When Ivan Jerome asked if I could attend the Tri-State Racing Reunion, I saw nothing in the way on my schedule, and said yes.
Ivan has done a terrific job of researching and documenting racing history in the greater Evansville, Ind., area, and folks there are rightfully proud of their unique heritage.
I love these kinds of gatherings, so I saw the trip south to converse with a few racing legends as an opportunity to learn a thing or two.
There are lots of places just like this. They’re locales that have a rich story to tell, but just outside of the spotlight. As Tri-State Speedway owner Tom Helfrich remarked to me, his track, and this region, is “outside of the Indianapolis bubble” and as a result garners less attention than it deserves.
People in the inner circle of the sport would never shortchange those who made their mark at his track, and those that came before. Nonetheless, Tom is probably right.
It’s an odd time. The slow death of the American newspaper is obvious, racing trade publications are much rarer, and it is increasingly hard to find truly local radio programming. He has good things going on, but the channels one uses to communicate your message have changed dramatically over time.
Then came the real shock. Ivan sent me an email saying that the event was sold out, and 250 people would be on hand. I did a double take. 250 people were going to gather to celebrate racing in their region.
Best of all, it didn’t matter if you were a current or former racer, or had raced a sprint car, or a go kart. If you were a racer, or a fan, you were welcome.
Long-time announcer Alan Beck was the master of ceremonies and, while he rightfully gave an extra call to some of the real veterans, men such as Don Nordhorn and Wes Stafford, everyone was treated the same. That’s the way it is supposed to be, and it is a spirit we must keep alive.
Before the event, I took a side trip to Mt. Carmel, Illinois to visit the grave of 1951 and 1952 Central States Racing Association’s Sid Bufkin. Sid’s career, like many of his peers, took off after a hitch in the Navy.
He was one of the brave souls who raced for the cantankerous Ennis “Dizz” Wilson, but his life was cut short during an unsanctioned race at the end of the 1952 season on the high banks of Ft. Wayne.
I had a cemetery name and a plot number. After wandering around on a blustery day, I gave up and finally made a call. A caretaker found me, went and secured a map, and pointed the plot out.
It was a modest stone that simply said Husband. Robert Leo Bufkin. “Sid.” 1926-1952. He had just 26 short years with us. However, in that short time frame, he made his mark on the sport.
It is always a sobering moment to think about what happened in Oct. 19, 1952. As near as I can piece it together, his wife Grace would have been around 22 years old, and the couple had a daughter, Kathy, who was born in 1951.
Grace remarried and lived until 2010 and, sadly, their daughter died just one year later as a relatively young woman. Kathy didn’t know her father, and Grace was a widow in her early 20’s. Shattered lives had to be rebuilt.
I stood there thinking about what was, and what could have been. Meanwhile, I could tell the caretaker was curious about my search.
“Are you from around here?” he asked.
“No, I’m from north of Indianapolis,” I said.
I could tell he wanted more. I pointed at the stone and said, “This man was a champion race driver, and I came by to pay my respects.”
“He was?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, he was.”
Later that evening, I met people who not only knew Sid Bufkin, but had raced against him. I listened, mouth undoubtedly ajar, when former driver Jack Caniff offered, “He was a great guy.”
Another attendee, I think it was Wes Stafford, talked about Sid’s first race car. It was an unusual piece. To me, Bufkin was a picture on the cover of a couple of cherished racing programs or an image in racing history books. To Jack and Wes, he was a living, breathing, human being. He was a part of their personal biography.
So, we know from what others have offered that he was a great guy, a great racer, a husband, and a father. He had a story, just like many in the room. These stories need to be written down and preserved before they are lost.
Ken Schrader was on hand for this event, and he did his normal remarkable job of connecting with others. Ken has won on the biggest stages in the sport, he has won championships, and he never has seemed to have lost his way despite that.
He talked about people like Butch Wilkerson and Wes Stafford as people he looked up to, and even suggested that they were the heroes in the room. In this crowd he was probably correct. Yet, by just being there, Schrader was a hero too.
In the end, this was a family affair. The larger issue is this. If we can’t get the recognition we feel we deserve as a sport, no one is going to bail us out. It is up to us.
Tom Helfrich talked with me about the lean years at his race track, and how former Bloomington Speedway promoter Mike Miles was indispensable to him when he needed someone to lean on.
Who do we have to lean on?
It really is pretty simple. Each other.
Those 250 people in that room are among the most vital assets this region has. The Gentry family will never get the kind of recognition that comes to drivers like A.J. Foyt, or Steve Kinser, or Dave Darland. Yet, in this place, for sustained involvement for decades, they are equally important.
They are part of this family, and it is this family that will keep racing vibrant at Tri-State Speedway.
What Ivan Jerome did was remind everyone that a foundation was established that allows us to enjoy, and appreciate, the artistry of a driver like Kyle Cummins today.
What we hope is that at some point, say two decades in the future, another 250 people will gather and talk about the 2019 season when Cummins was unstoppable.
What I also hope is that there is also room for Sid Bufkin, Don Nordhorn, Jack Caniff, Wes Stafford, Gene Aldridge and those who came before. I would like to think that someday, if you wandered into Highland Memorial Cemetery in Mt. Carmel, Ill., and asked where one can find Sid Bufkin’s resting place, someone will say, he’s right this way.
We probably will never get there, but the indefatigable Ivan Jerome is going to do his best to make sure that the people and places that contributed to the fabric of the racing legacy of the greater Evansville area will not be forgotten.
That’s respecting our heritage. That’s promoting the sport.