There are many big Super Late Model races in the State of Florida, but none carry the prestige of the annual Florida Governor’s Cup race which has been run at New Smyrna Speedway since 1988. The Governor’s Cup continues to be the premier race of the Central Florida racing season drawing top teams from throughout Florida and the United States.
To understand how all this came about, you have to go back over 50 years ago. When Frank Dery, Jr. opened Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa in 1961, he began lobbying NASCAR for a Grand National (now Sprint Cup) race at the 1/3 mile track. NASCAR ran 50-60 races a year back then, most of them on short tracks. Dery received his wish on November 11th, 1962 as NASCAR’s premiere division contested a 200 lap race on a cool, clear Sunday afternoon. The race was actually the second race of the 1963 GN season. This was back in the time where NASCAR began their new season with several races actually being held in the previous year during November-December, including the Riverside (CA) 500.
The race at Golden Gate Speedway would be just one of the 200 wins Richard Petty would earn over his illustrious career. Petty led 158 of the 200 laps in his 1962 Plymouth to take the win over Petty Enterprises teammate Jim Paschal. Joe Weatherly, Jimmy Pardue and Tommy Irwin (driving for the Wood Brothers) rounded out the top five while Richard’s brother Maurice Petty was sixth in one of his few career attempts at driving. Rex White won the pole and led 41 laps but faded to a 13th place finish. Ned Jarrett broke a rear end and did not finish while Fireball Roberts crashed and brought out just one of two caution flags on the day. The entire race was run in just one hour and ten minutes.
Only two locals were in the race. A very young Buzzie Reutimann drove a 1960 Chevy to a tenth place finish in his only career Grand National start while Orlando’s Stan Parker dropped out early in his 1960 Dodge. Although the race was a huge success, drawing a crowd of 6,000 people, NASCAR opted not to return the following year. Feeling slighted and not really thrilled with the race that NASCAR provided for him, Dery figured he could do better on his own and decided to close out his 1963 season with a 200 lap race for the local Late Models, an unprecedented move at the time for a class that was becoming more popular by the minute among race fans.
The first race drew a stellar field and consisted not only of the local Tampa Bay area drivers but drivers from around the state and a few from out of state. At the time in Florida there were three hotbeds of LM racing: The West Coast circuit including Tampa (Golden Gate), St. Petersburg (Sunshine Speedway) and Sarasota-Bradenton (Saramana Speedway) – the Central Florida Circuit including Orlando Raceway, Eau Gallie Speedway and two tracks in the Ft. Pierce area – and the South Florida circuit consisting of Hialeah Speedway, Palm Beach Fairgrounds Speedway and Hollywood Speedway. Naturally the $2500 first prize attracted a who’s who of Late Model racers but when the dust settled it was local hot shoe Dave McInnis of Largo who took the win in his home-built 1955 Chevrolet followed by brothers Wayne and Buzzie Reutimann. The only out of town driver to crack the top ten was Paul Connors of West Palm Beach who finished sixth.
The word was out though, a great race track in Florida running a big race for a great purse. The 1964 event drew an incredible field of cars from all over the Southeast and the race got its first out-of-state winner in Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Freddy Fryar who topped McInnis and St. Pete’s Benny Moore. Bob Burcham of Georgia and Joe Lee Johnson of Tennessee also scored top ten finishes.
In 1965, Dery and his announcer/public relations man Gordon Solie (of Championship Wrestling from Florida fame) convinced Florida Governor Hayden Burns to commission the Florida Governors Cup race to be held at Golden Gate Speedway in November each year. Burns, who was a race fan, had no problem with the request and the rest is history. Dery commissioned a special Governors Cup trophy to be built. The Governors Cup would not be awarded directly to the winner though. The drivers name would be added to the trophy each year and it would be on display at the track. The winning driver would then be awarded a special plaque or trophy to commemorate his win.
The Cup itself became a tribute to the late Al Keller. Keller migrated from White Plains, NY to Tampa, FL in 1948 where he struck up a friendship with Frank Dery, Jr. Keller became a partner with Dery in the speed equipment business and also drove Dery’s Modified race cars at Tampa tracks Plant Field, Speedway Park and Phillips Field as well as many other tracks throughout Florida. Keller lost his life in a USAC Champ Car crash at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in 1961.
The first race for the Governor’s Cup in 1965 would be a barn-burner and would involve one of the greatest legends in Stock Car Racing before he became an established star in NASCAR. Bobby Allison had run a NASCAR Sportsman point race in Georgia on Saturday and missed qualifying (always held on the Saturday afternoon before the race). Allison started dead last in his 25 lap qualifying heat and amazingly won it, earning the 22nd starting position (the top 20 were always locked in from Saturday time trials).
