OSWEGO, N.Y. — Story by Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker — JakesSite.com photo —
As we continue our Race Chaser Online countdown to Oswego Speedway’s 59th Annual Budweiser International Classic, Sept. 4-6 at the “Indy of the East,” we look back at some of the most improbable driver performances and improbable outcomes in this 200-lap Supermodified race over the years. This story is the third in the series.
The name alone generates a wide variety of responses from race fans, from short-tracks, to Indianapolis, and even to NASCAR.
The late Dale Earnhardt once told a fan who told him he was heading to Oswego Speedway that “I am a Bentley Warren fan.” Darrell Waltrip once drove one of Bentley’s supermodifieds around Oswego for a few laps while he was there racing an ASA Series race in the mid-80’s. He still gets excited talking about that (and Bentley) today.
Bentley’s won in supermodifieds, modifieds, sprint cars, midgets, TQ midgets and Lord only knows what else over the past five decades. He didn’t win in Indy cars, but he sure had them all believing he could. He raced NASCAR late models, Pro Stocks and even had a couple of starts in what is now known as the K&N Pro East Series.
So it was that Bentley, whose racing spark first ignited in the ’60s in New England but soon led him to his first Oswego International Classic win in 1969 driving the infamous “Purdy Deuce,” that found himself in 1998 on the receiving end of a phone call from buddy Jeff West, who had loaned Bentley his car to race in the past when Bentley’s ride had issues.
“Westie” was offering Bentley his backup car to race in the 1998 Classic.
Bentley demurred at first, not sure if he wanted to run or not. The legend was without a full-time ride that year, and thought the idea of relaxing and having fun with friends at the track sounded pretty good.
By that time, Bentley had been to Indy and back, running in three Indianapolis 500s and numerous other Indy car races in the early ’70s, and had resuscitated his supermodified career twice, once after the Indy stint and once again in the mid-80s after being given the chance to race for car owners Tom Heveron and Ed Bowley.
Between 1976 and 1997, Bentley racked up four more International Classic wins, seven track championships, and a whole lot of new fans to go with his old ones.
Nobody could really blame him if, after all of that, he just wanted to cruise in on his Harley and enjoy himself.
But soon Bentley found himself inquiring with others about whether they thought the car was a good car, and then calling West back to accept the offer.
He had decided to race the car and have fun, with no lofty expectations. He’d do his best, and enjoy himself while doing so.
Fate had other ideas, however. The script was being written for Bentley to make history…again.
By 1998, the spectrum of supermodified racing was on the verge of changing at Oswego. Clyde Booth had built the first true “aero” supermodified, and Pat Abold had qualified it outside pole next to Mike Ordway, driving for Paul Dunigan, with whom Bentley had much success earlier in the ’90s. It would be a few more years before Booth would perfect his innovative design, however.
Mike Muldoon was a winner and champion in cars he’d built himself, and Canadian Doug Didero had returned, driving a car he’d helped build into a Classic winner with popular car owner Skip Matczak just a few years before.
Indy car racer Davey Hamilton, who helped put the “West Coast Supers” on the map, was driving one of Muldoon’s cars, and you had Oswego regulars like Tim Gareau, Greg Furlong, Danny Soule, Gary Morton and former classic and track champion Steve Gioia in the field as well.
This was a stacked lineup, and Bentley was in a car that hadn’t run weekly all year.
He qualified 14th, hardly ruffling any feathers. When the race started, he tried to pace himself and run the car hard enough to stay in good track position, but not hard enough to use it up before the end.
Nobody expected Bentley to win. But this is why you run the race.
One by one, lady luck turned all-evil on the favorites. Didero was involved in a wreck that sent him into the pits for repairs. Gareau had to pit for tires while leading. Ordway got caught up in a wreck, ending his day. Hamilton made a bad call to pit for a tire under yellow, losing track position that would eventually have put him in the lead had he not pitted when he did.
Bentley’s teammate and car owner Jeff West had a broken axle and dropped out running strong in third. Abold, in the new Booth creation that would eventually revolutionize supermodified racing, spun while running third and lost track position.
By this time, we were 40 laps from the finish and Bentley found himself in third place, doing a shrewd job of playing “Survivor – The Classic Version,” staying out of trouble and keeping his car and tires under him. Muldoon was leading, and Randy Ritskes was second.
Muldoon was the next bad luck victim, as the rear end gave out on his car and forced him out. Now it was Ritskes and Warren and 25 laps left to glory. Ritskes was trying to win his first Classic, and those in the grandstand suddenly began to visualize Bentley winning his sixth.
