THE GREATEST RACECAR DRIVER YOU NEVER HEARD OF
If you are a young, talented driver today, life has never been better for you. This wonderful sport that we all enjoy so much basks in the media intense spotlight that it rightfully deserves. And if a young driver happens to have that “special touch”, the well known “it”: if you have IT….well, the top teams will find you before you even graduate from high school. Nowadays the Rouch’s, Hendricks, the Gibbs and Childress’s of the racing world all have full time people who do nothing but attend local races searching for young talent. And if you have that special ability most can only dream about, and you are tapped for stardom, what would you possibly say besides “Yes Sir”? You just got your ticket to the top! The big time! Could you conceive that you would say; “no, I’m happy with my job, I like my friends, and I like the racing that I do now, but thank you very much for the offer.” It seems inconceivable! Now imagine that a driver once lived and raced who did this, not once, but at least twice. Who turned down not only the very top Nascar ride, but a few years later, he then turned down a chance at Indy immortality. But this driver did much more than win races and turn down big time rides. This driver was so good, so very talented that he single handedly changed the very future of stock car racing. This is the driver who, more so than any other single event or entity was responsible for the creation of the famed “Alabama Gang”. And who was so talented that he drove wicked, evil handling, winged, methanol burning super modified with one hand at times, earning the nickname “one armed bandit.” Interested? Thought you might be…… Allow me to introduce you to South Florida’s Rod Perry.
Rod Perry began his racing career right after world war II. He was perfectly positioned to experience the post war boom, local oval tracks were springing into existence across the country and Florida was no exception. While this is not a article about the history of Racing in Florida; (ok, maybe just a little bit of that) It should be noted here that South Florida has a rich racing tradition, as does much of the rest of the state. At one time there was a 1.5 high banked board track in the North Miami Beach area, it hosted a 300 mile race in 1927, won by Peter DePalo with an average speed of 135mph. Big Bill France, with Wife Anne and son Bill Jr in tow, was headed not to Daytona Beach, but to Miami in 1934, when the intrepid Huppmobile broke down in Daytona. Yet another one of the ‘what if’s’ the Sunshine State racing legacy is full of; What if France had made it to Miami? What if Henry Flagler had built his superspeedway of enduring concrete or brick, not the wood that blew away in the killer hurricane of 1927 less than 90 days after over 20,000 folks packed the stands to see a thrilling 300 mile superspeedway race? And what if one of THE most gifted drivers the sport has ever seen had gone for the glory of a career as a professional race car driver? Perhaps this will shed some light on the latter, truly, it was a different time……..
Rod Perry was born in 1928, and depending on who you ask- either in South Florida or moved there at a very young age. He seems to have begun racing around 1947 and when Opa Locka Speedway, built on an old WW2 blimp base opened in 1948, the 20 year old Rod Perry was there. It was a good time to be involved with the sport, auto racing was taking the post war country by storm, and Florida, with its year round mild climate, was a perfect venue. A veritable boom in race track construction ensued; Palm Beach Fairgrounds built a half mile dirt track in 1949. Medley Speedway followed in 1952 with a nice 1/3 mile banked paved oval. In 1954 a group of racers led by L.N. Dodd that would become known as GMRA, Greater Miami Racing Association constructed a 1/3 mile flat paved track literally in the middle of nowhere at the very edges of the city of Hialeah. It was built on land that had been divvied up for sale during the infamous Florida swamp land boom sales hustle of the roaring 20’s. The paved streets to nowhere lay just outside the tracks boundaries. In 1955 up in Hollywood, just north of the Miami area, a very quick and racy ¼ semi-banked paved bullring was constructed on the site of a drive in movie theater. In the same year the Palm Beach Fairgrounds track went from being dirt to a high banked paved oval that proved to be a truly challenging place to race.