Young Golden Gate Speedway standout Wayne Reutimann in his familiar #00jr. grabbed the lead early in the race while Allison methodically drove his 1956 Chevy #312 toward the front of the field. Allison caught Reutimann with about 75 laps to go and the two raced side by side the rest of the way, Reutimann on the inside, Allison on the outside, with Reutimann winning the race by a fender at the checker with his brother Buzzie Reutimann cheering him on right next to the start/finish line. “Usually I don’t remember much about races that I didn’t win, but that one stands out”, said Allison. “Wayne drove me as clean as could be and I probably never had so much fun losing a race”, he said. Both Wayne Reutimann and his brother Buzzie would go on to storied careers in the sport although their paths were much different with Buzzie winning countless Modified races and championships in the Northeast U. S. while Wayne stayed close to home becoming a school teacher and racing locally although he did score a win in one of the biggest asphalt Sprint Car races held annually, the Little 500 in Anderson, IN in 1979.
Anyhow, a tradition had now been born and the 1966 event attracted a field of well over 100 cars. Bobby Brack would become the first South Florida driver to win the race that year while 1967 would see East Coast veteran Dumont Smith take a last-minute ride to a race victory for long-time car owner Bud Jenkins. Smith not only got his championship plaque and his name on the Cup, but also won a brand-new TV set. Young Gary Balough would make it another South Florida victory in 1968 giving legendary car owner Marty Handshaw his only Governor’s Cup win while Robert Hamke would make it three in a row for the South Florida
contingent driving a car he and his father built to victory in 1969 starting his legendary career as both a driver and race-car builder.
Columbus, Ohio’s Don Gregory in the popular Jegs-sponsored car was a fixture at nearly all the the Governor’s Cup races during the early years and he would pick up his only win in 1970. The 1971 race would see a driver from the Tampa area finally back in victory lane as local legend Jack Arnold paced the field all 200 laps. The win was somewhat odd for Arnold as he was a staunch Ford man, but drove a Chevrolet Chevelle to the win on that day. Also in the field that day was a weird-looking, weird-sounding green Chevelle out of Michigan being driven by a guy named Ed Howe. Although he didn’t finish, the car turned some heads especially with its 180 degree headers that made it sound more like an Indy car than a Late Model. In the coming years, everyone would find out just who Ed Howe was, not just as a top-notch driver but as a car builder that would change the face of Late Model racing throughout the United States.
Howe would taste victory in the Governors Cup for the first time in 1972 and begin to build his legend. Wayne Reutimann became the first two-time winner in 1973 driving for veteran Orlando car owner Lewis Green. Then it was time for Ed Howe to dominate the scene with victories in 1974, 75, and 76 giving him an incredible four wins in five years over absolutely stellar fields of cars. The cars he won in were usually not his own personal cars, but cars he built for other drivers then borrowed come time to race in Florida. He won one of the races in a car that had been campaigned by Mike Eddy and another in the famous Bluebird that had been driven during the year by Bob Senneker. Had he not retired from driving to concentrate on building race cars, there’s no telling how many Governor’s Cups Ed Howe might have won. As of now, Howe is the only driver to win the Governor’s Cup race four times and one of only two, the other being Bobby Gill, to win the event three years in a row. In 2014 Augie Grill has a chance to duplicate the feat of both Howe and Gill.
The 1976 race also produced probably the scariest moment of any Governor’s Cup race at Golden Gate Speedway. 1969 winner Robert Hamke and Mark Malcuit tangled coming off turn four and Hamke’s car sailed into the air taking down the catch fence and hit the flag stand. Veteran flagman Johnny Hicks was knocked out cold, but came to after a few tense moments and refused to leave his perch after repairs were made even though he was in obvious pain.
Hamke brought the same car back to compete with in 1977 but things didn’t look like they were going to be much better than the previous year. After qualifying for the show on Saturday, Hamke was practicing during the late morning on Sunday when something broke and his machine sailed off turn three into the dirt piles about 100 yards off the track. Undaunted, his crew made repairs and he was able to start the race. In what most consider the biggest upset ever in the Florida Governors Cup, Hamke drove his home-built Chevy Nova wrenched by Tommy Sytsma around both Bob Senneker and Ed Howe’s brand-new Camaros to score an incredible win. Hamke received a standing ovation from the crowd while Howe and Senneker were left shaking their heads. Both Hamke and Howe retired from driving soon after but continued to compete, not as drivers, but as car builders. Many of the cars in this year’s race will be Hamke-built machines.
