Lewistown Raceway, 50 years in the making

Special to the News-Argus Lewistown Montana

1956; Population 9,000, television was in its infancy, there were approximately 20 neighborhood grocery stores, and 41 full service gas station/garages. One in particular, the Courthouse Texaco, where young Jim Connelly worked as a mechanic, was one of the many where high school age hot rodders hung out and everybody that had a car would do some kind of customizing to it. The golden age of hot rodding was in full swing with an abundance of 52 Ford coupes and 54 Mercurys. The Flathead Ford V-8 had been out for 25 years and Chevrolets overhead valve V-8 was only a couple of years old. Automotive technology was supplying the hot rodders with plenty of equipment and ideas. Jim gathered together 15 willing rodders and started the first car club in Lewistown, the Road Sturs, with Mr. Connelly as the first President. Now with the automobile taking over the country-dance scene and Main Street being congested with traffic, the Road Sturs needed a new place to exercise their automotive muscle.

NHRA gets involved
An organization started in 1951 with its first sanctioned race in 1953, seemed like the perfect place to go for help; that organization was the National Hot Rod Association. So began the process of trying to attain a local drag strip for the youth of Lewistown. Jim Connelly, Wayne Pallett, Gerald Brantz, Bill Fanset and Marty Storfa, all Road Sturs, were about to take on city hall. Bill Wicks, the mayor, provided the "OK" for the police department but the Chief of police was dead set against any such nonsense so with the help of the Assistant Chief of police, Bob Green (an Honorary Road Stur), the local establishment crumbled. Wally Parks, the genius that started the NHRA, personally signed the charter for the first sanctioned 1/4-mile racetrack in the state of Montana. A portion of the old Air Base was delegated to the club for use as their racetrack. An old Army Air Force service garage served as the clubhouse and storage facility complete with service bays. (Now the Fish and Game Building) The club held its first race on Memorial Day weekend in 1957.

Saturday there was a car show and on Sunday, the racing took place. There was involvement from local automotive merchants, as the owners of different Lewistown body shops would judge all of the car shows. It was a simple procedure; the start line was marked with several car lengths, the handicapped or slower car getting the advantage of moving up one or two lengths. One flagger at the start line would drop his flag and at the 1/4 mile end two people would stand at either lane and raise their flag for the winning lane.  Races and car shows were held about once a month with the car clubs from Great Falls and Billings participating. Usually about 200 cars would show up for the events. During this time, club member Larry Barrick devised a crude timing system using lights to time the races. By 1959, many Road Sturs headed off to school, joined the military or found interest in other activities.

The Quarter Milers
In 1960, the Quarter Milers club was formed with about 15 members including, Dick Erlandson, Mike & Glenn Richards, Bob Todd, Wayne Pallett, and Marty Storfa, with the sole purpose of keeping the racetrack alive. The club upgraded their timing system by renting timing lights from Red Lindsay, a parts manager at the Chevrolet dealership in Greybull, Wyoming. Within a short time, Lindsay sold his timing light system and the club needed some help to maintain operation of the track. A group of Great Falls racers realized that a small club could not effectively operate the  racetrack, so they drew from area car clubs to form a stronger association, the Central Montana Timing Association (CMTA). This group, headed up by Barney Cooper of Great Falls held several events, such as car shows, to raise money for timing equipment. Single-lane timers at first then eventually dual-lane timers were used. Lewistown was not the only community with a drag strip, as the years progressed drag strips sprung up all over the Treasure State using active airports, with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Racing was the event of choice for the "Go-Fast" generation, with tracks at Conrad, Ft. Benton, Belgrade, Deer Lodge, and Superior. Then one race day an incident happened at the Superior racetrack and the FAA said no more airport racing. Lewistown was saved from this rule for the fact that it was not using an active runway.

The Glory Days
In 1964, the tracks first manager was installed, Bob Todd, to oversee track operations. Todd changed the name of the track to King Kam Dragway. By 1968, a new group, the Central Montana Racing Association (CMRA), began to operate the struggling dragstrip, George Stewart, Larry Barrick, Jon Wicks, Leo Walsh, and Wayne & Whaley Pallett. Gene Jackson as track manager installed the first announcing booth, occupied on race days by C.R. Leverett, of KOYN radio in Billings and Don Ayers of Grass Range. All equipment had to be removed after each race so as not to interfere with airport traffic. The late 60s and early 70s were the glory days of the Muscle Cars and the racetrack did well. The turnout was always more than expected. The big three automakers (GM, Ford, Chrysler) all had their potent factory muscle on the racetracks, but a local rancher and racer Dale Krider and engineering friend & mechanic Dick Erlandson, obtained a factory sponsored, new 1969 American Motors Rambler AMX through the help of Herb Jones of Western Motors. The two headed for Oakland, Calif. to pick up the racecar. With only 52 built as this one was configured, Ramblers entry to combat the Big-3 was rare. (As a side note; the Western Motors AMC dealership was located where Smarts Abbey carpet is now located) Dick would match race the little AMX with the likes of Missoulas Dave Wren with a 63 factory Plymouth Ramcharger, with which he nearly swept the 1969 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Another local racer was Bill Spevacek of Geraldine, with a full on Top Fuel Funny Car, that he campaigned at NHRA national events. Bill would enthrall the crowds with long smokey burnouts and high speed runs where he would go off the track into the grass, regain control, and still go through the speed traps at over 200MPH without ever letting off the throttle. With cars like this at the raceway providing Exhibition runs and Match Races, the entertainment at the racetrack was hard to beat. By 1976 though, the track was in rough shape. Asphalt was coming loose and large potholes and loose gravel made the surface unsafe for racing, bringing about the closure of the facility for two years.