An colorful cast of extremely talented drivers, mechanics, car owners, promoters and assorted hanger-on’s rose to the occasion, and ensured that the grandstands were packed with fans week in and week out. The great car builder Banjo Matthews was a pretty fair driver, he began racing in 1950 in Jack Maddox’s Dee Powell built #28, also driving Opie Clayton’s number 82 “Dixie Flyer” at Palm Beach. Mel Payne and Alan Clark were teammates in potent Ed Morse sponsored Fords . Brilliant chauffeur Jackie Evans also started racing in 1950 driving Joe Gutherie’s feared #3 coupe. Ernie Reeves number X, the Herb Davis plumbing special always had huge engines stuffed under the hood that took a fearless driver to hustle around these tracks. And the Tillmans, first Hank and later Herb were always a threat to win. Ex flat track motorcycle racer Charlie Monk made a successful transition from two to four wheels, and was always in the thick of things, usually in one of Gil Hern’s creations. No-one was more colorful than the gifted mechanic Shorty Johns, who often raced thru the pits waving a tire iron looking for whoever had wrecked his son, Bobby that particular night. That was usually AFTER he had gone after his son for wrecking in the first place! Dad’s shenanigans aside, Bobby Johns was an excellent driver, holding the track record at Opa Locka for a while. Tough Rags Carter began racing in the late 40’s at the old Broward speedway, also drove for Gutherie, and was a regular at all the S Florida tracks until 1963. Bobby Brack, who eventually won well over 500 features cut his teeth against these Florida legends from the mid 50’s on. Bill Flingos, driving legendary engine builder H.C Wilcox #23 gave everyone fits, never lacking for horsepower. Racing legend Red Farmer in a series of white and gold ford’s with number 97’s was also at the first race at Opa Locka. The brothers Tom and Fred Schenk, Bunky Lory, Gene Winn, Bill Hess, Bruce (aka Pee Wee) Griffin, Marion Edwards, Marty Handshaw, Buck Gibbs and many others made this perhaps the toughest place in the country to win, never mind which track you cared to pick. Of course, the most famous drivers from those days were the Allison’s. Bobby started racing in 1955 at the age of 17 when still in High School. Gifted from the beginning, he won third night out. His brother Donnie, two years younger, started racing a couple of years later. The basic circuit they all competed on was Medley on Fri night, Either Hialeah or Hollywood on Sat night, then the foreboding ½ mile of Palm Beach on Sunday afternoon. All of their stands were packed every night, hence purses were fat, $200-$500 to win features were the norm. There were no factory cars in these days, and the speed equipment business was in its infancy, most of it being for drag racers anyway. If you wanted a race car you went out, scrounged up a frame, welded in a black iron pipe roll cage, dropped an old coupe body on it, built a racing engine in your garage, scrounged up some lengths of military surplus landing strip and a truck axle to build your trailer, and you went racing. All one needed was a Lincoln buzz box, torches, a box of tools… and some large hanging body parts made of solid brass. The racers of today can hardly imagine what it was like then when drivers took to the track. With the exception of Palm Beach, all the tracks had wooden fences during the 50’s and 60’s. They could, and often did, tear a car to shreds, and drove huge splinters of Florida Pine into the cockpit at times for good measure. Fuel cells were unknown, the fuel tanks of choice were outboard boat tanks held in place with plumber’s strap. In most cases T-shirts and blue jeans were the driver’s suits of the day. Large fields of cars were normal, and the high point drivers always started at the back. Features were generally 25 laps in length. 25 laps to get to the front…and there could easily be over 30 cars to pass before checkered flag glory. So to win races, the good drivers had to move themselves up quickly….and their fellow drivers out of the way. The line between deliberately wrecking another driver and a gentle nudge was oh so fine a line…. And after the action on the track, then there were the pits, where a driver might want to have a “discussion” with someone whom he thought might have put him in the aforementioned wooden fence. The Pits were dimly lit, self policing places, with all that is implied with that. Large pit crews, fueled by alcohol at times, were the norm. There were no women allowed in the pits in those days and there were very good reasons why. It was a tough world, yet men like the Allison’s, Bobby Johns, Jackie Evans, Rags Carter and others saw a decent living to be made at this. The big money was there for the taking, all you needed to do was climb over 20+ of your fellow wheelmen on these tight, wooden fenced lined bullrings…and of course, there were the foreboding concrete walls of the Palm Beach Fairgrounds track , that seemed to launch cars into the tree-lined first and second turn area. None of this bothered anyone involved, this was their world, their time and they flourished in it.
However……there was one minor obstacle standing in the way of racing utopia for the Allison’s, Red Farmer, and all the rest. As Colombo used to say……“just one thing”. This “one thing” was a short, quiet driver with curly black hair and Italian features. I never once saw him lose his temper or raise his voice. A driver everyone simply called “Roddy.” When I talked to Smokey Yunick in the mid 90’s at the Daytona Oval Track Trade show I asked him if he knew of Rod Perry. Smokey replied with, “Hell yes, he was the best driver this state ever had, and I’m puttin’ them all in there”. He went on to say “I would have asked him to drive my Indy car in 1964, the one I put Johns in, but I didn’t like drivers saying no to me”. He then added; “It was probably for the best, because Roddy would not have run the thing into the damn fence, he would have qualified it, and would have been right on the middle of that mess at the start.” That should give folks somewhat of an idea of what everyone who raced in S. Florida from 1947-1970 faced. Roddy’s earliest racecar seems to have been what we now call “Roasters”, these were the very earliest stock cars that appeard right after WW2. He drove a white #50, photographed at Opa Locka, with Perry holding a checkered flag, in 1948. These early cars could well have been his own, but like all great drivers, he did not have to pay the bills for long, he had his pick of car owners his entire career. He drove the Red Lenard Sportsman coupe in the late 40’s, and then Carlton Bond’s “Regal Beer” sponsored #69. He was there at the very beginning of racing at Palm Beach, racing on the half mile dirt with a black #31. In the earliest days of Hialeah Speedway he was there in the #12 Flathead powered Hollywood Ford sponsored coupe with dual two barrels for induction. In the mid to late 50’s he teamed up with Austin Ford, later sponsored by Morse Holland, with a series of Black #71’s, that became known as the ‘Black Bandit.’ A quick note; on January 18,1955, Perry won the very first feature ever run at the brand new Hollywood Speedway. That was not surprising really, as he was completely dominating the local racing circuit by then.
