A chance for ‘Saturday Night Joe’

When I attended my first NASCAR race, the Richmond 250 on Sunday, April 7, 1963, at the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds (now Richmond Raceway), I knew little about the sport. I had read a magazine article a month or two before that drew my interest, and I had read newspaper articles leading up to this race.

I knew that people from the magazine article would be running: Joe Weatherly, Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts. I knew Weatherly was from Virginia, and I knew a hometown guy, Emanuel Zervakis, would join him. (I don’t think I knew that Larry Manning, another Richmonder, just starting his career, also would be there.)

Those local guys played a part in my decision to ask my Dad to drop me and a friend off at the fairgrounds after church so we could see the race.

I don’t think this is from 1963, but it’s Paul Sawyer promoting the Richmond 250, back in the day when pace cars traveled and were useful as billboards to publicize your upcoming race. (Widely available historical photo)

Within a couple of years, I was also attending weekly races at Richmond’s Southside Speedway and looking forward seeing the best of that tough track making occasional forays into big-time NASCAR racing at the fairgrounds. When a couple of them became regular Grand National/Cup competitors (or even semi-regulars), they were cheered heartily whenever I was at the track.

Even though he got his start at Southside long after I had moved away, I still cheer for Denny Hamlin, although I’m not at the track to do it.

These days, the TV/radio broadcasts barely mention where a driver lives or at least grew up. At one point, I’m pretty sure NASCAR thought its product was a big enough deal that hometowns no longer mattered, but these days they’re looking for any angle to restore a little of the lost luster of 15-20 years ago.

What went hand-in-hand with hometown, at least I would argue, was where that driver had raced and built a fan base. Most back then were from the mid-Atlantic – North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia – but some were from beyond the coastal states – Tennessee, Alabama – and a few came from “up Nawth.” Each brought a grandstand full of faithful fans.

That may be why we’re starting to see a move away from the dreaded “driver development program” grads (a year in Legends, a year in late models, a year in ARCA, then Craftsman Trucks, Infinity, and – if the sponsorship money holds out – Cup) and seeing proven short track heroes getting more and more shots.

For me, the highlight of 2024 will be Bubba Pollard’s Xfinity ride at Richmond; the fact that he ran pretty blinkin’ well didn’t hurt, either.

Here’s Bubba (with family). (Photo by Tadd Haislop for NASCAR)

Pollard, who’s from Georgia, races pretty much nationally in major late model events these days, but he built a nice fan base in the deeper Southeast when he got started, and people will show up at a race if he’s going to be there. Unfortunately, he built his reputation the old-fashioned way, when means he was too old (in the eyes of those who control the wallets) for the top NASCAR traveling circuits by the time he was at his peak. What BS.

In my ideal NASCAR world, Bubba should have been running a Cup race or two every year, just to bring out some fans and have fun. If a regular ride came as a result, all the better.

This old geezer’s opinion is that Pollard’s presence would have helped interest and attendance, and that would mean more positive for NASCAR than this week’s tweak of the Mt. Everest-sized rule book.

I mentioned that I was following local weekly racing within a couple of years of seeing my first race, and that was during the period when Friday/Saturday-night stars did occasionally get to run GN/Cup. I took a look at the guys I screamed for on Friday nights at Southside:

  • Ray Hendrick, my hero, ran 17 GN/Cup races over 10 seasons between 1956 and ’74. His best season was 1968, when – at age 39 – he ran Tom Friedkin’s very competitive Plymouth four times toward the end of the season and both started and finished in the top 10 in all four races, including a fifth at Langley Field Speedway. In 1963, he drove both Richmond races in a two-year-old Pontiac owned by the Richmond-based Rebel Racing, and he finished fifth and seventh. In one of those races – I can’t remember which – he had a wheel come off a lap and change from the end and still finished the race. I think that was when he became a favorite.
  • Sonny Hutchins had the advantage of a long association with Junie Donlavey when the latter was running a GN car occasionally, and all but three or four of Hutchins’ 38 GN/Cup starts over nine seasons were in a Donlavey car. In 1969 they ran eight races and finished twice second, once at Dover behind Richard Petty (six laps behind) and once at Richmond behind Bobby Allison (and ahead of Bobby Isaac and David Pearson). In 1974, at age 45, Hutchins drove a Chevy for Emanuel Zervakis at Martinsville, qualified on the outside pole (alongside Petty), and led the first 79 laps of the race. Can you hear the fans screaming?
  • Runt Harris drove eight GN/Cup races – six for Donlavey and three of those at Darlington – with his first start all the way back in 1950 at Martinsville. A fifth at Richmond in 1959 was his best showing.
  • Ted Hairfield only drove GN twice, both times in 1963 and both for car owner Parker Snead, to whom I might be distantly related.
  • Melvin Bradley campaigned his own car in three 1962 races, finishing fourth at Moyock, seventh at Richmond, and 11th at Martinsville. Not bad. He returned in 1967 and ran three times for Richmonder Bob Adams, whose GN car was mostly campaigned by Larry Manning, and who later owned Ray Hendrick’s late model.
  • Bill Dennis and Lennie Pond went beyond the heroes listed above. Dennis drove just over half the schedule in 1970 in his own car, then was a semi-regular in ’71 with Donlavey. He was competitive, but it didn’t get him a regular gig. Pond was at least a semi-regular for more than a decade, after showing what he could do in the Ronnie Elder Chevy #54, still one of the all-time favorite GN/Cup cars for many Virginians, and he won at Talladega in 1978. That puts him in the top tier. Pond and Dennis went beyond “Saturday Night Joe” running with the big boys, but their popularity among Virginians (and others) was enduring.

