The Unforgettable Story of “Sunday! Niagara!”
If you grew up in Western New York during the 1960s and early 70s, you’re sure to remember the radio ads that featured the memorable tagline:
With an excerpt from the pages of Lost Drag Strips II: More Ghosts of Quarter-Miles Past By Scotty Gosson
“The Niagara region was still rural country in the 1950s, with plenty of room to dream in. Local businessman Taylor Johnson may have been the most ambitious dreamer in the country. Johnson bought 197 acres on two parcels of land at the northern edge of Niagara Falls airport on Tuscarora Road. He envisioned a 4,000-foot strip running through the farm land.
Johnson, cleared the future drag strip area by renting a bulldozer and operator to level the topsoil, just before a heavy, wet front settled in four days, then weeks. He guided the operator with no markings on pins but the site of a tree in the far distance as a guide. The saturated soil delayed paving for several more weeks, but Niagara Falls Airport Drag Strip opened immediately after its final paving on June 18, 1961. The crumbling starting line surface (caused by moisture wicking) was soon cured by sprinkling concrete on the track and brooming it in. From that day forward, Niagara was renowned for its excellent traction
Speed shop owner Jerry Hamam was appointed Niagara’s first track manager. In September 1962, Niagara hosted the New York State Championship Drag meet. In the following track newsletter, Johnson trumpeted, “The Drag Meet was a big success! A crowd of 3,000 spectators watched 244 entries burn the hard surface. Last Sunday, we broke two strip records, edged a National Class record, ran some real mean entries from five states and Canada, featured a National Record holder, and paid double price money.” The local Niagara newspaper reported 4,500 fans witnessed that inaugural event.
The Johnsons kept the momentum on their side by continuing to build their program incrementally. Beginning in 1963, Niagara Falls’ Deuces Wild car club became Niagara’s track crew. Each season brought bigger names to the bigger shows, and the local events consistently grew to regional proportions. When Niagara’s success caught the attention of young pros, the buzz inevitably reached various sanctioning bodies wanting to spread their influence. NHRA’s
Jack Hart and Buster Couch signed off on the official sanction approval for Niagara on July 10, 1964.
NASCAR initiated in Drag Race Division completion series in 1965, and the experiment was well received in the NHRA-wary Northeast, including Niagara, where NASCAR sanction continued through the conclusion of the 1967 season, when the program ended. That sanction helped to promote several large events at Niagara (via NASCAR’s advertising in Drag News), most notably, the 1967 NASCAR Summer Nationals. The 1967 Nationals package featured NASCAR’s standard 16-car AA/FD show, the Grand Stock Eliminator (known elsewhere as A/FX), and Gasser match races.
But as early as July 1961, the neighbors had enough with the Sunday afternoons, and the Drag Strip found themselves defending the track to the Town of Niagara Town Board. All parties eventually compromised with a noon-to-dusk Sunday schedule a deal brokered by the Niagara Town Board. The concession brought Niagara another decade of high velocity fun but with unreasonable restrictions that hindered any small business owner and its venture by having the Town of Niagara Town Board impose a regulation of operating only 21 days out of the year and the Niagara Airport Drag Strip met its demise by the end 1974 season.”
But Dean’s appreciation and passion did not end in 1974. With the support of a successful team from the entire Niagara crew none of this would have been possible, especially from Ian Micklethwaite who created the fabulous Sunday Niagara commercials with the delivery by Jack Armstrong that are still the envy of many attempting to recreate what was ours and continues to live in the hearts of many now spanning generations!