The Sport evolved throughout the 50’s fairly sedately, but as the 50’s became the 60’s, the cars began to rapidly change, and to become ever more radical. The engines became larger and larger, the Fuel systems went from a couple of two barrel carburetors, to six, then six gave way to eight. The bodies got smaller, early economy cars from the 50’s, mainly Crosley Hotshots, were chopped and sectioned, huge tires hung out on all four corners. Then, in a desperate bid to attempt to get these overpowered, ill handling beasts to stick in the turns, wings were fabricated. By now There were two basic classes that competed at this time locally, Sportsman- flathead v8 or six cylinder powered machines, and Modified, the same basic homebuilt coupes powered by the brand new overhead valve V8’s that were powering the big finned land barges of the 50’s down the highways Ike built. But the cars that were leapfrogging ahead of the rule books were too modified for modified’s! Almost overnight, seemingly by default, they became the only logical thing they could be called…….Supermodifieds. The revolution/evolution kept on at breakneck speed. Running 8 carburetors was no longer enough, fuel injection systems were borrowed from drag racing and bolted on. Now, even more volatile fuel could be brewed up, Methanol laced with nitro methane became the fuel of choice, and along with that, the compression ratio’s could-and did-go higher and higher. No longer could mere battery fired ignition systems be used, they gave way to aircraft magnetos that shot a huge spark at 7,000+ rpms. Starters simply melted down trying to crank these beast’s up so the transmissions and clutches were simply thrown away, hell just push start ’em, and who needs a battery then, right? Tube frames replaced the old car frames, the cars got narrower, lower, and, of course, much, much faster….. We have now arrived at 1964, which, as we will soon see, will be a fateful year for South Florida racing.
Rod Perry began winning from just about the first moment he starting racing. He drove Roadsters at what appears to be the long forgotten one mile dirt oval of the Pompano Beach Speedway in 1947. He won regularly at the old Opa Locka track, racing there from the very beginning in 1948 until the track closed in 1952, because the Korean War began and the military needed the base back. Medley Stadium opened in 1952, followed by Hialeah speedway in 1954, Hollywood speedway in 1955, and Palm Beach was running during this time as a ½ mile dirt track, then in 1955 it was paved and hi-banked. All of these tracks raced several nights a week each at times, as well as Sunday afternoons. It was quite possible to run 4-5 nights a week at times, and one could always run at least three night a week. And unlike most of the rest of the country, there was no off season to speak of. It was not uncommon for 25-30 cars to start features night after night. The real test was always Medley, both Hialeah and Hollywood raced Saturday nights, with the best coming together at Medley on Friday night to battle it out. And through it all, Rod Perry, getting the best cars to chose from, was consistently the driver to beat. He won dozens of features a year and numerous track championships for years on end. And he began to get noticed beyond the local tracks. He raced at Daytona on the beach, in 1957, the last year of the beach races. He so impressed there that when Carl Kiekhaefer, the true creator of the multi-car Stock Car team concept decided to expand his team, he contact Perry to come and drive for him full time. Roddy turned him down, and it would not be the last time he turned down a chance for stardom. Perry would move between Hialeah Speedway and Hollywood Speedway , often running one night at one track, and the next race he would run at the other venue as well as Medley Speedway on Friday nights. As the 50’s gave way to the 60’s, Perry was one of a small handful of drivers who was a threat to win anywhere he raced at. Checkered flag pictures abound from all of the local speedways. Rod Perry also ventured out of town with great success, winning features at the lightning fast 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, and at the fearsome 5/8 mile high banked speedbowl of Mobile International Raceway in southern Alabama. Simply put, he was THE driver that every racer in Florida knew, that if he was on the track, he was the one they had to beat to get to the checkered flag.
In 1959 Lindsey Hopkins was in the process of putting together a top flight team for a serious assault on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tired of running as a backmarker, Hopkins was pouring money in, this team was going to lack for nothing, the goal was to win the 1960 Indianapolis 500. The primary driver Jim Rathmann, who by this time was a veteran of the Indy 500 also had a successful Miami area garage. Rathmann brought some funding of his own as well as mechanical expertise to the effort and also supplied some of the crew, notably Johnny Merindino, who would go on to later fame with ‘Car 84 Garage’. Also on the team was one of the very best local mechanics, Bob Hamke, who maintained the Hal Belford special, the metallic purple #119, aptly chauffeured by Rags Carter. Hopkins wanted a team car, and everyone strongly recommended Rod Perry as the driver Hopkins needed to have behind the wheel. So Hopkins, with Rathmann’s blessing, came to Roddy and offered him a ride for the 1960 Indy 500. At heart, Perry was an open wheel driver, and this offer interested Perry enough for him to attempt to get the month of May off from his job at Pan Am. Pan Am would not give him the time off, and this time around Perry seriously contemplated quitting his job to go racing full time. This was a key decision in Rod Perry’s life. Once again he had an opportunity to go onto the national racing stage, but for reasons that remained personal, he chose to turn down Hopkin’s offer.