Richmond promoter Paul Sawyer knew all this, and he tried to have local guys in his races to fill more seats. I mentioned my first race being the Richmond Spring race in 1963, but I kind of wish it had been just over six months earlier. In the fall of 1962, the Capital City 300 was chock full of local interest. Virginian Weatherly took the win, but the Richmond contingent was a local fan’s dream – even if not all the finishes were that great. Mel Bradley came home seventh, and Hendrick, in that Rebel Racing Pontiac, was 11th. Bill Dennis was 15th.

I truly wish I could find a photo of Ray Hendrick in the Rebel Racing GN Pontiac #35, but my hero next to the Jack Tant #11 modified isn’t a bad substitute. (photo from that historian’s dream website, edflemke.com)

Not running at the end were Emanuel Zervakis and Runt Harris. Virginians Wendell Scott (Danville) and Bill Champion (Norfolk) also were on hand, and both were familiar to local short-track fans from frequent appearances prior to their GN racing days.

I’m truly sorry I missed that one.

All three races at Darlington last weekend had fields liberally sprinkled with racers who came through the ranks the old way as opposed to driver development programs. That plague will be with us for some time, yet, but maybe we’re seeing a return to “earn what you run” instead of “buy what you run.” Yeah, I know, the latter approach has been with us since the beginning of time, but it’s still good to have the alternative, the driver who can sing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and have a grandstand full of loyal fans join in.

Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts

You’ve no doubt heard it, the word that Richmond is likely to lose one of its dates after this season. How long have I been saying that NASCAR was setting up my home track for a fall? I guess making the track race in the evening on Easter Sunday was more than it could overcome. We’ll see how the mid-August date works for this year’s second show.

It has been noted that racing at Richmond isn’t as exciting as it was 20+ years ago, and that seems to be true, but I ask you, where does the blame for that lie? The track hasn’t changed. What has changed is the car (a NASCAR invention, remember) and to some extent the tires (which Goodyear produces based on what NASCAR wants). I saw some of the best racing ever at Richmond in the ‘90s and early ‘00s (not to mention on the older track, paved or dirt), We could still have that, if not for rules by fools.

Anybody who was at Richmond in 1998 and saw Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon race side-by-side for the last 30 laps before Burton grabbed the win would be amazed that the track today is said to be without exciting racing. (photo from NASCARLegends on X)

The CARS Tour gets a little extra attention this weekend, and my guess is that we’ll see that it’s gone beyond being “Not Ready for Prime Time.” I think it’s disappointing that the tour still has so many rides for sale, but it does show that grassroots racing can hold its own against what passes for entertainment from the geniuses at Daytona (and various network offices).

If anybody can figure out what’s going on with NASCAR’s In-Season Tournament next year, please let me know, even if the result might be that I don’t care.

My counterproposal there is a Black-Flag Race, which I saw run ages ago in Mobile, Alabama. Start the field completely inverted (slowest in front), let them run for two laps, then, at the end of each subsequent lap, black flag the last-place car. Eventually, the winner is the only car running.

Photo Credit (cover): Bubba Pollard, photo by Jonathan Bachman for Getty Images as used by NBC Sports.

Frank Buhrman


  1. Good ole days, Frank. There’s a great story about the 1963 Ted Hairfield GN car owned by Parker Snead. Snead also owned Commonwealth Ford on Richmond’s West Broad St. That’s where the car was being prepared for the 1963 Daytona 500. The car was being winched up a ramp with one of the dealership’s lot boys at the wheel. The car broke loose and since the brake lines had not been hooked up, the lot boy was unable to stop the green #72 Ford. The Daytona entry flew backwards out the open garage bay door & crossed 6 lanes of Broad St. traffic before being stopped by the building it hit on the other side of the thoroughfare. Richard Gouldman alludes to the misadventure in this conversation: https://racersreunion.com/richard-gouldman/gallery/55919/1963-daytona#gallery_img
    Staunton Cottrell related the story in detail on thet same site. Unfortunately I have been unable to find it.
    Doubtful any current Hendrick, Penske, Childress or other charter team’s car has encountered such misadventure before heading to Daytona. But that’s the way it was in the days of Saturday night Joes.

  2. That’s some of the best story-telling I’ve seen recently. Thanks. Jerry Lindquist wrote about Parker setting up that team, but I don’t think I copied all those stories when I was doing my Richmond racing history research. (FYI, anyone in Va. can access those stories via the Library of Virginia website; unfortunately, it’s not available to anyone whose Internet access is from outside of Virginia.) As one of the comments notes about “amateurs” putting together a Grand National team, it was possible and almost easy to do that 60+ years ago, and boy could that make the sport more entertaining. Thanks so much, Dave.

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