By Doc Lehman (Dirt American)
N.E. “Pete” Jacobs was a man who loved racing. And his passion for dirt track racing was so great, and so heartfelt, that his passion lives on today through his grandsons and great-grandsons as well as a piece of real estate known as Wayne County Speedway. Pete Jacobs was the man who first conceptualized a racetrack on some farmland he owned south of Orrville, OH. Within months of his decision to pursue building a dirt track Jacobs and original track officers Wellman Lehman, Myron Werntz and Gary Bossler opened the doors to Wayne County Speedway on June 26, 1965.
Over the years Pete developed a real thirst for racing and began attending races frequently. He became a big Dean Mast fan and began following the open wheel ace, one of the Buckeye state’s best drivers. He eventually purchased a racecar and hired Mast as his driver. When son Ken got out of the Army and began attending races he soon started pestering Pete to let him drive. Pete didn’t want any part of his son racing, so he declined.
Eventually, in 1961, Ken decided he was going racing one way or another and began looking for a racecar to buy. He found one owned by Myron Werntz. For Christmas that year, Ken’s wife, Marriann, bought it for him.
Pete, ever the perfectionist, didn’t think Ken’s car was safe enough, and within time relented and put Ken in his car. The father-son team began running at tracks like Holmes Hilltop, Mansfield and others.
Back then purses were paid based on the front gate. Time and again the promoter at a certain track cheated the drivers until Pete couldn’t take it anymore. One night Pete confronted the chintzy promoter and told him next year there would be a racetrack in Wayne County that took care of the drivers, played fair and was honest. In speaking with several drivers that evening, including Myron Harris, Dale Tope, Ken Jacobs and others, when they offered to support the track as drivers and stockholders, Pete went forward.
That was late summer 1964. In late fall 1964 (Pete & Harve) Jacobs, Lehman, Werntz and Bossler came together as track officers to form a corporation for the track. Using 23 acres of his own land across the road from his home, Jacobs soon had his two sons onboard, Harve and Ken as investors (stockholders) in addition to Bob Auten, Clyde Shoup, Stanley Huffman, Glenn Davisson, Dale Tope, John Malcuit, Bob Condo, Rich Falk and a number of others.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, May 1,1965, Orrville Mayor Nelson Douglas led a contingent of dignitaries and enthusiastically leaned on a shovel and tossed high the first spade of earth, marking the beginning of construction of Wayne County Speedway, Inc.
Witnessing the ceremony were original board of director members Pete Jacobs, President; Harve Jacobs, Vice-President; Wellman Lehman, Treasurer; and Gary Bossler, Secretary. Opening night was June 26,1965, and the nearly 3,000 seats were packed as fans enthusiastically watched the ‘supermodifieds’ that would eventually evolve into Sprint Cars. The huge crowd prompted Pete to announce that additional grandstands would be constructed as soon as possible.
Earning the distinction of winning the first race was Eph Davis, who won the first heat and established the first track record at 21.36 in his open wheel modified sprint. The first feature event went to Myron Harris over Ken Jacobs, Eph Davis, Joe Carny, Dick Plew, Pee Wee Venables and Tom Ute.
The track experienced tremendous growth right out of the chute, both in fan and car counts. Some of the region’s biggest open wheel drivers descended on the track throughout its first season, including Dean Alexander, Royal Freed, Woody Holland, Dick Byerly, Pete Bonewit, Chuck Adams, Leroy Kendall, Jim Renner and Ed McClure. Jim Steurer claimed the first season championship.
In 1966 Pete and the board began experimenting with running two nights a week. On Saturday nights they would run open wheel cars and on Sunday nights full bodied (Late Models) cars. They continued this practice for four years.
In the spring of 1970 Pete began experiencing declining health. On June 2 Pete passed away in Orrville. He was 67 years old. He was buried at Crown Hill Cemetary in Orrville with many, many members of the racing community in attendance.
