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Morning Sun
  • Speaker talks Kansas' history of racing

  • In a speech called "Kansas Takes the Checkered Flag in American Racing" on Saturday afternoon at the Miners Hall Museum, Sara Jane Richter spoke in detail about the first ever nationwide NHRA event, held in 1955 in Great Bend. Little did she know that one person listening to her speech had been at that event as a spectator.

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  • In a speech called "Kansas Takes the Checkered Flag in American Racing" on Saturday afternoon at the Miners Hall Museum, Sara Jane Richter spoke in detail about the first ever nationwide NHRA event, held in 1955 in Great Bend. Little did she know that one person listening to her speech had been at that event as a spectator.
    "Back then, it was the greatest thing that ever happened," said Frank Grilz Jr. "We used to race on abandoned air strips. It was a very close-knit racing environment. Nobody had any money, so no one put any money in their cars."
    Grilz remembers that first "Nationals" event for the National Hot Rod Association well — the hotel he was staying at in Great Bend caught fire one night. It was all part of the memories that Richter's speech brought up.
    Richter spoke at the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin in conjunction with a car show by the Rollin' Nostalgia Car Club. Richter, the dean of the School of Liberal Arts and English professor at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, presented on Saturday as part of a program sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council.
    While many believe stock car racing is associated with the south and drag racing is associated with the West Coast, Richter pointed out the rich history of Kansas when it comes to car racing.
    Richter told those listening about the numerous ractracks that dotted the Kansas landscape in the early part of the 20th Century. There were stories about the "Million Dollar Speedway," the circle — not oval — Speedway Park in Wichita, and the Arkansas City Speedway. The rules and regulations did not yet exist until the middle part of the century, leaving safety on the back burner.
    "The whole point is that the early-day racetracks address the fact anyone could race anything anywhere in Kansas," Richter said.
    Richter also talked about that first national NHRA event made its way to Great Bend — it was midway between the East and West coasts.
    Phyllis Bitner, Miners Hall Museum trustee, knows the importance of racing, even in Southeast Kansas. Her husband once ran the 69 Speedway, which is now the site of the Home Depot.
    "There's a lot of racing history here. It used to be because anyone could do it," Bitner said. "You didn't have to be a college grad. If you knew how to use a wrench, you could race and put together a stock car. Now, with NASCAR, the little guy is not able to compete. It's all multimillion-dollar companies. But back then, everyone could race."
     
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