The Winchester 400 continues to be one of the most fantastic stock car races in the country. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)
The Winchester 400 continues to be one of the most fantastic stock car races in the country. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

ARGABRIGHT: Mud, Sun & The Winchester 400

WINCHESTER, Ind. — The daunting high banks still rise from the Indiana landscape, silent and peaceful — until a race car fires up. 

The big half-mile still excites, still intimidates, still stands as a century-old test of skill and courage.

It was a sunny October Sunday at Winchester Speedway, where thousands of racing folks gathered for the 50th running of the Winchester 400 featuring the ARCA/CRA Super Series. A historic venue hosting a historic event seems like the perfect combination. 

Winchester has hosted motorsports competition since 1914, an amazing body of competition nearly unmatched in the world. Through the years the track has experienced the inevitable ebb and flow of prosperity, challenged by the reality that a fast half mile is limited to hosting only larger special events.

Frank Funk was the original owner of Winchester Speedway and somewhere along the line Pete Wales took command. In 1970, Roger Holdeman purchased the track, running things until his passing in 1996, after which area businessman Charlie Shaw led a group of investors to purchase the track from Roger’s widow, Linda Holdeman.

A couple of years ago my friend and MAVTV colleague Bob Dillner stepped in to help Shaw with promotions and operations. Dillner has brought a nice dose of energy and enthusiasm to the mix and he was a driving force in putting together the 50th Winchester 400.

A significant addition this year was bringing MAVTV to the table and the network offered live flag-to-flag coverage of the 400. This was the first time in 20 years that a pavement super late model race was broadcast live on network TV.

Dillner’s involvement these past few months has meant the investment of a lot of time and energy. It’s the classic story every track owner knows well: do whatever needs doing …even if it means doing it yourself.

A few days before the event, the mowers used by the track all broke down. Dillner hauled his personal mower to the track and spent all day Friday cutting grass. 

After working until nearly midnight Saturday night on the MAVTV broadcast of the Dirt Track World Championship at Ohio’s Portsmouth Raceway Park, Dillner jumped in his vehicle and drove the three-plus hours to Winchester, arriving at the track just before 4 a.m. Two hours later he was up and about, picking up trash under the grandstand.

Track promotion is a very glamorous deal.

Dillner managed to recruit seven-time Winchester 400 winner Bob Senneker to serve as grand marshal, and “the Blue Bird” paced the field in a restored vintage No. 84 Camaro adorned with his familiar colors. It offered a powerful dose of visual nostalgia for longtime fans.

Torrential rain on Saturday turned the grounds into a muddy mess, but the staff soldiered on with a plan to park cars and free stuck vehicles from the muck. 

For those of us who have experienced the event through the years, it wouldn’t be the Winchester 400 without some sort of weather drama, right? Rain, cold weather, mud, falling leaves that clog radiators — you can never quite predict what’s going to happen at Winchester in October.

The efforts of Shaw, Dillner and their team paid dividends, as a big crowd filled the grandstands on a sunny day. 

The race turned out to be a good one, with close racing throughout and a tight — and controversial — finish that saw Sammy Smith overcome a penalty following contact with race leader Jack Smith on the white-flag lap. Sammy Smith raced to the front on the subsequent restart and scored his first win at the 400.

Next year? It’s a little early to speculate, but hopefully the success of this year’s event can be continued.

After 50 years, the story remains the same: The Winchester 400 is a great weekend, at a great track. Never mind the mud.

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