Remembering The Big Boogie: Beech Bend Park 1978
Feature by Tom McCarthy
In motorcycle drag racing history, perhaps the biggest race ever held is remembered as both a famous and infamous event: The Big Boogie. It was officially called the NHRA National Motorcycle Records Championships, 1978. It was held at Beech Bend Park, Bowling Green, Kentucky on June 16-18, 1978. Due to rain delays on Sunday, the event was finished on Monday, but the race was slated for Friday arrivals, Saturday qualifying and Sunday eliminations.
On the Friday prior to the event, the local paper, the Daily News which is still in print today, noted that “For the ninth year in a row, the Beech Bend International Raceway is hosting the National Motorcycle Record Championships this weekend. Preparations have been made for over 40,000 racers and fans for this year’s event.” The paper went on to indicate “Approximately 600 competitors have preregistered from across the nation and as far away as Canada and England. This year’s event is sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association, according to NHRA division Director Jim Harris.”
So with eight years of previous experience in preparing for and running these events, the staff of Beech Bend Park was set for another year of motorcycle drag racing. But what they were not prepared for was the predicted 40,000 motorcyclists to actually show up. The city of Bowling Green, in Warren County, was prepared for another year of motorcycle drag racing, not “Woodstock” coming to Beech Bend Park. This my friends is the big story about the legendary Big Boogie.
The Beech Bend racing facility, which has been hosting motorcycle races since 1949 and drag racing since the mid 1950’s, was certainly not new to the racing scene in 1978. The track, which was once a dirt straightaway in 1956, with a flag starter complete with stop-watch timing, paid for itself in one season. It was then paved 20 feet wide by the next season’s start. Imagine that, two ten-foot-wide drag racing lanes.
In later years, the track was upgraded to NHRA standards along the way and its first “all motorcycle drag race” was evidently held in 1969. The track had experienced staff and was an NHRA sanctioned racing facility at the time of the National Motorcycle Records Championship event was held. Both Jim Harris and NHRA Division 1 Director Darwin Doll were present at the event.
The racing was indeed great and well attended. Some of the tops in Top Fuel motorcycle were in attendance. The Top Fuel motorcycle entries list for the Big Boogie was a who’s who of Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing legends. #1 qualifier was Kenny Annesley piloting Carl Ahlfeldt’s double engine, injected Kawasaki, with a 7.37 @ 185 mph. Jim Bernard on the Teson & Bernard Honda – Marion Owens, Joe Thronson, and Elmer Trett were next, all on double engine nitro Harleys. Russ Collins with “The Sorcerer” was in the show but one of his two motors had a busted crank. John Dixon with a brand new blown Yamaha, a completely new build, fired it for the first time at this race and qualified for the field. Also T.C. Christenson with the Hog Slayer entered into qualifying, but blew two motors in two qualifying attempts and threw in the towel.
Some of the final rounds of racing were rain delayed until Monday and if memory serves the racers right, as Marion Owens and Jim Bernard were staging to run on Monday; it began to rain again. The two racers had already done their burnouts and were ready to stage when the sky started to open up again. Jim Harris tried to wave them off but the racers nodded to the starter to run them anyway and the starting official complied. Marion broke traction and Jim Bernard hooked up and blasted off for the win. According to more than one eye witness present at the event, tire spray could be seen coming off rear tires down track, as the bikes decelerated. Yes, two Top Fuel motorcycles ran in the rain!
In Super Eliminator action, Ken Blackburn of Ohio beat Bo O’Brachta 8.51 to 8.50 on a holeshot and in Pro Comp, Mike Bruso of California posted a, 8.50 elapsed time against Larry Hayes of Dothan Alabama, who took second place with a 9.08 elapsed time. In Pro Stock Bike: Bob Carpenter of Cornwall Heights, PA won over Sid Pogue, 9.67 to 9.65 in a close one. In Modified Eliminator, Richard Akie of Edwards, IL won over Nicholas Futchko of Oakland, PA, 10.15 to 13.08. In Comp Eliminator: Steve Lukos of CT defeated Charles Henry of Los Angeles, California. There were also four classes of ET bracket bikes and a YOUTH DIVISION race, for children under 12, which was won by Rod Carrier of Fairdale, KY with a 19.14 ET.
