My 10 most memorable rain outs & rain delays of all time

By TJ Buffenbarger

Charlotte, MI — (05/25/2002) — Mike Kerchner from National Speed Sport News wrote a story earlier this month about some memorable rain outs during his career of covering races. This column really got me thinking about soggy days at the racetrack, especially the way this season has started. So as the Sprints on Dirt event at the Crystal Motor Speedway was called for rain I sat down over at High Vista Video headquarters in Fremont, Michigan and recalled some great and not so great soggy moments that stand out. I narrowed the list down to the 10 more memorable moments spent in less than desirable weather at the races:

The 1997 Knoxville Nationals: Anybody on hand for this storm will never forget what happened on this night. The 1997 Nationals featured unseasonably cool weather until Saturday when the temperatures soared into the mid 90’s. Dad, Scott, Andrew, and myself made our way up to row 39 and saw some scary looking clouds moving in. About “D” Feature time we looked at each other and mentioned, “This is stupid!” We bailed out and headed over to Hy-Vee to grab some grub and watch the other suckers stuck out in the rain. Then a few moments later the tornado sirens were going off as we were hurried to the back of the store near the coolers and all the doors were locked. This had to be the single scariest moment I have ever experienced in a weather situation. Being that far away from home in that big of a storm was a very unnerving feeling.

That was serious storm that rolled through Marion County that evening. After it passed through Don Lamberti of Casey’s General Store purchased the gas for the push trucks to try and run in the Speedway, but it was a lost cause and the 1997 Knoxville Nationals would be run Sunday evening. I still have the image of people walking around soaked to the bone and the street that runs by turns one and two of the Speedway into the entrance of the Casey’s General Store appearing more like the racing surface being covered in black mud.

The crazy thing was all the cars that were pitted in the infield without the haulers remained parked there guarded by Iowa State Trooper sharpshooters. It was probably the most heavily guarded pit area in the country that evening as around 70 sprint cars sat sopping wet in the infield.

The next afternoon I watched the finale of the Nationals in gear more appropriate for ice fishing as Mark Kinser and Sammy had their famous “Mark Vs. Sammy II” incident over in turns three and four and Dave Blaney went on to win his first and only Nationals title before heading south to run taxi cabs.

One thing I must point out though is any rain delay when going out to Knoxville when you are from this part of the country is a major bummer because not matter how much fun is being had one is left to wonder “I drove all the way out here to watch it rain”.

The Front Row Challenge/Danny Young Memorial in Davenport, Iowa: Everyone marvels at the success of the McTwo promotions event right before the Knoxville Nationals known as the “Front Row Challenge” now. The first one we attended though was a failed attempt to move the event to the Davenport Speedway in Davenport, Iowa. It was a two-night show with the first night on the ¼-mile and the second night on the ½-mile.

The first night we got through about one heat race with a crowd about the size of a small birthday party on hand before rain came down and canceled the event. Earlier in the day we had went to Hooters to eat, and it was the first time my high school age self had gone there to eat. Needless to say after the rainout we HAD to go see the shift change. Needless to say it was a memorable night with our Iowa buddies Mark and Rhonda.

The following night on the ½-mile was canceled right off the bat and we headed over to Mark and Rhonda’s where I was introduced to “Iowa chops” for the first time. Iowa chops are like your standard large pork chop, only bigger and tenderer. I was never the same again as I became a huge fan of Iowa pork from that day forward.

The All Star Golf Weekend at New 96 Speedway: Rain outs can be fun, but also can drain on one’s body when an 8:00 a.m. shotgun start at the 7th hole beckons the next morning. Such was the case during a charity golf weekend at the track formerly known as the New 96 Speedway three seasons ago. The Friday program had a stellar field of cars and was delayed by rain.

While pack trucks circled the track to bring the surface back into racing condition Frankie Kerr noticed one of the trucks was sitting idle. Kerr questioned to then track preparation guru “Rick” why the truck was not on the track. Rick promptly told Kerr he could drive it if he wanted to see it out there. Kerr jumped at the chance and with Rick as his passenger promptly went out and gave that pack truck the ride of it’s life bouncing off the walls and giving the crowd some great entertainment during the downtime.

After the feature checkered mid morning and I wrote my story for the All Stars I ended up with about three hours sleep to arrive with several other tired foursomes for the golf outing. I was one seriously hurting puppy after that outing where the temperature was well over 90 degrees and humid. It also featured the now famous golf cart flip with Bert Emick and Brian Ellenberger going for a heck of a tumble after a bump from fellow All Star officials Barney and Bear. We could never skip this one on any top 10 weather list!

