Reading an article about the old Langhorne Speedway recently took me back a lot of years. Langhorne, for those of you too young to remember, was a dirt track in Pennsylvania known as the “big left turn.” It was a mile circle. In its final year or so, it was paved and made into a D-shape, but that’s not the Langhorne I remember.
(I’ve heard that Bill France got the idea for the tri-oval at Daytona when NASCAR ran at Langhorne. He realized that the arcing grandstands gave “frontstretch” fans a good view of the whole track.)
It was a treacherous place, and some great drivers, most notably Jimmy Bryan, took their last ride at that place.
A favorite of mine when I was in high school, Mike Nazaruk, commented once that he had survived World War II as a Marine, but he wasn’t sure if he could survive Langhorne. He didn’t, dying there in May of 1955.
Most of all, the article brought back the memory of Hugh Randall, a lesser-known driver from Louisville who was working his way up in the USAC ranks when he accepted the chance to drive at Langhorne in a national championship race in July of 1962.
His own car had failed to make the show, and he was offered the seat of a car whose driver had decided he didn’t feel safe. That driver was Elmer George, father of Tony George.
Elmer’s instincts proved prophetic. Hugh hooked a rut in the famous section of Langhorne called “puke hollow” which had flipped more than a few drivers. The car went end-over-end, the harness failed, and Hugh was nearly thrown out. The injuries were fatal.
I’ll never forget getting home from a softball game that Sunday afternoon and having my brother tell me about it.
When I remember Hugh, I can’t help thinking of the story he told me about taking the Fetter Brothers sprint car down to Rooster Lake, a dirt track in Kentucky, one Sunday afternoon. Seems that a week of rain had turned the track into gumbo, and everybody was having trouble getting around. Hugh mounted a pair of “knobbies” on the rear, tires that he had purchased from another driver, who had told him they were perfect for a “heavy” track.
Again for the younger readers, knobbies were just that – no tread, just big round rubber knobs sticking out of the tires. Popular on tractors, too, in the same time frame.
He went out to practice, and within two laps was turning times under the track record. As he told me, he would “pitch” the car well before the turn, and then get back in the throttle. The knobbies would take hold, and he’d go all the way through the turn flat out. This, of course, was before wings became popular and running flat out wasn’t all that common.
The best part of the story came when he pulled back in.
He was checking the level in the fuel tank (no telemetry in those days, you used a yardstick) when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Hugh said he turned around and there stood an older man in bib overalls with dirt clods all over him, including one in the middle of his forehead.
“Who’s driving this thing?” the guy asked.
“I am, why?” was Randall’s reply.
“Look at that grandstand!”
Hugh said the grandstand didn’t have a single person in it, but was covered with mud. All the fans were underneath the wooden stand, peering out between the rows of seats.
I don’t know if they ever came back to the stands or not, but Hugh set fast time and won the trophy dash and feature that day, I suppose while shoveling what was left of the racetrack over the guardrail.
I made a few trips with Hugh, but I missed that one. I really wish I’d been there.