While full results and entry lists are not available at the time of the writing of this story, it is abundantly clear that from the partial results available, as reported on page 10 of the Bowling Green local paper; “Daily News,” printed on Tuesday, June 20th, 1978, there was great racing at the event. However, as wild as the action was on the track, that was nothing compared to what was happening in the campgrounds of Beech Bend Park and in the city of Bowling Green that weekend.
Police reports began ringing the phone off the hook on Friday, June 16th, when traffic jams began forming up due to the sudden influx of a few thousand motorcycles coming in off Interstate 65. Swarms of motorcycles from all over the USA just started pouring in along with van loads of good-timers, party people and campers. On Friday night, one man was injured in a shooting and several wrecks were reported and this was just the beginning of the weekend.
It did not take long for Beech Bend Park to fill to overflowing and the party spilled out onto adjacent properties by Saturday. As the giant party took on its own personality, anything that could go wrong, did. Two motorcyclists were leaving the campgrounds, going the wrong way and collided with another in-bound motorcycle with a passenger. The tangled mess of bikes careened off into parked motorcycles and this incident resulted in two deaths along with several serious injuries.
Local emergency ambulance services were hampered by the dense crowd. More than once during the weekend, emergency services staff could not get to injured patients. Overall on the weekend, the ambulance was dispatched not less than 64 times, according to post event reports. A Fire Department pumper was sent to wash spilled gasoline from the wreck off the roadway. Due to traffic, it was reported that the fire truck was unable to complete its assigned duties. The crowd was simply too dense and too unruly.
While a security guard at the park was quoted as saying “Everything is running smoothly at the park,” local police, who had a total police force of less than two dozen officers, were faced with an estimated crowd size of 30,000 people, mostly out of state bikers. It was bedlam, to say the least. The two dozen local officers were clearly overwhelmed.
On Saturday alone, police recorded over 100 traffic complaints in close to a two hour period. Overall on the weekend, over 250 ambulance runs were logged in and this is not counting the squad cars and civilian vehicles that showed up at City-County Hospital, delivering patients of all kinds all weekend. At the local hospital, blunt force trauma was a common assessment that they rendered treatment for, including various contusions of all sorts. The city of Bowling Green did have a helmet law in place at the time of the event, but they really didn’t have enough tickets to hand out, nor the staff to do so, for all the violations witnessed.
When food was not in sufficient supply at the campgrounds, the motorcyclists went to town and sought what they could. While many motorcyclists did eat and pay their bill, reports surfaced of the old “Chew & Screw” scam was happening at various eateries. There were also sightings of do-it-yourself car wash locations with revelers stopping by to wash off, not only their bikes; but tandem showers in public were reported. One law enforcement official was quoted as saying, “Public nudity was so common, I just stopped looking.”
The 1978 National Motorcycle Records Championship event and its aftermath stayed on the front page of the Daily News from Sunday through the Thursday edition, as the people of Bowling Green wanted answers. After the event was over, a Grand Jury was called to action to review what happened and report to the courts.
That report was made on Wednesday, June 28th and reported in the Daily News on Thursday the 29th. The owners of Beech Bend Park assured the people of Bowling Green that next year’s event was canceled and this would never happen again. Some people were in fear of leaving their homes. Traffic came to a stand-still. A dairy barn with livestock inside, burned to the ground Saturday night. Sheriff Jerry Gaines reported that the county would lose close to $120,000 dollars due to treating injuries to people who had no insurance. Over 100 citations were issued for not wearing a helmet, but officers also commented that almost no one wore one all weekend.
As a result of all this, the biggest all-motorcycle drag race was canceled at the racers favorite venue for not only next season, but it was years before a sanction was able to return to Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Big Boogie was indeed one of the greatest motorcycle drag races ever held, if not the biggest of all time. But it’s as famous as it is infamous.
Editor’s Note: My special thanks to the Warren County Public Library, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for allowing me access to their microfiche copies of the Daily News. Also a big thanks to the Daily News which allowed me in to ask questions in person and finally a big thanks to the Museum of Kentucky, located on the campus of Western Kentucky University who also assisted me in my research.