The Terre Haute National Open II: West Coast people combined with tornado activity always makes for interesting bedfellows when races are delayed by weather here in the Midwest. Such was the case at the second and final Terre Haute National Open on Thursday when some freaky looking clouds started to circle over our hotel where a majority of the SCRA teams were staying. Needless to say there were a few worried looks while I was standing outside with my digital camera snapping off photos. Not sure if I was trying for a “TIME Life” shot, but looking back on the situation it was not a real bright idea to be outside at the time.

After the rain settled down I was treated to quite a crowd that gathered in front of our room that included Richard “The Gasman” Griffin and Rip “The Ripper Williams” amongst Bob, Rod Todd crew. The crowd left a huge clay spot in front of the room. I was in awe. The bench racing shared in that spot will last in my memory for years to come.

Later that night we saw at least 30 people pile into Troy Cline’s toter home minus the trailer. We tried to tail it, but could not figure out where everyone went. Turns out everyone headed to an indoor karting facility where Keith Kunz continued his lucky year by drawing the front row and winning the race along with the “pot” complied by the competitors.

The rain delay also included the Boone’s Farm 50 bike race, which had to be one of the most fun things we have ever done at the racetrack. We had a purse for the kids racing bikes around the small oval up into the hundreds of dollars. The second Terre Haute National Open might go down as one of the largest promotional flops, but registered a 10 on the TJ Fun meter.

Fremont Speedway on Mother’s Day weekend: I cannot recall the year this happened, but I do remember the storm rolled in the night before Mothers Day as I sat in the stands at the Sandusky County Fairgrounds with my Dad, Rod, and Rod’s brother. During time trials we could see one storm rolling in from turns three and four, and another from the direction of turn two. When the two storms met the sky turned about the freakiest shades of colors I have ever seen before all hell broke loose.

Rod and his brother decided to stay under the covered grandstand figuring the structure had been there since the early 1900’s and was not going anywhere soon. Dad and I on the other hand ran out in a blinding rainstorm and could not have gotten any more wet if we had jumped right into Lake Michigan. My Mother was inside the camper and was screaming for us to “get down” as she swore the truck the camper sat on had been up on two wheels and was struck by a branch.

Eventually the storm stopped, but not before several large trees were downed on the Sandusky County Fairgrounds. One tree landed just a few feet from a concession stand, while another went right through the front of then promoter Gary Kern’s motor home! Even with all the debris the track was almost run in again before another rain storm came along and drowned the event to be run on Mother’s day. Of course I did not see the race because we had family commitments the next day, and it was a VERY quiet ride up to my Grandparents that morning!

Any rain delay at Eldora: This was especially true before the “Love Tunnel” was installed on the backstretch and pit patrons were forced to walk hand and hand up Eldora’s steep banks. Several slip and fall incidents are still among the funniest memories during my youth.

Another show with an Eldora rain delay is the push truck parade that ensues, or at least tries to at first. I have seen many an old or new truck get pounded into Eldora’s concrete to pay the ultimate price for our racing pleasure. I remember fondly people cringing at a new Chevy one year getting slammed into the inside wall, while another year the throng going ape over a Toyota truck that was rammed by an American made truck right into the concrete.

One particular rain delay at Eldora was special because there was really no rain at all! Several times during the late 1980’s the 4-Crown Nationals seemed to be stretched into a two-weekend affair thanks to Mother Nature. During one such race the first nighttime features were scheduled as a rain date. Needless to say Dad and I were pumped until we got the camper down to Eldora and realized the event had been rained out.

Since it was not raining we gathered around a campfire made by Terry, who ALWAYS used to camp at the front entrance at Eldora and had a campfire going no matter how hot it was outside. Needless to say on this crisp and cool late September day that fire felt pretty good as we B.S.’ed the night away with Tray House and several other hero’s. I can’t remember which photographer was hanging out with us taking photos, but someone has some photo evidence of me as a teenager hanging out at this affair.

Later on we joined up with the former “Ambush Chili Gang” for some of their famous Chili and more bench racing. Even though we would have to wait to see nighttime features several years later at the 4-crown, it was worth the wait this year for this great night of companionship.

Lincoln Park Speedway Indiana 5-Crown 2001: This involves some more West Coast exposure to Midwest weather and some overly optimistic race organizers. I was taking a nice nap out by the trees at the Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Indiana as Rod and Bob were just chillin’ with a couple we had just met from California that flew in and rented a motor home for the 5-crown. We had a lively discussion how we would never trade tornadoes for earthquakes and vise verses for our new friends from California.

