This Friday evening, Williams Grove Speedway will offer its first championship race of the season for the sprint cars.

For those of us with an interest in racing's history, the name of this race makes it very special -- the "Tommy Classic."

It honors the memory of a very special man, who wrote the original record books in this area -- Tommy Hinnershitz. A true Pennsylvania Dutchman, from the little town of Oley, Hinnershitz was a legend in a different era of racing.

Hinnershitz raced sprint cars, or big cars as they were first known, at a time when there were no roll cages, no seat belts, and of course, no wings. On narrow knobby tires, and dry, dusty, day-time race tracks, Hinnershitz was "the man." It was an era when drivers were often seriously injured or worse at almost every race, yet Hinnershitz raced in four decades, and won with incredible consistency.

He raced on the touring circuits of the AAA and later USAC, and won 103 features. He started three Indy 500s, although he would often say that those type races weren't his favorites. But on the dirt tracks of the East and Midwest, he had no equal.

"Of all the drivers on dirt, Tommy Hinnershitz stands out in my mind as the best."

Those words come from one of auto racing's biggest legends -- A.J. Foyt.

The word is that long after his driving career ended, if Hinnershitz would stop by the garage area at an Indy Car race, the stars of the series, guys such as Foyt, Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford, would get a big smile and seek him out.

That Williams Grove would be the track to honor Hinnershitz seems only right. He won the very first feature race at the Grove back in 1939, and compiled 19 career wins there in a time when four to eight races for the sprint cars made up the whole season. His last win at the Grove came in 1959, just one year before his retirement.

At tracks that have long since been shuttered, or no longer conduct races, Hinnershitz still holds the honor as the all-time sprint-car win leader. Hinnershitz leads the sprints at Reading with 12 wins, Allentown with seven and Harrington, Del., with three. He also stands tied at Pittsburgh's Heidleburg with two. He won four times on the always-treacherous Flemington, N.J., track.

But, while always a fierce competitor, Hinnershitz was also a great man. Even though he did most of his own mechanical work, he always made time for the fans of the sport. Even long after his driving days ended, he liked nothing better than to talk racing with fans.

I was quite a bit younger when I met Tommy at functions of the Williams Grove Old Timers group, or the York County Racing Club. Consider that Tommy last drove a race car in the year I was born. Still, the first time we met, he treated me like an old friend, and whenever we met after that he knew my name and would always take the time for a chat. One of my most treasured memories is the afternoon before a Friday race at Williams Grove, when Tommy and his wife Betty invited me up to their motorhome for some watermelon.

A race in honor of the memory of Hinnershitz is truly a special event, for a very special man.


WEEKEND SCHEDULE: The 305 sprints will join the sprint cars at the Grove on Friday, and the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing will have a display of vintage race cars, and yes, Tommy's famed Miracle Power No. 2 is back in town from Knoxville and should be there.

Hagerstown also hosts a memorial race this weekend. The Lucas Oil late models visit Hagerstown Saturday for the Stanley Schetrompf Memorial. Schetrompf is the man who built the track in Hagerstown in the 1940s. The feature distance Saturday at Hagerstown is 50 laps. The RUSH Crate Late Models will also be on the schedule.

In other weekend action, Trailway's Friday show offers the 358 sprints, limited-late models, limited stocks and sidewinder micro sprints.

At Lincoln on Saturday, the sprint cars headline, along with the 358 sprints and thundercars. Port Royal's Saturday slate offers up the sprint cars, late models and 305 sprints.

Williams Grove's Saturday Night Series begins this week with the super-sportsman racers, limited-late models and street stocks.

Selinsgrove offers a regular show of 358 sprints, late models, pro stocks and roadrunners on Saturday, while Susquehanna Speedway Park hosts the limited-late models, street stocks, Xtreme stocks, Road Warriors, minivans and the PennMar Vintage Racers.

1968: Things kicked into high gear on this weekend back in 1968, with four more tracks joining the schedule.

Susquehanna was still running on Friday nights. Williams Grove opened its season with Sunday afternoon programs.

Friday at Susquehanna, Ray Tilley drove to his third overall win of the season. Tilley drove Bud Grimm's No. 88 Ford to the win over Eddie Zirkle, with Kenny Weld, Bobby Testor and Bobby Gerhart in the top five.

Selinsgrove opened on Saturday, with Tilley scoring his second win of the weekend over Lou Blaney, Buddy Cochran, Bobby Allen and Johnny Crawford.

Lincoln's opener found Weld getting his third overall win of the season in his own No. 91. Zirkle got his second second-place run of the weekend, with Jack Denniston, Red Ninninger and Kenny Slaybaugh in the top five.

Up at Port Royal, it was Milt Miller driving to the opening-night victory in the Plymouth Hemi-powered No. 49. Leroy Felty, Johnny Hubbard, Milford Wales and Elmer Ruby completed the top five.

Williams Grove's opener on Sunday afternoon found Weld scoring his second win of the weekend and ending Tilley's win streak. Bobbie Adamson finished third, followed by Cochran and Mitch Smith.

At Hagerstown on Sunday, Bobby Allen scored the win in Charlie Hill's No. 456. It was his first of the season. Ray Dovel finished second, followed by Ruby, Buddy Armel and Bill Ulsh.

Bryan Householder writes about dirt-track racing for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sports@yorkdis

Go here for the sprint-car point standings.