I have been around dirt track racing all of my sixty something years. Over time, I’ve watched it develop into the product that we see today on any given summer weekend. Did you ever stop and ask yourself, how we got here? Who were the young men that pooled their monies, went to the junkyard, and spent nights and weekends in the garage turning a junk car into a race car? Who were the landowners that took part of the family farm and carved it into a racetrack? Who were the writers that sat at their typewriters for hours pecking out weekly columns to tell the stories of the previous two, long before PC’s and iPads? I know one of those journalists, and he’s written for a long time. In fact, he’s still writing today.
Of, course I’m talking about Butler’s own Walt Wimer. My first memory of Walt was as a teenager, sitting in the old covered grandstands at Mercer. When I would hear his voice, it meant my favorite part of the week was about to start. I’ll bet many of you have early memories of him as well. Later, in my short lived driving career, when he announced my name while reading down the point standings it was a feeling of accomplishment. Years after that, I had the pleasure of working with him at places like Mercer, Tri-City, Sharon, and PPMS. Walt would keep the fans, and myself informed about all things racing around the area that weekend. He was the 70’s and 80’s version of the internet, without the bashing, of course. The evening would end with Walt saying, “Speed is for the speedway, not for the highway. Drive safe, and we will see you next week.”
Walt attended his first race at the old Butler Speedway, where the Butler High School now sits, in 1950. Armco, now AK Steel, was at one time Butler’s largest employer. Like many large companies in those days, they had a summer picnic for their employees and families. Wimer had several uncles that worked in the mill, and was able to procure tickets to the affair. “I climbed on the ferris wheel and from the top you could see the race track and the cars going around. I badgered my father as soon as I got off the ride to take me over there. The rest is history.”
In 1962, He began writing for the Southern Motorsports Journal, while he spent some time in Florida, often covering the races at the long-shuttered Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa. After a stint serving Uncle Sam in the U S Navy, he started writing a column for The Cavalcade of Auto Racing in 1968. His tenure as a columnist has also included writing for Racing News, RPM News and for the last 10 years or so Area Auto Racing News. This season will remarkably be his 52nd consecutive year. “In the early days” according to Wimer, “the local tracks didn’t have many people covering their events, I just felt that the public needed to know about the speedways and their drivers, so I did what I could to get the stories out there. It was my way of helping the sport.” Gary Heeman, Lernerville Public Relations Director agrees, “Walt does this as a service to the sport and those involved in it.”
His announcing career started by accident one night at Mercer in 1973, when the regular guy didn’t show up. The promoter at that time, Mike Rakoci, tracked him down in the pits and said “Hey Walt, you know all the racers; you’re my announcer tonight.”
“I must have done ok;” Walt jokes, “he had me come back after that”.
Walt also started his Cavalcade Point standings in that same year. It is a unique system that measures drivers’ accomplishments from across the area, even if they never competed directly against each other. It, along with the Cavalcade Rookie of the year award continues to this day.
When asked about the sport of racing today versus the racing of his early years, Wimer was quick to point out the safety advancements at the tracks, and in the equipment available to the drivers and teams. He also listed the “professionalism and preparation” done by the tracks’ staffs and officials as big advancements at the facilities he visits. He, like many others believes there are too many divisions in our area, that it reduces the field sizes and “dilutes the competition.”
A couple of Wimer’s favorite memories of his nearly 70 years in the sport include attending the first NASCAR race on the beach of Daytona, and traveling to places like Martinsville and Syracuse with his long time buddy, Dave Stewart, a local Modified racer. On one of their Martinsville trips Stewart, who was a Butler fireman by trade, and Wimer were attending a practice day when there was a terrible crash that ended up with a large fire. In those days, even at the NASCAR level, the fire crew amounted to handful of volunteers with some fire extinguishers and a pick up truck. After watching the struggle to extinguish the flames for a short time, Wimer watched his friend Stewart hop the fence and assist in getting the fire out.
Walt’s decades in the sport, as a writer, announcer, and fan have led to quite a collection of photos and industry trade papers; all immaculately stored and maintained of course. He’s respected throughout the area as a top local racing historian.
Walt Wimer had a lot to do with shaping our sport in the early days. He is still an active member of the media today, for the same reason he always has been involved; he loves the sport, and cares about the people in it. At Lernerville weekly, you can still say hello to him in the pits before the races, and in the grandstands. You also may see him on occasion at Mercer, Sharon or PPMS, when his schedule permits. Sundays, though, are reserved for working on his column. He uses a laptop now, but the old typewriter is still there, just in case it’s needed.
Lifetime race fan, long time track official