Drag racing returns to Big Horn County

by nathan oster

The triumphant — and with 35 cars and more than 500 spectators, it’s an apt description —return of drag racing to Big Horn County on Saturday afternoon evoked some fond memories for a number of local residents.

“I thought it was great,” said Buzz Collingwood, who was only 14 when drag races were a pretty common occurrence at the airport. “My dad raced and my uncle Cub raced and we’d go up there at 5 in the morning on Sundays — they raced on Sundays back then — and we’d work our tails off until 5 at night.

“We were just kids, but we loved it. The day always ended with a steak at the Five Sisters.”

Speaking of racing, Collingwood shared memories of the time the top fuel dragster in the United States, nicknamed “The Hawaiian” and belonging to Roland Leong, raced at the airport during the 1965 Days of ’49 celebration.

Collingwood didn’t drive on Saturday, but Kip McIntosh did. So, too, did his son Clint, grandson Kyle and nephew Justin of Powell. If times had been kept, their cars would likely have been among the fastest entries.

Kip said he remembers when the drag races were staged on a long, straight stretch of the old Lovell highway. “My brother and I rode our bikes out there a couple of times and watched them race,” he said. “We always hoped that when it was over, the guys with cars out there would offer to throw our bikes in the trunk and give us a ride so we wouldn’t have to ride them back into town.”

He shared fond memories of the Northern Wyoming Timing Association, which was going at that time, as well as drivers like Red Lindsey, Cub Collingwood, Jimmy Spargar and “lots of other folks” who were pretty heavily involved in it.

McIntosh said he participated in his first drag race in 1967, which was the year he turned 16 and got his driver’s license. He drove an Oldsmobile Jetfire and enjoyed it to the hilt. But then, in about 1969, racing at the airport ended.

“Most of the guys out there were racers who wanted to be racers,” he said of the demise. “It was so hard putting on races of that magnitude and being a driver at the same time that before long, there were fewer and fewer volunteers.

“Eventually I think they just got tired of doing it and disbanded.”

McIntosh said he got his first car of its own in 1988 and has been racing, off and on, ever since. Most of those races have been on tracks in Douglas and Billings. He, too, long envisioned a day when drag racing would make its return to Big Horn County.

“Way back when, we tried to get the airport to let us use the crosswind runway, but we couldn’t get permission,” he said. “When I heard Mike (Howe) was trying to do it, I was initially discouraged. I’d been through it and couldn’t get anything done. I guess the atmosphere has changed a little … maybe it’s loosened up some post 9-11.”

McIntosh was “overjoyed” when Howe was able to pull it off and says Saturday’s event couldn’t have gone much better. “I kept looking over at that crowd … it was just an amazing turnout.

“I think if they’d have done more advertising, we’d have had even more, but Mike couldn’t let the information out until he got the OK from the FAA to proceed. That didn’t happen until a week or two before. He did a crazy good job of handling that whole thing.”

 

Recap

Howe said he was pleased “beyond words” with Saturday’s event, which began around 4 p.m. and lasted until last of the drivers had had enough around 8 p.m. He estimated a turnout of 500 people in the spectator area.

Drivers hailed from as far away as California. “They didn’t come up for this, but were going by the airport, saw the sign that said ‘Drag races today,’ came in, unloaded their car and raced it,” said Howe.

Another driver hailed from Billings. The rest were from this area. In addition to the McIntoshes there were cars driven by Mark Michelena, Dan Burns, Jerry Collingwood, Cliff Fink, Nathan Lowe, Don Russell and Cliff Fink, among others.

No times were kept, nor were any awards handed out.

The drivers themselves played the role of race-makers.

Howe’s role was to be the start. A self-described classic car guy, he isn’t a drag racer and needed tips from Kip McIntosh to get things set up. But when he dropped his arms, engines revved and tires spun. He kept it up until just a few races remained and his granddaughter spelled him.

There’s some debate about who had the fastest car, but that wasn’t the point, Howe said. The bottom line is, everyone had a good time and, while there was a spin-out early on, there were no crashes and no one got hurt. The firefighters and EMTs, who were on scene just in case, could watch and enjoy like everyone else.

 

The future

Howe said there was a time on Friday when he didn’t know if the races would even happen. His wife Cheryl was helping him when she fell, shattering her wrist. It required surgery. He was able to be there for it.

The races went on, though, and given the success of the outing, he’s already begun looking for dates to do it again. He’s applied to the FAA for permission to hold another round of drag racing on Aug. 13. He’d also like to do one in September, which would be the finale for this year.

“The way I look at it, we’re just out there so people have a way to vent off some steam by racing their cars,” he said. “I’ll finish it up for this year, but I’m going to be looking to some of the younger guys to take it over next year.”

This week, there is talk of a drag racing club forming in south Big Horn County.

Meanwhile ,the lease of the land needed to put on the drag race prevented Saturday’s event from being a big moneymaker. In fact, Howe said he thinks that in the end, it’ll come out breaking even. Any money that is made this year, he’d like to turn back into the racing product — be it for portable bleachers or lights at the airport.

“I definitely think there’s a public desire for it to continue,” said Howe.

McIntosh agreed. “I think we need to try to get people to come to Greybull to spend money … right now, it just doesn’t happen,” he said. “There’s no reason for anyone to come from, say, Billings to Greybull to spend a buck.

“But if you have like a two-day classic car show and drag racing, I guarantee you’d bring in people from all over.”

Collingwood said, too, thinks that regular drag racing could be good for Greybull.

Back in the day, it certainly was.

“Donny Collingwood told me this morning,” he said, “that the first drag race at the airport, back in March of 1963, drew about 3,000 people.”