Editor’s Note: This story was originally published prior to the 2007 edition of the Turkey Derby. The 37th annual Turkey Derby is Friday and Saturday at New Jersey’s Wall Stadium.
Unlike southern California or Florida, racing on Thanksgiving weekend in New Jersey isn’t logical. Some would say it borders on insanity.
But for 34 years, racers and fans have put the leftover stuffing and cranberry sauce in the fridge and trekked to the third-mile Wall Township Speedway (originally Wall Stadium) for the asphalt modified institution known as the Turkey Derby.
Sometimes they’ve basked in unseasonable warmth, other times they’ve shivered in the raw wind that blows off the Atlantic Ocean a few miles away. Only twice have they had to come back on a second weekend to complete the show.
The landscape of asphalt modified racing in the Northeast has changed, the track ownership has changed, the race format has changed, but the Turkey Derby marches on. There have been great races and there have been forgettable races. There has been controversy and even a few punches thrown. But to race fans in and around the Garden State, it’s the only way to end the season.
Although many of the greats of modified racing from outside New Jersey have competed in the Derby — Evans, Spencer, Ruggiero and Christopher among them — and more than a few celebrities from other racing spheres have made the lineup, it has always been the quintessential race for the Jersey guys. Only once has a true outsider walked off with the major honors, when George Kent took the laurels back to upstate New York in 1979. By the way, the term “laurels” still applies, as the massive garland hung on the winner’s shoulders remains a Derby tradition.
The victory roll includes three members of the Blewett family — John, Jr., the late John III and Jimmy — accounting for 10 wins. Two generations of the Truex clan — Martin, Sr. and Martin, Jr., scored victories exactly 10 years apart, and two generations of Reeds — Harry and Steven — have visited victory lane.
The all-time leading Derby winner is Eddie Bohn, with five victories. His father, Parker Bohn, and son Michael have been in the field as well. The Blewetts, Reeds and Bohns all live within minutes of the track, while the Truex homestead is an hour’s drive down the Garden State Parkway.
To understand how such a unique event came to be, it’s necessary to appreciate the five-foot dynamo who ruled Wall Stadium with a velvet-gloved, yet iron hand for 50 years, Jennie Nicol.
Her husband, contractor Tom Nicol, built the track in 1951, but Jennie ran the business. For the most part, Wall’s scheduling was conservative, with a regular modified show every Saturday night from April through September, plus the 200-lap Garden State classic in July.
Jennie, who passed away in 2001, related the story of the Turkey Derby’s origin to Don Wilno of the Asbury Park Press. While no one was concerned with global warming in the early 1970s, she noticed an increasing number of balmy days at the shore in October and November, including Saturdays when the track’s gates were closed for the season.
“You don’t get ahead in this world sitting idle,” she declared in proposing the Thanksgiving weekend race to her husband.
“You’re out of your mind,” he responded.
“I’m going to try it. How cold can it get? They sit out at football games and freeze!” she countered.
As usual, Jennie prevailed in the debate. So, the first Turkey Derby went off as scheduled Nov. 30, 1974.
It was won by Wall’s all-time leading winner, Gil Hearne, who lapped the field in leading home a pair of Long Island legends, Fred Harbach and Tom Baldwin.
“Honestly, we held our breath the first time,” she told Wilno. “It was great. It was well received. It was well-publicized.”
That publicity was generated by Charlie Roberts, the long-time track announcer who later produced the pioneering Skoal Motorsports Report national radio program from a studio down the road from Wall’s pit gate.
Fueling the Derby’s early growth, along with a remarkable string of good weather, was the fact that most asphalt tracks in the Northeast at that time ran modifieds to roughly similar rules on a weekly basis. The touring series of today — NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour, the Dart Race of Champions Series and the True Value Modified Series — were far in the future. The leading teams flocked to major events before and after the weekly grind of the regular season.
This was the period when Stafford’s Spring Sizzler, Thompson’s World Series and Oswego’s Budweiser 200 joined the Race of Champions, then held at Trenton, as modified classics. The Turkey Derby fit a solid niche, as Hearne said, “like the last roundup” of the year.
The Derby reached a peak with the 1981 through 1984 races, each a short-track classic won by a Wall regular over a star-studded field. Jamie Tomaino, who was later to win the 1990 NASCAR title, scored his first major victory in 1981 coming from a lap down.
“Definitely in the’80s it was one of the biggest races of the year, as well as the last race of the year, and the outsiders always came down to invade our turf,” he recalled, adding, “The most memorable thing about that race was being in victory lane with (NSSN editor) Chris Economaki because when I was a kid, he was always on TV. For him to interview me that day was a special honor.”
The 1985 event produced the first rainout in a dozen derbies and a troubled period set in. The cars were becoming too fast to use two grooves, even after the track was repaved. Only one Derby from 1988 to 1992 saw a clean pass for the lead.
The first great upheaval in the Derby’s history came in 1993. After a pre-season confrontation over purses, the modified teams departed for recently paved Flemington Speedway and the Modified Affordable Division, a strong second class since the mid-’80s, was promoted to headline status.
The two-barrell cars stepped into the weekly A-division role smoothly, but 150 laps straight through was not considered a viable format for them.
The solution was to make the Derby a triple-50 program like the Milk Bowl at Thunder Road in Vermont, with the overall winner determined by points earned during the day. There was a full purse for every race, with a bonus for overall honors, and each successive race was lined up by redraw, rather than by inversion. The only real drawback was the absence of a tiebreaker, and twice — in 1996 and 1998 — co-winners were named.
While the modified teams left, some of the drivers stayed, including 1993 overall winner Ken Woolley, Jr. Two years later, the greatest run of success in Derby annals began, as Eddie Bohn began his streak of three in a row, including the 1996 tie with Woolley.
“I liked the triple 50s. It gave you more chances to win. You’ve got to play your game a little differently,” said Woolley. “Later on, we got to change the right side tires for the last race, but the first time we did it, you had to run all three races on the same set of tires. I sort of liked that. You had to watch your tires in the first two races because you needed them for the last race.”
In 2002, the track came under new ownership and acquired a new name, Wall Township Speedway. The tour-type modifieds returned for the first time in a decade for a 100-lap race on Friday, but the weekend was overshadowed by controversy surrounding the rain-shortened track-rules event on Saturday. After several years of varying formats, the event has now stabilized with a single extra-distance feature for the two modified classes on Saturday, this year set for 100 laps each. A variety of other classes fill out the two-day card.
The 2007 Derby will be influenced by the memory of the man who isn’t there. Four-time winner John Blewett III lost his life this summer at Thompson (Conn.) Int’l Speedway. His younger brother Jimmy Blewett is the defending winner of the tour-type modified race.
Like Super DIRT Week at Syracuse, the World 100 at Eldora or the Knoxville Nationals, the Turkey Derby is more than a race; it’s a ritual. The same fans gather year after year for race-morning breakfast at Connie’s in Farmingdale, at the funnel cake stand during intermission and at the Colonial Diner in East Brunswick for dinner.
Last year’s near-capacity crowd was judged the biggest since the early 1990s.
As Hearne said three decades ago, it’s the last roundup.