1992 Fireworks fitting for a truly roadworthy celebration

The following article by Denise McCluggage appeared in October 5, 1992 Autoweek.

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I‘ve had some truly Amurrican Independence Days. One year (in the early ‘60s) I spent Firecracker day at a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Hot dogs and peanuts. And one year I painted my Mini Moke in stars and stripes, fastened red-white-and- blue paper plates on the wheels for hubcaps and won second place in the ‘Most Patriotic” category in the Warren, Vt., Fourth of July parade.

But this summer I may have topped everything. I spent the Fourth of July at the Ponca City Grand Prix at Lake Ponca, Ponca City, Okla. (Ponca! Ponca! Why, it’s the Thurberian sound of a Roman candle arcing color into a heartland night, isn’t it?)

The event was the 26th annual go-round and a Sports Car Club of America National (one peripatetic soul was there from as far as California). But the GP’s true claim to fame is that its an endangered species. It is certifiably the only one of its kind for the SCCA and hanging on by dint of nostalgia and the hard work of weary volunteers from area groups such as the AMBUCS (a business organization) and the SCCA region.

The Lake Ponca course is said to be the last natural road course in the country (in the program they brag the last ‘on Earth”) but then we Midwesterners (I was born 100- plus miles north in Butler County, Kan.) tend to extrapolate with a flair.

I don’t know who decides to exclude urban courses, such as Long Beach, from ‘natural,” or what they’d make of the new Detroit circuit on Belle Isle, but those aren’t SCCA races. Maybe that’s the condition.

Anyway, if the Ponca Lake course is the dimming of the light, take a look back to the dawning of “road racing” in the post-WWII U.S., when natural road courses were all there were. Over the bridge, through the trees —even across the railroad tracks or down the main street. Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake are names from that era still known because they leapt onward to Stage 3.

Stage 1: Curbs, trees, ditches and the casual attitudes of wandering watchers (yes, and deaths) soon chased the burgeoning sport onward to Stage 2, airport courses. Airports that were flat, wide, characterless and rough on tires. But available. We were happy to have them.

Then, gradually, came Stage 3: the era of purpose-built road-racing circuits which have become the norm. Safer, more easily controlled and sporting permanent pits and spectator facilities. A blessing all around.

But the gain has lost something. (A law of nature.) I was struck by that loss as I wandered about the grassy core of the Lake Ponca course—a mutated jellybean shape— and felt its appeal and the inner smile of memory: The lovely lake as backdrop with ‘‘spectator fleet’’ of jet skis and little boats. The straight trees standing in their pools of shade, ringed with barrels and bales like birthday candle holders. “The million-dollar tree,” they call a particular one. But no unlucky car caught it squarely this time, though a red one came close.

A real road that bends with truth, not artifice. A grass verge stretching into the dotted tress. And no rails or Armco to turn it into a slot-car track. I realized I missed the organic authenticity of a natural road course. It made for good watching while ambling under a large umbrella.

Cows and people demonstrate a similar wisdom when the prairie sun is a bludgeon. They gather in the black shade of trees and don’t move much. The Ponca City Grand Prix spectators—not many by Big Race standards—were like that. They came prepared. Coolers, quick-up canopies, folding chairs. Kiddie seats. They sat quietly and watched, only the eyes seemed to follow the raucous parade before them. The kids hung on fences. Dogs on long leashes stretched belly flat to absorb the relative coolth of the grass. Downright restful.

But it’s not just the setting (and the sitting) or the throw-back innocence, it’s the course itself. As short as it is (1.5 miles) it offers a wealth of variation. The road surface changes. It undulates from its real- world use and the camber varies. The turns are of different radius. There’s some change in elevation. And it’s all real-road narrow, even the turns. The tree shadows make tunnels and leaf movement play eye tricks.

At the end of the backstretch sits a farmhouse, all but invisible behind hay bales for race day, but it is sentinel to a what looks like a wily turn (I was only a passenger in a pace car). I should think Turn 3 a Separator.

The sort of turn that if you figure it out just a little better than your competitors you look forward to its approach while they dread it.

Speaking of figuring it out, Wendell Miller of Oklahoma City all but owns this course. He’s driven scads of racing laps here, but there’s another advantage. Think about the nature of a natural road course nearby. Public roads. There all the time, calling to you under the moonlight on a crisp, fall night or in the soft, new green of spring. Hey, practice makes perfect. Wendell, in his Swift 5E3-Q, perfectly won everything available.

But this isn’t about results, it’s about being there. Getting in line for the great post-race barbecue. Or playing volleyball (poorly) in the lessening heat of evening. And looking at cars both strange (to one not up on today’s SCCA classes) and familiar. For a combination of the above try Toly Arutunoff’s Opel 1100 GT painted mostly white with great splotches of black, because, he said, it was a cow. But not one to seek the shade.

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Anyway, it was a fine way to spin away the Fourth in a pretty little town with more than its share of wide, green lawns and long, low houses. Oil wealth. Ponca City is the home of Conoco, a gasoline I grew up using when Skelley (from Butler County) wasn’t available. Conoco is the major sponsor of the Ponca City Grand Prix.

So why is this great American tradition endangered? In a word: Time.

A tremendous amount of time-eating work is required of volunteers to prepare this “natural” course for races in the modern, safety-conscious world. More than 1000 barrels have to be rolled into place and filled with water. Tires and hay bales have to be placed around trees and culverts. Miles of fences have to be strung. And it all has to come down again.

Disposing of hundreds of tires isn’t easy in a world more alert to environmental concerns. Nor storing them, either. “Maybe it’s just getting to be too much of a hassle,” said Rebecka Shaw, one of the assistant race chairmen. Lake Afton, near Wichita (the penultimate natural road course?). recently suspended operations, victim of similar problems.

Nor is a golf course adjoining the Ponca City course thrilled with having to by-pass two holes (next to the back stretch) on race days. And really snarkeled by the inconvenience are the residents of the farmhouse on Turn 3. (Seems one year, miffed because a race car either clobbered his mail box or trespassed on his driveway—the story varies — a shotgun-toting farmer confiscated both car and driver for a spell.)

So was this great American Day on 1992’s Fourth of July the last one? Surely not. But then next year may be. Or the next.

Best plan to make it before it’s too late. I mean, you missed Woodstock, right? The last of the natural road courses awaits you. •

 

 

 

Dash Plaques 1961-1975

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Feature Winners

  • 1974 Bud Crout Lola T294
  • 1971, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977 and 1978! Fred Parkhill, McClaren Mk8 Chevrolet
  • 1964 Bud Morley Elva Mk7 BMW
  • 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.)
  • 1961-62 Jack Hinkle Birdcage Maserati
  • 1992 Wendell Miller Swift SE3Q
  • 1987 Don Flegal Chevrolet Corvette
  • 1980 Neil Harrison Bobsy SR6
  • 1966 Bud Morley McLaren Ford
  • 1965 Dick Durant Durant Special Chevrolet
  • 1967 Bobby Alyward McClaren Chevrolet
  • 1963 Jack Hinkle Cooper Monaco Climax
  • 1968 Bobby Alyward McLaren Chevrolet
  • 1969 John McComb Ford Mustang

Dash Plaques 1976-1992

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