OSWEGO, N.Y. — Story by Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker — Don Kranz/Bill Hartwell 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 and improbable outcomes in this 200-lap Supermodified race over the years. This story is the second in the series.
The 1980 Oswego Speedway season was a transitional one for fans and drivers alike.
The racer who had dominated much of the previous decade, Jimmy Shampine, was no longer competing weekly at the Steel Palace. In the previous season, two years after debuting the 18″ offset front engine Supermodified roadster, he unleashed a radical offset rear engine car and it was bad fast.
So fast, in fact, that when he put championship Canadian racer Warren Coniam behind the wheel for the ’79 Classic, Coniam made up a lap that was lost in the pits, charged through the field like a bullet train and took the lead with about 30 laps left in the race before being black flagged for leaking oil while leading comfortably on lap 185.
Fearing that the rear engine car would make obsolete all the cars currently in competition (many of which were built to keep up with Shampine’s offset front engine creation — this was the second time in three years that Shampine had one-upped the supermodified world), the management at Oswego banned rear engine cars for 1980.
Jimmy wasn’t happy with the decision, and decided to forego weekly competition at the track for the first time since he started there in 1962. Instead, he bought a Sprint Car and decided to go play in the dirt.
Once he decided to do that he was all in, not settling for local shows but instead going straight to Pennsylvania and diving into the deepest waters he could find — running at Williams Grove Speedway.
He had several top runs with the sprinter, and had a blast trying to master the new challenge the car gave him as a driver and mechanic. But, he still had his front-engine supermodified, and planned to run it for special shows.
While he was away, several racers stepped up to the plate to make for one of the most exciting seasons at the track in a while. Popular racer Eddie Bellinger Jr. brought out an offset car that he built himself. Despite some early struggles, he found victory lane around mid-season and became harder and harder to beat.
Warren Coniam teamed up with car owner Clyde Booth in an attempt to bring Clyde his first Oswego track title (Coniam won it in ’78 with Dave McKnight), and won several features en-route to making that goal happen.
Shampine protege Doug Heveron also had a new offset car built by Ed LaPrade, and “The Young One” found victory lane twice, foreshadowing a ‘Pine-like run of success to come in the next couple of years.
Local racer Steve Gioia Jr. was also a contender in his family-owned No. 9. Gioia was also very strong in Classics, having won the big race in ’76 and scoring top five and top ten finishes throughout much of the ’70s.
Drivers like Ohio’s Dave Shullick, New England’s Dick Batchelder and many others figured to make the 1980 version of the Classic one of the most exciting in history.
But someone forgot to tell Jimmy Shampine about that plan.
Bellinger beat Shampine in qualifying, setting the tone for a “classic duel.” It was a duel that never materialized.
When they dropped the green flag on Sunday evening, The 8-Ball of Shampine jumped ahead of Bellinger and into the lead. Bellinger’s No. 02 seemed to immediately encounter problems, and he was in the pits and out of the event early.
Whether Bellinger would have been able to run with the speedy Shampine or not on this night will never be known. But one thing is for sure — if he had been able to, he would have been the only one. Shampine simply put on a clinic in this race, staying out front just comfortably enough to keep everyone else back.
As the race wound down through the final 50 laps, everyone was wondering if they were going to witness history. A late-race caution put both Heveron and Gioia on Shampine’s back bumper, but once the wily veteran’s tires got hot after the restart, he was gone.
When the checkered flag flew, Shampine had accomplished something that nobody else in the history of the biggest supermodified race in the country had been able to — he led all 200 laps of the event. In the minds of many, he had also tacitly proven a point.
One year after his rear engine car was banned for being too fast, he came back with the same front engine offset he’d been driving for the previous three seasons and walked off with all the lap money, along with the winner’s share of the purse.
“This is my happiest win ever,” the smiling racer told the crowd after it was over.
He couldn’t have known at the time that it also would be his second-to-last win at a track he helped make famous.
After going winless in a partial season in 1981 (he ran twice, rolling the car over in August and dropping out of the Classic — protege Heveron scored his first in that one, a prophetic passing of the torch), Shampine came back to full-time competition in 1982 in a cooperative effort with Clyde Booth (Coniam’s 1980 championship car owner).
