Back in the Day: Rich Bunning captures high-flying sprint cars from the ‘70s

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Rich Bunning car flipping through the air courtesy of Rich Bunning

Every July, Rich Bunning’s family piled into their 1964 Chevelle sedan and followed the United States Auto Club (USAC) Sprint Car series from track to track, as fans, for the eastern swing of the championship campaign. Reading Speedway in Pennsylvania was the first stop out east for the national dirt-track racing series. The two-hour drive from the Bunning’s home in Wanaque, New Jersey, to the half-mile dirt oval was a quick hop for the family of diehard race fans accustomed to making habitual road trips to open-wheel racing’s capital in Indianapolis.

Hank Bunning, Rich’s father, was a photographer for National Speed Sport News during the ‘70s and tasked by owner and editor Chris Economaki to capture east coast auto racing. Twelve-year old Rich Bunning followed pops around with a camera in hand, occasionally to places not suitable for children.

“One security guard at Reading Speedway, we called the Pit Nazi,” says Rich, who would sneak over the pit gate anyway. Family friends would stash him in their race car trailers if the guard strolled past. “Because of my age, we even had to credit photos to dad’s name in the magazine.”

It’s a good thing Rich found a work-around. This specific set, three basement-developed photographs taken from inside east coast dirt tracks, captures a long-lost time when national racing stars like Foyt, Unser, and Bettenhausen marched east to race in the clay and compete against local weekend warriors.

Rich Bunning car flipping through the air
courtesy of Rich Bunning

High Flying – Reading Fairground Speedway, 1971

The half-mile clay oval track in Berks County, Pennsylvania, served as a premier stop for the national competitors when they traveled East. A low wall encircling the broad corners, known to “reach out and snag rear tires,” was not the most intimidating aspect of the old horse track. Stacked laterally beyond the wall stood yards and yards of sheet-metal siding. Track owner and mushroom farmer Lindy Vicari used the siding to keep the engine noise from neighboring houses. 1978 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Larry Rice flips and takes a nose-dive into the makeshift barricade.

A Pro Amongst Amateurs
courtesy of Rich Bunning

A Pro Amongst Amateurs – Penn National Speedway, 1971

Gary Bettenhausen was one of the top Indycar stars that simultaneously campaigned in USAC sprint cars. Sure the champ was stiff competition when he rolled into town, but as Bunning points out, “local guys knew what the track did.” Like a good farmer, to race successfully on dirt you have to know how the ground reacts to water. Finding water in the track will lead you to grip. And grip is speed. The shadetree mechanics and small-town teams gridding next to Bettenhausen used the experience with their hometown track to maintain pace with a man that, only a week later, would be blasting around a paved superspeedway at over 200 mph. Here Rich snapped a photo of the 21-time Indy 500 starter being pushed up to the front-stretch of Penn National Speedway in 1971.

No Replacement for Displacement
courtesy of Rich Bunning

No Replacement for Displacement – Reading Speedway, 1971

Most race sanctioning bodies enforce a maximum displacement rule in engines to ensure an even playing field. USAC is no different. Back in the day, inspectors used a plunger connected to a hose, screwed into one of the spark-plug holes. They would roll the car forward until the engine turned over once. The air pushed into the inspector’s tube indicating the cylinder’s displacement. Rich caught one of USAC’s official holding up the bazooka-sized plunger up to read the level of displaced air. Judging by the inspector’s grimace, it appears the number 12 team may have been in violation.

In our most recent issue of the Hagerty magazine (Don’t have it? Get it here), we asked members to submit any vintage automotive photos they may have lying around, with the small caveat that they must own distribution rights for the photos. Select photos will be featured in the magazine’s new “Back in the Day” section. So far, the response has been overwhelming, so we started this weekly online version to publish submissions at a faster clip.

Whether the moments are captured by a professional photographer or an amateur voyeur, we want to them. Send your submissions via email to tips@hagerty.com or add them to our forums on the Back in the Day board.

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