Thursday, March 30, 2023

Happy Trails to Grandview: The Story of the 2022 Freedom 76 (Cody Manmiller Story)

The bleachers were emptying. Children smiled and screamed as they ran down the front straightaway; their parents slowly followed behind. Some gathered their blankets, their coolers and other belongings looking for their next destination: the pits, the parties in the parking lot, or their car to head home. Men in their fifties stood a bit longer, looked out on the scene for a beat more, attempting to wrap their heads around another loss.

Blue confetti littered the checkered board squares inside Victory Lane. Despite so much noise, the air was quiet.

Then, Roy Rogers’ 1952 song rang gently through the public address speakers.

Some trails are happy ones.

Others are blue.

Happy trails to you.”

The 2022 Freedom 76 was over. After 60 years of racing; 60 years of competition, of friendships, of summer nights, of triumph and joy, of heartbreak and anger; 60 years of cracking a beer in the pit area, of handshakes and hugs, Grandview Speedway turned out the lights. 

Months before that night, the Rogers family, who owned and operated the Grandview Speedway since it opened in 1963, was approached by email about a possible sale of their property. 

“There were a lot of tears,” said Tina Rogers, the track’s assistant manager.

“When we were first approached, I didn’t know anything about CoPart. I had never heard of it, or knew how big they were. I didn’t know they had bought or tried to buy other race tracks in North Carolina and in Englishtown, I didn’t look into it too much until we needed an answer.

“Then I was like, ‘What do we do?’”

Grandview is as family-owned as it gets. Originally starting with the family’s patriarch Forrest Rogers, who began building the one-third mile high-banked clay oval in the fall of 1962, the track has always been under the guidance of the Rogers family. When Forrest passed away four years into its operation, his son Bruce took over. Under Bruce and wife Theresa, Grandview has prospered into the place it is today, while their children Tina and Kenny have massive roles in the day-to-day operation. Tina’s son Brad Missimer is now an important figure at the speedway every Saturday night. After Bruce’s death in 2017, the facility is under Theresa’s management.

“For us, as the kids, my father was on my mind a lot,” Tina explained. “I just kept thinking, at age 87, what would my dad do? After a lot of talking, my mom said, ‘With your blessing, I think now is the time.’” 

“She (Theresa) is 81. She deserves retirement. Ken (aged 61) and I are no spring chickens,” Tina said with a laugh. “We didn’t know if this opportunity would ever arise again.”

Eventually, the papers were signed and a time frame was agreed upon: 120 days. The sale of Grandview Speedway would be finalized on November 10. 

Meanwhile, every Saturday night, the track was hosting weekly racing. While the Rogers awaited an upcoming two-division show to tell the drivers and teams, the news broke at a Washington Township meeting. 

“I never got to talk to the drivers. 

“I never meant to hurt anyone and my only regret is after signing the papers, we waited to tell anyone,” Tina said. “I didn’t know it was going to be news at the township meeting that night. Had no idea.”

News spread quickly.

“I thought, ‘How could this be happening?!’ Of all tracks, you would NEVER believe Grandview would be the one to close,” said Jeff Ahlum, the track’s announcer and public relations official.

“There have been maybe four or five nights in my career where something has happened where it becomes difficult, but you still do your job. That night when Tina told us, it was like a punch in the gut, but you still have to be happy and go out there and make it all sound good because nobody else knew it … except for us,” Ahlum added.

“I was disappointed, but there is nothing you can do about it,” said Mark Garman, who has worked in the Grandview tower for 26 years. “I never missed a race at the Reading Fairgrounds from 1961 to 1979 and it was the same feeling, same sadness, same helplessness. It’s like someone took my house away.”

“Disbelief. How could this happen? What even happened?” Craig Von Dohren remembered thinking. Von Dohren, affectionately known as CVD by his many supporters, has won more weekly races at Grandview, 123, than any other driver in the speedway’s history.

Then came the backlash. Social media, mostly Facebook, became a wildfire for criticism, crude behavior, and pure hate.

“I never expected all that negativity; I wasn’t sold on Grandview being sold, though,” Rogers said. “Everyone else seemed to think it was a done deal.” 

“I was pissed at people that would say that shit,” Von Dohren said. “For the past 60 years, they (the Rogers) made a commitment to be there every Saturday; they didn’t miss a race for a wedding or a picnic, or because it’s too cold. They were there every Saturday night.” Von Dohren added of the Rogers and the comments directed toward them.

“It’s not their (the Rogers family) responsibility to run everyone’s life,” he said.

Every Saturday, the races continued. On the track, Von Dohren and Brett Kressley were in a battle for the season-long points championship in the Modified division. Off of it, the crowds swelled. As the season dwindled, more and more people packed the bleachers, almost willing the sale to fall through. 

“It was an absolute pleasure that people really thought, ‘I’m losing something here, I got to get back to Grandview one more time,’” Rogers said. “There was definitely a ‘don’t know what you have ’til you don’t have it’ element for people.

“I thought, ‘My God, these people really LOVE Grandview.’”

Tina Rogers

“It was business as usual,” Von Dohren said of the remaining regular season races. “The points are a rat race down there and we just really made the points a priority and knew after the sale I just needed to finish the job.”

He did. Von Dohren captured yet another track championship in maybe his best season to date. The Oley, Pa. native won 13 races at the Bechtelsville race track in just 25 starts. He finished with an astounding 20 top-five finishes and was in the top 10 on 24 occasions. In addition to all of his earnings at the speedway, both weekly and for the points, he finished as the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Northeast Regional Champion worth $15,000.

In the final weeks, however, others felt the weight of what was coming.

