In October 1975, I witnessed some of Bubby’s most impressive driving. Illinois promoter Joe Shaheen’s “Super Weekend” drew a huge field of sprint cars from several states.
On Friday and Saturday nights, there were 40-lap features at Springfield Speedway, the famed “Little Springfield” quarter-mile where Jones was a three-time champion; Sunday afternoon meant a 35-lap feature on the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile.
On both Friday and Saturday, Jones blew them all off, running away in dominant fashion. I had a premonition that Sunday’s mile race would be a battle between he and Opperman.
Jan was first out to qualify in the Speedway Motors No. 4x. He turned a lap of 33 seconds flat, just off Jim McElreath’s championship dirt car record. Bubby went out late and timed second quick. At the start, Jones took off, pulling away to a commanding lead. Opperman did what good dirt racers do: he experimented with different grooves, found some moisture, and slowly reeled in Bubby’s ride, the M.A. Brown/Bruce Cogle Ford No. 44.
With maybe five laps to go, Jan dove under Bub going into turn one. From that point on they ran wide open, wheel to wheel, until the checkered flag waved with Jones edging Opperman. It was spectacular racing, as good as I’ve ever seen on a mile.
I stopped by Jan’s pit to tell him he’d run a heck of a race. With his customary wink, Opp returned the pleasantries and declared, “Praise God, that Bubby Jones is tough to beat!”
Jones and Opperman announced that in 1976 they’d be joining the USAC sprint car division, with an eye on driving in the Indy 500. I traveled the same circuit, working for Bettenhausen Racing Enterprises, selling methanol and Goodyear tires.
During a spring event at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, Bubby and Jan were chatting next to our trailer when Jan called me over. He said, “Bubby, do you know Timmy? Stick out your paw, he won’t bite you.”
That seemed to finally break the ice between me and Bubby Jones. He started coming by the trailer more often, and even visiting the BRE shop. A couple of weeks later, after USAC’s twin 50s at the Indy Fairgrounds, my boss, Merle Bettenhausen, announced he wouldn’t be sending the trailer to the next night’s race in Findlay, Ohio. That prompted Bubby to ask what I was doing for the rest of the weekend.
“No plans,” I replied.
“Well,” said Bubby, “do you want to go to Findlay?”
That short conversation changed my life.
The next day, I rode to Findlay with Bub and M.A. Brown. That trip is etched in my memory. Mr. Brown, who came up with the “Ol’ Bub” nickname, — teased Jones unmercifully from Indy to Findlay.
Shortly thereafter, Bub took me on the road with him full time.
That August, Jones drove Roger and Barbara Beck’s No. 51 Silver Crown car to victory in the 100-miler at DuQuoin, Ill. Back in the M.A. Brown sprinter, he won October’s Western States Championship at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. On Thanksgiving night, driving for legendary owner Doug Caruthers, he beat USAC’s best midget drivers in the prestigious Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ascot Park. Caruthers had tried for years to win Turkey Night with a number of star drivers, but Bubby got him to victory lane.
Those were three big victories, but Jones confided that he didn’t consider 1976 to be a particularly successful season. He was determined to make his mark in USAC during 1977.