This time was a pivotal year for another well known racer. In 1959, Bobby Allison had come to realize that this area was not really a good place to make a living racing cars. Unlike today, there were no huge salary’s, no t-shirt sales, no internet sites to be mined. There was just the driver behind the wheel, and the money paid at the gate after the nights racing was over. Sponsorships might consist of a steak dinner or two if you were sponsored by a restaurant, some free parts from the parts house emblazoned on the side, or free drinks on the way home from the local tavern-not to mention a good place to get pit muscle from. But money? Not hardly. And the cold reality was, there were a few drivers that were simply hard to beat very often. And one of the very highest on the ‘could not be beaten’ list was Rod Perry. A program from Hialeah Speedway late in the 1960 season shows just how dominant Perry was. The Following are the point totals between Palmetto (Medley)Speedway and Hialeah Speedway: Bobby Allison-835 Donnie Allison-799 Rod Perry-1237. Rags Carter, driving what had become THE car to be in, #119 had a total of 1301. By now Red Farmer had quit racing the southern end of the circuit altogether, choosing to call Hollywood Speedway his home track. And as is the custom today, the big money was always on top. With the realities of the local competition staring him in the face, Bobby had decided to look for greener pastures and had taken some time to check out southern Alabama. Forged and hammered by the white hot competition he left behind, Allison found a happy, or one could say hapless hunting ground, winning four races in five days. He returned home, ran the 1960 season in South Florida, and then moved to Hueytown Alabama. Brother Donnie and Red Farmer followed Bobby in 1962. While they all continued to come back and run the South Florida tracks, the die was cast. The immortal Alabama gang had been formed. The rest, as we all know, is racing history. But South Florida had much more racing history of its own to write.
No-one knows the exact moment that the first wing was bolted on an oval track racecar. Smokey Yunick swears he was the first one to do it, he claimed he did so during practice one day in May for the 1957 Indy 500. Smoky said “the driver came in with sort of a weird expression on his face mumbling about how he could go 20 miles an hour faster in the turns, and the officials were right behind him telling me they would ban me for life if I ever put it on again”. Regardless of who did it first and when, wings first appeared in crude form around the end of the 1959 season. Winter racing in Florida has always been a wonderland, like migratory birds, racers come south for the winter. It’s always been a ‘run what ya brung’ atmosphere at Florida short tracks in February. Personally, it’s this writers opinion that someone brought a fabricated wing with them that they had not even run at their home track yet, and showed up with it on at one of the local tracks, maybe in Feb, 1960 or thereabouts. However it got here, by 1961-62 cars were sprouting them like, well….wings. And the Greater Miami Racing Association did not like them one bit. All racing clubs tend to be tight-nit and cliquish, and GMRA was no exception. They always tended to resist things brought in by whomever they considered to be ‘outsiders’, and not much was more outside looking than those alien wings. GMRA pushed back hard. They ostracized them at Hialeah by creating a so called “supermodified” division, and then cutting their purse, making them second class citizens to the headlining Modified. On the other hand, Hollywood Speedway welcomed them with open arms, making the supers their premier division. It was plain to see that trouble was in the air.
Rod Perry and Bob Hamke had been close friends for quite some time. Roddy was a superb machinist, a shop foreman at Pan Am, and he often helped his buddy out with trick machining jobs. Bob Hamke was a master mechanic and had some ideas on how all of this new technology could be best exploited. When Rags Carter destroyed the current 119 in a grinding crash at Palmetto Speedway (the renamed Medley Speedway) , Hamke saw his chance to put his ideas to the test. He began construction of a radical new car late in 1962, and finished it in time to compete in part of the 1962 season. The car represented quantum leap forward in car design and thinking. The car sat low, and had something obvious that had never before been seen, the engine was offset radically to the left for increased left side weight. The engine was a small block Chevy, set up to run on methanol, and had a special internal part that virtually no-one knew about; a Moldex crankshaft. Hand machined from a solid billet of the finest forged steel these crankshafts were almost impossible to get, Hamke had put his Indy connections to good use. The engine also had no oil drain plug, when the oil was changed, Hamke dropped the pan. He also cut open oil filters for inspection, unheard of at that time. A custom made steering box was another advantage, along with a very unusual rear end design, this car was years ahead of its time. But a driver was needed for this radical creation, as Rags Carter decided that he would join Jackie Evans, who had moved up north to run modified in on the tough New York , New Jersey and Pennsylvania circuits. Carter moved from the Miami area early in 1963. Bill Belford and Perry never really got along, so previous Belford wheelman Herb Tillman was chosen to pilot the new machine. There were some teething problems, and then the team won several races before the end of the 1962 season.
