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Saturday night racing

Book captures the times and tales of Debo Park Motor Speedway

December 5, 2010
By PAUL GIANNAMORE, business editor

BRILLIANT - In the mid-1950s, there were as many as 4,000 dirt tracks for amateur auto racers, but time, the influx of big money and professionalism and other factors trimmed the ranks to fewer than a quarter of that number today.

One of those was Debo Park Motor Speedway, between Brilliant and Rayland off old state Route 7. You won't find a scrap of evidence of the track some 45 years after the last car turned a lap in anger on Debo's dirt. It was where two sharp curves on the road wound past the asphalt plant, right about where the big coal depot at Warrenton is nowadays.

Debo hosted Saturday night races from 1950 to 1960 and from 1963 to 1965. Brilliant native Eric "Rick" Yocum captures many of the track's personalities and tales in a 182-page book, a revised second edition of "Echoes of Valley Thunder: Remembering Debo Park Motor Speedway," available through Amazon.com, by ordering from Yocum at www.debospeedway.com or by direct mail order.

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“Echoes of Valley Thunder: Remembering Debo Park Motor Speedway” is available for $24.99 plus $4 shipping through At Speed Books, P.O. Box 3222, Lexington, OH 44904, or by visiting www.debospeedway.com. Web orders receive a $5 discount. The book also is available through Amazon.com. Anyone with memories or memorabilia to share from the Debo Park Speedway’s racing days of the 1950s and 1960s can visit www.debospeedway.com. Plans call for T-shirts and sweatshirts with the Debo logo to be offered through the site, maintained by author Rick Yocum.

The book captures the spirit of the age, when the World War II generation came home and many still found a need for some exhilaration in their lives. They found it in acceleration around little tracks like Debo.

Yocum, who heads up his own public relations firm in Columbus, was a reporter at the Defiance Crescent-News, where he wrote a popular racing column. He also drove his own cars in Sports Car Club of America and vintage racing competition for years.

Racing, he said in a telephone interview, got burned into his brain at a young age, when he would beg his brother, Ron, to take him to the track.

"I was never too far away from it, I guess. I started the column for the Defiance paper because the sports editor finally found somebody who knew what direction cars raced on an oval track," Yocum joked. He was the area editor for a five-county region, not a sports writer, but his love of racing kept him writing the column.

And that led to his own trip to cover the 1967 Indianapolis 500, an historic event that saw a turbine-powered car driven by popular driver Parnelli Jones nearly run away with the event, until a wheel bearing failed near the finish, sidelining the car. The race was won by Indy legend A.J. Foyt, the third of his four victories, who picked his way through last-lap wreckage to the checkered flag.

"That race was pretty cool, with that turbine car. You would have all that horsepower screaming at you, but the first car that would go by, all you would hear was the tires rolling on the pavement. All that horsepower was chasing it in vain," Yocum recalled.

"They didn't have to ask me twice to go over there. I didn't know anybody, but I remembered Larry Dickson from Debo. I hunted him up and we went from there," he said.

Dickson is one of the heroes of Debo, who came to run at the local track in the late 1950s, and rose to drive at Indy, as outlined by Yocum in his book.

Others include the late J.D. Leas, a former Presidential Guard Marine who had a promising career that started at Debo shortened in an horrific accident in 1971 in a sprint car race in Lakeland, Fla. Leas was Debo's final champion, driving his way through the last five laps of the championship feature race on three wheels, keeping his left front hub off the ground after the wheel broke free.

There are tales of the founders, Max, Dean and Bob Burriss; competitors such as Jack Triner and Jack Steffen and the 777-series of cars; Frank "The Flying Greek" Kovas; Mike Bice of Cadiz; Fred Sabatini of Smithfield and many more.

There are the stories of the men and the cars, of how a GMC truck engine became the hot setup for racers, led by Kovas and his 12-port head that kept the valves from being sucked down into the cylinders. It's an enjoyable read that puts dust in your hair, the smell of fuel in your nostrils and the warmth of a 1950s Saturday night near the Ohio River in your mind's eye as thundering race cars made from real cars that once were driven on the streets go by. It's a book of tall tales, good stories, racing heroes who lived next door and easy to understand mechanical information about what made some jalopies faster than others.

Yocum's childhood at the track led him to develop the book for its first release in 1985.

That led to 10 more years of research as more and more people called him with their memories or contacts with information about the track, its cars and racers.

And that led to the second edition after Yocum heard of Debo Park drivers getting together at a NASCAR memorabilia shop in New Philadelphia in 2003. That group would include one of his hardest-to-find heroes, Jack Steffen, whose name had been misspelled in an old news story Yocum had used in his research for years.

"I started listening to them tell their tales that day and I thought, 'This can't be lost. Somebody ought to write this down.' It's good stuff. I don't know if it's all true, but it's good stuff," Yocum said. "From there, the book grew. Mike Bice knew where many of the drivers lived."

Bice and Kovas died before the book was published. Leas died in 2000, but his son, John, supplied many memories of his dad's too-short career. Yocum has gratitude for all the drivers and people who have submitted memorabilia and tales.

Debo closed in 1960 when the Burriss family decided to end their track management role. Howard Jones took the track back to active racing in 1963 and ran it until the end of the 1965 season and the amazing Leas championship race. After that, Jones had big plans for pavement and new grandstands, and a landowner who supported his drive for a more upscale track.

But it was not to be. The landowner died. The widow decided to sell the land, and Debo was gone.

Yocum doesn't hold a grudge in the book, nor in answering the question: Had their been a lease, would we still be going to Debo Park Motor Speedway on Saturday nights?

"Howard never signed a lease and now, you can't find Debo with a spy plane or a search warrant," Yocum said. "If you wanted to build Debo today, you'd need environmental impact studies, and you'd put millions of dollars into it before you even brought a grader in. And I doubt it would still be there today, because no matter what you would do, that place was still in a flood plain, and every year there'd have to be the big cleanup at the beginning of the season. Sooner or later, you'd have to move it to where it would not flood. Then, you might still be talking about Debo."

The age of Saturday night, low-cost jalopy racing, where everybody with a few bucks to build a car out of a junkyard heap could compete is gone, too, Yocum said.

"Like everything, once money gets into it, it unfortunately tends to ruin it. Everybody then can't participate, and that happened at Debo, once Mike Bice came in 1960 with his sprint car. The price of racing went way up. You couldn't roll it up in your garage. You had to buy a sprint car frame and weld on top of it to build what we called a supermodified, and then smallblock Chevrolet engines with fuel injection are not cheap and not understood by everybody," he said.

Eventually, the cost and complexity led to fewer entries, smaller crowds and the eventual demise of many, many of the wide-open small race tracks, and a more regulated era at the tracks that do still dot the land, including the 250 Speedway near Cadiz on U.S. Route 250 and Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway.

There won't, however, be a third edition of the Debo Park book, not by Yocum.

"What happens is you talk to somebody, they get you a few more to talk to, then there's two or three more and one of two things starts to happen: You either quit gathering or you realize you're hearing the same stories from different perspectives. Either way, it's time to sit down to write," Yocum said.

Yocum said people with memories, memorabilia or other comments to make about Debo can still submit them to his website, www.debospeedway.com, but he won't be doing another book.

He said he hopes his book inspires people with memories of other dirt tracks of a bygone era across the nation to think about capturing their history.

(Giannamore's e-mail address is pgiannamore@heraldstaronline.com.)

 
 

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