Dick Erlandson, whose heart and soul were still at the dragstrip, was working towards raising enough money to have the track repaved. His plan was to have each racer invest $100 that would give them reduced admission into the races and a charter membership into the Central Montana Racing Association (CMRA). When that did not produce the money needed, Dick personally signed a bank note for $18,500. Obtaining help from surrounding community volunteers in
Cut Bank, Great Falls, and Billings and with the help of Century Paving of
Lewistown, he had enough money to pave the entire track, install guardrails,
build restrooms, a ticket booth and a new timing tower. By 1981, the three-
year agreement that Dick and the CMRA had with the Airport Board ended so the
racetrack did not open for the 1982 season. Local racers soon wanted to know
what was going on and that is when the CMTA was again approached to operate
the racetrack. In the past, the Airport Board members had wanted a local group
to manage the track because they felt that local citizens would have better
control over everyday operations. Local businessman Norm Bawden was the only
person to show any interest but did not want to be involved in the racetracks
operation. After much negotiation, Bawden signed a one-year contract, and the
Airport Board allowed CMTA to run the track. With very little work, Lewistown
Raceway opened again in 1983. In a struggling economy, CMTA worked diligently
to keep the track in racing shape. A concrete starting pad was poured and
other improvements were made prompting the Airport Board to give CMTA a five-
year lease. Weather also put a strain on the facility. Of 11 races scheduled
one year, only three were completed. Updated timing equipment needed to be
purchased with a loan that CMTA members signed for, and permanent power was
brought to the facility, doing away with the generated electrical supply. By
1999, after a tenuous term of disappointment, rumors circulated that CMTA may
give up their effort to continue track operations. An emergency meeting was
called of local racers and with a large contingency of people it was
determined that the interest was tremendous enough to create a new managing
club, and Lewistown Drag Racers Association (LDRA) was born. Taking over the
concessions and having in place the ability to take over, should CMTA dismiss
their task.

Lewistown Drag Racers Association takes over operations
The year is 2003, the CMTA has had all they can contend with and made the
final decision to withdraw from track management. Taking over the racetrack
for the 2004 season was the nucleus of the club which reads like the survivors
in an obituary; Bob Olson, Warren Ayers, Dean Stapleton, James Phelps, Brian
and Kevin Olson, Doug Peterschick, Darla Richards, Jon Wicks, and Glenn & Rod
Richards. With extended help from the Billings Drag Racers Association (BDRA),
friend Syl Schied and members loaned and then sold their timing equipment to
the LDRA. The LDRA has built new restrooms and concessions, new return roads,
new fire fighting and rescue equipment has been recently put into use and
members have continued to upgrade the facilities and the racing venue by
implementing the Two Race-One Weekend concept, which affords distant attending
racers from excessive travel and gives the local businesses an opportunity to
serve them. They have kept in place the NHRAs High School Drags program since
its debut at Lewistown 20yrs. ago and the NHRAs Jr. Dragster program since its
inception in 1992. The future has the club keeping up with mandatory safety
changes such as the soon to be constructed concrete walls replacing the old
metal guardrails. New scoreboards and back-up timing system equipment is also
in the very near future.

Lewistown Raceway has had a long and storied history in our community and
the LDRA has many people and businesses to thank for maintaining and
preserving it as an asset so valuable to Lewistown and in giving us the
opportunity to continue the process. All those before us and those who are
with us now: the National Hot Rod Association, the Airport Board, so very
many, to long to list: Lewistown businesses, the multitude of racers and
spectators over the years and last but certainly not least the men and women
who have volunteered and given of their time, money and hard work ethics to
preserve for the enjoyment of everyone the sport of Drag Racing. Source thanks
for this story go to Wayne Pallett, Dick Erlandson, James Phelps and the NHRA
publication, National Dragster.

Lewistown Raceway will be celebrating its Fiftieth Year at the next race
August 11&12 with a "Where Are They Now" reunion of racers over the past
50yrs., Honorary Grand Marshals will be Wayne Pallett and Dick Erlandson.
Following the event there will be an all Racers Reunion Reception at the
Lewistown Raceways Beer Garden