At the start of the 1963 season Bill Belford wanted out, and Bob Hamke took over complete ownership of what had become known as “the blue Jewel”, and immediately put Rod Perry in the car. (The Hal Belford on the wing was Bills son). By now the concept of ‘Sportsman’ or ‘Modified’ and ‘Supermodified’ was in full swing. The sportsman’s did not have wings at first, later sprouting them at Hollywood, or fuel injection, or methanol, and depending on where they raced they were limited in displacement. Supermodifieds of course, had the wings, Hilborn fuel injection (borrowed from the drag racers), ran on methanol, and were beginning to be push started, having no batteries, clutches, or transmissions. Stock cars were starting to come in as well, 1955 and 57 Chevy’s were being turned into racecars with huge tires and heavily modified suspension systems with full race small blocks competed with the open wheel brigade for purses and crowd appeal. GMRA especially was very conscious of the big neighbor up in Daytona, NASCAR was sanctioning races throughout the state. And everyone knew full well that the Allison’s and Farmer were achieving stardom in the fendered cars known as Late Model Modified. Then there was that little matter of that “Blue Jewel” that was the class of the field wherever it raced. Perry and Hamke were racing at the Hollywood speedway pretty much all of the time on Sat night and they were winning regularly there. Hamke had also build a sister car to 119 for a young local go Kart ace named Bobby Allen, who showed no signs of wanting to leave south Florida and competed regularly at Medley and Hialeah in this Hamke creation. While the exact reasons will never be precisely known or agreed upon, the facts are that at the end of the 1963 season, the Greater Miami Racing Association kicked out all the open wheel cars and became a 100% fendered stock car track.
Hollywood Speedway, the quarter mile banked, paved bullring on Pembroke road just west of I-95 was truly as perfect a Saturday night track as ever has been built. Two cars could-and often did- race side by side lap after lap. Free from a nagging and petty racing club, the sport of open wheel oval track racing flourished there. R.J. Whitney, garage owner from Miami Springs had a beautiful purple CAE Sprint car with “R.J Whitney Special” proudly emblazoned in exquisite white and black cursive script across the hood. He bought it brand new from CAE, and of course it was built for Dirt. Whitney cut the frame, and lengthened it 10” and also lowered it, basically creating one of the very first true pavement Sprint cars. This groundbreaking set-up was not exactly perfect for the pavement as the flexible chassis coupled with a wretchedly overpowered screaming small block Chevy had an unforeseen side effect. Chauffeur Gene Winn would spectacularly carry the left front wheel 3 feet in the air virtually all the way around the track, except for brief moments going into the turns. In 1965 Bob Hamke came out with a rear engined supermodified, a stunning creation years ahead of its time. His son Robert, another go kart graduate drove the radical #3 rear engined car. Hardy Maddox had a blazing fast home-built supermodified, the red, white and yellow #82 that was always at the front. This car won features late into the 70’s at Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa. R.H. Ellis, Ronnie Grim, Loyd Pruitt, Roy Clanton, Bud Johnson, and the #119 clone Bobby Allen had sold to Vance Murray, now known as “the Orange Crate”, for its brilliant Omaha Orange paint job, all competed here on Saturday nights. Donnie Allison also never forgot his roots, and came to race every Winter for months at a time with a potent super-modified of his own. One night I asked him why he still continued to race these cars here, why he did not run a late model at Hialeah when he came down? He smiled and said “here is where the real racing is.” That says it all. All these excellent wheelmen and many others put on a breathtaking show on countless Saturday nights for years on end.
But it was Rod Perry who stole that show, and in the process created one that was completely unique. It probably was not fair, the best driver had the best car and the best mechanic. But racing is not fair, it never has been, it never will be and frankly it never should be. Racing is about winning and dominating; Rod Perry and Bob Hamke did just that. In 1964 they won 18 races. During the 1965 Season they won 16 out of 18 races, around 25 total for the year. In 1966 they won over 20 features, topping that in 1967 with over 25 feature wins. The way Roddy could drive through traffic had to be seen to be believed and comprehended. He could move into holes that literally were not there, but somehow he knew they would appear by the time he got to them. I never once saw him put the bumper to anyone, but I saw him time and time again put the car in holes where there could not have been more than an inch to spare…on both ends. He seemed to drop a car into a hole, rather than simply cut down into it like everyone else. And the car literally seemed to float through the turns. Other drivers, even the good ones, you could see worked at driving these wicked racecars. These cars have never been easy to drive, and this particular period in time was long before coilovers, scales, custom valved shocks, power steering, and all the other trappings the modern driver has. Yet without any of that, It seemed to come effortlessly to Rod Perry. He had “it”, and if you are a racer, you know what “it” is. All the great ones have it. Many, but not all, share the trait that Roddy had, the ability to go fast, yet almost seem slow at the same time. Its a rare trait that some of the great ones have, they somehow do not look fast yet they mow the whole field down while seeming to be going at a sedate pace. But Roddy topped even all of that. He was in a class that frankly I have not hardly ever seen, I will put only a very small handful of drivers in it. I have a truly extraordinary picture, taken during qualifying for a Sunday afternoon race in 1967. Perry is on a qualifying run, the picture was taken coming off of the 4th turn, I was standing next to the photographer when he took it. The left front wheel is just off the ground, and Roddy has just his finger tips on the steering wheel. He is driving the car completely with the throttle, just kissing the steering wheel with his fingertips. Let me know if you know of any other driver who has ever driven like that. Yet as mind boggling as that entire concept is, Roddy even topped that. Ponder this: Being high point, Perry would start the feature at the back. He would storm through the field and grab the lead. Then….. he then would put his right hand outside the car; this was plainly visible to the crowd, and while holding the right side, he would proceed to drive the rest of the race with one hand. That would be done while lapping cars, and pulling away from whoever was in second. He became known as the “one armed bandit”. Again, please let this writer know if you have ever heard of anyone driving a winged, injected, methanol burning supermodified on a ¼ mile track, in a race, with one hand, and winning…..and he did this week in and week out…..year in and year out.