Racers and fans in 2019, who were there in 1978, who contributed to my research had this to say about The Big Boogie:
Ron Teson: “As I recall, the 1978 Bowling Green motorcycle drag race was always a fun time at Beech Bend. There were always more fans there. This year (1978) was over the top with too many people, mostly on motorcycles and drag racing in the campgrounds next to the drag strip. The race was not really affected by this, the rain was the problem. The last round of racing was rained out and was finished on Monday morning when everybody was ready to go home. The good thing for our team (Teson and Bernard) was we won the race in Top Fuel. Marion Owens Vs Jim Bernard, blown Honda. As they went through the traps, it was pouring rain!”
Chris Hand: By 1978 the motorcycle drag racing Nationals at Bowling Green had become an annual trip for us. Beech Bend Park was (and is) a beautiful location the area as a whole is picturesque. The race track itself was the best that we had run on and the pits were large and paved. Covered grandstands were also a nice thing, especially in the Kentucky sun. Bikes that we read about in magazines were always at Beech Bend and the stands were usually full. All in all, going to Bowling Green was pretty much the high point of the year for us in those days. We even witnessed Joe Smith and Tommy Christenson pushing Russ Collins around in his wheelchair when he was recovering from his bad experience on the Honda Triple.
It was after midnight when we rolled into Beech Bend Park so we went in search of the campground to get a couple of hours sleep. The campground was packed and the roads in the park were jammed with motorcycles, bikers were everywhere. We were having to pick our way through until finally it was so crowded we were unable to go any farther at an intersection. Bear was driving and said. “Hand, we have to get out of here. We’re surrounded by bikers and there’s a Honda on the trailer!”
Until that moment I really wasn’t concerned as I had seen “1 %” clubs at the races before and there had never been any trouble. I looked around and saw a few guys wearing patches, don’t remember the name, and there was one really big, rough looking guy who seemed to be in charge. I got out and told the big guy that we needed to get out of there and get to the pits as we were there for the race. I asked him if he could help. He didn’t say a word, walked back to the trailer and looked the Honda over and came back; I held my breath. Then the big guy smiled and said, “Hold on brother, we’ll get you through here.” He walked out into the intersection, blocked traffic and said “You SOBs move and let these guys though, they’re running tomorrow!” Somehow we drove out of there without incident.
Saturday was spent in the pits trying to get the bike ready and teched-in to make a qualifying pass. With invaluable help from Sam Wills, we were able to get the fuel pump flowing in the correct direction we fired on fuel and were ready for the final qualifying session. I had made a mistake in the oiling system and oil was coming out the vent after the burnout so the starting officials shut us off. Our race was over, but we could still watch the event and we learned a lot that weekend. We also faced the fact that we knew very little!
There were rumors going around that included women being dragged out of cars if they didn’t comply with “Show us your T..s ” signs. Guys were being beat-up, hay rolls were set on fire. We were worried about my wife Sharon and our company. But we were powerless as this was many years before cell phones and there was no way to get in touch with the authorities.
Sunday morning we decided to try going back to the track to watch the race. We were able to get into the track without incident. We kept the girls hidden until we passed the mass of bikers on the road going into the park. There was at least one case of “streaking” (popular in those days) on the track which delayed the program while a portly security guard tried to chase the nude runners off the track, (a pathetic scene, but no real harm done). At another point, the race had to be stopped because bottles were being thrown onto the track at the big end, while Top Fuel motorcycles were running!
Whatever the case, a big annual event for motorcycle drag racing ended that weekend. I know Atco was/is huge for many racers and fans, especially in the Northeast. Bowling Green was the big deal for us in the Southeast. The next time I visited Beech Bend was 2006, for the Hot Rod Reunion at which Frankie Spittle had worked hard to include Top Fuel motorcycle pioneers. I had mixed emotions about going back, but it was a great experience. Beech Bend is still a beautiful place and it brought back fond memories of the many good times there. In the modern age, it seems that the Man Cup “Bookends ” at Valdosta has developed a dynamic of their own as major motorcycle drag racing events, especially the World Finals. I guess these races are the 21st-century version of what we held as can’t miss races in the 1970s. I sincerely hope that these events continue without incident.
|Until Next time…
– Tom McCarthy