OSWEGO, N.Y. — Story by Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker — JakesSite.com photo —
As we continue our Race Chaser Online countdown to Oswego Speedway’s 59th Annual Budweiser International Classic, Sept. 4-6 at the “Indy of the East,” we look back at some of the most improbable driver performances in this 200-lap Supermodified race over the years.
The Budweiser International Classic is the world’s biggest supermodified affair, drawing cars from across the United States in its earlier days.
Though it has more of a local and regional flavor now, the atmosphere surrounding the weekend is still electric. Come and see the race one time and you get infected. Win this race and you join a prestigious club that includes the best there ever was in the division.
Successfully completing 200 laps on the fast five-eighths mile is a true test of driver patience and equipment. Nobody ever did it better than Nolan Swift did in 1971.
Swift was the first true King of the Hill at the Speedway, establishing himself as the man to beat through the ’60s and into the early ’70s. He came into the race with a car that was new that season and an eighth track championship under his belt. There was little doubt he was a favorite, but he wasn’t the only one. Canadians Kenny Andrews and Norm Mackereth qualified on the front row and veteran racers Todd Gibson, Baldy Baker, Wayne Landon, John Clapham were all in the field along with emerging stars Warren Coniam, Jimmy Shampine and Jim Cheney.
Andrews, Baker and Mackereth played ping pong with the lead in the opening laps of the race before a horrific and tragic accident brought the race to a shocking halt.
Gary Witter, a popular Canadian competitor, slammed the outside steel wall in turn three and was knocked unconscious.
Nobody knows if the throttle stuck on its own or if Gary’s foot remained hard on the gas, but the No. 46 careened down the front straightaway and smashed into the inside wall before frighteningly turning toward the outside steel again and knocking the back end right out from under Marvin Carmen’s car — finally crashing through the steel outside wall and exploding into flames.
Witter did not survive. Today, the track’s back straightway grandstand is named in his honor.
After a two-hour delay to repair the wall and get things back in racing order, the classic resumed in front of a stunned and hushed crowd.
On lap 65, Swifty got tapped by another car and spun, losing two laps before he could get restarted. This tragic summer Sunday in the Port City was about to be the site of a Hollywood ending to its greatest racing event.
Gibson was now leading the Classic, with the infamous Purdy Deuce of Warren Coniam running second. Swift charged through the field and got his first lap back on lap 160, but there were just 40 laps left and he was still a lap down.
At that point, nobody was even focusing on him because there were just 40 laps left and he still would have to pass everyone again to get his second lap back and then one more time to win.
A rash of cautions and cars pitting in the next 15 laps helped Swift to get his second lap back by lap 175. But now he had just 25 laps to go all the way through the field a third time.
The unspoken question was simple. Could he?
With just five laps to go, the veteran was third behind Coniam and Gibson, who was running out of fuel. By the time lap 198 was on the board, Swifty had passed them both.
Check that — he had passed the entire field three times and was heading for his fifth Classic victory in one of the most amazing short-track driving performances in history.
Sadly, the reaction Swift received after the checkered flag was no doubt tamed by the conflicting emotional weight of the tragic accident that took Witter’s life early in the race. The drive, which today is the stuff of legends, was surely Nolan’s finest hour. He called it “the greatest classic I ever ran.”
Nicknamed “The Ole’ Grey Fox”, Swift had one more Hollywood ending in him the following year. After selling his ’71 Classic winning car, the new one he built for ’72 didn’t work as well and he went into Classic Weekend winless. The team made some changes to the car’s suspension setup hoping to find some speed.
They did. He qualified sixth and beat out upstart New England racer Jim Cheney to win the Classic for the sixth and final time. He had top fives in 1974 and 1975 and came from the back to seventh in 1977 (after yet another last minute major surgery on his latest creation to make it run better — they lengthened the car eight inches the night before the race!) and retired for good in 1978.
His 41 Supermodified feature wins at the Speedway stood fourth behind Jimmy Shampine (86), Bentley Warren (66) and Ed Bellinger Jr. (51) on the all-time Supermodified feature wins list until Joe Gosek won his 42nd feature in 2013. He won eight track championships, a feat nobody has equaled (though Otto Sitterly continues to close on that mark). Three times he went into Classic Weekend with cars that were not in winning form and made bold changes hours before the race, winning twice (’68 and ’72) and posting that final 31st to 7th place drive in 1977 (one more for the road).
Many future Classic winners including Andrews, Shampine, Chuck Ciprich and Greg Furlong directly credit Swift’s example and advice for their own winning strategies in the great race.
But no greater a feat did Swift ever accomplish than on that fateful Sunday night in 1971, when he overcame a two-lap deficit and proved that the only lap that really matters in a race is the last one.
The 2015 edition of the Budweiser International Classic takes the green flag on Sunday, Sept. 6 at Oswego Speedway. For ticket information, a full schedule of events and more, visit www.oswegospeedway.com.