Midway thought the 1966 season, even though the Perry/Hamke duo continued to dominate, Bob Hamke had some new ideas. Working alone, he once again was in the process of revolutionizing the class that he had done so much to move forward. He fabricated and installed twin turbochargers on the Blue Jewel, designing the entire system himself. Understanding the concept of what wings did for these cars better than just about anyone, he fabricated a new, huge wing, knowing that the additional horsepower could handle it. The car was lowered and a new body built and installed. But all was not well in the local racing world. Hollywood Speedway was going through some problems late in 1966. Due to the total lack of promotion the crowds and car count were both starting to decline, the purses were then cut, leading to further car count decline, the crowd, of course dropping all the time as well, it’s a death spiral far too many local short tracks everywhere have experienced. The track did not open on time for the 1967 season. So during the extended off-season the latest re-incarnation of the blue Jewel was finished and race ready with its home track closed. It turned out that the new and improved 119 actually made its track debut at the Palm Beach Fairgrounds Speedway. Some teething problems occurred; turbo lag was a serious problem, remember turbo racing technology was in its infancy; Hamke was quite literally writing the book as he went along. A defective magneto leading to a couple of burned pistons were just a few of the problems that needed to be overcome, and Bob Hamke of course did just that. After a very long off-season Hollywood Speedway opened in 1967, and Perry picked up wins, as usual. Then late in the spring, a slow roll over the wall between turns one and two turned into a violent series of somersaults down the outside embankment that tragically took the life of the popular supermodified driver Ronnie Grim. With all of the other issues that the track had, this was the final straw that broke this camel’s back. After a series of long closings and ‘new Management’ fiasco’s , Hollywood Speedway, once a key mainstay of Florida racing, where Red Farmer raced, where Donnie Allison, when he was racing at the Daytona 500 had said “here is where the real racing is”, this track closed for good in 1969. At the end of the 1967 season, in a bit of a ceremony, Rod Perry had “officially” retired. But…it seems that he had kept his fingers crossed a bit. Roddy raced at the so called “new” Hollywood speedway on Hollywood Blvd, and several races at The Palm Beach Fairgrounds track. Not wishing to become a fendered stock car racer, quietly, sometime during this period, Rod Perry retired from competition, turning the blue Jewel over to the capable hands of Robert Hamke Jr, Bob’s son. This writer saw him occasionally in the pits at Hialeah Speedway during the 70’s and maybe a time or two in the 80’s. Rod Perry passed away on May 5th, 1992, at the age of 64. And in the place he never wanted to leave, South Florida. The new Hollywood track never really opened its arms to the winged wonders, as it flailed around trying to establish an identity with a variety of fast talking promoters taking turns at the helm. They did, however host some superb open competition Supermodified races during the winter months throughout the early and mid 70’s. The Palm Beach Fairgrounds speedway was now a stock car track, and looked at the Supers as an occasional winter event involving cars from over a thousand miles away, from places like Oswego Speedway, Sandusky, Star Speedway and some others that embraced them from the very beginning and never let go. These cars have since turned into probably the most exotic and wild looking short track racecars of them all. But…….unwanted at the few local tracks remaining, in short order the class melted away from South Florida. Hardy Maddox moved to Tampa and kept a successful open wheel career going in the winged sprints of what would become the TBARA. Most of the other drivers, Robert Hamke included, built stock cars and raced at Hialeah. The cars, however, those wonderful, wild examples of racing run amok from the rule book vanished from what once was their stomping grounds. Never again would supermodifieds race regularly in South Florida. And what of the 119? In the winter of 1969-70 It was sold to Bill Murphy, “the flying Irishman”, who took it north to compete in NESMRA. Murphy re-numbered the old warhorse #8, and continued to race her for some years in the New England area on the New England Supermodified circuit known as NESMRA. He also made regular appearances in Florida for winter racing into the mid 70’s and successfully campaigned the car into the late 70’s. Almost a 20 year racing career for the old girl, truly remarkable. As a postscript, in the mid 90’s, 119 was tracked down by Robbie Hamke- Robert Hamke’s Son; Bob Hamke’s Grandson. This once proud racing machine was sitting out in the New England elements behind Murphy’s shop. For 10 years Robbie attempted to get Bill Murphy to sell him the car. Finally, in 2006 Murphy relented, and was persuaded to sell the car to Robbie, who is currently restoring it to its former glory with the help of the Florida racing community. It seems the car is both home and safe.
