Stock car racing has been a part of the Bennett family for generations
By Bert Lehman
Editor, Full Throttle Magazine
After being discharged from active duty in the Army in Germany, Greenville’s Bobby Bennett bought his first stock car in 1959. He had already been involved in racing with soap box derby cars, motorcycles and a street legal Jaguar.
“I had a sports car, a Jaguar that I raced before that, before I went in the Army,” Bennett recalls. “When I was traveling around the country on construction work I made a lot of money on piece work welding. I like Jaguars so I ended up buying one, and I raced one at Wilmot and Elkhart Lake, inside the state fairgrounds in Milwaukee and so forth.”
This eventually led Bennett to buy his first stock car, a 1937 Plymouth Coupe.
“I saw it winning semi-feature races and I thought it would be a good buy and it came up for sale so I ended up buying it,” Bennett says. “The first race I had with my buddy, I rolled him over. I had fixed his steering so it would be quicker steering and he was on the outside and he chopped me. I hit him in the side and rolled him over. What a way to start racing.”
Bennett didn’t take the local stock car racing scene by storm, which was a surprise to him.
“My first race, or my second race I thought I was going to be the real king of stock car racing,” Bennett says. “I just made the bonus race, which was the slowest one out there. I had driven sports cars before and I was very fast. … I thought it was just a good idea to get into stock car racing. I was a very poor driver at first. It looked so easy and it was so difficult.
In the beginning Bennett says he raced at Apple Creek north of Appleton, Shiocton Speedway north of Shiocton, as well as tracks in Oshkosh, De Pere and Seymour.
According to Bennett, it was around this time, while he was president of the Wolf River Racing Association, it was brought up at a meeting that the club should race at the Shawano race track. To see how many drivers were interested, drivers were asked to sign a sheet of paper if they were interested in racing at the track in Shawano.
“We just signed a piece of paper, we didn’t even have a heading on it,” Bennett says. “We got it passed around. I signed, Roger Paul was second, Cliff Miller was third and from then on it went down the front row and all the way through the audience at the Pleasant View Ballroom on Highway 76 by Bear Creek.
“There must have been 50-60 signatures because it seems that I can remember they all signed it. There weren’t many guys who said they didn’t want to go. They were all interested in racing on the race track.”
Stock car racing at the track in Shawano soon followed.
“We were some of the old patriarchs that came with the original idea for Shawano to become a race track because there were many, many horse tracks around the country being converted to stock car racing,” Bennett says. “When Shawano was mentioned at the club meeting we were all very enthused about it because we knew the potential at that time of making a horse track into a stock car track.”
Bennett says when they first began racing stock cars at the track in Shawano it had wood rails inside and outside, and the track wasn’t very wide.
“It was much narrower than it is today,” Bennett recalls. “We had widened it out, or maybe banged it out I guess. We didn’t like the wooden rails. They were coming into our cars almost killing the drivers and so forth. The County furnished guardrails and so forth and put them up and that was better than the wooden rails.”
Bennett says the track was also flat, with no banking at all.
Back then 45-55 stock cars would show up each week, according to Bennett. Spectators also began to visit the track.
“It happened almost immediately,” Bennett says. “We got people in the grandstands and everybody was very tickled pink that this was starting to go over. It was the word around the whole countryside that the Shawano track was a very nice track to race on.”
Bennett began racing at Shawano Speedway in 1963 and says his fondest memory of racing at Shawano Speedway was winning a 50 lap Mid-Season Championship race sponsored by the American Legion in the early 1970s.
“That was one hard race,” Bennett says. “We didn’t usually run 50 laps back then. But Roger Paul complained that he burned off his outside tires trying to keep up with me and catch me. They just went away on him. Mine, I was conserving and conserving because I knew 50 laps was a long time on a hard track.”
Bennett won $550 for that win, which was a lot of money at that time.
“Shawano Speedway has always been fun” Bennett says. “I can’t really say that there is one special night or whatever. They were all relatively fun for the many years I ran there.”
But Bennett also ventured away from the area to race. He raced throughout the Midwest in the early 1960s, earning the Wisconsin State dirt track championship in IMCA in 1962, ’63, ’64 and ’65. In the late 1960s he also raced a Late Model in events sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC), including events at the Milwaukee Mile. Bennett also won the overall Fox River Racing Association championship in 1972.
The late 1980s saw Bennett racing in the Mini-Stock division at Shawano Speedway, and then a Late Model at the Speedway in the late 1990s. He eventually retired from racing at the age of 74. This summer he was inducted into the Shawano Speedway Hall of Fame as well as the Walk of Fame at Oshkosh Speedzone Raceway.
The Bennett racing tradition will carry on for generations, as Bennett’s sons have raced at some point or are currently racing, including: Lowell, Brady, Tim, Dave, Aaron and Joel. The Bennetts also have a unique numbering system for their cars. Bobby was No. 1, Lowell took No. 2, and then each son in order of age took the next available number in order. Now, even the grandsons are assigned numbers even if they aren’t old enough to race yet. So far they are up to No. 15.
Family is very important to Bennett, and it makes him proud that racing is a part of that. Bennett says, “Racing is in the Bennetts.”
(This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Full Throttle Magazine.)