Jim Donnelly

DONNELLY: I Want My Eighties

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s not as if I went through the 1980s stuffed into a sarcophagus. I was indeed sentient. And I knew about stuff like MTV. Mostly, I liked it, even if the rotation of music videos was kind of repetitious after a while.

Maybe I felt that way because for me, most of the sound of the ’80s was coming through a stereo speaker, not a video screen. You see, I was on the road at that time. A lot. Going all over the place and witnessing a lifetime’s worth of great motorsports along the way. It was pure, unadulterated magic and a period of my life for which I’m eternally grateful.

I was working for a daily newspaper in southern New Jersey, where I persuaded a series of top editors to give me space in the paper to write about motorsports and to conduct new-car reviews. That means for 22 years, I had a sample of the newest from Detroit, Europe and Japan, every week, for a whole week at a shot. I could go anywhere without limits.

Steve Kinser May 1983 Williams Grove Paul Arch Photo
Steve Kinser at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway in 1983. (Paul Arch photo)

As a race fan, it was like jumping into a pile of platinum. And in the ’80s, when this nutty ride began, I had a green light to travel literally anywhere and the opportunity to witness one of racing’s greatest decades. At least to me, because I was there for most of it.

The deal was, I was free to head wherever I wanted as long as I made it back to the newsroom by 8 a.m. on Monday to handle the weekend police checks. That was a lot of leeway. So with Duran Duran, Madonna and Michael Jackson booming from the audio system, I hit the road and scooped up enough racing for a lifetime of memories.

This is mostly a personal recollection, so the column’s about what got me amped. In those days, New Jersey alone was a racing treasure, with Flemington Speedway, East Windsor Speedway and Old Bridge Township Raceway Park having some of their most successful seasons.

On the same weekend, I watched Don Garlits endure a blow-over and Billy Pauch perform a dangerous dance with the deadly wooden fence at Flemington. On most Fridays, Jimmy Horton tore up the thick clay at East Windsor in the sort of no-limits flyweight modified that raced there.

And that’s just the home tracks. Unchained from local travel, I began to range a lot farther. As soon as I got my stories for the Sunday paper in the can, it was bam, into the car — or maybe I should say, Wham! — and off to someplace distant. Full disclosure: I used to do a lot of crazy stuff in those days when, again, the only requirement was getting into the office the next morning.

Example: Work Thursday and head across Pennsylvania for the first night of a World of Outlaws show at Williams Grove Speedway. Drive home and do the same thing after work on Friday for the second night of the WoO stop. Get back home at 2 a.m. or so, grab some sleep, and hit the road again the following morning for the supermodifieds at Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway. More than once, I caught some sleep in the Oswego parking lot before heading out early to Pocono to cover the NASCAR Cup Series race. Hit Pocono, write the story, and then it was off to a Sunday-night open-cockpit doubleheader with URC sprint cars and SMRC midgets at Grandview Speedway. And then back to work on Monday.

We live in a different world now, with fewer speedways and less opportunities to do the crazy stuff many of us did back then. At the time, I was probably averaging 70 to 80 events a year.

The ’80s were absolute dynamite from a racing standpoint, especially when you were willing to travel extensively.

The decade on the road really started for me when I watched rookie Teo Fabi earn the pole for the Indianapolis 500, which was won by Tom Sneva. That’s a ton of talent right there. Imagine being able to see Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell and Doug Wolfgang slice at each other on any given World of Outlaws night, faced often by the Pennsylvania Posse when their ranks included Lynn Paxton and Keith Kauffman.

And when there was a young guy just out of stock cars named Fred Rahmer, who was first sampling open-cockpit action.

I have vivid memories of Rick Mears struggling to walk around the paddock at the Meadowlands Grand Prix after his devastating injuries in Quebec, and then scoring a comeback victory at Pocono. It was equally gratifying to see Shirley Muldowney come back from nearly fatal injuries, which makes me glad motorsports is a safer today.

I would be remiss not to mention the great NHRA events at Englishtown. I want to cry every time I think that the drag strip is now gone.

Among the drivers I saw during the ’80s were Reggie Ruggiero, Stan Ploski, Bentley Warren, Steve Chassey, Rich Vogler. A.J. Foyt and both Unsers. I was there when Darrell Waltrip won the inaugural Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

I saw John Andretti launch Mike Curb’s CRA sprint car through the Ascot billboards before Brad Noffsinger captured the Don Peabody Classic. In my beloved modifieds, Brett Hearn began his long arc toward immortality, lifted by Budd Olsen engineering.

The great names and venues roll on. There was Franklin County Speedway in Virginia, North Carolina’s Metrolina Fairgrounds, Martinsville Speedway, Kokomo Speedway, the Terre Haute Action Track and the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

Eldora Speedway and Winchester Speedway, two very different takes on high-banked tracks were only miles apart. The Bedford Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, plus NASCAR modifieds at Jennerstown Speedway. The original Bridgeport Speedway in South Jersey was a pure hammer track when big horsepower was absolutely essential. There were rollicking Friday nights at Stafford with New England’s best spilling out of the pit gate and the spectacular Turkey Derby at Wall Stadium.

Are you getting the picture here? It was a great time, a great era and a great decade to be a race fan. The fact that midweek races were coming into vogue, thanks largely to Bob Miller’s excellent Thunder on the Hill promotions at Grandview, made it even better.

I feel truly fortunate at having turned that decade into such a wild, memorable ride. And even from Florida, I’ll still travel, whether it’s to Volusia Speedway Park, Charlotte or the Knoxville Nationals. That’s what I do.

And I’ve still got “Justify My Love” on Amazon Music if things get boring.


This story appeared in the Nov 29, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

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