1964 – 1982
by Walt Wimer Jr.
Although Mercer Raceway would not become a part of my world until 1966, the track reopened after six years of no racing on June 6, 1964. Louis Persch owned the track, but his son-in-law Otis Coulter ran the races and was the person most responsible in bringing auto racing back to Mercer. That first year of the Coulter operation there were three classes of racing, Super-Modifieds, Super Hardtops and Stocks. The names would change over the years, but the three basic types of racecars would run at the track until it again closed after the 1982 season.
After Persch passed away the family sold the track to Sharon concrete contractor Mike Rakoci and the Quarterson brothers, Ralph and Dave. A couple of years later Rakoci took over sole ownership of the track and would operate it until 1982 when he sold the facility to Frank Truputic.
Old hand-me-down Sprint cars were already making up a good portion of the Super-Modified class by the mid-sixties, and by the end of the decade the name Super-Modified had pretty well given way to just Sprint Cars. The super Hardtops were just about any type of American built closed body car with an overhead valve V-8 engine for power, while the Stocks were limited to 6-cylinder in line engines or the old flathead Ford V-8s. This distinction would separate the two classes into the year 2000. In 1964 the Hardtops were mostly 1930’s pre-war coupes with big engines, although a few drivers elected to run later model cars, especially some of the Ohio invaders, who would come over from the Youngstown-Warren area from time to time. By the 1970’s the class was known as Sportsman and later it evolved into the Modified class of today. However the cars of today are far removed from their ancestry. While they still rely on big V-8 powerplants, they all have homemade bodies and special racing chassis underneath. In fact, the only class racing today at Mercer using old passenger cars are those racing in the Stock Car division. The original Stock class eventually became six-cylinder Modifieds and although they were raced at other tracks, began to die out in the early nineties while Mercer was closed. Howard Michaels, who bought the track and reopened it in 1994, brought the class back and the six bangers were part of the Mercer program until this year.
Skinny Hall (inside car) and promoter Dave Quarterson – 1971
From the mid-sixties through the early eighties no driver came close to the records of one Ralph Quarterson from the Sharon area. Quarterson’s father, the late Ralph Quarterson, Sr., was long involved with the sanctioning bodies such as NASCAR and MARC (now ARCA) before going on his own to form Auto Racing, Inc. (ARI) to sanction races at local tracks such as Butler, Hickory (New Castle) and Mercer. The elder Quarterson also owned race cars at one time, including a blue and white #66 Chevy coupe driven by Ted Wise, one of the best of his day.
With such close connections to the sport of speed, is was only natural that Quarterson, Jr. decided to give driving a try. To say that he took to racing like a duck takes to water would be an understatement. No one could drive the tricky egg shaped track like Quarterson. From 1966 through his retirement as an active driver in the early eighties, Ralph racked up 149 wins, including 97 in the Sprint Cars and another 48 in the Modifieds. He even won four times in a Late Model Camaro in 1974, the only year the Late Models were ever run at the Mercer track on a weekly basis. With 149 wins in the top three classes of dirt track racing, far above any other driver, it is no wonder he is often referred to as “The Master of Mercer”. No one, and I do mean no one, could put a car through the Mercer third and fourth turns like Quarterson did. His efforts over the years have seen him elected to the Pittsburgh Circle Track Club’s Hall of Fame and nominated for the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville Iowa.
Although no longer active behind the wheel, Quarterson can still be seen in the Mercer pits, especially on nights his son Tommy is racing. The third generation of the Quarterson family in the sport may never equal his father’s win record, but he is a very accomplished driver in his own right, with over 45 Sprint Car wins at various area tracks and a Sharon Speedway Championship. He also won the #1 Cochran Cavalcade Point title for the Sprints in 1988, an honor taken by his father in 1975 and again in 1979. The youngest of the Quarterson racers has already scored two Sprint Car wins at Mercer in 2001.
