Looking back: Three-time Oxford 250 winner Dave Dion was one of a kind

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Brad Leighton, in car No. 55, pulls alongside fellow New Hampshire driver Dave Dion (No. 29) on a straightaway during the Stanley 100 race at the New Hampshire International Speedway in July 1996. (Portland Press Herald file photo)

He’s one of the most respected and accomplished men to ever strap into a Late Model stock car.

For more than four decades, he was affectionately known as ‘Dynamite’ David Dion, capable of exploding into victory lane at any given track on any given weekend.

He was, quite simply, the Northeast’s most famous racer.

Among his many career highlights are three wins in the prestigious Oxford 250 (1975, 1985, 1992), and the 1996 NASCAR Busch North Series championship. He won major races at nearly every track he ever ran.

Dion, of Hudson, New Hampshire, was inducted into the New England Auto Racing (NEAR) Hall of Fame in 2007.

These days, Dion can be found at various car shows around New England during the summer months with his one of his old race cars. He retired to Florida several years ago, and doesn’t attend races any more.

He’s still active, just not behind the wheel, like he was during an amazing 44-year career.

“I’ve been keeping busy taking my old race car to some shows,” the now 74-year-old Dion said. “I spent three days earlier this month over in Waterbury, Vermont, at a big show there. Me and my old pal Robbie Crouch spent some time with Ken Squier talking on WDEV radio, and had a great time.”

Dion also serves as an instructor for the ‘Hard Luck’ Tour, a program for disabled U.S. military veterans. Founded by Brian Hanaford, son of the late short track legend Harold ‘Hard Luck’ Hanaford, the program uses auto racing to honor those who have served while helping them to overcome physical and mental boundaries.

“I really enjoy getting out and spending some time with those veterans,” Dion said. “I get to interact with them, talk about my career and the challenges we all face every day. At this point in time, it’s a great fit for me.”

Dion and his famous Dion Brothers Racing team are unique for their longevity.

“You look at certain drivers over the years, and they had hot streaks, times when they were winning everything around, but then they just disappeared,” Dion said. “With me and my brothers, we just kept plugging away through the good and the bad for 44 years. I’m like the Woods Brothers, I’m very proud of that.”

When he talks with fans these days, Dion is always asked about how his brothers fit into the program.

“Each of my brothers played an important role in our success,” Dion said. “We wouldn’t have won races without Paul, because he was so far ahead on his chassis design and way of thinking. And we never would have made it to the track if it wasn’t for Roger. He worked the crazy hours in the shop and did everything, including fixing the damage after we wrecked.”

The key roles in the Dion’s recipe for success didn’t stop with Paul and Roger.

“We wouldn’t have finished half the races if it wasn’t for my brother Donald, because he also an engineer and solved all the problems,” Dion said. “Whenever we would break down, blow up or have a failure, he’s the one who would go back and redesign everything correctly.

“For me, well, there was no job left, so I got to drive the car.”

After he retired and moved to Florida, Dion had a chance to interact with several southern racing icons. A few of their conversations gave him a new perspective on his career accomplishments.

“It’s kind of funny, because when you listen to guys like Harry Gant and Jack Ingram talk about their careers, they tease each other about guys who never ran in the Oxford 250,” Dion said. “If you didn’t go up and attempt to win at Oxford, you weren’t a serious racer.”

The legendary driver says the reputation that the 250 enjoys goes beyond what Maine fans will ever know.

“Nothing we ever did in our long career ever registered on the national scale except winning the Oxford 250,” he said. “I love the fact that Bob Bahre had a dream back in 1974 and made this a national event. It’s still advertised as the richest single-day short track race in the country, and it’s amazing.

“I tell stories today to people in the Daytona area about the three different eras in which we won that race. They were all different, yet each one was very special because of the situation at the time.”

As one might expect, Dion’s memories of those 250 victories are extensive. Each has it’s own story.

“Without a question, 1974 was the worst year of my career,” Dion said. “Going into the 1975 Oxford 250, I didn’t have much going for me. I had never won a race at Oxford, and I had never won a race in Maine. When they extended the race from 200 to 250 laps to include a pit stop, that was a huge deal.

“We had the best handling car for that race I’ve ever had in my career. That was when Paul stopped working with Joey Kourafas and came back to the family team. He had come up with something that worked very well.”

Despite the mechanical advantage they had with Paul’s hot chassis setup, they still had other issues.

“The only downside we had for that 250 is that we had spent all of our money the night before buying Goodyear tires at Catamount Stadium over in Vermont,” Dion said. “Firestone had introduced a new tire the day of the Oxford 250. It was a sneak attack the likes of Pearl Harbor.

