As the 2011 racing season nears, fans’ attentions turn to opening day. Much as I always love the first race night of the season, the greatest race I ever saw in person was the season-ending Florida State 200 at Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa, in 1977. (Note: I’ve written elsewhere about this race so some of the language here might in some ways be similar; please think of this as a reconsideration) I was home on leave from the Air Force to see this race, since the best teams from the eastern US would be there. So I talked two friends, Ray and Keith, into joining in, and off we went in Ray’s gorgeous ’73 Mustang.
Golden Gate was a one-third mile, semi-banked track situated among fruit orchards along Fowler Avenue. I loved everything about it: the covered grandstands, the sign out front, and the fact that Gordon Solie had once been the announcer (before my time, alas). His replacement, Bob Schmidt, had by this time become synonymous with the Gate, and he was a truly nice guy. The thing about the Florida State race was its longevity; Wayne Reutimann won the first over Bobby Allison, and the list of winners was astonishing. So was the much longer list of those who’d tried and come up short. Two years before, Neil Bonnett showed up and never got a chance to time trial, while Harry Gant in his NASCAR Nova #77 wound up racing one of the two consis, each with fields at least as large as the 36-car 200, and wound up in a huge crash.
On the other hand, there was Ed Howe. He had a lock on this race through preparation, innovation, and a single-mindedness the degree of which was shared by few in any pit area. His kit-car innovation was already evident at Florida tracks where once they were looked on as too light to be safe. Howe proved they weren’t just light, they were fast. In 1975 he brought Bob Senneker’s #84 and absolutely smashed the field. I’d had to miss the ’76 edition but that was fine; Mark Malcuit and Bob Hamke made contact on the front chute and wound up taking down several sections of catch fence along with the starter’s stand. That I did not need to see. But here we were in 1977 for the big show again.
The field this year was extraordinary: in addition to Howe, there was Butch Lindley in a Donnie Bishop car, Senneker, Buck Simmons, Charlie Glotzbach of NASCAR fame driving a Howe car, Don Gregory, Randy Tissot, and Wendell Scott—that Wendell Scott—driving a car prepared by Jim Gray that failed to qualify due to clutch trouble. I’d gotten to meet him the night before at Sunshine Speedway and it was a true honor. He’s a hero worthy of anyone. So, all this talent against the Florida contingent: Dick Anderson, Jim Fenton, Bobby Brack, and Robert Hamke. Every year the fight was a little like a Civil War re-enactment, with the fans rooting for anyone from Florida who could hold off them carpetbaggers, especially that guy Howe.
We got to our seats in time to see the starter, Johnny Hicks, call all the drivers to the frontstretch for the mandatory drivers’ meeting. He took the mike and spoke in a slow, specific drawl: “Now if I see ya banging on the bumper of the car in front….I’m gonna presume you got no brakes, an’ I’m gonna black-flag ya….An’ if you get into another car, I’m gonna presume you got steering trouble….an’ I’m gonna black flag ya.” And etc. But as the drivers began to walk back toward their cars, Hicks bellowed: “AN’ ONE MORE THING. NO RACE CARS IN MY FLAGSTAND.” The entire grandstand broke up laughing, and applauded.
Howe and Lindley wound up on the front row. They were running gumball tires, so they knew they’d have to pit at some stage. Hamke was also on the soft compound. Sure enough, on the start Lindley was gone but he couldn’t shake Howe. That was how it went for 89 laps until Buck Simmons blew a motor going into the third turn and took out a large number of competitors. At this point, under the red flag, we saw Lindley pit followed immediately by Howe. The plot thickened. Hamke had a choice, to pit or stay out and assume the lead, but as he said to a reporter from the Tribune during the delay, his tires were throwing “baked-potato sized chunks,” the engine block was cracked and threatened to blow. He said to the reporter, “I doubt I’ll ever finish.”
On the restart Hamke held the lead but Howe and Lindley were flying through the remaining pack; Butch burned out his brakes in the attempt, but Howe caught Hamke with sixty laps to go. Catching and passing, of course, are two entirely different things. Hamke was known as being hell to pass, but Howe tried. My God, how he tried.
One row below us there was a twenty-something woman wearing a purple satin racing jacket with Hamke’s name on it; at one point she buried her face into her companion’s shoulder and broke down crying. Meanwhile these two guys beside us were cheering for Howe. Turned out they were from Michigan.
“If he wins, you sure you’re gonna be able to get out of here?” I asked. They laughed, but they weren’t at all sure themselves.
Howe never gave up. He tried Hamke on every chute and in every turn, but Robert Hamke prevailed. None of us could believe it. He’d beaten Ed Howe, the master of Golden Gate and this race.
I’ve seen lots of races since then, and some have truly been great; but I’ll still hold onto this one as the greatest show I’ve yet seen with my own eyes. 2011’s another season, though.