ATHENS - A driver takes a risk when he's behind the wheel of a race car, and the early days of USAC (United States Auto Club) Sprint Car racing were risky, indeed.
One driver who made his mark in several types of racing is Larry Dickson. He earned three sprint car championships and has been inducted into six halls of fame.
Dickson was recently honored by being part of the third class to be enshrined into the USAC Hall of Fame on May 17 at the Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Ind. Also enshrined were drivers Rollie Beale, Don Branson, Jud Larson, Norm Nelson, Eddie Sachs, Rodger Ward and Bob Wente, USAC official Bob Stroud, car owner Gus Hoffman, mechanic George Bignotti and race organizer Don Smith. Former inductees include Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Al and Bobby Unser, and Dickson's close friend Gary Bettenhausen.
Dickson is enshrined in the Mid-Ohio Valley Sports Hall of Fame, two in the state of Pennsylvania and in the "Little 500," and was part of the 1990 inaugural class inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
Dickson called the USAC Hall of Fame induction "one of the most rewarding honors of my career, due to the institution's remembrance of sprint car racers and the sport's history."
Larry enjoys spending time at home taking care of his garden. His former hobbies of snow skiing and motorcycle riding are no more due to a knee replacement procedure. He lives with friend Linda Daughtery aiding her in everyday household chores.
The first race Dickson competed in was at the Washington County Fairgrounds in his hometown of Marietta. He got interested in racing watching his older brother, Paul, race at local tracks around Marietta. When Larry Dickson was 13 years old, he purchased a Ford, unknown to his parents, to work on. In short order, he had it running and took it out on the gravel road. But it got away from him and he rolled it twice, with no apparent injuries.
Later, he and his brothers Richard and Paul built a 1934 Ford flathead and soon after completed a second race car. The brothers recruited two local drivers, Bill Dana and Chet Parsons, to do the driving for them, and Larry Dickson served as the team's mechanic.
When Dickson turned 14, he entered a race at Byesville, Ohio, and took home top prize. Later that year, he and Richard Dickson traveled to Zanesville, Ohio, to watch races on the quarter-mile paved oval. While at the track,
Larry Dickson investigated a driving opportunity in the pits and asked the car owners if he could drive for them in the race. He got behind the wheel of their 1934 Ford flathead, started 11th in a 14-car feature and won the race. The car was owned by Don and Dean Long out of Quaker City, Ohio and they had no idea Larry Dickson was only 14.
In 1956, Dickson persuaded his parents to sign documents permitting him to drive a race car.
He opened his racing career in modified stock cars on the quarter-mile base oval at Torch Speedway outside of Marietta. He built a car powered by an Oldsmobile engine he dubbed "Little Linda." The car performed with moderate success until one night at Torch when Dickson was involved in his first serious accident. The car suffered a mechanical failure and caused him to demolish "Little Linda." He spend 10 days in the hospital with a fractured skull and still carries a scar on the bridge of his nose as a result of the surgery.
From 1957-59, Dickson won 12 features races at Torch Speedway and 12 consecutive feature wins at Ohio Valley Speedway with a total of 15 wins in the 1958-59 racing season. In 1960, he hooked up with Bud Robertson of Eldersville, Pa. and in two seasons in the Robertson car, he accumulated championship wins at Heidelburg, Debo, Greater Pittsburgh and Alderman race tracks.
In late 1961, the Long brothers came calling upon Dickson to drive for them in the super modified class. In 1962-63, the combination won championships at Hilltop, Ohio Valley, Midvale and Debo Speedways. The Long brothers hired Floyd Trevis as a mechanic and car builder to construct a sprint-super modified for Dickson to drive. He won two feature events at a track Dickson dubbed his "hard luck track," Greater Pittsburgh. He won three invitationals at Williams Grove, Kittaning, Pa. and Ohio Valley Speedway.
In 1965 while driving for the Long brothers in the URC (United Racing Club) at Hamburg, N.Y., Dickson won his heat race and finished third in the feature.