“The week before the Sixer,” Ahlum began. “Ron Haring Jr. won his first career feature on the final points night. As I’m watching this race and announcing, so many thoughts were going through my head, then I thought: ‘this is freaking cool.’ I thought of his family; his dad won a race, his brother has won, and he’s been trying for 10 years to win a race.

“If Grandview closes, this will never happen again. All of these families that have come here forever and raced through multiple generations, this can never happen again,” Ahlum continued.

“I stopped announcing for a lap because I almost choked myself up thinking about that.”

Jeff Ahlum

September 17, 2022. The 52nd Annual Freedom 76. The final Modified race at Grandview Speedway … ever?

“I remember saying to people, ‘Don’t believe everything you hear,’” Rogers said. “This isn’t a done deal.”

“I had fans coming up to me sad, some even crying,” Garman said. “Grandview is a place where the same people come and sit in the same seats every week for years. Then the people around you become your family; you don’t see them all week because you live two hours apart and then go and sit next to each other every Saturday. It was a tough pill for some to swallow.”

“After finishing the points the week before, the next week is the Sixer, so you’re doing your maintenance and everything you normally do during the week,” Von Dohren said. 

“I said to myself, ‘I’m the guy that better win the Sixer,’” he continued. “There was a lot of pressure involved being the last race, and I had a great car and we had a great season, this would be a fitting way to end it.”

“It really hit me the morning of the Sixer,” Ahlum said. “I got to the track around 10 a.m. and there were NO spots to be had.

“I thought, ‘What in the hell is going on here today?!’ The Sixer is always big, but it was incredible to see how the people were responding. This place and this track really meant something to people,” Ahlum said. 

An incredible field of 72 Modifieds signed in to race that weekend. When rules official Ed Scott addressed the crowd at the night’s driver’s meeting, he choked up at the end of his speech.

“Ed was emotional much of the season,” Rogers said. “The officials would hang at the picnic table at the end of the night and Ed would say, ‘It’s alright, we’ll be racing next year.’” 

Once the first green flag flew from starter Ray Kemp, the night was … normal. At least normal for the Freedom 76. 

“During the pace laps, I took a moment,” Garman said while in the tower. “While Jeff (Ahlum) did his thing coming down for the green, I took it all in.

“Here we go. I took a moment to myself and thought ‘If these are the final laps at Grandview…’ I smiled and said, ‘Boy, I had a good 26 years here; I really enjoyed myself and will for the final time,’” Garman finished.

After 76 laps, it was Von Dohren standing on the roof of his car covered in confetti, holding a check worth $30,060. A fitting ending. Kressley and Jeff Strunk joined him on the podium.

“I’m never on the roof now. I’m too old,” Von Dohren joked. “Once we did win and I crossed the scale, the emotions came out. Kenny (Rogers) stuck his head in and was emotional; It was as emotional as I get. It was hard.” 

“After he won, I leaned in his car and said, ‘Oh, you weren’t gonna go without winning this last race,’” Tina Rogers remembered. 

“Then, I got a little teared up and he said, ‘There’s no crying in baseball, Tina.’” 

“That was the only time I can say I was emotional, not because I thought that was the last one, but that it hurt him and hurt so many people, so it hurt me,” Rogers said.

After staying a little longer in Victory Lane, Von Dohren was back to celebrate. 

“You know how Grandview is,” he laughed. “At the trailer, people hand you seven different types of beer, from Old Milwaukee to Labatt’s. Then we made our way over to the camper and just kinda hung out. 

“We’d say, ‘Is this really happening?’ It didn’t feel finished. It sounded like it, but didn’t quite feel that way,” Von Dohren said. 

When asked if he took a souvenir from the night, he said, “We won the prize, that was my memory, my nostalgia piece.”

Others did. After finishing technical inspection, Strunk, a 10-time Grandview champion, pulled on to the track and made one final lap, instead of exiting to the pits. 

“That was a lot of class for him to do that,” Rogers said. “That’s his race track and it meant a lot to him.”

Finishing in Victory Lane, Ahlum had one more trick up his sleeve. 

“For weeks I was thinking about what to do on that final night,” Ahlum said. “We needed to do something! There were so many unfortunate endings like East Windsor and Penn National and Silver Springs; it’s so sad when you don’t get to celebrate the end of places like that with so much history and so many people that supported those places. It’s like you turn the switch off and it’s over.”

After mulling over numerous different ideas, Ahlum settled on his plan, and even did so without running it past the Rogers family. 

He pulled his phone from his pocket, found the Roy Rogers song and pulled it close to the microphone.

It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.

Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.

Happy trails to you,
Keep smiling until then.”

As story would have it, Strunk’s final tour around the high banks wasn’t the final one.

“Brad (Missimer) took one final lap,” Rogers said. “It was so emotional; his wife was emotional and there were tears in Brad’s eyes when he had our grandchildren in Victory Lane with him.

“Brad and Bruce were very close and I know how he felt.”

“At this point in our lives, putting on phenomenal and popular races that my dad developed… I’m so proud that we can continue to do that without him here. It’s a stressful race with a lot of moving parts and worrying about a lot of things, but to pull off a race like that is a great moment.

“The Sixer was always my dad’s favorite race. To continue that tradition is a great moment for me and as I get a little older, it means more.”

When CoPart asked for an extension, a reprieve from their original agreed upon date of Nov. 10, Theresa Rogers and the family stuck to their word. 

“Say what you mean. Mean what you say,” Tina emphasized. 

The deal was off. 

This Saturday, April 1, the Grandview Speedway opens its gates for the 61st consecutive season – and with many more on the horizon.

Happy trails to you,

Until we meet again.”

See you, Saturday.



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