1982 Ponca Goes Silent

1982 Ponca Goes Silent

Dan Bailey wrote the following article for the the July 3, 1982 Daily Oklahoman.

During its 20-year run, it attracted everyone from world class race car driver Mark Donohue to world class Playboy playmate Candy Loving. If you didn't know the difference between a chicaine and a negative camber, perhaps you could understand the wet T-shirt contest.

There was something for everyone at the Ponca City Grand Prix.

"It was like a county fair," says George England of Midwest City, who drove in the Ponca City Grand Prix for 12 years and worked as a track official the other eight.

"There was always confusion," says England. "It was a madhouse.

The spectators, drivers and track workers were all forced together in this small area, a city park, and the confusion seemed to add to the charm of it all.

"It was more than just a race. It became a tradition, a place to go year after year. Drivers came from all over the country, because they knew it was a fun place to race. There was lots of shade, good parties and a tough race track to drive. With everybody so close together, it left you with a feeling you don't get at other race tracks. There was a carnival atmosphere, a throwback to the good old days."

But like the good old days, the Ponca City Grand Prix is gone. Last winter the American Business Club of Ponca City, the long-time sponsor of the two-day Fourth of July race and celebration, announced that its financial returns, which went for charitable causes, were not enough to keep the event going.

What remains of the Ponca City Grand Prix will be held today and Sunday at the Hallett road racing facility on the Cimarron Turnpike west of Tulsa. The Oklahoma Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), which had sanctioned the Ponca races, decided to move the annual event to Hallett and change the name to the Firecracker Grand Prix.

The excellent road racing facilities at Hallett notwithstanding, few expect the Firecracker Grand Prix to live up to the festive atmosphere of the Fourth of July weekend at Lake Ponca.

"Ponca was a happening," says John Saucier, a 43-year-old B-52 mechanic at Tinker Air Force Base who first raced at Ponca in 1961 and who still holds two track records. "You were always in a crowd. It was a place all race drivers tried to get to. They came from Canada and Mexico, New York and California. Everyone would just as soon race at Ponca as at the Atlanta (national SCCA) runoffs."

Hallett's 1.8-mile, 10-turn track was built specifically for road racing. For safety reasons, there are no trees or other obstructions along the route of the race course. Spectators have 160 acres on which to roam. The track has permanent facilities for timers and scorers of the races, and members of the media can relax and watch the races in the air-conditioned press room in the race tower.

At Ponca, it was a different story. Volunteer workers began turning a city park into a race track weeks before the event. For one weekend a year the tree-lined, two-lane asphalt road which winds through Lake Ponca Park became a 1.5-mile race track for cars capable of going well over 100 miles per hour. Hundreds of barrels loaded with water had to be hauled in and placed around trees and other obstructions as a safety measure for drivers.

SCCA race tracks are required to be at least 21 feet wide, but there were places at Ponca where the track width measured only 18 feet. SCCA officials overlooked this difference. Afterall, Ponca was different.

"Ponca was the only track where you could actually drive a race in the shade," says Ben Harding, an Oklahoma City sales representative who began going to the Ponca Grand Prix as a spectator in the late 1960's and who began racing there in 1975.

"The trees made a difference. It was like driving down Drexel or NW 19 (in Oklahoma City). It was like being at home and driving through the neighborhood. There was close contact with the spectators there.

You got to know the crowd. The track was short, so it seemed like you had to drive a million laps to complete a race.

"They used to have an 80-lap endurance race, and I drove in that.

Believe me, when you drive 80 laps around that course, you get to know a lot of people. I never won a race at Ponca. I never led one lap of any race, but it's still a special race track to me."

The park itself is minuscule compared to the spacious grounds at Hallett. Crowd totals were never announced at Ponca, but estimates ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 for the two days. Drivers, spectators and race officials became close friends in close quarters. It was an elbow-to-elbow affair unless you were one of the high rollers who poked along in your sail boat on Lake Ponca from where you had a clear view of the start-finish line.

It was always hot, at least 100 degrees. There were hot dogs and hamburgers at the concession stands, charbroiled to order and reasonably priced. There were shade trees to eat them under.

There was Miss Ponca City Grand Prix waiving from the pace car and there was Mary Moore, the long-time Ponca City newspaper reporter who wandered from one end of the track to the other looking for that little tidbit of information that would make her story just right.

There were young ladies in skimpy attire and bare-chested men toting coolers. Every race day started with a prayer. There was the color guard carrying the American flag down the shady front straightaway followed by a military band playing the National Anthem.

It was the Fourth of July in Ponca City, Okla.

"I quit racing two years ago," says the 61-year-old England, "but I think I might go back to racing if we could get Ponca back."

"I guess it's gone forever," says Harding. "It's just a memory now, a page in history."

Dash Plaques 1961-1975

  •  1969
  • 1965
  • 1967
  • 1968
  •  1972
  • 1963
  • 1964
  • 1975
  • 1966
  • 1971
  • 1974
  • 1973
  • 1962
  •  1970

Feature Winners

  • 1971, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977 and 1978! Fred Parkhill, McClaren Mk8 Chevrolet
  • 1975 David Jungerman Chevrolet Camaro (The only photos we have of David at Ponca are him spinning. Here he finds the limits of the braking zone at Turn Six as Jack Hodgkinson blasts by.)
  • 1965 Dick Durant Durant Special Chevrolet
  • 1992 Wendell Miller Swift SE3Q
  • 1967 Bobby Alyward McClaren Chevrolet
  • 1968 Bobby Alyward McLaren Chevrolet
  • 1966 Bud Morley McLaren Ford
  • 1969 John McComb Ford Mustang
  • 1963 Jack Hinkle Cooper Monaco Climax
  • 1980 Neil Harrison Bobsy SR6
  • 1964 Bud Morley Elva Mk7 BMW
  • 1961-62 Jack Hinkle Birdcage Maserati
  • 1987 Don Flegal Chevrolet Corvette
  • 1974 Bud Crout Lola T294

Dash Plaques 1976-1992

  • 1976-A
  • 1977-B
  • 1987
  • 1977-A
  • 1976-B
  • 1978
  • 1981
  • 1979
  • 1991
  • 1990
  • 1989
  • 1980
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