When one thinks back to Pennsboro Speedway, the grand old dame, it brings forth an abundance of memories. Memories that make you smile. Memories that make you feel fortunate that you were there. There is a “club”, nothing official, but a “club” nonetheless that is made up of people who were at the very first Dirt Track World Championship (DTWC) back in 1981.
Beyond it being a memorable race, well, event, actually, although the race was foremost in quality and sheer excitement, there is one particular turn of events that stands out front and center whenever any two people discuss the first DTWC. Jim Dunn’s weekend! Sure, Jim Dunn won the first DTWC, and in such a dramatic fashion that no Hollywood scriptwriter would consider it, for fear of it appearing too hokey. Which is why you have to look at Jim Dunn’s most incredible weekend to get the whole story of that history making day.
Pennsboro Speedway, which originally operated as a horse track beginning way back in 1887, has been an auto racing facility for many years. It first came into national prominence with the very first DTWC in 1981. Promoter Carl Short gambled heavily presenting the first DTWC which paid the then unheard of sum of $30,000 to win out of a $100,000 plus purse. Short had begun to establish Pennsboro with making the Hillbilly 100 a high profile event with hefty purses. He also had successful events in the Spirit of ’76 and Mason-Dixon races. But the DTWC was above and beyond all previous ventures held at the Ritchie County grounds.
Short’s gamble at promoting a high dollar race paid off beyond expectations. A massive crowd, huge car count and a storybook race winner in Jim Dunn. If ever there was a “Cinderella” story in dirt Late Model racing, it was Jim Dunn’s story.
Jim Dunn’s win and the circumstances that took him to victory lane are now firmly entrenched in dirt Late Model racing folklore. Dunn, of Roseville, OH, a school teacher, had been a Late Model racer who was well liked and well known throughout Ohio, but virtually unheard of beyond the Buckeye state’s borders. Dunn came to the first DTWC believing that it may be his last race, at least as a car owner. The season had been financially stressful, to say the least.
Capturing the last position to transfer to the B Main, Dunn decided to chuck it in and head for home. When the team’s hauler wouldn’t start they decided to work on the car, which was badly damaged in the heat race, and take a shot at the last chance race since they were stuck there.
Call it destiny, call it divine intervention, call it whatever you want, Jim Dunn was destined ... fated ... to be there that weekend.
He went through the field and qualified for the main event through the B Main. At least Dunn and his team could count on start money!
Dunn started the DTWC in 23rd position and the most amazing thing happened… his car started working and getting faster! Lap after lap Dunn picked off cars and before he realized it he had cracked the top ten, then the top five, and before he knew it he had race leader Rodney Combs in front of him. With a bold and daring outside move, Dunn made it around Combs with 12 laps to go and held on to win the inaugural DWTC and the three certified $10,000 checks Short had waiting for the winner.
The win saved Dunn’s racing team, set him up for the next season and made him a national star. The nice guy, modest to a fault, had taken on and beaten the very best the sport had to offer. And he did it on one of the country’s most challenging race tracks.
Dunn would have 18 months to enjoy the national spotlight as he traveled all across the Midwest and south running All Star and NDRA races. In 1982 Dunn captured the All Star Circuit of Champions Late Model Points Championship title and then at the beginning of the 1983 season he won right off the bat in Florida during Speedweeks. The start of another potentially great season, however, would be tragically cut short a few months later.
On May 8, 1983, Dunn and his fiancée, Marsha Fisher, and Dunn crewmembers Bill “Bondo” Bonifant and Rocky Carr, were at the Paducah International Raceway for a big NDRA race. During the course of the feature race, a multi-car accident occurred which resulted in a devastating fire that took Dunn’s life. His star had been in warp speed since that special October afternoon in 1981. He was on top of his game, known nationwide and extremely popular with race fans. That horrific night Jim Dunn had the world before him. He was going to be a father and had planned to wed Marsha in a just a few short weeks.
In an instant it was all over.
In the nearly 18 years since Jim Dunn’s untimely passing his memory and legend has been kept alive by his thousands of fans who enjoyed his racing, his personality and his achievements. Dunn was a bit like the northern version of someone like Freddy Smith, a real gentleman with scores of fans. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who had a disparaging word to say about Jim Dunn, whether it be a fan, driver or promoter.
Having had the opportunity to speak with Rocky Carr, who served as a member of Dunn’s crew throughout his career, I was naturally curious about Jim Dunn’s career and life. Carr was a neighbor to the Dunn’s and at the age of nine began hanging around Dunn’s garage when Jim first dabbled in racing. By the time he was 16, Carr was involved with Dunn team car on a full time basis along with head wrench Bill “Bondo” Bonifant.
