The initial eight 2014 inductees into the USAC Hall of Fame have been announced and four more, selected by popular vote from a list of 16 eligible names, will be announced April 15.
The third annual USAC Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will be held May 17 at Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont, Indiana, in conjunction with the annual USAC Hall of Fame Classic Silver Crown Series race.
The eight-member class of inductees announced today includes five drivers, a race organizer, an official and a chief mechanic. They are George Bignotti, Don Branson, Larry Dickson, Norm Nelson, Don Smith, Bob Stroud, Rodger Ward and Bob Wente.
- George Bignotti was one of America’s premier chief mechanics and earned seven victories in the Indianapolis 500, along with six National Championships. He started his career as a midget car owner who occasionally drove himself. He worked with such stalwart drivers as Freddie Agabashian, Marvin Burke, Johnny Boyd, Earl Motter and Bob Sweikert. Agabashian won the 1947 and 1948 BCRA titles and Boyd won the 1951 title in Bignotti cars. His Indianapolis 500 victories came in 1961 and 1964 (A.J. Foyt), 1966 (Graham Hill), 1970 and 1971 (Al Unser), 1973 (Gordon Johncock) and 1983 (Tom Sneva). In 1964 he and Foyt swept the first seven races of the National Championship season and won 10 of 13 races that year! Bignotti passed away September 27, 2013 in Las Vegas.
- Don Branson, USAC’s 1959 Midwest and 1964 National Sprint Car Champion, began racing in 1946 and in 1955 he won the final AAA race in an indoor Midget event at Fort Wayne, Ind. A stellar Championship-car and Sprint car veteran, he also excelled in the Midgets, twice winning the Hut Hundred (in 1958 and 1966). He also won the first midget race at what was then known as Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1961. The 1964 USAC National Sprint Car Champ scored 13 victories before losing his life in a 1966 accident at Gardena, Calif. Affectionately called “Gramps,” he competed in eight Indianapolis 500s and finished fourth in 1960 and fifth in 1963. His seven Championship-car wins were part of 85 top-10s. He is a member of both the National Sprint Car and Midget Halls of Fame.
- Larry Dickson owns three USAC National Sprint Car Championships, 1968, 1970 and 1975 and formed half of the feared “Larry and Gary Show” with Gary Bettenhausen, swapping first and second place point finishes between 1968 and 1971. His 45 career Sprint wins are tied with Tracy Hines for fourth on the all-time USAC list. In 1975 he also added the prestigious Little 500 to his victory list at Anderson, Ind. In eight Indianapolis 500 starts he scored a ninth-place finish in 1969. A 1990 inductee into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, he was among their inaugural class, A versatile driver, he even drove a Ford Torino in the Daytona 500 and ran in the top-10 before retiring with engine woes. He added a pair of wins in the USAC Silver Crown series.
- Already a winner under the AAA banner, Norm Nelson went on to win 35 events in the USAC Stock Car series, earning the season’s championship in 1960, 1965 and 1966. He was also runner-up four times and third in three other seasons in addition to having already been runner-up under AAA sanction in 1950. Nelson always fielded his own equipment and after switching from Ford to Chrysler in 1963, he typically fielded a second car for such outstanding drivers as Roger McCluskey (won the USAC title in 1969 and 1970), A. J. Foyt (runner-up in 1963), Jim Hurtubise (won NASCAR’s Atlanta 500 in 1966), Paul Goldsmith and Lloyd Ruby. As a car entrant, Nelson won USAC’s seasonal championship six times and was runner-up five times. A longtime USAC Board member, he passed away on November 8, 1988.
- Don Smith was a thinker and he came up with a lot of good promotional ideas He kept a notepad by his bed and whenever he came up with an idea, he’d jot it down. And one of his really big ideas was the famed “Tony Hulman Classic” USAC Sprint spectaculars. He was the Director of Racing at the Terre Haute Action Track from 1953 through 1980 and scheduled the inaugural “Classic” for 1971. For the next decade, he presided over one of the most prestigious and richest USAC events at the half mile dirt oval. Sprint racing by USAC’s best, Hollywood celebrities, and the huge “Driver Appreciation Dinner” made for one spectacular weekend.
The centerpiece of the dinner, which was discontinued after Hulman’s death in 1977, was the Calcutta-style auction of drivers who had qualified during preliminary races earlier in the day. The money pool was split evenly between the bidders and the Hulman Classic feature race purse, swelling it well beyond the USAC average. The city’s merchants wholeheartedly supported the event and the local Terre Haute Tribune-Star even published a 32 page Sunday supplement the weekend before the big race. And, adding to the prestige of the event, ABC-TV sent their “Wide World of Sports” team to cover the event each year. His tenure at the Indiana State Fairgrounds helped maintain the rich tradition of the prestigious “Hoosier Hundred.” His leadership at the Terre Haute First National Bank and First Financial Corporation was legendary and he is revered among the sport.
- Hardly known at all by the race fans, but extremely highly regarded by the participants, the gravel-voiced but fatherly Bob Stroud seemed to have had two separate careers as a USAC official. After many years with AAA in several disciplines, he was named USAC’s full-time Midget division supervisor on January 1, 1960 and for the next decade became so totally devoted to that series that associates were astonished when at the end of the 1970 season he agreed to take over the USAC Stock Car series. It was an entirely different cast of characters, but Stroud quickly won them over, his rapport with participants and race track promoters alike always having been second to none. Always a strong advocate for fairness in competition and safety, he retired at the end of the 1976 season due to ill health and passed away on July 24, 1981 but he supervised hundreds of USAC events spanning two decades.
- One of the greatest drivers of all-time, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward (1959 and 1962) had an amazing run in USAC National Championship competition, never finishing lower than fifth in the final point standings for seven straight seasons between 1958 and 1964. Champion in 1959 and 1962 (edging A. J. Foyt in the latter year), Ward finished runner-up in 1960, 1963 and 1964, each time to Foyt. He also ranked third in 1961 and fifth in 1958, winning a total of 24 USAC National Championship races between 1957 and 1966. The versatile Ward, who was an excellent road racer, also won five USAC Stock Car races and in very limited appearances with Midgets, won four major events. A magnificent spokesman for the sport in general, Ward served for several years on the USAC Board of Directors and as a part owner and founding partner of Indianapolis Raceway Park, designed both the road course and the five-eighths-mile oval in place to this day. He passed away on July 5, 2004.
- Bob Wente won USAC’s National Midget Championship in 1963 after scoring runner-up point finishes for three consecutive seasons. A member of the inaugural group inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1984, he scored 78 USAC National Midget wins, third to Mel Kenyon’s all-time record 111 and Rich Vogler’s 95. Wente made his Midget racing debut in 1954 and was the 1960 USAC Midwest Midget Champ, losing the National title by just 9.75 points to Jimmy Davies. He won the 1961 USAC Indoor title and in 1969 and 1976 won the Night Before the 500 classic. In 1963 he won the Hut Hundred. He posted a USAC Sprint win at Winchester, Ind. In his only Indianapolis 500 start he came from 32nd starting position to finish 9th in a car prepared by his Midget mechanic Bob Higman. Bob, who passed away on August 12, 2000, had three sons, all of whom competed in USAC Midget competition.