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Tyler Roahrig has won the last two Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial races. (David Sink photo)

Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial Still Going Strong

The 65th running of the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial is scheduled for Saturday night, Sept. 7, when the historic sprint car race returns home to the paved high banks of Indiana’s Salem Speedway.

The event has overcome multiple roadblocks through the years and is now the nation’s second oldest sprint car race behind only the Little 500, which debuted in 1949.

The marquee sprint car event was created to honor Joe James, who lost his life in a champ car accident at San Jose (Calif.) Speedway on Nov. 5, 1952. The 27-year-old James had competed in three Indy 500s prior to his death.

Larry Crockett topped the inaugural running of the Joe James Memorial at Salem on Oct. 4, 1953.

Pat O’Connor, a native of North Vernon, Ind., had his name added to the event in 1958 after he perished in a 15-car pileup during that May’s Indianapolis 500. O’Connor was a two-time winner (1954 and ’57) of the Joe James race.

Initially contested under the AAA banner, the event became a USAC-sanctioned race in 1956, and it was part of the USAC National Sprint Car Series through 2010.

It was during this time that the race experienced highs in terms of car counts, attendance and participation by name drivers.

Bob Sweikert, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen, Tom Bigelow, Pancho Carter, Rich Vogler, Steve Butler, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Stewart, Dave Steele, Bryan Clauson, Eddie Sachs, Roger McCluskey and Kody Swanson are among the event’s winners.

The .555-mile high-banked (33 degrees) Salem Speedway opened in 1947. In 1981, a tornado severely damaged the speedway, leaving the facility in shambles for six years.

USAC moved the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial to the dirt surface of nearby Charlestown Speedway for 1981 and fans saw Eddie Leavitt add his name to the list of winners. The following year it was run at the Terre Haute Action Track and Larry Rice claimed the victory.

After the 1982 edition, the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial was dark until 1988. For many years longtime Salem Speedway general manager Richard Deaton did not acknowledge the Charlestown and Terre Haute events when listing the race’s history.

In 1987, local businessman Don Gettelfinger purchased Salem Speedway, made repairs and brought the event back in time for the 1988 season. Bob Frey took the checkered flag, becoming the first Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial winner at Salem Speedway in eight years.

The darkest moment in the event’s storied past occurred in 1990. Vogler was leading with one lap remaining when he crashed to his death. Vogler was declared the winner of the event, which was being run for the first time under the lights.

The race eventually began to lose its luster and car counts plummeted.

Prior to the 2011 edition, Salem Speedway officials replaced the traditional USAC sprint cars with the winged cars of the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series. Jo Jo Helberg became the first driver to win the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial under the Must See Racing banner and the event was contested as a winged sprint car race through 2015.

USAC returned in 2016 with the USAC Silver Crown Series headlining the show. Swanson won the prestigious event five consecutive times through 2020.

In 2021, new Salem owner Bill Kniesly planned to return the race to a non-winged sprint car event with the Auto Value Super Sprints. But anticipating a low car count, Kniesly canceled the race just days before it was scheduled.

Kniesly was unable to find a viable option to continue the race as a sprint car event, so he planned to use the name in conjunction with a modified race in 2022. That event never happened, and Kniesly eventually allowed officials at Mt. Lawn Speedway to use the iconic name to promote a modified race at their track.

During the 2022 season, O’Connor’s son, Jeff, and this writer approached Casey Koehler, general manager of Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, about hosting the race at the .686-mile oval west of Indianapolis.

Koehler accepted the offer and IRP hosted the event as a 500 Sprint Car Tour series race in 2022 and ’23. Tyler Roahrig won both events.

Former midget racer Nick Bohanon purchased Salem Speedway in December 2022. It was important to Bohanon to bring the Joe James/Pat O’Conor Memorial back home.

“One of the first phone calls I received once I purchased Salem Speedway was from Casey Koehler,” explained Bohannon “He said, ‘This race belongs at Salem Speedway. I’ll do anything I can to help get the race back down there.’ It was always on my radar to get the race back here.

“I grew up in southern Indiana near the track,” Bohannon explained. “I grew up in Charlestown and my dad had a shop in Jeffersonville. I was able to see a handful of Joe James/Pat O’Connor races as a kid. I remember getting there early as a kid and watching qualifying. The pits were always full. I remember watching Dave Steele and Tracy Hines. I have a lot of memories.

“I plan on keeping it on the schedule for years to come,” Bohannon continued. “We’re looking forward to bringing it back. We’re gonna have event T-shirts for the race. We’d like to have more open-wheel shows here. Winged or non-winged, we’re open minded. I’d also like to add midgets, but it’s gotta make sense car-count wise. It might be too soon right now for that.”

So, for the first time since 2009, non-winged sprint cars will headline the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial as it returns to Salem Speedway on Sept. 7. The 500 Sprint Car Tour will sanction the event for the third consecutive year with expectations for the race to continue at Salem well into the future.


Salem Speedway

1953   Larry Crockett           (AAA Sprint Cars)

1954   Pat O’Connor

1955   Bob Sweikert

1956   Eddie Sachs            (USAC Sprint Cars)

1957   Pat O’Connor

1958   Eddie Sachs

1959   A.J. Foyt

1960   Parnelli Jones

1961   Parnelli Jones

1962   A.J. Foyt

1963   Roger McCluskey

1964   Mario Andretti

1965   Bobby Unser

1966   Mario Andretti

1967   Sonny Ates

1968   Rollie Beale

1969   Sammy Sessions

1970   Gary Bettenhausen

1971   Rollie Beale

1972   Lee Kunzman

1973   Tom Bigelow

1974   Pancho Carter

1975   Pancho Carter

1976   Pancho Carter

1977   Pancho Carter

1978   Rich Vogler

1979   Greg Leffler

1980   Greg Leffler

Charlestown Speedway

1981   Eddie Leavitt

Terre Haute Action Track

1982   Larry Rice

1983-1987     No Race

Salem Speedway

1988   Bob Frey

1989   Wayne Hammond

1990   Rich Vogler

1991   Steve Butler

1992   Jim Mahoney

1993   Jim Keeker

1994   Kenny Irwin Jr.

1995   Tony Stewart

1996   Chet Fillip

1997   Dave Steele

1998   Jay Drake

1999   Dave Darland

2000   Eric Gordon

2001   Tracy Hines

2002   Ed Carpenter

2003   Michael Lewis

2004   Dave Steele

2005   Brian Tyler

2006   Bryan Clauson

2007   No Race

2008   Jacob Wilson

2009   Tracy Hines

2010   Shane Hmiel

2011   Jo Jo Helberg           (Must See Racing – Wings)

2012   Brian Olson

2013   Brian Olson

2014   Brian Gerster

2015   Brian Gerster

2016   Kody Swanson         (USAC Silver Crown)

2017   Kody Swanson

2018   Kody Swanson

2019   Kody Swanson

2020   Kody Swanson

2021   No Race

Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park

2022   Tyler Roahrig            (500 Sprint Car Tour)

2023   Tyler Roahrig


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