Booth and Shampine unveiled a car that looked for all the world like the rear engine car with the engine in the front, and a maroon and green paint scheme that got a laugh from some of his competitors.
The car had two unique features about it, besides the odd paint scheme and the number 89 (a combination of Jimmy’s 8 and Booth’s original number from his New England days — 9). The seat was tilted such that Jimmy was actually leaning to the left when the car was at speed — a design he hoped would help with left side weight in the corners — and they built some flex into the chassis, a newly-emerging concept that Shampine saw being used in Endurance go-karting, where his brother Ed had been making a national name for himself racing.
He struggled getting the car to handle consistently, finally winning his first feature shortly before the 1982 Classic. Having seen many a “classic moment” in the previous 25 years of the event, race fans knew not to count Shampine out.
On Friday night of Classic Weekend, Shampine qualified third for the Sunday 200-lapper, but the engine was down one cylinder.
The next day, he had everyone buzzing when he climbed aboard the infamous “White Tornado” No. 99 Billy Taylor owned Modified that Geoff Bodine had won scores of races with over the previous couple of seasons before climbing the ladder to NASCAR competition. Shampine had some qualms about accepting the offer made to him earlier that week to drive the car in the Saturday Bud Mod 200, but his former modified car owner Ed Cloce encouraged him, telling him he’d probably win the race in it.
That would have been the perfect Hollywood script.
The stark reality was much different.
On lap 78, after being involved in a tangle early in the event and losing a lap to the leaders, Shampine spun the car when its engine blew and he ended up against the inside steel wall in turn two, a blind spot for the field that was bearing down hard on him. He was struck on the driver’s side by an oncoming car, turning the No. 99 completely around the opposite direction.
Shampine had been unbuckling his belts, preparing to exit the car when the accident happened.
When track crews got to the car, the driver was wheezing and gasping for air. They worked quickly to extract him and get him into the ambulance, taking him to the Oswego Hospital.
Jim Shampine died a short time later. The track lowered its flag to half-mast as soon as the news was official.
A piece of me (and untold numbers of other short track racing fans) died that night, too.
I was 14, and Jimmy was my first racing hero. I’d seen other fatal crashes at Oswego and on TV, but this was Jimmy Shampine. Heroes aren’t supposed to die. It was a brutal life lesson for me.
The next day at the Classic race, the track left his third starting spot open in his memory. In the most subdued day of racing I’d ever experienced, Doug Heveron got the win and dedicated it to his teacher and former boss (Doug had worked at Jimmy’s auto parts store).
But only one driver took the checkered flag that day.
Heveron led the cars into the turn three pit entrance on lap 199 after taking the white flag to set up a moment that still makes me cry when I talk about it 33 years later.
When all the cars had made it to the pits and the track was empty, the scoreboard turned to “200” and starter Norm Bacon waved the checkered flag as announcer Roy Sova declared, “And Jimmy Shampine takes the checkered flag!”
The capacity crowd erupted in cheers, hugs, tears and an ovation befitting a king. I still get chills just thinking about it.
When the 59th edition of Budweiser Classic Weekend gets underway this Friday, September 4 with practice and first round qualifying, Jimmy’s nephew — Keith Shampine — will be in the field driving the Chris Osetek No. 55, humbly carrying on the family name.
The name lives, as does the legend.
From his first feature win in 1967 to revolutionizing the supermodified class twice in three seasons, Jimmy Shampine racked up 86 supermodified feature wins at Oswego, still tops on the all-time feature win list. He won seven track championships, two Modified 200s, sits second in all-time supermodified top fives and is third on the all-time Oswego supermodified points list.
But it was the 1980 Classic that was his finest hour, leading from start to finish.
It was a performance unmatched to this day, and an accomplishment that few had even likely thought possible until that night.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Tom Baker is the Owner and Senior Editor of Race Chaser Online, as well as creator of the Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show — airing Thursdays at 7 p.m. Eastern on the Performance Motorsports Network.
With 27 years of motorsports media, marketing and managerial experience, Baker serves as coach and mentor for several next generation racers as well as Race Chaser’s passionate lineup of rising motorsports journalists.
Email Tom at: AskCoachTom@carolina.rr.com
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