Opening Night Memories From Stateline Speedway
November 21, 2010
Part 2 of 12
Following a herculean effort by the five partners, with substantial assistance from their neighbors and friends, the new Stateline Speedway was finally ready to open its gates. However, Mother Nature was not. Two consecutive rainy Saturday nights pushed backed the opener to July 21, 1956. Even that day dawned in the rain, but by mid-afternoon the sun had appeared and the races were on.
The seven-race card would consist of three heats races, two semifinals, one consolation race and a 25-lap feature race. The main event was the Gust Johnson Memorial in honor of the late Jamestown area garage owner and father of noted racer Ken Johnson. A guaranteed purse of $1,500, including $300 to the winner was posted.
Twenty-two racers entered the pits under the supervision of pit stewards Russ Thompson and Skip Brown. A total of 1,700 spectators showed for the Stateline unveiling, paying $1.25 for adults and 50 cents for children. Barb Briggs, Len's wife, and Clarice White sold tickets. Ken Frank, Don and Jerry's dad, took tickets and sold programs. Marv Thorpe was on the starter's stand. Lloyd Williams stood on a makeshift announcer's stand on the back of a flatbed truck. Len was busy with the P.A system and lights. Jerry and Don finished preparing the track and then rushed to help in the parking lot.
But despite the preparations, all did not go according to plan. As Jerry Frank later would say, "It wasn't a good scene."
First of all, the recent rains had left the parking lot a quagmire. Spectators' cars became stranded in the muck. Local farmers with their tractors were summoned to tow the cars into the lot and out again at the end of the evening.
Secondly, and most troubling to the Stateline owners, was some alleged skullduggery by unnamed "conspirators" who were engaged in "dirty politics" according to The Post-Journal newspaper quotes attributed to Len Briggs. Unsubstantiated reports claimed there were unknown persons stationed at each end of Kortwright Road informing race fans that the races had been cancelled.
It was a mud-slinging night from start to finish.
The honor of winning the first-ever feature race at Stateline fell to popular Warren driver Emory Mahan driving a 1955 Chevy with his distinctive 8-ball on the doors. Ken Mains of Bradford finished second, while Dean Layfield of Wellsville was third.
When it was time to distribute the payoffs, the owners found themselves short of cash. Watching them make payments with quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies, Mahan magnanimously told the boys, "Don't worry about my money tonight." He told them they could wait to pay his $300 prize when they were more solvent.
Years later, when stories of that ill-fated first night were retold again and again, the owners were always quick to praise Mahan for his selfless act. Mahan, however, liked to tease the boys by saying, "I don't think I ever did get paid for that one!"
Stateline's second race week later went much smoother and Joe Sauner grabbed the win in his Twin Auto Ford.
Rains returned and washed out the third week partly through the show, so double features were on the bill Aug.11. Al Tasin, in a Hudson Jet, paced the 13-car field on a sloppy track to take the first feature while Sauner captured the second contest.
Another rainout and then another Sauner victory accounted for the next two Saturdays.
For the 1956 Labor Day weekend, Stateline management conceived the idea of a 150-lap team race that was billed as "the greatest racing spectacular ever presented in the area."
Two-car teams, consisting of a 1953-1956 model car teamed with a 1949-1952 model car, would compete for 50 miles (150 laps). The newer model cars would start the race, but each car would have to race a minimum of 30 laps. Only one car from a team could be on the track at a time. When a driver wanted his teammate to take over, he must go into the pits before his teammate can enter the track.
Harry Johnson, one of two brothers who owned Twin Auto Wrecking and the 1956 Ford driven by Joe Sauner, approached Sammy LaMancuso, a hotshot modified driver from Jamestown Speedway about teaming up for the big race. Sammy quickly agreed to the pairing.
"I had a pretty nice car at the time," he related.
The race was originally set for Saturday night, Sept. 1, but was rained out and rescheduled for Sunday afternoon. More than 4,000 spectators crowded the facility paying $2 to see not only the racing "spectacular", but also Jack Kochman's Hell Drivers. The thrill show featured two-wheel driving stunts, roll-overs, T-bone crashes and ramp-to-ramp jumps.
Sauner, the point leader as a result of three feature wins in five starts, began the 19-car main event from the last row, while teammate LaMancuso waited in the pits behind the wheel of his 1951 Plymouth, No. 27L. Joe chased early race leaders Rudy Parks and Gus Nelson before taking the lead. Sailing along in control of the race, the No. 18 Ford broke a spindle and a crewman yelled to Sammy, "Get out there with your car." The diminutive driver, in his first-ever appearance at Stateline led the rest of the way to starter Marv Thorpe's checkered flag.
Thanks to a "pretty nice car," LaMancuso and Sauner became the winners of the first and last team race ever held at Stateline Speedway.
The final two Saturdays of the challenging first season saw Mahan and Kenny Johnson receive the laurels. Sauner was declared the initial Stateline Speedway points champion.
The 1956 season was finally over. The magnitude of what had been accomplished in just a few months was remarkable.