John Potts · Friday September 4, 2009
I’ll have to confess that I don’t know a whole lot about the really early years of Harry Hyde’s racing career. I know that he got into racing after World War II, and I’ve learned that he drove in what we called the “hardtops” at the Jeffersonville Sportsdrome in the late 40s and early 50s, when I first started attending races as a pre-teener. One of his old cars, a 1940 Ford sedan No. 19, has either been restored or replicated by a guy named Gene Boyer in San Carlos, Cal., and runs regularly with the Historic Grand National Stockcars group.
As I’ve been told, while I was away serving my country from 1957 to mid-1960, the hardtops, mostly 1939 and 40 Ford coupes and sedans, with an occasional Hudson thrown in, evolved into super modifieds. The winningest car in the first couple of years was the “Kopper Kat,” a car built by Bill Clary and driven by Jesse Baird. That lasted until Harry took a trip to Phoenix and picked up an old championship car, one that reportedly had been driven by Tony Bettenhausen at
Indianapolis. He cut it down to sprint car size, put a cage on it, christened it “Fido,” and put Andy Hampton behind the wheel. According to the stories, Andy could drive that car around in the high groove and run off from the field. Whether that killed the supers or not is open to question, but late model stock cars took over the local scene in the late 50s.
My first contact with Harry came after I came home, and my first experience with his racing was when he built a 1960 Plymouth for Tommy Thompson of Louisville, about whom I’ve written before, to compete in the first season at the Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in 1961.
The car was fast, but something always seemed to happen to keep Tommy from
getting under the checkered flag first. Harry told me once, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I know I’ve got a great car. And I know I’ve got the best driver out there because he told me that.”
Worse came to worst one night late in the season when Harry asked Tommy just
what was wrong in no uncertain terms. Anybody who knew him can tell you there
was no mistaking when he meant business.
Well, Tommy was also the president of the corporation that was running the track, and that night he owned up to Harry that the board of directors had informed him that he could not win the championship because of how it would look.
He then went out and swept the show. Fast time, trophy dash, fast heat, feature.
After that, Harry started calling on his connections in the south, and began building Pontiacs.
At one point in 1962, Harry’s saltier edge surfaced. He felt one particular driver had been responsible for a number of crashes involving his car, and he in essence challenged the guy to a duel.
Harry offered to meet him the following morning in a place to be mutually agreed upon, and square off with knives, guns, whatever. The inference was that only one would be back at the race track the next week. Suffice it to say that the invitation was not accepted.
In 1963, Jesse Baird won the championship in a Pontiac built by Harry.
The following year he built two of them, one for Jesse and one for Hampton. They ran one-two in the points.
I’ll never forget driver introductions before that last feature race. Andy had a comfortable, but not insurmountable, point lead. Meaning all he had to do was finish in the top 10 to win it.
After being introduced, Jesse shook Andy’s hand and said, “Well, the only way I can see that I can beat ya is to rail ya.”
That was met all around with laughter, because everybody knew neither of Harry’s car was going to “rail” the other. To emphasize that, Hampton led the first 40 or so of the 100 laps, and on 20 of them Jesse was right on the outside of him. I thought I was seeing double everytime they came out of the fourth turn.
As I recall, they were one-two in the point race again the following year, and the next season Harry was off to NASCAR with the K&K effort.
One of the crowning achievements of that 1964 effort was an ARCA race at West Virginia International Speedway at Ona.
ARCA was almost Ford’s personal playground that year with Jack Bowsher leading the effort. Baird won the race, with Jack Purcell, another Louisville-area driver, placing second and I believe Hampton was third or fourth. John Marcum told me the results were slightly unnerving to the boys in Detroit. Remember, this was while General Motors was “officially” not involved in motorsports.
Whatever happened to Fido? Well, when they went to late models Harry “loaned” it to Roy Robbins of Little York, Indiana, and he had some real success with it, even winning the first Knoxville Nationals. Now there’s one win for a Hyde-built car that I’ll bet not too many people know about.
Last I heard, Joe Baird of Shelbyville, Ind., had found the car and was restoring it to the way it was when Tony Bettenhausen was in the cockpit.
Damn, I love racing history.
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