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Remembering Bobbie Adamson

Link to audio Don Gamble interview with Adamson:

Remembering Bobbie Adamson

From: Bubb’s Bits By STEPHEN BUBB

Our superheroes are supposed to be made of tungsten steel, conquer all, and above all, they are immortal.  When we were kids, our heroes often forged a path in our lives making an impact that remains with us through the passing days of our life.  When it comes to this wonderful sport of automobile racing, I had several racecar drivers that were on that hero mantle.  One, a tall, lanky, humble driver named Bobbie Adamson made an impact in local racing.

I have to admit I let out a verbal “oh no” early this past week.  My wife asked what was wrong as I sat at my computer; I was feeling as if my heart had sunk to the very bottom of my soul.  For there on my computer was a notice that Bobbie Adamson had passed away.

Now, before we go into any more words in this article, his name is Bobbie not Bobby.  So many people spell it out as Bobby Adamson but the correct spelling is Bobbie Adamson.

As I sit here and reflect upon that wonderful time of mid-1960s racing in the Susquehanna Valley, an era some call the “Golden Era” of local racing, I was so lucky to be able to witness the tremendous change in racing.  Never in the history of local racing was there a more dramatic transformation to racing than in the ‘60s. 

That change actually made a drastic adjustment in my personal life.  As a kid growing up outside of Allentown, Pa., there was only one sport on my mind.  I wanted to grow up and be a professional baseball player.  Baseball consumed my life, I can say I saw baseball at the old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.

It would take something big to derail me from my baseball dreams – although in later years I found I could not hit an off-speed pitch if my life depended on it ending baseball dreams forever.  That baseball train did become derailed by another sport called automobile racing.

Actually, racing was slowly surrounding me.  My father worked with two individuals involved in the sport.  One was a mechanic on one of the top traveling Big Car teams.  The other owned a car that raced at Dorney Park.  My father was also a friend of Jake Vargo, famed drag strip owner and owner of noted dirt-track cars.

My grandfather was a racing fan and attended races at Williams Grove.  There were Friday nights my father would leave with my grandfather, my uncles, some of my cousins and head off to this place called the Grove.  I began asking to go along, a curiosity factor arising.

Finally, they gave in and one night I was in a station wagon packed to the hilt with relatives heading off to this mystic place known as Williams Grove.  On the way they had a discussion on which driver I would become a fan.  They narrowed it down between Dick Tobias and Ray Tilley – quite honestly I could not lose with either.  The final decision was I would be a Ray Tilley fan.

I was a Ray Tilley fan at the right time.  Tilley and car owner Bud Grimm went on their tear in 1965, ending the year as the leading feature winner in the country.  Then came a successful 1966 season.  It would take something big to stop the Wild Woodpecker Express No. 88 driven by Tilley.  That slowing of Tilley would come from the western part of the state in the name of Bobbie Adamson.

The western section of the state was actually a step ahead of their central Pennsylvania counterparts.  The western tracks made the switch from the Modifieds to the Super Modifieds earlier than the Susquehanna Valley competition.  Then, the western racing made the move to the Sprint Cars while the middle part of the state was still in Super Modified mode.

Bobbie Adamson began his racing career back in 1958 racing in entry level stock cars around the Pittsburgh region.  Not comfortable with the beating and banging of the stock cars, Adamson made the move to the Super Modifieds.  He began competing in his own No. 21.

In 1963, Bobbie Adamson’s racing made a step upwards when he left his own entry and became the new driver of the New Castle-based McMillin No. 5.  Adamson became a factor in the region’s Super Modified racing competing in a tough circuit with drivers such as Gus Linder, Lou Blaney, Steve Travers, George Eakin, Andy Phillips, Ralph Quarterson, Larry Dickson, Steve Ungar, Ted Wise, and more.

Making the bullring Greater Pittsburgh Speedway their Friday night track, heading to Debo on Saturday, and ending the weekend at Blanket Hill on Sunday, this team became the operation to beat.  And while Adamson was enjoying success in the western section of the state, his attention was being drawn to the east.

As the western section of the state switched over to Sprint Cars, Bobbie Adamson made some trips east to compete with the URC Sprint Cars.  While in the eastern section Adamson made some side trips to watch the local Super Modified racing.  The competition was strong in the central part of the state, the pay was outstanding, along with some strong under the table bonus money being paid by local promoters.

Bobbie Adamson wanted to invade the region in 1966 but his car was not legal by local Super Modified rules.  There was, however, major changes blowing in the wind; that wind coming mainly out of Williams Grove Speedway.  Williams Grove Speedway owner Bob Richwine was not happy with the rules for his main class.  Richwine was trying to refine the rules as much as possible which is apparent comparing his 1965 rulebook to his ’66 version.  The 1965 Super Modified rulebook was five pages.  The 1966 rulebook was reduced to just two pages.

