(Special to Bod Lawrence, David Smith Jr.)
The 61st annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Hutchinson Grand Nationals presented by Midwest Super Store of Hutchinson are upon us and this coming Friday and Saturday night the tradition continues atop the famed half mile fairgrounds oval, atop the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, Kansas.
There has been several twist and turns of this historic event and, to this day, thousands embark to the town to not only partake in the Nationals but boost the Hutchinson economy for the weekend.
History of the Hutchinson Grand Nationals:
The first “Nationals” were held at Taft Stadium in Oklahoma City in 1957. More than 100 teams showed up for the event that featured cars known in racing circles as “Jalopies.” They ran on a track that surrounded a football field. Both the field and stadium are still used today in Oklahoma City to host football games.
Due to the large amount of competitors and limited space for parking, promoter Jack Merrick, of Dodge City, Ks, who was at the event that year, offered the spacious half-mile oval in Hutchinson, Ks. at the Kansas State Fairgrounds as a future home for the event. Merrick at the time was the promoter for auto races at the fairgrounds in Hutchinson as well as his home track in Dodge City, Ks.
The following year (1958) the “Nationals” were moved to the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, Ks. under the guidance of Jack Merrick and named the “National Championship Jalopy Races.” Frank Lies, of Wichita, winner of the race in ’57 at Taft Stadium, would win the inaugural race in Hutchinson and again in 1958 before another Wichita resident Will Forrest would put an end to the Lies domination with a win in ’59.
Kansas drivers continued to dominate the event for the first 14 years before a flashy young driver from Tulsa, Oklahoma placed his Jack Zink owned car in victory lane in 1971. Emmett Hahn would be the first driver outside of the Sunflower State to capture the crown. Hahn would go on to win a total of 3 titles in the event carding wins in ’71, ’77 and ’79.
With the popularity of a fabricated full body car gaining interest across the country in the early ’70’s, Merrick added the Late Model division to the program in 1974. Don Kreie, of Dodge City, Ks. won his first and only title of the event that year.
Oddly enough, the first year the full body cars competed in the event would be the only year the open wheel division did not crown a champion.
A crash on the first lap of the 1974 championship feature in the Super Modifieds in turn one and the ensuing fire, not only sent numerous drivers to the hospital, but forced officials to cancel the remaining program.
Jack Merrick remained the promoter of the event until his death in 1976.
Ray Hall, of Wichita, Kansas, General Manager of 81 Speedway located in Park City, Ks., became the successor to Merrick in 1977 and has remained the auto racing promoter at the Kansas State Fairgrounds to date.
Hall’s first priority was to give the event a new name. With two divisions now competing for individual titles since ’74, and the division of the “Jalopies” changing to a new style and name of “Super Modified,” the 1977 event became known as the Hutchinson Grand Nationals.
The name stayed with the event for five years when it caught the attention of NASCAR. A letter sent to Hall in ’83 from NASCAR said, in part, he would have to change the name because NASCAR had a patent on the name “Grand Nationals” as a stock car division. The Hutchinson National Auto Races was introduced as the new name of the event in 1983 and remained such through the 2005 event.
With the demise of NASCAR’s “Grand National” division, for the 50th Anniversary of the event, Hall changed the name back to the Hutchinson Grand National Auto Races. It remains that today.
As the event grew in popularity, new divisions were added to the program to accommodate the interest of other types of race car teams and their fans. That still remains a big objective of Hall today so as many teams as possible have an opportunity to compete in this prestigious event.
From the searing heat of a July afternoon to the cooler evenings of a Kansas summer, temporary lighting was brought over to the historic half-mile for a try at night time racing with the 38th edition of the Hutchinson Grand National Auto Races.
Four years later, in 1996, the permanent lighting in place currently was installed and the event has been contested under the lights with no thoughts about returning to a complete afternoon program.
It all kicks off this Thursday night with an open practice session for all drivers competing during the weekend.
Friday Night’s program:
Qualifying heat races and championship feature for street stocks and thumpers; Qualifying heat races for IMCA/AAA/Rookie Modifieds; Double heat races for NCRA Sprints, NCRA Modifieds and NCRA Late Models
Saturday Night’s program:
Consolation and championship features for NCRA Sprints, NCRA Modifieds, NCRA Late Models and IMCA/AAA/Rookie Modifieds
Pit gates open both night’s at 4:00 PM; Ticket office and grandstand gates open at 5:00 PM; Hot Laps at 6:00 PM; Racing at 7:00 PM
Grandstand general admission for ages 12 and up $20, free for ages 11 and under both Friday and Saturday night. $2 off coupons can be obtained at any O’Reilly Auto Parts stores in the Hutchinson area. All pit passes are $30.
More information on the 61st annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Hutchinson Grand Nationals presented by Midwest Super Store of Hutchinson can be found by accessing the website www.race81speedway.com.