OXFORD – Bobby Walker’s first glimpse of Bob Bahre’s vision came over breakfast at what is now Shaner’s Restaurant in South Paris.

“He said, ‘I’m going to have a 200-lap race as part of the Open series,'” recalled the long-time track announcer and PR man for Oxford Plains Speedway. “He wrote it out on a napkin. He was famous for doing deals on napkins. He said he was going to get a NASCAR sanction for it, a (Late Model) Sportsman’s race sanction.”

“He had a crystal ball that nobody else had,” he added.

Those who know Bahre, now 81, believe he envisioned what will take place today, when more than 10,000 racing fans and roughly 100 drivers from mostly New England and Canada gather for the 35th running of the TD Banknorth 250.

The first race in 1974, billed as the “Oxford National 200-lap Open Championship,” drew 10,000 curious spectators, many of whom had only seen a race just half its length. Thirty-five years later, the TD Banknorth 250 remains steadfast, looked upon by fans and drivers like an annual family reunion in a sport that has become virtually unrecognizable after its recent explosion in popularity.

With independent, short-track races now virtually extinct, replaced by televised touring series with bigger purses, Bahre’s baby, including the original formula of a blind draw leading to qualifying races filled with motorized mayhem, has become an institution.

“The man had a vision,” said Al Hammond, a South Paris driver who raced in the first 250 and continued through the turn of the century. “He just builds it and makes it work.”

Typically, Bahre deflects the credit for his creation.

“My brother, Dick, who worked for me at the time (as track manager), had as much to do with it as I did,” Bahre said. “I would almost say it was his brainchild, and we worked together on it. We believed that we needed something big up here in the Northeast.”

With a $25,000 purse ($4,500 going to the winner), the race caught the attention of drivers up and down the East Coast.

“The first race, we had Bill Dennis there, we had Morgan Shepherd there. Morgan borrowed a car. He was chasing the points championship and he borrowed a car every race he went to,” Walker said. “Then Boscoe Lowe showed up, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there.”

‘The Big Show’

Bahre had held big races at OPS before. He lured the NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) division to Oxford for a pair of Maine 300s in 1967 and 1968. Bobby Allison won the first – his first career victory – while Richard Petty collected one of his record 200 career victories.

One-hundred-lap races dominated the schedule in the early 1970s. The Getty Open, described by Hammond as “hellacious, run-what-ya-brung races” were the highlight of each season.

Local drivers knew the 200 would draw big-name competitors from the South, but trusted Bahre would make them the stars of the show.

“Instead of giving the big show to the Grand National guys back then, he wanted to do it for us local guys,” said Hammond, who began racing at OPS when Bahre started leasing the track in 1964.

Fans, however were slow to embrace the new race at first.

“We had to work hard to sell tickets,” Walker said. “Nobody had ever heard of such a thing – a 200-lap race and $5,000 to win.”

“We didn’t know who Al Grinnan was or Boscoe Lowe,” said Ron Michaud, a Lewiston resident and writer who has attended the race every year since 1974. “It was OK, so what? We knew that the regional drivers were going to be there, the Dave Dions and several others that were running the 100s.

“I didn’t know, and I don’t think most people had any idea where this was going,” he added.

They had an idea by race day, when 84 racers from 14 states and two Canadian provinces drove into the pits and 10,000 people packed the grandstand. The thrills started early, just as they will today.

“The qualifying was great. That’s where the qualifying got the reputation of being the best racing of the day,” Walker said.

Grinnan held the lead for the first 34 laps of the 200. George Summers of Upton, Mass. passed him on the 35th lap and showed no intentions of relinquishing the lead for the next 160 circuits. Most of the action was in the battle for second among Joey “Kid” Kourafas of Sharon, Mass., Jean Paul Cabana of Belaile, Quebec, Bobby Dragon of Milton, Vt., and George Coolidge of Poland.

