiled right off Leipsic Road behind the racetrack, near the entrance to the FanZone. The other, honoring the Dover Downs harness racing tradition and casino, was unveiled on the front side of the complex near U.S. 13.

“It’s just wonderful to be here to really celebrate another dedication of one of our Delaware historical markers,” said Stephen Marz, director of the Delaware Public Archives, at May’s unveiling. “I heard someone say in the background when I got here — we’re doing two markers — and someone said, ‘Speed and entertainment. That’s a hell of a combination.’

“Many of the markers you’ll see recognize historic buildings, or various other types of historical sites, and it’s unusual that for this particular site to be given a historical marker after 50 years, but we do that because it’s recognized by the community as a historical area, and what it has done to this community and brought people from throughout the world to celebrate Delaware and Delaware’s history.”

Georgetown construction magnate Melvin Joseph, right, was responsible for turning a north Dover farm into David Buckson’s vision – Dover Downs International Speedway. Here he presents NASCAR winner Bobby Allison with the winner’s trophy as he stands alongside Denis McGlynn in victory lane. (Submitted photo)

Gov. John Carney is aware of how important Dover International Speedway and the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino are to the state.

The economic impact of the two NASCAR event weekends at Dover to the Delaware economy has been estimated to be at $94 million annually.

“Dover International Speedway has been a real landmark here in central Delaware, a driver of economic activity and growth for 50-plus years,” Gov. Carney 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.”

Dover Motorsports President and CEO Denis McGlynn said it took a lot of people to help get the track to its 50th anniversary.

“As you can imagine, no company makes it 50 years without a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people,” Mr. McGlynn said. “Of course, NASCAR deserves a great deal of credit for delivering 50 years of quality racing here going back to the early days of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, through the era of Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, up to today’s stars represented by Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and our current champion Joey Logano.”

Mike Tatoian, the president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, is already thinking about the next 50 years.

“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.”

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 99 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.

John Rollins

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 21 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.”

Thankful for the fans

Gold-painted “Dover 50” signs that adorned the walls at Dover International Speedway in May and the gold-colored trophies awarded to all NASCAR race winners at the track served as a reminder: This is a special time for the speedway.

The Monster Energy Cups Series race scheduled for Oct. 6 will mark the end of the racetrack’s 50th-anniversary year. It will also be Dover’s miletone 100th Cup race.

Mike Tatoian, the president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, said the track’s staff has been focusing on making its fans a large part of the speedway’s 50th anniversary celebration.

In the spring, the track hosted several off-track events, including a free concert by the Charlie Daniels Band as well as performances by the legendary Harlem Globetrotters, with many other things to see and do in the FanZone near the Monster Monument.

In the early years of Dover Downs, David P. Buckson, left, competed in a harness race with some of the stars of NASCAR. Shown, from left, are drivers Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, along with the speedway’s Denis McGlynn and announcer Mike Joy.

Dover International Speedway plans to bring more off-track excitement in the fall.

“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 we’re doing, 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.”

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

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