1978 would be the final Governors Cup, at least for awhile, at storied Golden Gate Speedway and who else to take the win but probably the most well-known short track Late Model racer of all time, Wisconsin’s Dick Trickle. Dick Anderson looked to have a shot at the win that day, but his turn would come a few years down the road.
Noise problems forced by politicians trying to make a name for themselves caused Golden Gate to close temporarily in 1979 but Frank Dery allowed the race to continue at the track across the bay, Sunshine Speedway in St. Petersburg. Big Jim Fenton, also known as “Freight Train,” would take yet another backyard special to the win over the big names that day, including Trickle. By the way, this race was the only Governor’s Cup to be broadcast live on radio stations throughout the State of Florida.
Continuing problems with the politicians kept Golden Gate Speedway closed and no race was held in 1980. After some conditions were met, the track re-opened in 1981. Dery wanted nothing to do with running the track himself anymore, so he leased the facility to veteran promoter Don Nerone. The traditional Saturday-Sunday format was no more as the noise laws now forbid racing on Sunday, so Nerone opted for a one-night event held on Friday.
The cars and stars were back and yet another short track legend raced his way to Governor’s Cup fame as Mike Eddy posted the win over Howe and Trickle while track LM champ Leroy Porter was fourth over veteran Largo, FL driver Dave Scarbrough. Local drivers would take the next two Cup wins as Jimmy Cope got his name on the trophy in 1982 while Porter would take a popular win in 1983 over a field which included most of the top names of Late Model short track racing. Eddy, Mark Malcuit, Denny Nyari, Dave Weltmeyer and the Zero Hero Tom Jones all had a top ten finishes in this race.
Unfortunately, the 1983 race would bring a sad end to Golden Gate Speedway. Continuing noise issues, politicians with personal agendas and the upcoming expansion of I-75 south from Ocala finally put an end to the great short track facility. You can still visit the track and feel the vibes today by stopping at the Big Top Flea Market on Fowler Ave. in Tampa just west of the I-75 interchange. This is the spot where the famed race track once stood and a yearly “reunion” is held there.
From 1984-87, the Cup itself was not contested for although a “Florida State Championship” (Formerly known as the Gulf Coast Classic) was run at Sunshine Speedway in St. Petersburg. Another Late Model racing legend, Butch Miller, won all four of those races but his name does not appear on the Governor’s Cup trophy.
In 1988, Clyde Hart approached Dery about resurrecting the race at his wildly popular high-banked half-mile track, New Smyrna Speedway, that attracted a who’s who of racers each February for the annual World Series. Why not run the Governor’s Cup race at New Smyrna every November and bring the tradition back alive? Dery had no problem with the idea and the Al Keller Memorial trophy has had a home ever since at New Smyrna.
This race has one thing that the others don’t: tradition. Tradition that can be traced back to 1962 when most current tracks in the State of Florida were just pasture or orange groves. Clyde Hart embraced tradition and the New Smyrna track has become the home of other big events that were contested at tracks that are now defunct like the Marion Edwards, Jr. Memorial (Hialeah) and Orange Blossom 100 (Palm Beach) along with races honoring legendary drivers like Richie Evans and Pete Orr. Clyde Hart truly cared about the racers and fans and made sure they would have a venue to enjoy the sport that he himself loved so much. It was said that “if there is one car in the pits and one fan in the stands” Hart would hold a race.
So, on Sunday afternoon, November 6, 1988, the Florida Governor’s Cup was contested for again, now at New Smyrna Speedway. Local favorite David Rogers of Orlando, who has more laps around and more championship to his credit than anyone else at New Smyrna, set fast time on Saturday afternoon but it was another Florida racing icon, Dick Anderson, who would place his name on the Cup for the first time leading 67 of the 200 laps. Daniel Keene, Bobby Gill, future NASCAR Cup star Joe Nemechek and David Russell rounded out the top five on this day.
Anderson would repeat his victory in 1989 outrunning 1983 winner LeRoy Porter then it became Bobby Gill’s time in the spotlight. Gill literally owned New Smyrna Speedway in the early-1990s winning numerous events including several in the former Super-8 Series. Gill, son of Golden Gate Speedway legend Billy Gill, who won many championships in his day but never had his name etched on the Governor’s Cup, won the race three years in a row from 1990-1992. The only other driver to do that before or since was Ed Howe. After moving to Georgia, Gill would go on to win the Hooter’s Pro Cup Series title in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2007.