Kourafas seized the second spot on lap 155 and stayed their until lap 198. That’s when, under a yellow caution flag, Summers’ engine began to sputter. The leader, thinking he had a big enough cushion on the field, pulled into the infield pit for gas.

“I had no choice. I couldn’t make it the rest of the way,” Summers said after the race. “I thought I had lapped the entire field, which would have allowed me to make a quick pit stop and get back in as the leader.”

But Summers was wrong. The 21-year-old Kourafas was on the same lap as him. When Summers drove out, he was running third behind Kourafas and another Massachusetts driver, John Rosati. Kourafas held on for the dramatic victory, winning $4,500.

‘Wild and wacky’

With no electronic scoreboard, no radios, and scoring in the tower done by hand, chaos sometimes reigned at the finish line. The race was marked by a number of controversial finishes in its early years.

“That was part of the fun of racing back then, seeing who would get upset, what they would actually do or how far they would go,” Michaud said. “It was a little bit wild and wacky when you had that element in there.”

Summers, who was awarded $3,175 for second, paid $100 to file an official complaint. All notes and scoring records were forwarded to NASCAR, but it confirmed what Bahre already had said after the race.

“We have every reason to believe,” Bahre said then, “the unofficial standings will become official.”

Bahre also made an announcement to the stunned crowd that day.

“We wanted to make sure they had to make pit stops, so then after that we said we’d change it to a 250,” he said.

Hammond finished 21st in his 1965 Chevelle, winning $200. The highest Maine finisher was Bobby Tibbetts of Gray, who placed sixth. Lowe and Grinnan finished two spots behind him, while NASCAR veteran Tiny Lund placed 23rd. Dennis blew an engine at the halfway mark as he was starting to make a move on Grinnan for second and finished 27th. Mike Rowe of Turner, who went on to win the 250 three times over the next three decades, finished 36th.

The basic formula

Record numbers of drivers and fans showed up for the first 250 in 1975. The event grew through Bahre’s nurturing, eventually becoming the nation’s richest one-day short-track race. Rivalries developed between drivers from the North and Sportsman drivers from the South. Grumblings of favoritism toward the northern drivers were diffused when Bahre brought in one of NASCAR’s longest-serving officials, Morris Metcalfe, a southerner, as chief scorer.

It continued to thrive after Bahre sold the track to Michael Liberty in late 1986. It became NASCAR Busch Grand National event for many years, bringing relative unknowns such as Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton to the oval. Dozens of drivers returned to compete annually over the course of the next two or three decades.

“I made a lot of friends over the years in that race,” Hammond said.

The 250 remained the largest sporting event in Maine under Liberty despite financial difficulties, a switch to pro stocks, an acrimonious split with promoter Tom Curley and another messy divorce from NASCAR. All the while, similar races around the country, such as the All-American 400 in Nashville, have fallen by the wayside.

“There are no more independent races anymore. They’re all part of a tour some place,” Walker said. “The Snowball Derby down in Pensacola, Fla., (at Five Flags Speedway) is about the closest thing to it.”

Some predicted the 250 had taken a path to extinction when current owner Bill Ryan Jr. made the switch back to late models for 2007. The move alienated some drivers and fans.

“There are still a lot of pro stocks around, and to me, that’s the what (the 250) should be, a pro-stock race,” said Hammond, who stopped racing a couple of years before the switch. “It’s just the class that works.”

Bahre’s vision still works, and according to Michaud, who has covered the 250 for “The Racing Paper” for 14 years, that is why the 250 remains a must-see event for racing fans.

“It certainly has had its ups and downs. But it endures, that’s for sure,” he added. “It’s the basic formula. It’s worked extremely well, and whether it was Bob Bahre, Michael Liberty or Bill Ryan Jr., they haven’t bent on that part of it. I think it would just about end the whole thing if they did otherwise.”

“Thirty-five years, I can’t tear myself away,” he added.

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