Still, the 1966 Bud Grimm No. 88 driven by Ray Tilley brought more angst.  Then came that fateful night when a major squabble over the Flack No. 2 Tiger driven by Mitch Smith was Richwine’s breaking point.  Richwine had enough and decided it was time to open up the rules.  The Grove held several open competition midweek shows allowing Sprint Cars to compete with the Super Modifieds.  By the start of 1967, Sprint Cars were now allowed at Richwine tracks.

Richwine needed another change.  During the 1965 and ’66 seasons he had total domination by one driver – Ray Tilley.  Not that this was a bad thing: Tilley was known as a gentleman driver and was a great representative for the sport.  Richwine needed someone to provide some competition to Tilley and the Grove owner found his driver in 1967.

Bobbie Adamson was now with the Hawthorne No. 35 as the ’67 season dawned.  The team made the weekly trips east competing on Richwine’s circuit.  Now Richwine and promoter Jack Gunn had their counterbalance to the Ray Tilley – Bud Grimm effort.

As a Ray Tilley loyalist I should have been alarmed that this western Pennsylvania driver was coming in to unseat Ray Tilley from his CVRA crown.  And yet, I built up an admiration for Bobbie Adamson.  Like Tilley, Adamson became known as a gentleman driver.  If Adamson did not make the pass he did not resort to bumping, slides across the track, or other tactics.  Adamson was like Tilley, he waited a lap and then made the pass.

Bobbie Adamson and the Hawthorne No. 35 unseated Ray Tilley from the lofty CVRA thorn.  By the end of the ‘67 campaign, Adamson was the new point champion.  The Tilley – Grimm effort had an off-year for them – it would be considered a great year for many other teams – but the duo of Tilley and Grimm upped their effort as 1968 approached. 

There is one interesting story to Adamson’s 1967 season; that event taking place at a track known as the Allentown Fairground.  The Allentown Fairground half-mile oval was not for the weak of heart.  It was a mean old S.O.B. with a racing surface that battered drivers.

The Allentown Fair brought in the International Motor Contest Association Sprint Cars for a two-weekend series of races.  While the faithful IMCA racers made the journey east to compete, the field was filled out by drivers from the Susquehanna Valley.  To race with IMCA, the local drivers had to remove the roll cages off their cars.

The first weekend found Bobbie Adamson and the Hawthorne car claiming the victory.  The second weekend had a fascinating story.  The Allentown surface was this ground stone-like surface that when making contact with a Sprint Car rear tires, became flying missiles heading back towards trailing drivers.

During the practice session, one of these hard surface missiles struck Adamson above the left eye.  Bleeding, Adamson pulled off the track.  A quick look and it was determined stitches would be needed to close the wound.

Thankfully for Adamson, the Allentown hospital is just behind turn one.  The last time I talked to Bobbie Adamson I asked him about this race.  As a young kid, I snuck into the race that day and was present when Adamson suffered his injury.

Bobbie Adamson told me he went to the hospital for treatment.  While Adamson was in the hospital, his team had veteran driver Charlie Masters ready to go in case Adamson did not return in time.  Adamson told me he could hear the sounds of the racing engines while he was in the hospital so he was aware of where they were in the program.  He said he highly encouraged the doctor to speed up the repairs.  With the stitches in place, Adamson returned to the Allentown pits.

Benny Rapp won the first of two scheduled 50-lap features.  Adamson finished in sixth in the opening race.  In the second feature Adamson started in 11th.  Remember, he had this stitched up injury which was painful but that did not slow down Adamson.  By the 11th lap Adamson was in front and he drove away from the field. When the race was stopped on lap 45 for Gus Linder’s spectacular flip, Adamson had a quarter-mile lead.  Victory lane photos show a smiling Adamson with the bandages over his left eye, with what appears to be some blood coming out from underneath of his bandage.

As a kid I picked a couple of outstanding drivers to admire in Ray Tilley and Bobbie Adamson. In Tilley, there was a deep admiration for his talent and how he handled himself.  After Ray passed, his wife Ruth sent me the nicest letter, a letter I hold dear to this day.

In Bobbie Adamson, he showed that racing can be done with a sense of humility and class.  His coming east drastically changed racing in the latter part of the 1960s into the 1970s.  These heroes of the early days may pass on, but they will never slip off the hero mantle so many of us had in our early years of racing.  Rest in peace Bobbie Adamson, thank you for what you brought to racing.