Later on Barb Nichols came running up talking about a huge storm was “here” and we needed to get out there because the storm was producing tornadoes. I can only imagine what our California friends thought as Dad pealed out of the LPS parking lot (literally) and headed out. We could not see the clouds to the West until we left the Speedway and realized we were in some deep s—.

About two weeks later I was talking to one of the drivers that was standing in the drivers meeting that could see these clouds rolling in (as we bailed out) as the race organizers were talking about “staying all night if we had to run this show”. Needless to say these officials probably had their backs to the rather large, puffy black clouds that were rolling into town.

Just moments after pulling into our hotel the Tornado sirens were going off (see a trend here) and we were in the hotel lobby going for cover. Another thing to throw in the mix was Barb’s car had quit running as we pulled into the hotel. So after waiting out the storm we got two rooms, made sure Barb’s car got towed to the dealership, and gave her a lift home.

Race chasing around Michigan: The true veteran race chaser never leaves without plenty of maps (right Marie?!?!), a National Speedway Directory, and plenty of racing schedules. Such was the case one Saturday afternoon for an ISMA Supermodified show at the Kalamzoo Speedway in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dad and I arrived in the Cutlass just in time to see rain pour down in buckets.

Keep in mind this is way before cell phones were trendy, and the artist formerly known as Ionia County Speedway was having it’s last race under the Flinn regime. The weather reports sounded fairly clear up by Grand Rapids and away we went. Dad and I figured we could make hot laps by only having to break a couple of land speed records.

Unfortunately the effort was all for not as we saw Dave Fox’s brown sprinter pulling out of the gate just as we pulled in, as the event was called due to rain (even though it had not started to rain at the Speedway yet). So the cross-country trip across Michigan was all for not, but we sure had fun trying!

The 2001 Little 500: I finally attended my first Little 500 last season. While quizzing veteran chasers of the event such as Dave Argabright I was told stories of not only legendary racing but also some legendary rainstorms. Dad and I became witness to such a storm during the 2001 edition as I swear it literally poured buckets for around two hours. I just KNEW Argabright, who had to work a television gig in Charlotte that weekend, was doing a little rain dance in the pit area with his smug smile. I however could not wait out a one-day delay and was doing my own anti-rain dance!

Eventually it quit raining, and I witnessed probably two of the most monumental things I have ever seen at a racetrack. The first was the track drying effort with trucks and a vacuum truck that earned his money 10x over that evening and was probably the only reason the show got started. The second was the throng of people that showed up to watch the event as soon as it quit raining. The turnout was unbelievable and very refreshing to see.

Sometime in the early morning Eric Gordon held off a charging Dave Steele. Looking back it was one heck of an experience even if I did have to sit in a car for two hours watching nothing but a blinding rainstorm.

SOD Lima/Montpelier, Indiana Weekend: The one season I did public relations for the Sprints on Dirt we had a weekend at Limaland and Montpelier, Indiana. It was the first time my red rocket was taken on a racing weekend. While on Interstate 69 Dad and I got caught in a hellish thunderstorm

We were treated to Speedo the Clown entertaining during the Lima rain delay that featured a track that the drivers had to put their spurs on before the rain. The rain scared us at first, but the track ended up actually being better after the rain. That didn’t stop all the SOD drivers from packing up and heading to Montpelier early as I stayed to watch one heck of a 360 show at Lima (we always seem to catch Lima on the right night).

The next day we made a rainy trek to Montpelier, Indiana. This is where the fun really began as we arrived to see the five rows of grandstands circling the speedway. Yes, five rows high! Dad and I were shock, but the track appeared to be a racey little joint and we were looking forward to checking it out…from atop a trailer in the pit area. (note that Montpelier now has new grandstands if you are planning a trip).

Dad and I proceeded to head into the local Pizza King. If you have not done Pizza King, they have the best thin crust Pizza in Indiana. The thing that threw me when going in was when we were told to not order at the counter, but to use the phones provided at the booths by the waitress. Dad and I chose our pizza, picked up the phone, and the lady that had seated us promptly took our order via the booth phone. I also by habit had to cram the jukebox full of money and play a very strange mix of music to find out the juke was cranked up to club volume. I’m sure everyone else in the joint loved hearing Metallica followed up by Friends in Low Places.

After the Pizza King experience the race was rained out. Not before sharing some great racing stories while waiting for the official decision. This particular rain out was a real bummer as I was looking forward to the adventure.

When it’s all said and done: Mother Nature might be able to stop the racing, put a little fear in the hearts of Western residents with no tornado experience, but she sure cannot stop the fun. So keep the good times rolling rain or shine, and I will see you down the road.