As the last weekend in July approaches, I can’t help but be nostalgic.
Growing up around racing in Kansas in the 80’s and 90’s meant one HUGE race every year that everyone attended, the Hutchinson Nationals.
The two day show in Hutchinson, Kansas at the big half mile has been a mainstay in the city’s history and racing history of the USA.
But for the last ten years or so, many have discounted the Nationals as just another race.
In this race fan’s eyes, those thoughts have been dashed.
I vaguely remember attending my first nationals. In fact, I don’t really remember any of it, but mom and dad took me along anyways.
Though mom can’t remember the exact time I went to my first I believe it was somewhere in the mid-80s. Right about the time Lonnie and Delbert Smith, my local hero Alan Bullard, Buddy Mullens, Gary Nulf, and other locally high profile names had a stranglehold on the competition at the Nationals.
Albeit a bad experience, my first real memory of the Hutchinson Nationals was my mom screaming as Mike Conkwright flipped down the front stretch in a brutal crash. I remember seeing the newspaper, and that photo that has been burnt into my mind ever since, the next morning on the way to the track as well. Obviously Mike recovered from his injuries and promotes my “home away from home” Thunder Hill Speedway now, and didn’t turn out to be a bad driver either!
It was shortly after this that I began remembering details, storing away little snapshots of what the Nationals were in my head.
Especially in 1991.
At eight years old, I had become a HUGE race fan already. We had a local driver (Brian Knoell) start racing around this time. Brian was friends with our family’s friends, the Pihls, so naturally we became a big racing family. It was Brian’s rookie year in the Thumper division when we went south with the race car for his first try at the Nationals. I remember staying at the Comfort Inn out by the mall, and after that first day of racing the parking lot of the motel became the new pit area for the weekend. We grilled some food, the adults drank what I’m guessing was massive quantities of alcohol, and I got to meet some of the drivers that were working on their machines. It was at that moment that I learned chips make great spoons for baked beans, and license plates were excellent dinner plates!
There was one Outlaw Sprinter there, driven by Billy Turner. I went and checked it out and they offered me a chance to sit in the car. They gained an instant fan, and although I don’t know what happened to Billy, it will be forever one of my first huge memories of Nationals. Brian didn’t fare so well, even got into that ugly concrete wall encompassing the half mile before the end of the day, but it was a weekend to remember nonetheless.
I believe this was also the same year that Sammy Swindell made an appearance to sign autographs and race. Sammy wasn’t the most energetic guy that day, in fact my mom wasn’t too impressed at all after waiting in line forever in the heat, but it was still a cool moment to get a guy like that, a guy you’d see on TV, to sign your picture. He later absolutely dominated the race and took the win.
When the Nationals were still contested during the daytime hours we would do the two tracks in one day adventure quite often. Once the National prelims were done at the big track we’d all load up and head west to “little Hutch”, or Hutchinson Raceway Park as it was most recently known. Many guys would do the double that weekend, and how they and the cars survived all those laps in one hundred degree temperatures I’ll never know.
The 1998 Nationals also stand out to me personally. For so many years one of my favorite local drivers, Shelby Steenson, had tried to win the Nationals in the Sprint Car division. Fate always played a hand it seemed, and Shelby never could break into the winner’s circle at the event. This year was different. Shelby was a man on a mission and got by Jim Selenke, with a little contact, to win for the first time. It was awesome to see a legend breakthrough in the way he did, much like my hero Dale Earnhardt had done earlier that year in the Daytona 500.
At the turn of the century some started considering that Nationals were starting to lose its sparkle. Rule changes meant smaller car counts, and the racing on the half mile had become very single file, despite a re-shaping and widening attempt around 2000. Some think it was the night-time events, since lights were installed around the same time Shelby took the big win. Some thought it was just running its course and couldn’t muster up to the Super Nationals, Knoxville Nationals, The Dream, (Insert big race here), etc.
Making this thing come back to life seemed to be a daunting task. The 50th anniversary of the Grand Nationals was coming up in 2006, and C. Ray Hall and his Speedway, Inc. crew knew what had to be done. The magic needed to be recreated. There needing to be some awe inspiring events take place, and the nostalgia needed to be recaptured.
The weekend played out like most Nationals weekends. It was steaming hot but the crew had drummed up about two dozen new ideas and took them into play. For the first time IMCA was a part of the Nationals, running an afternoon show on Saturday along with qualifiers for the Mods and Sprints. A nostalgic race car show in the grandstand area brought in fans from all over early to the races. Opening ceremonies were obviously going to be a show no one wanted to miss, with it being the 50th Anniversary. A huge line of previous winners were on hand to be recognized to the fans, capped off with the flying of balloons and a great rendition of the National Anthem. The races that night were excellent as well, and I feel this is where the Nationals took a turn in the right direction again.
The Nationals also gained popularity after the final State Fair races were ran, now giving fans and racers only one (or maybe a few depending on other events) opportunity to race at the half mile.
Within the last five years track prep and new dirt have breathed even more life into the old girl off of Plum Street. In 2012 I witnessed what I believe is one of the best Sprint Car races I have ever seen, with Jeremy Campbell and Kevin Swindell throwing wild slide jobs on one another in a two-laned race for the ages. The fairgrounds track had finally developed that elusive second lane, and drivers have been quick to uncover it since.
Freight train race? Dirty piece of junk? Not anymore. The Nationals are back in full force, and if you consider yourself a race fan you know where to be this weekend, especially on Saturday night with all three NCRA divisions on tap with a HUGE purse for what is expected to be one of the can’t miss races of the year in our area.
And if you see some crazy guy in a bright neon shirt running from race cars you know I’m there as well.
Good luck to all at the 58th running of the Hutchinson Grand Nationals this weekend!