Sammy Sessions excelled in every form of racing he attempted. He climbed to the top of short-track, open-wheel racing and wanted nothing more than a competitive shot at the Indianapolis 500.
Unfortunately, he came along a decade too late to make the impact on the 500 that was indicative of his exceptional talent. He arrived on the speedway scene just as car owners were turning to road racers with experience in rear-engine cars.
He struggled to find competitive rides and settled for spots with underfunded teams. Characteristic of those teams, Sessions struggled to qualify. He started in the last row three times and had a career-best starting spot of 23rd.
Still, he persevered. He managed two top-10 finishes, ninth in 1968 and fourth in 1972, in seven 500 starts. He proved he knew how to get around any type of race track.
Born Allen Dale Sessions in Nashville, Mich., in 1935, he first tasted the thrill of speed racing powerboats at age 14. He made his way into land-based vehicles driving jalopies at nearby Hastings Speedway.
From the jalopies, Sessions graduated to supermodifieds, where his talent became obvious. He captured the Grand Rapids Speedrome track championship in 1962 and won several prominent supermodified events.
In 1964, he moved into the fiercely competitive supermodified division at Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway, winning three consecutive features. On his way to a fourth win in a row, Sessions experienced a horrendous crash that hospitalized him for a month. It was during that time that Sessions decided he would move to USAC for 1965.
A wise decision. He eventually succeeded in all three of USAC’s major open-wheel divisions – midgets, sprint cars and Silver Crown cars. He won 22 USAC sprint car features and the 1972 USAC National Sprint Car title. That singular performance put him in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. In midgets, he won the prestigious Turkey Night Grand Prix in 1968. And in the Silver Crown cars, he earned 21 top-10 finishes.
In addition to his canny driving ability, Sessions’ unrelenting determination and calculating desire to race at all costs contributed to his success.
Illustrating those attributes well, fellow driver and friend Gary Irwin recalls an incident during a USAC midget race in Davenport, Iowa. Driving the Shannon Brothers midget, Sessions experienced a nasty flip during a heat race.
“He had a bad cut above his right eye,” recalled Irwin. “So, they loaded him in the ambulance and headed to the hospital with the sirens screaming.”
With no ambulance at the track, racing was halted. Officials, competitors and fans anticipated a hasty return. That didn’t happen.
Sessions, knowing they couldn’t run without the ambulance in place, convinced the driver to wait until he was examined, treated and released before returning. He wasn’t about to miss the feature. He even insisted the doctor sew him up without pain medication, so he wouldn’t be impaired during the race.
When the ambulance with Sessions aboard returned to the track, his eye was swollen shut. He ducked officials, so they wouldn’t notice and climbed hastily into his car, repaired by chief mechanic Bob Higman. He pushed off from fourth and soon had the lead.
“He must’ve passed 100 cars that night,” remembered Irwin. “With one eye swollen shut, he had no depth perception. He was OK as long as he was following someone, but when he took the lead, he’d slide off the track and have to restart in the back. He’d pass everyone again, and then spin off. He must’ve done that three or four times. He finally finished second.”
In 1976, Sessions semi-retired from USAC racing and returned to his roots in supermodifieds running with the Tri-Sac series, which competed throughout Michigan and neighboring states. In a unique system, Tri-Sac drivers had to run both supermodifieds and winged sprint cars to score championship points. The diversity fit Sessions perfectly, and he claimed the series championship in 1976.
Continually searching for ways to satisfy his competitive urges, Sessions turned to snowmobile racing with the SnoPro Series. Surprising no one, he won handily on them. Sadly, however, that venture proved tragic.
At an event in Alexandria, Minn., on Dec. 17, 1977, Sessions suffered a heart attack. The out-of-control snowmobile powered off course and into a tree. He died instantly.
This story appeared in the August 2, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.