So how many races did Rod Perry win in the blue Jewel? As far as can be figured, depending on who you ask, and if you count feature win stickers on the last wing, and factor in one completely destroyed wing from a very rare flip that took out a pile of feature win stickers on that particular wing, it’s this writers opinion that between 1963- 1968 Rod Perry won right at 100 supermodified features at Hollywood Speedway. As for the total number of races that Rod Perry won in his approximately 22 year driving career, again, depending on who you ask and how deep one digs, a minimum of 400 would seem to be pretty accurate. A special career, for sure. And all of it was done in a very special place. From 1947 to 1975, no-where was there a better collection of drivers and racing talent in general. South Florida could have been the racing capital of the world. Period. The most exquisite twists of fate happened, and need to be mentioned here to put Rod Perry and his time in its proper place and context. Racing in South Florida has been both blessed, and then cursed. On the surface, what could be better, look at the climate! Racing can happen all year around here, that was Carl Fisher’s thought when he constructed his board track Miami-Fulford Speedway in North Miami. Of course, that was the problem why could he not have built it out of brick, like he did when he built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just 16 years prior?? The idea was to have big races down here during the winter, it worked, the stands were packed for the one and only race the track had before a hurricane blew it away. Cursed. While you will not read it this way now, the event has been “historically sanitized”, the fact is that Bill France was headed not for Daytona, but for Miami, his truck happened to break down in Daytona. We all know what happened after that. What if there was now the ‘Miami 500’? What if today the headquarters of NASCAR was in Miami, not Daytona? Cursed again.
But even without a superspeedway of its own, racing flourished here…..for a while. But how many great drivers have come out of South Florida in the past, say, 10 years? Not very many. You see, you cannot have great drivers without places where great dreams can begin. Sure, a kid can go to Daytona and dream about racing there, but the racing dream begins at places like Palmetto Speedway…Hollywood Speedway…Hialeah Speedway…Florida City Speedway. Its places like those all across the land where dreams take shape, where the stars come from. The short tracks of America are magical places, so often, like so much of life, they are not appreciated until they are gone. And the tracks create their own commerce system. There are the chassis builders, the engine shops, the speed equipment merchants. They all need each other. And South Florida went from having everything to having nothing. Yet the impact of South Florida racers has been enormous. Of course, the South Florida curse is at work here as well. While many racefans know the story of the thrilling photo finish of the 1959 inaugural Daytona 500, its a forgotten fact that during the very next 500 of 1960; that particular race was being totally dominated by South Florida’s Bobby Johns, driving Daytona based Smoky’s Yunick’s Pontiac. It was viciously windy that day, and with an insurmountable lead on the very last lap, heading down the backstretch half a lap from racing immortality , a gust of wind blew out the back window of John’s Pontiac and one of South Florida’s best spun wildly out of history’s headlines and into its footnotes. Regardless, the Allison’s were as good as they come, Nascar Legends. Racing against drivers like Rod Perry made them better than they ever would have been otherwise. Both Bobby and Donnie look back fondly on their Florida roots. And there is no doubt at all, if they could have won consistently, why leave? They wiped the Alabama racing scene out when they got there. Red Farmer, Rags Carter, Jackie Evans, Bobby Allen, Gary Balough, Dick Anderson, Bobby Brack and a slew of other South Florida drivers all had long and successful careers, they all kicked ass everywhere they ever went. Hialeah late Models were the best cars and the best drivers in the country from about 1965-1971. Then GMRA made one of their bigger mistakes.
Every year in November, as the racing season wound down, a very special marquee event took place on Sunday afternoon at the Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa Florida. It was a 200 lap race for late model modifieds called The Florida Governors cup 200. First run in 1963, this race had rapidly become one of the most prestigious races in the country, drivers from all over the state and from other states towed in to compete against the best of the best. It became a tradition to either show up with a new car, or at the very least a new body got hung on the old war horse, both cars and drivers were at their very best for this race. All the cars had stock frames, either 1955-57 frames with (generally) Chevelle bodies, or beefed Chevelle frames. All was well with the world until……. In 1971 a racer named Ed Howe came down from the frozen north-land of Beaverton, Michigan with a car that had a custom,fabricated rear clip. From the main roll cage back, it was all homemade, all the limitations of the stock suspension disappeared. The results of this outside the box thinking were stunning. Howe was cruising to victory until being collected in a late race crash. While the racing community was digesting this leap forward in car construction, Howe showed up in 1972 with a car who’s chassis was 100% constructed with steel tubing. In one fell swoop, every late model stock car in the country became obsolete. Howe then lapped the entire field, this writer vividly remembers the great Gary Balough, running second, “first in class”, driving his heart out to keep himself from being lapped, finally spinning off the track in a cloud of dust in the first turn. Ed Howe, literally cruising right behind him, looked like he was on a Sunday afternoon drive while all of that was going on. It was as awesome a display of technological superiority as one would ever see on a racetrack. That race car, known as “the green hornet” for its vivid green paint job, shook the late model stock car world to its very core. As a quick postscript, after a blown engine knocked him out of the 1973 race (won by Wayne Reutimann) Ed Howe returned to to win the Governors cup in 74, 75, and 76, becoming the only 4 time winner of this event.