Pete had nearly six years to nurture and establish his track the way he wanted a racetrack to operate. Although the bulk of the business and management was left up to Harve Jacobs, Wellman Lehman and the board of directors, Pete had a vision and a concept that he lived to see realized.
Pete was a perfectionist and a detail oriented man. He was professional but had the proverbial heart of gold. One former track official told this writer that if Pete had his way, he would have let everyone in free.
Two years later, Pete’s wife, Viola “Babe” Jacobs, passed away.
The end of an era and the beginning of a new one came with Pete’s passing. The management reins were picked up by Harve and later the following year by Wellman Lehman who purchased additional stock and became president and promoter. The board of directors added new members during the 1970’s including Rich Falk, Bill Condo, Clyde Shoup, Dale Tope and John Malcuit and others.
A year after Pete’s passing the track hosted the PETE JACOBS MEMORIAL TWIN INVITATIONAL in honor of the track’s founder. This was the biggest race the track ever hosted up to that point and it offered the then unheard of (for 1971 standards) purse of $5,000 going to each of the co-headliners, Sprints & Late Models. Harold McGilton won the 50-lap Sprint Car feature while Bob Cannon took the Late Model event. Most of the Midwest’s top racers competed in the special event before a record crowd. It was a fitting tribute to the founder of the track by the fans, employees & drivers.
By 1966 Late Models were added and the first track champion for that division (that went under a couple different names until 1970) was Bob Miller of Akron, OH. As the 1960’s wore on drivers like Jim Case, Bob Cowen, Jim Woods, Don Hartline, John Middaugh. Jim Bolyard, Jim Gentry, Blaine Aber, Sam Stockton, Leo Doyle, Pee Wee Venables, Dale Tope, Sonny Werntz, De Genzman, Harold Snyder and others dominated Late Model racing at WCS.
Once the 1970’s arrived WCS took a more active role in booking bigger shows, including the original All Star Circuit of Champions, USAC and Lehman’s All Star Super Sprints. As the weekly shows grew Late Models quickly became the dominant class by the mid-70’s and in addition to large weekly fields a handful of higher paying ‘invitationals’ were staged each year including the crowd-packing Buckeye Classic which started in 1969 with Pat Patrick winning the inaugural race. The Buckeye Classic ran through 1983 when it was renamed the Buckeye Nationals.
During the early 1970’s Late Models took front and center stage once and for all and dominating drivers included Bob Cowen, Lloyd Wirt, John ‘Doc’ Simmons, Tom Jarrett, Bob Cannon, Ken Jacobs, Dave Haven, Danny Dean, Harold Snell, Jack Ashbrook, Jim Gentry, Blaine Aber, Woody Holland, Eph Davis, Dave Yobe, Jim Fleming, Don Goff, Roger Reuer, Wimpy Yarmen, Dave Benner and Dean Alexander who moved to Late Models exclusively after a couple seasons racing both Late Models and Sprints. Once the mid and late 70’s arrived new careers were in full swing with drivers like a young John Mason scoring the 1975 championship followed by drivers like Brad Malcuit, Ron Davis, and other competitors made WCS home, including frequent visits and wins from Pennyslvania’s Dave Hoffman, Bob Burris, Tom Durig, Tom Pattin, Ron Hartong and others.
As the 1970’s began to draw to a close veteran and newcomers who raced at WCS included Danny Gardner, Keith Berner, Frank Buccella, Bob Eicholtz, Jim Cushing, Dave Wirt, Denny Mullens, Jerry Moore, Mike Mizer, Bob Moskey, Denny Lorienz, Terry Tackas and others.
During the latter part of the 1970’s when the M.O.S.S. Sprint & Late Model series was formed Lehman booked several shows. When that organization dissolved two original M.O.S.S. owners, Bert Emick and Jerry Clum, reformed with original All Star Circuit of Champions owner Bud Miller using the ASCoC name in 1980 and bringing on investors and board members Wellman Lehman, Earl Baltes and Jean Lynch, Lehman booked both ASCoC Late Model and Sprint races.
