“Where did 50 years go?” was Buzzie Reutimann’s response when the 81-year-old modified racing legend was reminded that it has been a half century since he won the inaugural edition of the event now known as Super DIRT Week.
Reutimann, a longtime resident of Zephyrhills, Fla., who’s still competitive in a DIRTcar-style modified as an octogenarian, was 31 years old and on top of his game when a young, upstart promoter and track owner named Glenn Donnelly set out to transform the modified-racing universe.
A big-money, 100-lap race on the one-mile oval at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, N.Y., was part of the plan.
“I don’t know if the guys back then took that race as serious as they do now,” Reutimann told SPEED SPORT. “They had a shorter race there at the fairgrounds before that and I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be neat,’ because I enjoyed running on the big tracks. I thought this is going to be a pretty serious deal, so that’s one of the reasons I did so much preparation.”
Looking back, Reutimann believes car preparation and his particular style of driving allowed him to dominate the inaugural race on Oct. 1, 1972.
Reutimann lined up 10th, took the lead for the final time on lap 52 and was never seriously challenged during the second half of the 100-mile contest. NASCAR modified maven Jerry Cook finished a distant second.
“A lot of people don’t realize I would put my car up, the car I was going to run there, I would put it up about a month before the race,” said Reutimann, who spent countless summers barnstorming dirt tracks in the Northeast. “For some reason, I would start at the back of the car, and I’d redo the rear springs. I’d put a new gear in the rear end, new axles, wheel bearings. I’d work right on up, universal joints, put a new main shaft in the transmission, the motor.
“Then, I’d go to the front axle with new kingpins, new wheel bearings, new brake shoes. I’d even go as far as to put a new off-and-on switch and a new starter button in the car. That’s how prepared my car was. I think I had the best prepared car there.”
As for his driving style, Reutimann said, “You take the Flemington drivers that were up there. They were used to running sideways all the time. So I could go out there and I could drop in behind one of them, and going through the corner they would have the back end hung out on their car and they’d be burning the right-rear tire off. You could see smoke coming off the right-rear tire, so you knew you didn’t have to worry about that car because he was going to wear his tires out before the race was over.
“Also, the boys up north were used to running on heavier tracks. I had raced pavement down in Florida where you keep the car straighter, and then I had raced at Nazareth and Middletown, which were both hard, slick tracks. I had a little bit of a driving advantage over those guys because I was used to running on that type of surface. Syracuse was flat, hard and a little bit slick, so it just suited my driving style.”
Reutimann banked $5,000 from the event’s $30,000 purse.
“That was the most money I had made to that point,” he noted. “Gosh, we could run an All-Star race and win a 100 lapper and it would pay $1,000 to win, or something like that. Syracuse was definitely the best-paying race around. It was more than what Reading paid and it was more than what the Eastern States 200 paid.”
Despite his meticulous preparation, an overlooked issue with his race car’s right-rear spring nearly derailed Reutimann’s quest for a second consecutive victory when the modifieds returned to the New York State Fairgrounds for round two on Sept. 30, 1973.
“I couldn’t get the car right in qualifying. I was out to lunch,” Reutimann recalled. “We were at the drivers’ meeting and one of my pit crew guys came over and said, ‘Buzzie, your right-rear spring is catching on that slider’ – we had leaf springs and the spring went up through a U-shaped thing, which we called a slider. I said, ‘Get the guy with a torch over there and have him cut that part off the spring.’
“I was at the drivers’ meeting, so they went over there and did something, and that fixed it. That put the car right on the money. What it was doing, it was binding up going into the corner and the right-rear spring wasn’t springing, so to speak. When we cut that slider off, it brought the car to life. I could go right on up through there, and off we went.”
Reutimann charged from the 35th starting spot in the 51-car field, and he beat Tommy Corellis to the checkered flag by half a straightway.
Forty-nine years later, there’s one memory from the 1973 Syracuse victory that’s etched in Reutimann’s memory.
“I’ll never forget this as long as I live. When I was running the second race, the stands were packed, there must have been 12,000 people in those stands, and they even had those extra stands,” Reutimann said. “I got outside of another car – I don’t remember who – getting into the No. 1 corner and I passed him coming off of turn two. I went down the back straightway and though three and four, and as I came off the fourth corner – you’re running 100 mph or so when you come off that fourth corner. I looked up at the flag man and the whole crowd was standing up cheering. I hoped they were cheering for me, that I had taken the lead. That was quite a deal.”
Reutimann says he still has both Super DIRT Week trophies in his “trophy room at the house,” but the 1936 coupe-bodied, big-block modified he drove to victory both years is long gone.
“I killed it at Fonda,” he said when asked about the winning car “We were running an All-Star race at New York’s Fonda Speedway one night and as I went down the back straightaway for some reason the right-front axle broke on that car – which I’m glad didn’t happen at Syracuse. At Fonda, they used to have that little graveyard there in the corner where the Confederate soldiers were buried. I hit that big post they had there and it bent the frame so bad on the car that you couldn’t repair it. We put it outside the shop where it sat for years and it finally got cut up and hauled off for junk.”
There are only estimates as to how many races Reutimann has won during his career, but his back-to-back victories in what has become dirt-modified racing’s marquee event stand above the others.
“That’s the race I got the most ink out of because it is the Daytona of the modified deal,” he said. “I really enjoyed running there.”