Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Car owner Steve Enslow passed away

The United States Auto Club (USAC) website announced the sad news that former car owner Stephen “Steve” Walter Enslow passed away in New Orleans Louisiana on Friday January 22 2016 at the age of 71. Enslow’s name may be not be as familiar to race fans as Penske, Andretti, or Ganassi, but Enslow represented the type of dedicated car owner required in auto racing – his cars were not consistent winners but he supported the sport by appearing as a regular entrant. Despite his brief three-season USAC Silver Crown car ownership career, Enslow’s car was involved in two historically significant USAC Silver Crown races.

Enslow, a John Deere machinery dealer from Huntington West Virginia first bought a Charlie Alfater-built sprint car powered by a 302 cubic inch Chevrolet engine in 1969. For the first couple of years Enslow and second generation sprint car driver Tucker Nunnery competed mainly at Atomic Speedway in Chillicothe Ohio, but in 1972 the pair expanded their horizons. After they raced on pavement during the winter in Tampa Florida, they entered the dark blue #99 sprint car in the 24th annual ‘Little 500’ on the high-banked quarter-mile Sun Valley (now known as Anderson) Speedway.

Nunnery began the 500-lap race run the night before the 1972 Indianapolis 500 in the 24th starting position in the 33-car field then completed 467 of the 500 laps, and finished in a respectable ninth position.   At the time, Nunnery, 22, and Enslow, 26, were regarded as among the youngest touring sprint car owner/driver combinations in the country. Through the 1972 season they traveled East and raced several times at Jennerstown and Mercer Pennsylvania against such Hall of Fame drivers as Lynn Paxton, Jan Opperman, and Kenny Weld. 

After briefly parting during the 1972 season, Nunnery from South Point Ohio and Enslow reunited to run the ‘Little 500’ again in 1973, but after qualifying seventh, the #99 Chevrolet-powered sprinter was out after just four laps, finished 33rd and won just $150.   

Several years later, in 1977 Enslow employed journeyman USAC midget and sprint car racer Mark Alderson as his regular driver, who most notably flipped the Enslow #99 sprinter through the first turn fence at the one-mile Indiana State Fairgrounds and survived with a minor shoulder injury.  Reportedly, Alderson repaired the damage to the McPherson race car chassis in time to race the following week.

 For the 1981 season, Steve Enslow bought a used Grant King USAC Silver Crown car from Mauri Amerling of New York and joined the small fraternity of AAA/USAC car owners from West Virginia, a list that includes Lee Glessner, Fred Scalvi, and Leech Cracraft.  During the 1981 season, the Performance Research/DJ Construction #97 competed in six Silver Crown events with a best finish of fourth in the Hoosier Hundred and fifth at the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway.

The first historically notable race for the Enslow team came on June 21 1981 on the 2-1/2 mile Pocono Raceway tri-oval in Long Pond Pennsylvania. Officials of CART (Championship auto Racing Teams) and USAC had been carrying on a sanctioning war since CART’s formation in 1979, but things came to a head at the second 500-mile race on the 1981 USAC schedule the ‘Van Scoy Diamonds Mines 500.’   Almost all of the CART teams such as Penske and Patrick boycotted the event and only one CART regular Geoff Brabham appeared as the driver of Josele Garza’s machine. 

As a result, USAC wound up with a very short field of cars. USAC first rounded up several owners with obsolete Indianapolis cars as entries such as Robert Gaby’s 1971 Coyote, Rolla Vollstedt’s 1973 chassis, and Tom Frantz’ 1972 Eagle, but still only had 21 cars in the starting field.

In a weird turn of events, the final eight starting spots for the USAC IndyCar race on June 21 1981 were filled by front-engine, solid-axle 355-cubic inch Chevrolet powered USAC Silver Crown cars which had last run ran on the half-mile dirt ovals at Knoxville Iowa.  Besides Alderson, the roster of USAC Silver Crown regulars included Larry Rice, Jack Hewitt, Duke Cook, and Smokey Snellbaker. 

The crowd of 25,000 spectators (about 1/3 of the previous year’s crowd) was treated to the unique sight of sleek rear-engine winged machines racing with upright tube-framed cars that could trace their design heritage back directly to upright dirt cars built in the 1940’s.  Clearly the Silver Crown cars were out-classed not only in straight-line speed and cornering speeds but were further handicapped by the fact that they were not built to be re-fueled during a race and their crews typically did not perform pit stops the car during a race.

Attrition among the older Indycars was understandably high, and so by lap 122 of the scheduled 200 laps, when rain mercifully began to fall, USAC officials had had enough and red-flagged the event with A.J. Foyt declared the winner in what would prove to be his final career IndyCar win. Alderson in the #97 Enslow King/Chevrolet crossed the finish line as the highest finishing USAC Silver Crown entry in 11th place, 18 laps behind Foyt.  On the strength of their yeoman performance the team earned $6050. 

For the 1982 USAC season, the Enslow car was renumbered #9 although it continued to carry the same carry-over Amerling livery, white trimmed with blue and orange stripes. In the April season opener at Eldora Speedway, Alderson and the Performance Research/DJ Construction entry qualified on the pole but could not start the feature and placed dead last.  At the May 2 race at the Indiana State fairground, Mark finished seventh on the lead lap, and in the Hulman 100 the following week, also held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Alderson finished fifteenth after the magneto failed on the 48th of 60 laps. 

On July 4, at the 5/8-mile oval at Flemington New jersey, the Enslow machine finished in sixth place on the lead lap, followed by a fourth place result at Springfield Illinois on August 14.  A week later at Denver’s ½-mile Raceland Speedway, located just north of the Rocky Mountain National Speedway road course, Alderson came home seventh, two laps behind winner Doug Wolfgang. 

On Labor Day 1982 at the DuQuoin Illinois mile, the Enslow #9 again finished seventh on the lead lap, and then five days later finished fourth in the Hoosier Hundred after starting fourteenth.    The 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora brought another seventh place finish, with the season finale scheduled two months later at the one-mile dirt track in Nazareth Pennsylvania.

The Nazareth Speedway race was billed as a joint USAC Silver Crown/Gold Crown race, but no regular “Indy” drivers outside of Gary Bettenhausen and Steve Chassey appeared. Entering the event, Ron Shuman in the Oklahoma Fixture Co (Ofixco) entry led Ken Schrader in the ‘Rose Brothers Trucking Special’ by 18 points. After a draw for starting positions, Schrader’s car developed mechanical problems, and Ken jumped into the seat of the Ben Leyba owned car in place of Sheldon Kinser and started 29th.  

When the bizarre crash-marred race was red-flagged due to darkness with 54 of the scheduled 100 laps completed, Schrader finished fourth in a miraculous drive, just ahead of Alderson, while Shuman finished twelfth.   When the final points were tallied, Ken Schrader was the 1982 USAC Silver Crown champion with Mark Alderson second in points. Because of Schrader’s car switch, Steve Enslow earned enough points to be declared the 1982 USAC Silver Crown car owner champion over Damon Fortune. 

The Enslow entry driven by Alderson was renumbered #2 for the 1983 season, and despite four top ten finishes in the first six races with a best of third in the Hulman Hundred, Steve Enslow abruptly dropped out of the series and Alderson finished the 1983 USAC Silver Crown season driving for Ralph DePalma of Lima Ohio.

     

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