The Day a Legend was Born
By Doc Lehman
The Day a Legend was Born
By Doc Lehman
Jim Dunn was your typical weekend warrior. A man who loved to race, loved the competition and
everything associated with the sport. And like quite a few racers, he was long on talent and short on cash.
When Jim Dunn showed up for the very first Dirt Track World Championship in October 1981 he had
seriously considered hanging up his helmet after the conclusion of the 1981 season. His racing funds had
been depleted and he had a debt.
Still, Jim Dunn decided to travel down to Pennsboro, WV one fateful October weekend. And it started out
bad. Not good at all.
After sustaining some serious damage in his heat race, Dunn decided to pack it in and head for home.
When his hauler wouldn’t start he decided to put the crew to work readying the car for the B Main, which
he had made by finishing in the last transfer spot in his heat to qualify for the B Main.
He went out and his luck began to change. He won the B Main and made the feature! He was starting in
the 23rd position, but at least he could count on start money.
But what happened next is the stuff of which legends are made…. He won!
Jim Dunn had entered racing folklore and West Virginia’s Pennsboro Speedway history by methodically
picking off one driver after another, all the while working his way to the front of the pack against the
toughest dirt Late Model racing had to offer.
By the mid-point of the race Dunn was in seventh and the car kept getting faster. He kept passing cars
until he had race leader Rodney Combs in his sights. With 12 laps to go, Dunn made a bold move on the
outside, blasting around Combs. Dunn had made history. From weekend warrior to national star ... all
within the space of 100 laps around the grand ‘ol dame known as Pennsboro Speedway.
And he also won the highest paying dirt Late Model race up to that point anted up by promoter Carl Short,
who, through ultra-successful and innovative promotional efforts, turned the first Dirt Track World
Championship into an instant success and a established tradition. Short also, in one weekend, turned the
race into one of the crown jewels of dirt car racing, a position it still enjoys today.
Dunn got started racing one night when he was 21 years old and saw his first stock car race.The very next
weekend Dunn had bought a stock car and entered it in the Hobby Stock division. It was 1972. In 1974 the
Roseville, Ohio resident moved up to the Late Model class.
During the early years Dunn raced for fun. But by the late 1970’s he began taking his racing more
seriously. He won regularly at his home track, St. Clairsville (Ohio) Speedway, and began running more
and more at other tracks away form home. He often competed at tracks like Wayne County, Coshocton,
Hilltop, Zanesville and many others.
In 1980 his father’s business, Dunn Trucking, began sponsoring him and he purchased a new WRC Race
Car from Rodney Combs and equipped it with a Horn Racing Engine. With crew members Bill Bonifant
and Rocky Carr, Dunn began traveling with the Bert Emick and Bill Moore’s newly formed All Star
Circuit of Champions Late Model series.
In 1980 Dunn won the ASCoC’s points championship by virtue of one feature win and many top five
finishes. In 1981 Dunn finished second in points, but the year took its toll on the team’s finances.
By the end of the year Dunn’s racing account was bare, and he headed for Pennsboro for what he thought
might very well be his last race.
After wining the DTWC, Dunn’s car builder and fellow competitor, Rodney Combs, who he had taken the
lead from and the then unheard of $30,000 to win payoff, said, “If I couldn’t win, there is no one I’d rather
see win it than Dunn.”
Dunn’s win was more than promoter Carl Short could ask for. Word quickly spread that this big dollar race
was won a by a then relatively low budget racer, so maybe, just maybe, anyone had a chance to win.
The DTWC and Dunn’s win had gone into the history books after that day, a favorite chapter, and the
mystique, uniqueness and prestige of the DTWC was born that weekend.
The $30,000 first place money Short handed to Dunn in the form of three, $10,000 checks, saved Dunn’s
racing team and career. He paid off bills and bought another car. For the next 18 months wherever Dunn
would travel to race, race fans everywhere knew who he was. The win had made Dunn a national star and
people spoke his name in the same breath as Combs, Moore, Swartz, Smith and Simmons.
Jim Dunn was a college graduate who had held a degree in education. After teaching high school seniors
history and government, he began working for his father’s business, which enabled him to take more time
off to concentrate on racing.
When the 1983 racing season began in Florida, Dunn made the trip and scored a ASCPoC win at East Bay
It seemed like the start of a great year.
Later that year, on Friday May 6, 1983, Dunn pulled into his home track at St. Clairsville for a weekly
race. He had a large following there and he didn’t disappoint his fans as he won the feature in front of an
excited hometown crowd.
Two nights later, on Sunday May 8, Dunn was racing at Paducah Speedway in Kentucky in a NDRA
sanctioned event. During the race, which was held amid terrible track conditions, a freak racing accident
occurred involving several cars which resulted in Dunn losing his life and Jack Boggs sustaining serious
injuries, including several broken bones.
A legend, a great racer and a fan favorite, was gone.
Two weeks after his last race, St. Clairsville Speedway held the ASCoC sanctioned Jim Dunn Memorial,
which was won by Donnie Moran and held in front of a SRO crowd.
And every year since then a Jim Dunn Memorial race has been held, first at St. Clairsville, and then
picked up by Muskingum County Speedway, where it is still held. The Midway (OH) Speedway in
Crooksville, OH also holds a Jim Dunn Memorial annually.
To this day people still talk about that incredible first DTWC and about Dunn’s ride from the rear to the
front, giving hope to all weekend warriors that they could take on the big boys and win. That, more than
anything, at the time, was the most valuable marketing tool Carl Short had to establish the race in the
minds of racing fans and drivers.
And it reverberates even today.
©2005 Doc Lehman/Dirt America