There is one driver who has to share the stage with Ralph Quarterson when one talks about open wheel racing history in the Penn-Ohio area. That of course is Lou Blaney, the all time great from Hartford, Ohio. Blaney and Quarterson were strong rivals for most of the time that the pair crossed paths on the area circuit, and if you want to get into an argument, just get a couple of old time race fans together and ask which was better. Records will show that overall Blaney did not win as many races at Mercer as Quarterson, but that doesn’t tell the story, as in a number of seasons Blaney elected to race elsewhere on the area circuit on Saturday night. But Blaney is now the all time Modified winner at Mercer, passing Quarterson last year and ranks second on the Sprint Car list with 45 since 1966. Blaney also has a pair of well-known sons racing on the national circuits. Dave, a former World of Outlaws Sprint Car champ and USAC Silver Bullet champ, who now drives the AMOCO #93 for Bill Davis on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, and Dale, who keeps the Blaney name in the thick of the action on the grueling World of Outlaws Sprint Car tour. Incidently, Dave Blaney won the very first Sprint Car race of his career at Mercer on June 27, 1982, beating Ralph Quarterson and Johnny Beaber, who was the track champ that year.
Skinny Hall, 1972
But the history of Mercer Raceway is not one of just two drivers, it is one of hundreds who have thrilled the crowds on Saturday nights from 1951 into 2001. It would be impossible to mention them all in the length of this article, but some in the Sprint Class who quickly come to mind include, Johnny Beaber, Bill Banick, Jimmy Hawley, Jamie Smith, Bob Felmlee, Buddy Cochran, Ted Wise and Bill Wheeling. Beaber was an Ohio transplant who moved east to find his glory, which included at least 132 wins at local tracks. Of that number, 26 were scored at Mercer from 1978 through 1995. Twice he won nine races in a season, but never came close to Blaney’s 15 in 1977 or Quarterson’s 14 in 1968, which remain the two best ever single seasons in the Sprint Cars at Mercer. Beaber’s timing was good as he got hot in Quarterson’s former ride just as Quarterson and Blaney were winding down their Sprint Car careers. If Quarterson had an arch rival during his heyday, it was Bill Banick, despite the fact that Banick only ranks fourth on the win list with 24 scores. Banick was a second generation driver, who spent several years running for the same car owner that provided Quarterson with many of his wins. Banick was the track’s most productive winner for a three-year period of 1970-1972 and led Quarterson each year for a three-year total of 17 to 13. Banick’s last win came in 1980, but he is still seen around the tracks and has a son, Bill, Jr. racing in the Stock Car Class today.
Buddy Cochran and Ted Wise were two of the best to ever race Sprint Cars at Mercer, even though their win totals are down the line. Cochran scored a dozen times and Wise just three, as like Blaney, there were years that they ran other area tracks on Saturday night. However, both drivers, who started racing in the ‘50’s, have over 50 Sprint Car wins on their resume along with victories in other classes. Felmlee was one of Mercer’s best in more recent times until an accident at Tri-City in 1999 cut his career short with 17 wins on the Mercer list. Hawley and Smith are two of the leaders today, and with 21 and 20 career wins going into 2001, are poised to move up the ladder to chase Quarterson and Blaney.
The annual “Western PA State Championship” for Sprint Cars was held every year from the sixties into the eighties and brought in many name drivers. Quarterson dominated the big race, which once went 100 laps, for a number of years until some of the full time professional drivers with well backed teams began to take away the glory of the locals. Such nationally known drivers as Bobby Allen, Kenny Weld, Jan Opperman and Lynn Paxton won the race over the years.
Tom Marshall, 1973
While the Sprint Cars have long been considered Mercer’s headline attraction, the Modifieds have never been far behind, whether it be the old coupes raced in the 1960’s or the sophisticated special built sleek bombs of today. Already mentioned is the fact that Blaney and Quarterson top the Modified all time list as well as the Sprint Cars. That is the reason that pair stands head and shoulders above all in Mercer history. Behind the pair in Modifieds is Stoneboro’s Tommy Kristyak, as fierce a competitior as one would ever want to see. Like a large number of Mercer’s better-known drivers, Kristyak came from a racing family. His uncle Mike drove a six-cylinder coupe for Tommy’s father and when he became old enough Tommy was right there with Mike. Starting while still a teenager, Kristyak won a record 45 races in the six-cylinder cars, just a few more than arch rivals Kenny Hardy and Lou Gentile. Some of these races were won during years that Kristyak ran both six-clylinder and V-8 powered Modifieds. He also elected to run the Sportsman Modified class in 1994 when the track was reopened once again, and won eight races in that class. Add them to his 38 Modified wins and his total for the three classes is an impressive 91. Probably no driver in Mercer’s long history brings the reaction from the fans as Tommy Kristyak does. They either love him or hate him. Win, lose or draw, they know there will be action when Kristyak is around.