New Smyrna Speedway regulars would dominate the results over the next five years. The late Pete Orr topped the field back-to-back in 1993 and 1994 driving cars for his friend and car owner David Russell who himself would be in victory lane and get his name on the Cup in 1995. Jack Cook of New Smyrna took home the Governor’s Cup win in 1996 driving the #96 Bob’s Space Racer’s Special and David Rogers finally got his Cup win in 1997 driving his familiar TM Ranch #11. By now the traditional Sunday race date had been dropped in favor of a one-day show run on Saturday night in order to save the teams extra money that they would have to spend for an extra day.
Billy Bigley, Jr. of Naples broke the locals’ win streak in 1998 as he led youngster B. J. McLeod, Orr, Rogers and future NASCAR Cup star David Reutimann to the checker. Bigley himself would go on to win the 2000 NASCAR All Pro Series title, then go on to compete on the NASCAR Truck Series. He still races occasionally today but mostly supervises the rising career of his son Dylan.
1999 saw Wayne Anderson take the victory as he and his father Dick became the first father-son combo to get their names on the Governor’s Cup. Jimmy Cope became a second-time winner in 200 and he holds the distinction of being the only driver to win the Governor’s Cup at both Golden Gate Speedway and New Smyrna Speedway. James Powell III, adept at both racing on asphalt and dirt, drove to victory in 2001 while local star Mike Fritts, a home-grown New Smyrna driver who started in the Bomber class won his first Governor’s Cup in 2002 while Wayne Anderson took his second title in 2003.
Jeff Choquette had been making a name for himself on the small dirt tracks operating in South Florida but wanted to branch out and he let everyone know he was someone to be reckoned with as he shocked the field by dominating the race in 2004. Most people did not know it, but his grandfather, Jack Choquette, was the 1954 NASCAR National Modified champion. Mike Fritts came back to win his second Governor’s Cup in 2005 and, now semi-retired, is crew chief for Ben Kennedy Racing’s effort on the NASCAR K&N East Series.
2006 saw Plant City hot shoe Jeff Scofield put his name on the Cup while Jeff Choquette won for a second time in 2007. Wayne Anderson became just the third driver to win the race for a third time in 2008 then it was Tim Russell’s turn to take a victory in 2009 as he and his dad David equaled the feat of Dick and Wayne Anderson as father/son combinations to put their names on the trophy.
Thirteen years after first winning the Governor’s Cup race, David Rogers came home victorious for a second time in 2010. In 2011, a young driver from Byron, MI, basically unknown to Florida racing fans, turned heads in a big way. At the age of 15, Erik Jones scored his first major win in the Governor’s Cup and became the youngest driver to date to win the event. Since then, Jones has become a star, winning the 2012 and 2013 Snowball Derby in Pensacola and the prestigious Winchester (IN) 400 in 2013 and this year as well. He also moved up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports winning four races in just 17 starts over the past two years.
For the past two years, the fields have become bigger once again and more star-studded but that hasn’t bothered Augie Grill of Hayden, AL. The son of veteran car builder Frankie Grill of Grand American Race Cars (GARC) fame already had a well-heeled resume before competing in, and winning, the Governor’s Cup in 2012. Grill was the back-to-back 2007 and 2008 Snowball Derby Champion, the 2007 and 2009 Rattler 250 winner, and the 2009 and 2011 Snowflake 100 victor at Pensacola. He also took the 2011 Glass City 200 at Toledo, OH Speedway. Grill backed up his 2012 victory with winning last year’s Governor’s Cup and hopes to join Ed Howe and Wayne Anderson in winning the event three consecutive years.
In recent years, many fans have been asking for the Governor’s Cup to return to it’s Sunday afternoon roots. Track owners Robert, Jane and Andrew Hart have listened and are returning to the traditional program of qualifying on Saturday, then racing the 200 laps on Sunday afternoon along with providing a spectacular racing program for other classes as well.
Six former winners have entered this year’s Governor’s Cup race. Wayne Anderson is back and will try to become just the second driver to win the Governor’s Cup four times joining Ed Howe. David Rogers, Jeff Choquette and Augie Grill will be trying for their third Cup victories while both Tim Russell and Jeff Scofield will try to get their name on the Cup a second time. Scofield will team with Tommy Sytsma who was the crew chief for Robert Hamke when he won his second Governor’s Cup in 1977…. or will it be a first time winner… We’ll know by the time darkness falls on November 23rd.
-By Dave Westerman, New Smyrna Speedway. Photo Credit: Dave Westerman