October 25, 1970 the Untold Story of American Motorsports’ Blackest Day.
By Hugh DePalma, Staff -Senior Writer.
It was to be the final race on the historic one-mile Sacramento (CA) Fairgrounds oval built in 1906 which held America’s first dirt race in 1907.
J.C. Agajanian brought in a special show – a 100-miler Open-Competition SuperModified, Champ Car and Sprint Car show.
After torrential rains for a week the track was made ready as possible to hold this open competition with lighting fast racers from around the country vying for the coveted Sacramento Mile win.
The skies had cleared, the sun shown bright with a light southwesterly breeze on Sunday for the start of this ‘big car’ race. During the first heat race, Sacramento’s own Walter Reiff 41, already qualified for the main event, a talented car builder and driver pictured above was watching from the infield. As the racers circled the track early in the heat race an approaching the flag stand, Walt saw his friend popular local driver, Ernie Purssell 28, catch the tall heavy mud berm causing his racer to sharply careen into the outside retaining wall. This ensued with a savage series of flips that left him just past the flag stand in the middle of the track. Private films reviewed for this story, have Ernie still able, reaching to unbuckle. Purssell then turned and saw the entire field barreling down on him at over 150mph.
With the field racing back to the yellow flag, Walt on the inside edge of the track tried to warn oncoming racers. Purssell was hit at full speed broadside by Walnut Creek Ca. Bob Thomas while Walt was hit by Paul Turner of Garden Grove Ca. sliding broadside to avoid him. As Reiff and Purssell were mowed down by the pack, Purssell’s entire top half of the racer was completely obliterated.
This horrific crash with several cars and Walt Reiff being hit by speeding racers happened directly in front of a packed house and six thousand stunned spectators on the front stretch.
Then on lap 35 of the feature, USAC driver, 3 time CSRA Champion Jimmy Gordon 25, was driving the Leonard Faase JC Agajanian Don Edmunds Champ Car. Jimmy was slatted to drive for Agajanian in the upcoming Indianapolis 500. Gordon, also of Sacramento Ca. touched wheels with Bud Gilbert of Santa Anna Ca. The incident caused Gordon’s racer to become airborne, violently flip barrel rolling and cartwheeling down the back stretch as if it was never going to stop. With the final bounce dislodging the fuel tank, Gordon’s terrible wreckage lay directly in front of several speeding racers.
From Sepulveda Ca, Ron Rae’s car swerved twice to avoid the flipping Gordon, but at the very last moment Gordon’s racer bounced directly in front of him. Rae’s car struck the upside down destroyed race car of Gordon and both exploded in a massive ball of flames. Rae, would narrowly escape with his life from his also upside down racer on fire. All three well known local drivers, were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Aggie cancelled the balance of the program with Galesburg Ill, Jerry Blundy HOF declared winner.
Astonishingly, in California’s State Fairgrounds almost 70 years of racing, to that date, these were the first track fatalities in nearly a quarter of a century.
With the end of this day a chapter will close on a shocked city. A city that lost more than its racers, a city that lost part of itself.
This old muddy clay track that held acclaim to the first dirt race in America, a race called ‘World’s Fastest Men’ would reach out and take three of it’s very own before it finally shuttered its doors, forever. RIP
MUDDY ROAD by
Some former Winners; Feddie Agabashian, Don Branson, Hurk Hurtubise, Jud Larson, Duke Dinsmore, Dick Atkins, Johnny Thompson, Al Unser twice, Jimmy Bryan-3 times, Jerry Blundy-3 times, Rodger Ward-3 times, Super Tex A J Foyt-5 times. Some notable drivers; Mario Andretti, Jimmy Gordon, Parnelli Jones, Bill Vuckovich, Gary Bettenhausen, Gary Patterson, Jim Rathman, Al and Bobby Unser, Roger Mccluskey, Jim McElreath, Bobby Marshall, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford
***Sourced facts information for this article came from the writer as a spectator at this event in Sacramento 1970. The writer along with a television film crew recording interviews were conducted for this story an upcoming feature film trailer called ‘MUDDY ROAD’ the Untold Story. Other archival details were obtained directly from public records, reports and several private picture and film collections which are still unavailable to the general public. Jimmy Gordon’s only sister Susan Gordon, her husband Dallas one of Jimmy’s closest friends and Jimmy’s only brother Jack ‘Buddy’ Gordon. Close friend Michael Peart, Jimmy’s close cousin and fellow racer Dave Duncan, former crew chief an early mentor to Jimmy EJ Dolner HOF, Wally ‘Crazy Wheels’ Baker HOF one of Jimmy’s, Ernie’s and Walt’s closest friends and biggest on track rival. Jimmy Gordon’s best friends and pit-man at this race Jimmy ‘Willy’ Williams and Hoppy Hopkinson another long time boyhood friend and racer among other resources. All these people were either related family members an or racers who raced Gordon, Purssell and Reiff. All raced and knew one other well, were a part of the incident an or were present that terrible day.
All rights reserved