Buddy Barris, 1974
Some other big names in the Modifieds during the period included Vic George, Tom Marshall, Paul Brown, Yip Robinson, Andy Lutz and Russ Woolsey. George was already a veteran driver when he first came to Mercer in 1969. The Aliquippa heavy equipment operator had raced with the PRA at Pittsburgh’s well known Heidelberg Raceway for many years, but drifted away from driving when the Late Models replaced the old coupes in PRA. However, in 1969 he replaced Russ Woolsey in the Grover Faulk owned #65 and won his first Mercer race. He would go on to win 28 more before finally hanging up the helmet. Before George left, Faulk would also retire and sell the well known #65 to Ohio’s Russ King, who would later add a second more up-to-date car and have George and Woolsey as teammates. King later passed away but his son Rex has more than kept the 65 team alive with 32 career Modified wins, nine of which have come at Mercer. The old #65 was not put out to pasture, it was restored by the King family and makes annual appearances at car shows.
Her Buck and John Braymer, 1976
Tom Marshall was sort of a sleeper. His rather plain black coupe with the white #18 on the side didn’t look all that fast, but he won 15 Mercer races between 1972 and 1976. Today, his son, Tommy Marshall III, keeps the family in racing and already has a Modified win on the circuit this year.
Paul Brown was another excellent Modified driver with 14 wins between 1970 and 1974. Unfortunately he would lose his life in a highway crash years after hanging up the helmet.
Yip Robinson was one of the biggest winners of the 60’s, and the top winner of 1968. However, his last Mercer checkered came in 1974 in a Late Model.
Dave Estman, 70s
Sprint drivers Buddy Cochran and Bill Banick were also active in the Modifieds from time to time with Cochran wining a dozen times and Banick eight, when he topped the class in 1973.
The third class that was part of the Mercer scene from 1964 right through 1982 was the six-cylinder cars. They started out being known as just “Stocks” but eventually evolved into the six-cylinder Modifieds that lasted at Mercer right through the 2000 season. While the Sprint Cars and Modified classes drew drivers and cars from several hours away, the six-cylinder drivers were mostly local. They came from Mercer, Sharon, Grove City and smaller towns in Mercer County. There were a few drivers who came from further away such as Butler and Venango counties, or right across the border in Ohio, but it was a decidedly local field of drivers. The majority of the fans in the grandstand knew one or more of the drivers personally, and that kept interest running high from week to week. There were some heated rivalries and that kept the fans enjoying this class just as much as the more expensive Sprints and Modifieds.
Records for 1964-65 apparently have been lost in time, but from 1966 through 2000, three drivers stand at the head of the list, Tommy Kristyak, Kenny Hardy and Lou Gentile. However, Gentile never won in the class until 1988 and Hardy not until the following year, so all of their wins have come in the modern era at the track. Kristyak, from Jackson Center at the time, won his first race in 1971 and had added 44 more by a decade later. By the time the track closed after the 1982 season, his lead of 45 wins was head and shoulders over the 27 of “Big Ed” Schaffer and 25 scores of Keith Morrow and Andy Lutz.
Gentile, Hardy and Carl Weatherby were the stars of the nineties, but unless the class returns some time in the future, Kristyak will remain the all time winner for the six-cylinder cars with 45 to 43 for Hardy, 40 for Gentile and 33 for Weatherby.
