May 11th's Races Pay Tribute to OCFS Great, Bobby Bottcher
By Bill Hanna
1973 Modified Point Champion and 26-time Modified Winner honored tonight.
Saturday, May 11th, the Orange County Fair Speedway continues to honor it’s past as part of the 100th Anniversary of Racing Campaign by honoring one of its’ most popular and well-respected drivers, Bobby Bottcher. The Devil Made Us Do It “666” also pays tribute to a time in Bottcher’s Modified career aboard one of the most successful modifieds of their time, the Ritter/Kleintop no. 666 of which carried Bottcher to 15 of his 26 career Orange County Fair Speedway wins as well as the 1973 Track Championship and 1974 Eastern States 200 victory.
Bottcher, a long-time resident of Lehighton, PA certainly has had his share of both highs and lows in his storied racing career, which started in 1957 at the ½ mile Lehighton Fairgrounds when the driver of the car failed to show for a race. Bottcher, then 16, was co-owner of the car and the missing driver was Paul Thack. When Thack didn’t show at the track that day, Bottcher signed in as him, and wearing a mask so his parents wouldn’t recognize him, he took the track. Wearing the mask presented its’ own share of problems for Bobby, as he had trouble breathing and soon thereafter, removed it. While under caution and passing the grandstand, Bottcher saw a woman in the crowd shaking a finger at him. It was his mother, and as the race ended and upon returning to the pit, his father was waiting for him. Fearing what was to come, his father leaned in the car and said, “Well, I gather this is what you want to do. If it is, there is no way I’m going to be able to stop you.” Thus, his racing career started and continued for decades.
In addition to the Lehighton Fairgrounds, racing was also being held at nearby Mahoning Valley Speedway and Bottcher quickly found success on the tiny little ¼ mile track, which was dirt at the time, and under the sanction of the Lehighton Stock Car Racing Association.
Running his self-built and owned # 44 which was a pretty brown little ’32 Ford. He won numerous features with this car but could not garner the track championship. He did, however claim a victory in a 35 lap championship race in 1959, as well as being named most popular driver, something that would follow him throughout his racing career. Bottcher remembers 1961 fondly as well, as he remembers winning seven straight races in that year at Mahoning.
Another highlight of his limited sportsman career according to Bottcher was a date in September of 1964 when he won two features in one day, racing at Evergreen Speedway in the afternoon and then Grandview Speedway that evening, taking the checkered in both features, the only time of that happening in his career.
Bottcher was also starting to race Modifieds, and at Reading, he unfortunately was involved in an accident in which he was shaken up. In addition, his expecting wife was witness to the crash, and the driver then left racing at that time to concentrate on being the provider for the family. While away from the track, there was still that urge to race, as many will state that once it gets in your blood, it never goes away.
When go-kart racing started at Bear Memorial Park in Lehighton, there was Bobby with a go-kart competing once again. Soon thereafter he was back in the stock cars, racing sportsman, and then being offered a modified ride once again by Ettore Camille of Reading to driver his brown # 43. The talent he exhibited in driving a powerful modified was obvious, and soon the young driver was hired to pilot one of the most iconic modifieds of all-time, in Easton PA’s Harold Cope owned # 1. Harold took Bottcher aside, changed his driving style, teaching Bottcher that winning was what racing was all about.
Success came to the team at Nazareth with his first of 32 career modified wins on September 24, 1967. In addition, Bottcher was also racing at the nationally known Reading Fairgrounds, driving quite often in the Freddy Adam owned # 8, as the “Kutztown Komet” was at the time driving another iconic modified, the Joe Bullock # 76. Though a win at Reading never came to fruition, there were several strong runs through the late 60’s at the Berks oval.
1969 found Bottcher making his first treks to Orange County, and he immediately took a liking to the Hard Clay. In previous interviews, Bottcher stated about Middletown, “Nazareth certainly was closer, but the people up there (Middletown) treated us really well, they were good people and the Middletown organization treated us very nice.” It certainly made the weekly two-hour drive every Saturday for about a dozen years easier for him.
Bottcher’s first success at Orange County came aboard the Richard Ege owned # 9, as he captured his first career win at Orange County on September 5, 1970, and he followed that with two more consecutive wins in September including a 100 lapper on September 19th. Bottcher loved the old OCFS track, even with its quirks. “When you first went up there, it was a flat track,” Bottcher once stated, “If you went out too far in the third and fourth turn, there was a dump back there. I liked it because it wasn’t a hard race track. Most times when we ran it, there were two or three (racing) grooves – that was great.”
The 1971 racing season found Bottcher taking his talents to a new ride, the Ron Ritter/Jack Kleintop owned # 666. The team decided to support the newly formed Tri-State Owners Association, and with a year long dispute with management at several local speedways, found most of their racing at only the home track of the organization, the Harmony Speedway, located along the Delaware river near Phillipsburg, NJ. Success aboard the car as 6 wins in that season was recorded by Bottcher at Harmony. Thankfully, the dispute ended near the end of that season, and Bottcher was able to return to his weekly Orange County / Nazareth circuit in 1972. Bottcher and the Red # 666 certainly had no problem adjusting back to his normal surroundings, visiting victory lane at both tracks. The team certainly had no problem with the number either, long before there was any evil connotation to it. Bottcher stated, “No one had any idea about the devil or anything like that.”
Bottcher’s years aboard the Ritter/Kleintop # 666 were certainly his best years in racing, particularly 1973 & 1974. He captured his only Orange County Fair Speedway Modified Track Championship in 1973 besting Buzzie Reutimann, Johnny Haroll, Carl Van Horn, and Bill Wilson for the title. He came back in 1974 to finish second in season points, losing only by six points to Reutimann. He made up for it though by taking his only Eastern States 200 at the end of the season, his sixth win of the season, which equaled his 1973 win total. In addition, he captured his best finish at the Syracuse Mile finishing 5th in the annual 100-mile event. He was at the time easily recognized as one of the top ten modified drivers in the northeast and his fortunes looked to be nothing short of continued success.
But 1975 was not to be the same. The season started out like the prior two seasons, taking the second show of the season with a 30-lap feature win on April 19th. In May though an apparent rift between Ritter & Kleintop put Bottcher in the middle of the dispute and he was out of the ride. He picked up a ride in the Loren Holland 280, but in the first heat of May 31st and in his first outing behind the wheel, lap 3 saw Bottcher experience a stuck throttle entering turn three and he backed the car into the wall and Bottcher suffered head injuries, which were serious enough to require a short stay in the hospital. He did return in two months and although he had limited success in the car, it certainly was not of Bottcher’s standards and he quickly moved on a multitude of part time rides. In fact, several weeks found him on the sidelines entirely, and rumors surfaced that the crash was to signify the end of his career.
He came back though in 1976, starting first in the potent Ferraiuolo # 73, finding little success. He then moved onto the Higbie Brothers # 97 for a few weeks, and then was offered the wheel behind the Memmelaer/Kummerfeldt 45, which he took to victory lane on July 17th. However, it would be the last top five finish for Bottcher and the team for the remainder of the racing season.
Then in the winter of 1977, the announcement was made that Bottcher was joining forces with the Higbie Brothers for a full-blown assault at both Orange County and Nazareth. A new car was prepped over the winter, and the team made its debut at Nazareth. The two events to iron out the bugs of the new machine obviously paid off dividends, as Bottcher returned to his winning ways at Orange County on opening day taking the 30-lap feature to the approval of the fans.
Bottcher drove the Higbie # 97 to 13 career wins, including 6 at Orange County, with his last win coming on August 4, 1979. His final career win came at Nazareth on June 8, 1980. His career win total through my research shows 71 confirmed career wins, 32 at Nazareth, 26 at Orange County, 6 at Harmony, 4 at the hi-banks of Lebanon Valley, winning their monthly open competition 100 lappers 4 times between 1969 and 1973.
In Limited Sportsman competition, my research shows numerous wins at Mahoning Valley (probably well above 10), 2 sportsman wins at Grandview, and a win at Evergreen.
The Bottcher name continued on in local racing history, as his son Steve began racing in the late 70’s and garnered 6 career modified wins at Orange County as well. All his wins were driving for the same Higbie Brothers # 97 that his dad drove for. Bobby Bottcher was always one of the fans most popular drivers of his era, and tonight as the Orange County Fair Speedway pays tribute to the man from Lehighton PA, I am sure his legions of fans are proud of the fact that in its 100th year celebration that the Orange County Fair Speedway found it fitting to honor this man that always took a “family approach” to his racing endeavors.