by: Bobby Williamson
1969 was a significant year for local racing on the Carolina coast. Myrtle Beach businessman, Nick Lucas, driving and listening to a Grand National event (courtesy of the old “Universal Racing Network”) realized that Myrtle Beach, tourist Mecca that it was, had a race track. One that was quietly sitting, and growing dog fennels.
Myrtle Beach’s Rambi (Racing Association of Myrtle Beach, Inc.) Raceway was first opened in 1958, and like many dusty ovals in the south, had hosted the occasional NASCAR Grand National event as well as weekly modified-sportsman races. For most of its history, Rambi had been NASCAR sanctioned, but constantly operated on the fringes of success. In the early 1960′s Rambi’s weekly format had been altered to “special” events. Promoters came and went.
Life did not get any easier for Rambi with the opening of the nearby Conway (SC) Raceway in 1964. Conway was the quintessential bull ring: semi-banked, paper-clip, 1/4 dirt oval. AND, Conway was an “outlaw” track. No NASCAR fees, rules, points, officials, insurance………nothing. The weekly ‘feature’ event at Conway was the “Eastern Late Models” tri-five Chevys and Fords, with an occasional Pontiac or Plymouth. Engine rules were simple: 283′s for Chevys and the Y-block 292 for the Fords. The support division was anything up to 1954: coupes, coaches, post war Fords, what-e-v-e-r (saw a Hudson one time!). They were called “jalopies” and for good reason. The Fords ran a 223 six cylinder (the timeless flathead was also an option) and the Chevys had to run the classic “Stovebolt” 235.
Unlike NASCAR racing at Rambi, Conway Raceway put local drivers ‘out there’. Right in front of the home town crowd RACING, and the NINETY NINE cent admission was just icing on the cake. Conway was wildly successful. Similar tracks sprang up in nearby Loris, SC, Little River, SC, Marion, SC, Leland, NC and in other locales. In 1965 and ’66 Rambi dropped NASCAR and tried to cash in on the outlaw craze, but it was still too little and too late. By the summer of ’69 Rambi had been idle for three seasons.
However, by 1969, the exponential rise of local outlaw racing and the proliferation of area tracks, had begun to take its toll. Interest was starting to wane, tracks were starting to close, and even on the local scene, racing was getting more technical and more expensive. Nick Lucas, businessman, thought it would be the perfect time to purchase the derelict speedway. Rambi Raceway was purchased and renamed the Myrtle Beach Speedway. It would be another tourist attraction for the beach’s countless tourists. That was the plan.
‘The new’ Myrtle Beach Speedway opened in June of 1969 to standing room only crowds and an infield full of race cars. Legendary announcer “Buckshot” Cagle was on the horn, and fans could not get enough of it. The speedway was so successful, by the fall of ’69, nobody… fans, drivers, or staff wanted the season to end. The idea for a Thanksgiving Day race was born, and launched.
Racing has always had an ‘information super highway’ it’s called the ‘grapevine’. And, boy, did it work! On Thanksgiving Day 1969 SIXTY SEVEN late models were in the pits at Myrtle Beach for the 200 lap event. Nobody had seen this coming. In all the pre-race hoop-la there was never any limitation of the size of the starting field. So………every driver that wished, and y’all can guess how that went, got to qualify and START THE RACE. Naturally, ALL OF THEM thought they were going to win, 67 late models took the green flag, about dusk on a chilly Thursday in November of 1969.
Somehow, some way, they ALL made it through the first and second turns and down the backstretch of the first lap. All that I could see, from the infield, (and trying to keep track of my in-this-crazy-field- Dad) was a blue car flipping, end-over-end, and a Talladega style pile up as the field entered the third turn. It was Slick Johnson’s #18 Ford Fairlane (his Dad, Junior would explain after the event that Slick just “bumped his head… wurn’t hurt none…..”
The marathon race wound on and on, and sometime later in the night, a wild crash developed right at the flag-stand. There was a orange colored blur, another car flipping end-over-end, and side-over-side, and coming to rest, right side up and sitting broadside to oncoming traffic. This was BEFORE window net restraints and the crashed driver was knocked unconscious with his left arm dangling out of the driver’s side window. Another racer could not get stopped, and T-Boned the demolished #82 of “Big Daddy’s Papa” Sam Ard. Bulls-eye, right in the driver’s door. Sam’s (eight month expectant) wife, watching the drama from on top of their tow rig, fainted and fell off the truck and to the ground. Carolina dirt legend, Billy Scott (#0 ’55 Chevy) was also involved in this crash and suffered a broken leg. They were playing for keeps out there! Jackie Rogers, driving the former Sam Ard/John Altman #84 Chevelle was awarded the win, but I don’t think anybody really knew who was running where. It was the original GOAT RODEO. My Dad finished the race, but I can’t recall where we were scored.
The following year, 1970, Sam Ard would meet Mr. Howard Thomas (Thomas Bros. Country Ham, Asheboro, NC) at Sanford (NC) Speedway, and an incredible chapter in NASCAR late model sportsman and Busch racing would begin. Sam Ard was as tough as nails and as good as there ever was!
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(Editor’s note: Bobby Williamson is a member of the regular cast of the Tuesday evening racing show ” Racing Through History”, presented on Zeus Radio Network by RacersReunion®. Archives can be found by following the link. Live broadcasts can be heard from 7:00-9:00 PM every Tuesday. Please feel free to join us in the RacersReunion® Chat Room for the show.)