On that year's URC circuit, he won five features, all at tracks he had never competed on before. In 22 features during that year, he racked up two wins and was crowned URC points champion and thus became the first driver in the 18-year history of the club to win the title in his first year of regular competition.
The early years of Dickson's career saw many wins at both new and familiar tracks. These years set the foundation of his legendary career.
Dickson raced in the USAC and CART Championship series from 1965-81. He was a three-time USAC Sprint Car Series Champion in 1968, 1970 and 1975, and won 43 sprint car races. He was the all-time series leader until Tom Bigelow broke his record.
From 1968-71, Dickson was part of a storm that broke out in the USAC Sprint Car series. He said, "It was the best time of my career in sprint cars."
Dickson found himself a rival that made his competition level rise each time they competed. Gary Bettenhausen was part of "The Larry and Gary show," or "Thunder" (Bettenhausen) and "Lightning" (Dickson).
Dickson and Bettenhausen exchanged the sprint car title between each other those years. Their level of competition was one of the most exciting times in USAC and Dickson said that their "rivalry brought people to the tracks and it was like trying to commit suicide each week."
During his dirt track career, Dickson earned two Silver Crown wins for car owner Russ Polak.
In 1974, he added the "Little 500" to his victory list at Anderson, Ind. At 500 laps, the race is unusually long for sprint car races, and is considered one of the premier sprint car races. The field consists of 33 cars lined up in 11 rows of three, mimicking the traditional Indy 500 lineup. Many eventual Indy 500 drivers competed in the "Little 500" over the years.
Dickson made eight Indianapolis 500 starts. He scored a ninth-place finish in 1969 and has driven several types of cars in his attempts to make "The Great American Race."
He drove a Brawner chassis in 1968 that happened to be the backup car for Andretti. During his final three races at Indy, Dickson raced for Polak, who purchased test cars from Indianapolis legend Roger Penske. One of these cars was driven by four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears. Mears did not run these cars due to a lack of feel and comfort about them.
Dickson said, "To be competitive at Indy, a driver needs a good car, engine and team, because a driver can't muscle a car there."
In 1981 - Dickson's final shot at Indy - he qualified his Polak-owned car 19th and finished a respectable 18th.
Dickson had his shot on the high-backs at Daytona in 1972 and 1973 driving for Richard Giachetti. In 1972, Dickson qualified his Giachetti Ford Torino in the 30th spot and ran 103 laps before succumbing to engine issues and finishing in 21st place.
Dickson's final years in the mid-80s were spent driving for his younger brother Tommy Dickson and Max Brittain in the Silver Crown Series. Tommy Dickson made his mark on the local dirt track scene earning respect regionally until he was injured during a race at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, causing damage to his eyesight and halting his promising career. Tommy was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2010.
Larry Dickson is one of five brothers and two sisters. His parents Robert E. Dickson and Lucille V. Dickson started the Dickson Rendering Company in 1931 in Marietta. The business was in operation for 51 years. A fire broke out in 1982 and destroyed the business. Larry Dickson worked for the family through the week and on weekends to help pay for his racing needs, and charged parts to his dad's company without his father's knowledge. In the late 1930s, Robert Sr. made his first big-dollar deal worth $10,000. It was enough money to pay off several expenses for the company. His children benefited from the business success by receiving a house and car paid for by their parents.
Race fans recall the early years of racing, but few drivers sport a historic career like Larry Dickson's.
Larry's older brother Richard Dickson was unable to attend many races due to being stricken with polio. Richard's two sons, Steve and David, have sewn the seed for a new generation of Dickson racers.
Steve is the operations manager for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in Hillard, Ohio. His son Brandon has joined the team to learn about the business from the bottom of the corporate ladder.
David Dickson races sprint cars at area tracks such as Atomic Speedway in Chillicothe and Skyline Speedway in Stewart.
Paul Dickson's son Mark competes in street stock, late model and modified series..