When asked what he remembered about winning the first DTWC, Carr was forthcoming.
“We got tore up in the heat,” explained Carr. “We were going to go home, but the hauler wouldn’t start so Carroll (Jim’s father) said get the parts we need and get the car fixed, we weren’t going anywhere. So we decided to try and race. I remember working on the car till late at night. It was dark most of the time we worked on it and finished it up the next morning.”
The team made repairs, ran the B Main, qualified and started 23rd in the DWTC feature.
“We didn’t think we had a chance of winning,” admitted Carr. “We were never contenders to win there before, but Jim was good at gearing and set up and we kept getting faster. It was really exciting. Bondo had the watch on him and noticed everyone else was running slower laps as the race wore on, but Jim’s times stayed the same and with, what, 12 laps to go or something, we got by Rodney and won. Yeah, it was exciting!”
The win, and the money, came at the right time.
“After Pennsboro he showed me, in his books, where he had spent $60,000-$70,000 that year to race,” said Carr. “He said winning Pennsboro, the team broke even that year. He kept meticulous records, with monthly figures on his motor bill and all. He kept a set up book, too. I still have his set up book.”
“That year we sure needed the boost. That win kept us going and if we didn’t win he would have had to probably drive for someone else, which he didn’t want to do. He drove for Denny Roth in ’82, but preferred to do it on his own.”
Speaking with Carr about Dunn’s sudden death, an apparent sadness crept into his voice.
“It didn’t start out good once we got there,” Carr related about that fateful NDRA race in Kentucky. “He complained about the car. It was terrible, we had to start in the back of the field and it was very dusty. I can remember the track conditions were terrible but Jim said, well, we’re here, let’s run and make the best of it.”
“The wreck happened on the backstretch. It was hard to see but it looked like Jim never let up, he came full bore. I can remember watching Jim right after the wreck. We thought he was just checking things out. Making sure everything was in one piece but I guess he must have been knocked out. Then the fire erupted. It didn’t start right away, but it started and it took off and it was over.”
Watching helplessly were Carr, Bonifant and Dunn’s fiancée, Marsha Fisher.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to make the call to Jim’s parents,” said Carr.
The team was devastated. Carr had lost his friend, as had Bondo. And Marsha lost her future husband.
“They were going to get married in a couple weeks,” added Carr.
Marsha eventually gave birth to Jim’s son, Brandon James Dunn.
Two weeks later St. Clairsville Speedway held an All Star Circuit of Champions sanctioned race which was dubbed the Jim Dunn Memorial, and which Donnie Moran won. Jim Dunn’s parents, crew and fiancée were all there that night.
“It was real nice,” remembered Carr. “They brought us all onto the track and gave us artwork of Jim’s car. I remember Bill Moore and Bert Emick being there. Donnie and Charlie Swartz and, I think, Ray Godsey, they finished in the top three. They gave us their trophies.”
“Everyone liked Jim,” Carr reflected. “He always had time for everyone. Jim got the most out of his equipment with what he had. After Pennsboro people put him in the same category as Combs, Moore and Swartz. And I thought he was at their level but he didn’t think so. He was very modest. Another thing was, with Jim it was always ‘We”, never ‘I’ did this, and ‘I’ did that. It was always ‘we’. I was pretty young and he included me as ‘we’. I liked that.”
Carr assures that if Jim were still around today he would be as competitive as anyone. And still be having fun.
“Jim would like the cars today, especially the bodies and low spoilers,” stated Carr. “He was hoping they would do something with the bodies, which they did the next year.”
I wondered how Carr would like to have Jim remembered.
“Remember him as a good competitor, and that he was fair to everyone,” offered Carr. “And a clean driver.”
I asked Carr how he viewed racing since Dunn’s accident.
“Racing, well, that accident, it left a bad taste in my mouth for a long time,” commented Carr. “I quit going to races for a long time. Just gave it up. But, I guess, time heals all wounds. I went back to Pennsboro about (nine years) ago, but it wasn’t the same. But I guess I’m coming around.”
These days Carr is a family man. He has a family room that is decorated with many of Jim Dunn’s trophies and several photos are on display. Rocky Carr will never forget the cherished times he spent with one of dirt Late Model racing’s greatest heroes.
And his best friend.
Who, deservedly, was inducted into the first class of the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame.