(TOLEDO, Ohio – March 26, 2015) – Jack Bowsher spent three full seasons on the ARCA Racing Series national tour – consecutively from 1963 through 1965 – before he charged off in a different direction. No driver dominated quite the way he did over his three-year trick. Certainly, no driver won as many races as he did in the same amount of time. It’s also probably safe to say that six-time champ Iggy Katona, and other ARCA lions of the day, were glad to see him go. In fact, Katona would not see another championship until Bowsher victoriously, and always unceremoniously, marched off into the sunset.
The Springfield, Ohio racing legend racked up an amazing 55 wins – still third all-time, 54 of which came in the aforementioned three-season span. Fittingly, his 55th and final win would be his series swan song at Daytona in ’66. He literally came in with a bang and left with a boom, leaving the nationally touring ARCA stars of the day scratching their heads, staring at the ground, kickin' dirt and searching for answers.
During Bowsher’s incredible reign, the ARCA tour was, at the time, staging annual events at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. By now, you probably won’t find it hard to believe that Bowsher won them all – three in a row.
Back then, the ARCA events at Nashville were 300-lappers, rather than the more standard 200-lap versions today. Bowsher, in his signature No. 21 Ford, handily and continually steered his way into Victory Lane to earn his place in the ARCA-Nashville history books. In his last Nashville appearance, sort of like his Daytona swan song, he went out the ‘boom’ way winning from the pole with a new one-lap track record, and dominating the race.
Outside of his uncanny ability in the cockpit, Bowsher was also a trendsetter on several fronts – not only in the driver/owner stat columns, but as an innovator, as time would tell. He literally transcended ARCA’s history as the final MARC (Midwest Association for Race Cars) champion in 1963, and the first ARCA (Automobile Racing Club of America) champion in 1964.
“I’ll never forget it,” Bowsher said in 2002. “John (Marcum/ARCA founder) was having some health problems in early ’64, so I went to visit him in Toledo. I drove up and there he was sitting on his front porch with a stack of mail in his hands. He handed me a letter and asked me to open it. So I did. It was a copy of the new ARCA logo. He asked me ‘how do you like it?’ I said, ‘I like it a lot.’ There’s still a lot of similarities from that first logo we looked at to the one that exists today.”
Bowsher’s domineering driving style was none more apparent than in ’64 when he cleaned up with 16 wins in 35 races, nearly half the events he entered. Bowsher added Daytona to his win list column as well as the Hagerstown Maryland dirt, West Virginia Int’l Speedway, Fort Wayne, Sandusky, Winchester and in his hometown of Springfield. Bowsher picked up where he left off in ’63, sweeping all three Salem races as well as three at Dayton Speedway, two 300-lap contests and a grueling 500-lapper (no power steering). Nothing could slow him down. Not distance, track-type or travel. From the dirt-tracks to the paved Midwestern bullrings, to ARCA’s new superspeedway program, Bowsher was clearly the man to beat. At season’s end, he had demolished the competition with his second consecutive national championship, winning by 880 points over runner-up finisher Jim Cushman.
The 1965 season brought little change for Bowsher or his competition. Typically, no matter who showed up, from Katona to Bobby Watson, from Les Snow to Charlie Glotzbach, from Dick Freeman to future NASCAR Cup champion Benny Parsons, when the dust settled, they were chasing Bowsher. He won more than half the events in ’65, 25 races in all, a record that still stands. It all culminated with his third consecutive ARCA national championship. Katona finished a distant second, 985 points away.
By 1966, Bowsher had clearly captured the attention of the stock car world as well as the Ford Motor Company, which offered factory support. There was, of course, a hitch that came with the support. Ford wanted Bowsher to run USAC, and, about that time, Bowsher had a falling out with Marcum.
“Ford wanted me to run two cars in USAC so we went to Riverside (California) in ’66 with Mario (Andretti). They were Holman-Moody cars. All the Ford stuff back then went through Holman-Moody. In fact, Ford set me up with an account at Holman-Moody. The Wood Brothers’ account number was 21; mine was 121. After Mario drove, Ford gave me my choice of three drivers – AJ (Foyt), Mario and I think Parnelli (Jones). I told ‘em I wanted AJ. They asked me, ‘what makes you think you can get along with AJ?’ I said, ‘because he’s a racer and I’m a racer and we both want to win.’ I always got along well with AJ; we never had a problem we couldn’t work out between us.”
In addition to Foyt, name-brand drivers like Parnelli Jones, Bud Tingelstad, Bobby and Al Unser, Donnie Allison, Lee Roy Yarbrough and David Pearson, among others, drove Jack Bowsher-prepared Fords at one time or another. (Left to right: AJ Foyt, Edsel Ford, Jack Bowsher, Bobby Unser)
Few drivers of the day turned down the opportunity to drive his stuff. While Bowsher continued to field USAC stock cars for a variety of drivers including his sons Jim and Gary, he also managed to win 21 USAC stock car races himself through the course of his USAC career, no simple feat considering that many of the drivers in USAC’s stock car division back then were the same seasoned warriors who made up the starting grid for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, the Indy 500.
Bowsher, the trendsetter, added an interesting tidbit regarding the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“A lot of people think that the first stock cars to run at the Brickyard were the “Winston Cup” cars in the Brickyard 400. Well, that’s not exactly true. AJ and I did a tire test there for Goodyear in the late 60’s. I remember driving up to the gate at Indianapolis with the stock car on the open trailer. The guard at the gate said, ‘You ain’t racing that thing here.’ Hell, I had to go back up to the office to get clearance to go in for the tire test. I guess the guard wasn’t ready for that.”
Bowsher, the innovator, is also credited with inventing the “downtube” car, a chassis used in abundance today in open wheel divisions across America, Australia, New Zealand and wherever sprints, midgets and Silver Crown cars go around the world. Bowsher, long before Steve Kinser wheeled his way to WoO championships in downtube sprint cars, was developing and experimenting with new downtube chassis concepts in the 1950s. It was during that jalopy/modified era that he built the first down-tube open-wheel modified racecar. The rest is history.
And while most of the jalopies from that era were coupes, Bowsher also brought one of the first sedans (pictured) to competition. “They all thought I was nuts when I brought out the Sedan. It just wasn’t something they were use to seeing I guess. But I’m telling ya, they couldn’t see around that thing; they had to follow me. I won a lot of races that way.”
In addition to winning the USAC National Stock Car title with Foyt driving, he began to field cars for his sons, Gary and Jim. Possibly, the most memorable day was at Texas World Speedway in 1978 when Gary held off Foyt for the win. Jack’s Ford also won the stock car class at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1976 with his sons’ Gary and Jim sharing the driving duties with NASCAR legend David Pearson and son Larry Pearson.
With the decline of the USAC stock car division in the early 80’s, he returned to familiar territory – the ARCA national championship tour in 1982. Bowsher entered a Ford at Talladega Superspeedway with driver Jim Vaughan and won the ARCA Talladega 200 on May 1. Worn out with the constant travel, Bowsher opted out for the next six seasons, fielding cars for his sons closer to home.
It would not be until 1988 that Bowsher made his return to ARCA in earnest. It would mark the beginning of a new era that would introduce son Bobby as his primary driver.
Near the end of the ’89 season, Bowsher was asked to sub on the Springfield Mile Dirt for ’88 ARCA national champion Tracy Leslie who was unable to attend. A month shy of his 59th birthday, he reluctantly stepped out of retirement and stepped into Leslie’s Pontiac. He also won the pole position at better than 102 mph and finished 10th in the race on the lead lap. His son Bobby finished 14th, one lap down. It was, by all accounts, just another remarkable feat in the life and times of Jack Bowsher.
And, as history shows, Jack and his son Bobby became the only father-son ARCA champions in history with titles in ’92 and ’94. When Bobby stepped aside, Jack fielded Fords for the next in line – Todd Bowsher in 2000, a union that lasted up until Jack’s passing in 2006.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘would I do it different if I had it to do all over again?’ I always say – well of course I would. I’d fix what needs to be fixed and leave the rest alone. Someone came up to me the other day and said I was his hero. Well, that hero thing is a little hard for me to understand. I’ve never put myself on a pedestal; as far as I’m concerned, no man is better than the next. A lot of people have asked me about my most memorable moment in racing; I always tell ‘em, ‘the next race we win will be my most memorable moment’. I ain’t a bad man; I just tell it like it is. There’s nothing diplomatic about me and I think I’ve been, at times, a little misunderstood through the years. I respect a person who tells it like they see it; but it’s never been my intention to hurt anyone, but if you ask me, I’m gunna tell ya. If you don’t want to know what I think, then don’t ask.”
Jack Edward Bowsher was born on October 2, 1930 in Harmony, Ohio in the middle of America’s Great Depression. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse (pictured/it still exists) in grades one through eight, he eventually graduated in a class of 127 students from Plattsburg High School in 1948 before he served a year in the Navy in 1949. And it was also in 1949 when Bowsher would see his first automobile race for the first time. His life would never be the same.
“My dad took me to Forest Park in Dayton, Ohio to see a race. It was a little fifth-mile track. When I left that night, I told myself, ‘I’m gunna build me one.’ And I did. It was a ’38 Ford Standard Coupe. Didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing, but that never stopped me before. There at the end of ’49, I started racing over in DeGraff and I think Forest Park once; been racin’ ever since. I’ve never had a real job, or one where I had to punch a clock. I always did my own thing; always did it my way.”
By Don Radebaugh, email@example.com