“It was two inches wider, had a much softer compound and was two-tenths of a second faster than the Goodyears. We went over there with no money and what our competition felt were 16 junk tires. The Firestones wore out as the race went on, and our tires turned out to be better on the long runs.”

Dion feels the 1985 win was his most spectacular. The situation he was in at the time made it that way.

“Tom Curley had thrown us out of NASCAR, he had blackballed us, the media had turned on us, and we just weren’t going back to NASCAR,” Dion said. “We show up at Oxford, it’s an Open Comp race, and Tom brings all of his NASCAR North guys over. He had called Bob Bahre and told him to ban me.

“Bob told him he didn’t have any problems with me, and that I was welcome at his track. Curley said if he let the Dions run that race, he would tell his teams they can’t run the 250. Bob told him it would be the easiest race I ever won, because I would be racing in it. On Sunday, they all showed up to race.”

In 1992, there was a recurring theme. Seems like the Dions had troubles with authority quite often.

“Again, NASCAR had it out for us, as usual. They told us our rear suspension wasn’t legal, and we knew it was,” Dion said. “We really had no intentions of going to Oxford the way we were being treated. Mike Liberty had just bought the track, had just paved the place and called Roger when he heard we weren’t coming. He said we were one of the headliners and he really needed us there.

“He ended up having to go through inspection with us to ease NASCAR’s concerns. They looked the car over from nose to tail, and couldn’t find anything illegal. They finally allowed us to race.”

The race itself came down to Dion and Dale Shaw in the closing laps.

“Dale was fast late in the going and was running second behind me,” Dion said. “Had he not been on probation for getting into trouble at Lee (New Hampshire) the week before, he would have spun me out. My brothers and I knew that, too, but we were always on probation, so I had to behave.

“The only thing both of us could do that night as the race wound down was to drive those cars for all they were worth and not hit each other. I held him off, and earned my third Oxford 250 victory.”

Along with those incredible 250 wins, Dion counts his 1996 NASCAR title as his biggest success.

“When we went after that championship, there were a lot of great drivers in the series,” Dion said. “You had Andy Santerre, Mike Stefanik, Dick McCabe and several others. It was a 22-race schedule, and there was at least 15 potential winners in every race.

“Winning a championship is a season-long ordeal. When we clinched the title at Lime Rock, I couldn’t believe the respect all the drivers showed me on track that day. I am still so proud of what we did in 1996 against stiff competition and tall odds. That title and the 250 wins really made my career.”

Crouch raced against Dion for many years on the old NASCAR North tour, and later on in the more modern Busch North Series era.

“In all the years that I ever watched Dave, I never saw him take anybody out intentionally,” Crouch said. “That obviously is to his credit. Here’s how I like to explain my take on Dave: If the track was 14 feet wide, he would take 13.9 feet of it to keep you behind him.

“Through the early years when we were racing together a lot, I was never in Dave’s league. He and his brothers were running a whole lot better than I was. From the early to late 1970s, there weren’t a lot of nights when I was running side-by-side trying to pass Dave Dion.”

Crouch was impressed by the Dion brothers’ incredible longevity and team chemistry.

“You can’t say the word team and come up with a better definition than Dion Brothers Racing,” Crouch said. “I know Dave had other opportunities over the years to drive for somebody else, and he just wouldn’t do it. The team was asked to field a car for another driver, and they weren’t at all interested.

“I think that’s awesome. That says a lot about Dave’s commitment to his family, and what kind of guy he is. His race team could adapt to any track in any era, and were competitive right up until the end.”

Shaw is another former NASCAR champion (1994) who turned thousands of laps with Dion at tracks all over the northeast. They ran nose-to-tail on many a night.

“Dave was always a tough racer everywhere we went,” Shaw said. “He raced me clean, and didn’t ever single me out. He was always good at making it look like he didn’t have any money behind him. His cars weren’t pretty, but they were fast.”

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Dave Dion was the first three-time champion of the Oxford 250, winning the race in 1975, 1985 and 1992. (Portland Press Herald file photo)

Dave Dion was the first three-time champion of the Oxford 250, winning the race in 1975, 1985 and 1992. (Portland Press Herald file photo)

Dave Dion was the first three-time champion of the Oxford 250, winning the race in 1975, 1985 and 1992.

The familiar orange No. 29 Ford of three-time Oxford 250 winner Dave Dion sits at the Stowe (VT) Antique Car Show in August of 2017. Dion won the summer classic in 1975, 1985 and made it a hat trick in 1992.

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