Denny Mellot’s Modified
But those three were really not rivals to Kristyak in the seventies and early eighties. Back then it was Schaffer, Morrow and Lutz, who are now 5th through 7th on the all time list. Another big winner of the period was Mike “Big Daddy” Kristyak, who scored 21 times. He is Tommy’s uncle, with both Kristyaks driving white coupes owned by Tom Kristyak, Tommy’s father, who operated a Sunoco gas station on route 62 in Mercer just a stone’s throw from the race track.. Some other drivers who were regular winners in the 60’s and 70’s in the class were Larry Walters, Gary Martin, Dave Stewart and Skinny Hall. As the eighties arrived, Rodney Beltz and Bob Kirschner were regular winners.
Another Denny Mellott Modified
By the 1970’s the Late Model class had become an important part of western Pennsylvania racing, with Mercer holding special races for the newer bodied cars in 1971, 72 and 73. Bob Wearing, the legendary “Mr. Invitational” of Late Model racing, won four of the of the five races run with rival Dave Hoffman winning the other in 1972. In 1974 Mike Rakoci decided to add the Late Models to the weekly program. It was a chance for Ralph Quarterson to add more wins to his already impressive Mercer record as he secured a ride and won four of the 15 races, with former Sportsman ace Yip Robinson also winning four. Other winners included Dick Gill, Tom Coe, Bootie Petsko, Larry Walters, Mason Heister, Herm Myers and Wearing, who again won the big race for a fifth Mercer victory. The Late Models were only run for one year, as the purse of three top classes was just too much. The class did come back in 1982 for a big All Star Circuit of Champions race won by Ohio driver Jim Dunn. Dunn would go on to bigger things, including a win in the Dirt Track World championship at Pennsboro, WV, but sadly several years later would lose his life in a fiery crash at Puducha, KY.
Denny Mellott mini stock
Denny Mellott Mini Stock
While the Late Models were only run in 1974, track officials wanted a class with later model cars, so the less expensive Semi-late class was added in 1975 and was a weekly part of the program until the track closed after the 1982 season. The addition of the Semi-lates brought a whole new group of drivers to Mercer as is shown in the fact that none of the top five winners in the class during its eight seasons ever won at Mercer in another class. During its eight year run there developed a friece rivalry between the likes of Banker Beach from Evans City, Dave Pegher from Warrendale and Enon Valley’s Paul Rhodes, all of whom lived south of Mercer County. When racing came to a close at the end of 1982 there was almost a virtual tie for top win honors between the three, with Beach having 22 wins to 21 each for his two rivals. Bob McCann was next on the list with 13, with others who won more than five times including Louie Morocco, Lou Gentile, Bootie Petsko, Chuck Kennedy and Frank Chappel, none of whom were Mercer county residents.
Following the addition of the Semi-lates in 1975, another division was added in 1976 when the Mini-stocks were included, making for a five-division program until the end of the 1982 season. The undepowered cars, mostly forgein models, had their own club, the Mercer County Mini-stock Association which made their own rules, lined their cars up, kept their points and distributed the purse to the drivers. There are a couple of missing results from the class, but records show at least 22 drivers won in the class during its seven year run at the track. Top winner by far was Joe Stewart with at least 26 victories with Steve Kovachik a solid second with 19 scores. Others who were regular winners included Bill Jones, Gary Bollinger, Virgil Wagner, Moon Mullholland and Jim Hinds. When the track closed after 1982, the class pretty much died with most of the drivers drifting away from the sport. A few did move up to other classes before or after that time including Bollinger (still a weekly driver at Mercer), Chuck Adams, Bob Kirschner, Barry Beltz and Ron Houk. There were a couple of interesting winners in the Mini-stock class at Mercer in Mike Beck and Greg Wheeling. Beck won in 1977 and would later be the track announcer at Sharon Speedway, while Wheeling, son of Sprint Car driver Bill Wheeling, would become one of the area’s best know flagmen, currently waving the silks at Tri-City and Pittsburgh’s PA Motor Speedway.
After the 1982 season Mercer Raceway moved into the darkest period of its history. There were several attempts to reopen the once popular speedway, but with the exception of 1989, when Vern Hawley ran the track, they only amounted to a handful of races or less. Hawley elected not to renew his lease in 1990 and the track remained dark until 1994.