Bentley? In Jeff West’s car? Seriously? I mean, where’d he come from, anyway? All of a sudden there he was!
Nothing against Ritskes – I’d have been thrilled to see him get a win for car owner Ed Shea. Two of the sport’s nicest guys who deserved that moment to celebrate a win in the biggest supermodified race of them all.
But…it was Bentley, and this may well be his last Classic win. After all, he was 57 years old, and even an ageless wonder like him can’t keep doing this forever…can he?
Either way, I thought it was going to come down to those two for all the glory. I was wrong.
Bentley saw an opportunity on lap 184 and shot by Ritskes to take the lead as the crowd erupted. He was, in his own words, trying to be careful, protecting the inside and keeping his tires from slipping and breaking traction.
Ritskes pitted for fuel, leaving Ohio hotshoe Dave Shullick as the next man up to challenge Bentley. Shullick had been in an earlier incident, and the tail section was literally turned 180 degrees and barely hanging on the car. He had finished second to Bentley in this race before. He longed to turn the tables.
Shullick tried, but his tires gave out, leaving Hamilton to see what he could do to get around the black West car, appropriately numbered 1.
Davey said when he first got to Bentley, he thought it was a lapped car. He started to get impatient behind him, fearing he would lose the race because of not being able to pass him. He had forgotten completely about Bentley being in the race.
Not only was he in the race, but he was in the lead, and with two laps to go he started to have fuel issues!
“With two to go I was out,” Warren documented in George Caruso Jr.’s 50 Years of Classics book. “Hamilton poked his nose in there and I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, I think you’ve got it.’ Then I switched up my line and the fuel picked up. I was protecting the bottom like wicked.”
In one of the most improbable finishes in the history of the Classic, Bentley Warren held off Hamilton and Didero to win his sixth Classic in a car he wasn’t even supposed to be in until the last minute.
At age 57, Bentley was the oldest winner of this historic event, and tied Nolan Swift’s record of six Classic wins.
The stunned crowd went bonkers. It was a reaction I’d seen only a few times previous. Nobody could believe what had just happened.
Everyone loved Bentley, but nobody had seen this coming. His car owner, Jeff West, was a local boy who’d started racing a few years before and had become a very competent car builder.
Hollywood couldn’t have written a more stunning script.
In the post-race press conference, Swift joined Bentley in celebration. When Swifty was asked what he thought of Bentley tying his Classic win record, he didn’t miss a beat before replying.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Swift smiled. “On Monday, I’m going to hit the gym and get in shape for a comeback!”
The room collapsed in laughter. The legend was cemented. Eight years after this win, Bentley again made history at Oswego when he won an ISMA Supermodified show at the age of 65.
But he never won another Classic.
His last Oswego race was in 1998 at the age of 70. Yes, you read that right. 70.
This, after a post-supermodified stint in the ’90s and early 2000s of running sprint cars for Ken Schrader, the Seymour family, Glen Kneibel and other legendary team owners of the midwest. He won the Little 500, a race every short-track open-wheeler longs to win.
When Bentley got into Ray Graham’s super in 2011, he was still fast and competitive, but found himself having breathing issues inside the car.
He stopped racing for a while, then came back in 2014 for an ISMA race in New England driving the Vic Miller-owned No. 71.
He hasn’t raced since. But his legend still grows.
He has a saloon (“Bentley’s Saloon”) in Arundel, Maine that is a popular attraction both locally and for his untold thousands of friends from across the country and Canada who drop by there to camp and party and see the race cars, and to see the boss, if he’s there.
See, Bentley still rides his Harley all over the nation, whenever he feels like going somewhere to visit friends, and he still commands a huge crowd wherever he goes to a track.
The man is an icon. There are more “Bentley stories” than a whole set of encyclopedias could hold.
His biography, aptly titled “Wicked Fast” and written by Bones Bourcier in Bentley’s words, is a laugh per page and only scratches the surface of the life Bentley has experienced and observed, inside and outside of racing.
It’s a must-read. Coastal 181 publishing has it. This isn’t a shameless plug. It’s a tip from yours truly that this is a book you will thank me for encouraging you to read.
Though his accomplishments are vast, the 1998 International Classic may have been his most storied performance. He wasn’t the fastest in qualifying. He wasn’t the favorite going in. He wasn’t the fastest in the race.
But he was Bentley, and he drove the type of patient and opportunistic classic race made famous by Swift himself.
It was the stuff that “Classic stories” are made of.