During the inaugural season for the ASCoC Late Models in 1980 the very first race for the new organization was held at Wayne County Speedway on May 25 with Rodney Combs taking the series’ inaugural win. Four additional ASCoC Late Model races were held at WCS throughout the ’80 season with Delmas Conley and Danny Dean each winning one while Charlie Swartz won twice. WCS booked ASCoC shows for many years afterwards.
Even though WCS held many high-dollar Sprint Car events during the 1960’s & 1970’s, eventually, during the very early 70’s, the track began bringing in various sanctioning groups like USAC and Bud Miller’s original All Star Circuit of Champions. These events always brought in the country’s best open wheelers like Jan Opperman, Kenny Weld, Dub May, Lou Blaney, Steve Smith and many others. When the original ASCoC disbanded Wellman Lehman started up the All Star Super Sprint sanction in cooperation with a number of promoters. The series ran full-force from 1975-1977 as a touring series and ran each season at WCS. Rick Ferkel, Harold McGilton, Jim Darley, Don Hewitt and a host of other star Sprint Car drivers participated at WCS in these events which also saw appearances by very young drivers like Tim Richmond, Charlie Swartz, Sammy Swindell, Kenny Jacobs, Ed Haudenschild, Jac Haudenschild and others.
In 1984 when Carl Short, Frank Plessinger and Satch Worley formed STARS Lehman immediately booked two shows with the first STARS WCS race going to Ray Godsey on August 10, 1984 and Skip Furlow nipping Jim Gentry by inches at the checkers for the second STARS appearance during the inaugural year on October 6, 1984. Throughout the 1980’s and well into the 1990’s WCS hosted a multitude of STARS races. So many that for many years it was known as ‘The Home of the STARS’ until Hagerstown took that distinction.
During the early and mid-80’s besides a strong field of weekly cars, Donnie Moran, Mike Balzano, John Mason, Jack Hewitt and many other ‘touring’ drivers made regular stops at WCS as sanctioned events weren’t as prevalent in those days. In 1988 Moran was on a four-race win streak and a $500 bounty was put up and it took two weeks before John Mason could claim it.
In 1985 Don Gross assumed the management reins after Lehman retired and with them purchasing a large block of stock. With son Rick Gross initially at the helm WCS was renamed Buckeye Speedway. It wasn’t until 1998 when then-owner Harold Detillian changed the name back to Wayne County Speedway.
But the 1980’s, although marked by some slim and lean times for dirt Late Model racing, flourished at WCS with a strong field of regulars throughout the decade including Jim Gentry (who later went on the road with STARS for several years), Dean Alexander, Blaine Aber, Keith Berner, Tye Long, Brad Malcuit, Denny Denman, Mike Mizer, Dave Wirt, Ben Hess, Dave Ledford, Mark Banal, Don Gross, Jack Walker, Keith Altiers, Alan Chance, George Delaney, Mike Chance, Dave Mumaw, Dan Stotts, Roy Sheets, Andy Genzman, Ron Stuart, John Sauber, Allan Baker, Gary Hensel, Mark Uhler and Gary Dreibelbis to name a few.
In 1983 Sprint Cars returned to the weekly show at WCS and winning the championship that year Bud Jacobs. The Sprint Cars remained a weekly component at WCS through the 2003 season. During the time the Sprint Cars returned in the 1980’s drivers like Mike Latsch, Rusty McClure, Ed Hausenschild, George Prosser, Neven Root, Rick Preston, Gary Griffith and a host of others raced weekly at WCS.
As the 1990’s dawned Dean Jacobs spent a season or two and won a championship and the careers of Chad Kemenah and Rob Chaney started and both, among others, had considerable success at WCS. Others who raced Sprints during this period included Rodney Duncan, Todd Kane, Duffy Smith, Doug Stanley, Paul Weaver, J.B. Scarbrough, Nick Mulheim, Matt Lamborn, Garrett Jacobs, Ray Miller, Jac Neville, Lee Jacobs and many, many others through the 2003 season.
