For nearly three decades, it’s been an offseason gathering spot for area auto racing enthusiasts to swap stories, pay tribute to their heroes and look ahead to the upcoming season.
The 29th annual Ozarks Area Racers Reunion, featuring induction of eight new members into the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation Hall of Fame on Saturday night, returns to the Springfield Expo Center downtown.
Held in conjunction with the Hot Rod Holiday Car Show, which opens on Friday, the Racers Reunion will include displays of historical articles and pictures along with race cars from the past and present.
“Our mission is to preserve and celebrate the history of racing in the Ozarks,” said Lynn Sanders, President of the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation.
“It’s something that the fans look forward to and has always been centered on saying ‘thank you’ to he drivers and those who helped them race, from the past,” Sanders added.
The race cars, photos and articles will be open throughout the Hot Rod Show, Friday-through-Sunday. A silent auction of racing memorabilia and a meet-and-greet of the Hall of Famers, new and old, will precede the 6 p.m. induction ceremony.
This year’s induction class includes four in the “legends” category for excellence as drivers – Hank Allison, brothers Jerry Kelley and James Kelley Jr., and Ed Potts. The four “pioneers” for behind-the-scenes contributions are Mel Kluhsman, Lyndal Scranton, Chester Smittle and Ray Speak.
The Ozarks Area Racers Foundation is a non-profit organization. Sanders said any proceeds from the event will go toward area charities.
This year’s induction class will bring the Hal of Fame total to approximately 232. Names of the Hall of Famers are inscribed on a granite monument at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds’ old pit road entrance to that was the race track.
Here’s a look at this year’s Hall of Famers:
Hank Allison: A native of El Dorado Springs, racing became Allison’s passion after the Nevada Speedway opened in 1963. Allison was a hard charger who liked to run on the high side of the track, earning him the nickname “High Henry.” While never suffering any racing injuries, Allison retired from racing in the mid-1970s after a severe motorcycle accident.
Jerry Kelley: Coming from a racing family out of Walnut Grove, Jerry Kelley started racing in 1979 and won the sportsman championship at Bolivar the next year and another title in that class in 1982. But he was probably best known for his modified racing, where he competed in the IMCA division. He and brother James Kelley Jr., join their dad, James Kelley Sr., in the Hall.
James Kelley Jr.: Starting his racing career a couple of years before Jerry, James ran mostly modifieds in the IMCA division. Determined to beat Dale Roper one night, despite a bad back causing him to be lifted into the car by his crew, Kelley drove too hard into a turn, spun and hit the wall backward. He tells the story that the impact crushed the car, but fixed his back.
Ed Potts: The Joplin native had a career that spanned nearly four decades, with his first points championship in 1967 at Ozark Speedway and his last in 1997 at Joplin Speedway. One of his highlights was a weekend sweep, winning on three onsecutive nights. Now 72, Potts stays busy working on micro sprints driven by 17-year-old granddaughter, Michaela Jewsbury.
Mel Kluhsman: Making cars go fast is the Lockwood native’s claim to fame. While he won races as a teen-ager, Kluhsman earned an engineering degree from Pittsburg State University in 1983, eventually opening Kluhsman Racing Components. It grew into a 29,000 square foot facility, supplying parts and equipment to racers all over the nation. His company has been a sponsor for several drivers and racing organizations including the Lucas Oil MLRA.
Lyndal Scranton: Unlike the other inductees, Scranton has never driven a race car or turned a wrench. He has written thousands of stories about area racing over the last 31 years, having recently taken early retirement from the Springfield News-Leader, where he was motorsports reporter starting in 1984. Scranton continues to publicize racing after being recently joining Lucas Oil Speedway as Public Relations Director.
Ray Speak: Speak, 81, developed a passion for racing as a kid, attending the races at the old Springfield Fairgrounds where he got a job selling peanuts and helping park cars. He began building engines at 15 and later build Hall of Famer Dean Roper’s first race car and motor and helped a myriad of other area racers find success with his work and friendship.
Chester Smittle: Smittle, who turns 88 on Dec. 27, made his mark behind the scenes as a racing judge for more than 30 years. It became a family passion as Chester taught his wife of 62 years, Merna, and the couple’s three children how to judge races. Merna was alongside for much of his career, assisting Chester.