The handwriting was on the wall, factory built cars were coming. Tracks everywhere stampeded to change their rules to allow the so called ‘store bought’ racing chassis to compete. The future was now. And yet…… GMRA resisted the factory chassis for years, stubbornly sticking to 57 Chevy frames and the related technology long after it was totally obsolete, and when they finally relented in the late 70’s they had lost their cutting edge they had once held. Cursed again. But those twists of fate were nothing compared to the bombs that were ticking away under every single one of the original group of racetracks in South Florida, that being that none of them owned the land that they were built on. And one by one, they all fell. Medley went first, closing in 1964. Hollywood went next, the perfect short track closing for good in 1969. Palm Beach, that unbelievable half mile, constantly fought with its landlord, the South Florida fairgrounds, they finally forced the racers out in 1983, and ran a bulldozer through a couple of sections of track just to make sure it could never be used again, much of the track was still there in 2003. A beautiful paved hi-banked Midget and mini stock track; Florida City Speedway closed in 1975, after a 14 year run. This author has many fond memories of Saturday nights spent competing there. Hialeah Speedway, in spite of, or perhaps because the drivers controlled their own fate hung on until 2005. While I’m sure the Lowes needed the parking lot that sits there now, it just does not seem like a fair trade, does it? I’m sure that Lowe’s considers itself to be a great supporter of the sport; what if they had simply bought the track, re-named it “Lowe’s southern short track speedway”, or something, turning it into a crown jewel of the sport instead of just another parking lot for just another Lowes? I know, not so good for the company bottom line I suppose. And now there is not one single short track in Dade, Broward or Palm Beach county. The final curse is in place. Long before the final track closed, the premier Chassis builder had left, Robert Hamke moved to the Carolina’s and continued his business,a Hamke chassis is one of the very best chassis’s one can have for the pavement late model wars. Important as that is, without racetracks how can you have racecar drivers? Will there be more Allison’s, another Rod Perry, mechanics to rival Bob Hamke? Why should there be? Where is the next Bobby Brack or Gary Balough, or Herb Tillman going to come from? Could he possibly come from a place with no racetrack? Yes there is the Homestead Miami Speedway, and that matters, but that’s not where Oval racers start, that’s where they end up. Henry Ford one said the sport of auto racing started the moment the second car was built. That means two things; one, that there have been racetracks in South Florida for a very long time, and two, there was a time that there were none.
And we now have come a full circle, from the racing feast of tracks everywhere to the famine of none anywhere. How we got to this point is important, perhaps it will help the racers of South Florida find their way out of the wasteland. The one encouraging thing to remember is, history has a way of repeating itself. South Florida once had some of the very best if not the very best racing in the country, and the very best drivers, we can hope this time will come again someday.
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ABOUT THIS ARTICLE- My original intent in writing this was just to tell folks about a little known local race car driver who was truly talented. During my some of my formative years I was fortunate enough to watch Rod Perry win many races, and saw him drive races more than once with one hand. I was interested in him then, and talked to Roddy himself and both Robert Hamke Sr. and Jr quite often during and after the races. I would go down to Bob Sr’s Standard Oil Gas station at times just to watch him work on 119, I saw the twin turbo set-up while it was being built and fitted to the car. Much of my information comes from those sources. I was also lucky enough to have been able to talk to Smokey Yunick several times over the years, he was a wealth of information about Florida racing. My spending decades hanging around Florida short tracks, talking with many folks then, and having friends like Rob Bean, Dana Barlow, Don Heckman and others who attended and raced throughout the state during this time period, that also helped a lot. Eddie Roche’s two great books Florida Motorsports Retrospective Vol #1 and#2 were a great help setting up timelines, cross referencing information, etc. Much of the information I have put down here is second hand…this we all know at times might be slanted a certain way, that’s just how it is. Over the years I have found that the true fascination of history is separating what we think is true from what the ‘true truth’ really is. It’s not easy! If anyone has any opinions or corrections to make, please contact me, and present your side of whatever you might have an issue with. I’m not saying I will run to change things, but I can assure you that I will listen and check whatever you tell me!
I understand that my premise, that Rod Perry ran many drivers out of the area might not be accepted by everyone, but many know this to be the truth, and it’s significant that the ones who do are the ones who were at the races during those days. I personally did not see anyone beat him consistently, and that included Donnie Allison. And it was Smoky Yunick who personally told me about his desire to put Roddy in the radical sidecar Indy car Smoky built for the 1964 Indy 500 and also about his friend Lindsey Hopkins who wanted to put Roddy in his Indy car. Bob Hamke is who told me about Karl Keikhaefer wanting him for his Nascar team. Gene Winn confirmed both stories to me. I’ll stand by my opinion that Rod Perry’s driving ability, while no-one, least of all him, knew it at the time, changed the very future of Nascar and of Stock car racing, not only in Florida, but in general.
So this story, that started out as just a couple of paragraphs, took on a life of its own, and grew into much more. It was not intended to be the history of post war oval track racing in South Florida, and I would not presume to say that it is, the story is much greater than what I have put down in these few words here. The story simply had to be written this way to make it understandable, not only for those of us who lived part of it, but for other racers and fans alike. If folks like the story, learn something from it, and most important, it helps keep the past a bit more alive for all of us, I will consider it time and effort well spent. Thank you, Art Dahlberg