During the 1980’s the crowds at WCS remained healthy and strong. The track became an integral part of the Racing On Dirt TV show that was produced and broadcast locally and supported Bret Emrick’s radio show broadcast from WNCO in Ashland.
Several major events were staged at WCS during the 80’s. One included a night filled with NASCAR drivers. Back in the 1970’s Wellman Lehman often brought in such NASCAR heroes as David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Tiny Lund and others to compete with the WCS regulars. In July 1987 WCS hosted a Dirt-ROC event that put such luminaries as Cale Yarborough, Rusty Wallace, Davey Allison, Lake Speed, Michael Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Joe Ruttman and Rodney Combs in Late Models in conjunction with a STARS show. A huge crowd attended with Yarborough winning the heat and pursuit. With Yarborough dominating the feature in Dave Ledford’s Late Model, Bodine cut down his left rear (“Cale didn’t need to sweep all the races,” quipped Bodine) with Wallace taking the win in Don Gross’ car. During the STARS program Larry Moore took the checkers.
Another memorable STARS race in 1987 was the annual Buckeye Nationals, formerly known as the Buckeye Classic. In that race all the top Late Model stars were on hand as Mike Balzano captured his career first STARS win in a 100-lap race that went non-stop from green to checker.
The following year a record-breaking crowd attended the July 2 races at WCS when the STARS Late Models were on hand along with the first-ever STARS Sprint Car race. Fans flowed into the facility at such a rate that announcer Bret Emrick had to implore fans to make room for others as ticket buyers were eventually told that it was SRO and they would likely have to stand. Bob Wearing, Sr., took the STARS Late Model win with Kenny Jacobs taking the inaugural STARS Sprint win.
During the 80’s WCS also became involved in other special Late Model promotions such as the STARS-Hardees Late Model Speedweek and as part of the STARS Triple Challenge Series with Skyline and Pennsboro speedways and for a period of time WCS and Muskingum County Speedway joined forces for a dual points fund.
As the 1990’s dawned the regulars at WCS pretty much remained the same but many new drivers during that decade began their careers and met with success including second generation racers Matt Bee Aber, Chet Alexander, Ryan Markham, J.R. Gentry, Doug Drown, Justin Chance, Bryan Durig, Eric Eicholtz as well as racers like Charlie Duncan, Mark Osburn, Rick Bond, Wayne Maffett, Jr., Dave Berkey, Dave Hornikel, Eric Myers, Randy Scott, Clint Coffman, Mark Gardiner, Jason Flory, Kristin Flory, Thomas Baker and George Lee.
It was also during the 1990’s that the Gross family (and other stockholders) sold their stock to Harold Detillian in 1995 who became the sole owner. But what happened next stunned Late Model fans. Detillian dropped the Late Models! As a fan of Sprint Cars Detillian made the 410 Sprints the headlining class in an effort to, “Make Wayne County the Williams Grove of the west,” as he stated. It was for naught as Sprint car counts dropped during the first year and even more in 1996, so much so that Detillian was forced to dropped the 410’s altogether and bring in 360 Sprints.
Along with dropping Late Models Detillian also dropped a huge fan count. The fans wouldn’t come out in force without Late Models and by 1997 Detillian had no choice but to bring them back if he wanted to remain in operation. Flagman Ed Fredericks also took over the promoter’s reins in 1997 and met with some success but Fredericks was unable to reach an agreement with Detillian beyond that season. Early in 1999 Detillian sold the track and it went through two separate ownerships until being sold to businessman and former Lakeville Speedway track owner Ernie Coffman and his family in early 2004.
With the 2005 racing season fans, drivers and sponsors now have a renewed sense of confidence and a positive outlook for the future with the Coffman family now in ownership roles. Former track owners and long time team owners, Coffman and staff have made a concerted commitment to take WCS into the new millennium and to provide Saturday night dirt track racing for several more generations to come.