Thirty Years Ago Rice-A-Roni was the 38th Street Treat!
On a warm, muggy September afternoon on of Indiana’s own was able to fulfill one of his boyhood dreams by taking a championship dirt car to victory lane at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Once a school teacher and a former rookie of the year across town at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1977 USAC Silver Crown champion Larry Rice took home one of the last silver Wolcott Cups before a large and enthusiastic Hoosier Hundred crowd.
September 12, 1981 dawned muggy and slightly overcast in Central Indiana as USAC teams stirred in anticipation of the ~ running of the Hoosier Hundred. USAC’s Dirt Track Division had been renamed “Silver Crown Series” over the winter and the schedule and car counts reflected a new enthusiasm for the upright dirt track championship machines once left for dead. In fact, an attempt had been made by USAC to restore the majestic machines to the national championship trail including events at Springfield and DuQuoin as part of the new “Gold Crown” national championship series. The Hoosier Hundred was part of that Gold Crown Series meaning that for the first time in ten years the 100-mile dirt track classic was part of the ‘national championship’. Yet for the most part fans and drivers seemed to be only concerned with the battle for the Silver Crown title.
The 1981 series opened on the half mile at Eldora and outlaw king Steve Kinser won on the high banks. Kinser came back for the first ever “Hulman 100” in May at the Indiana State Fairgrounds winning the 60-lap main event. George “Ziggy” Snider took a wild Tony Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield (and the Gold Crown lead) in the LeFevre ride vacated by Rice while Gary Bettenhausen continued his mastery of Southern Illinois by winning the Ted Horn 100 at DuQuoin.
Bettenhausen’s Delrose-Holt team had two Grant King machines at their disposal for 1981. One carried the number one on the tail, emblematic of Bettenhausen’s 1980 USAC Dirt Car title, while the other carried the number 14 and was reserved for one A.J. Foyt. Foyt served as a teammate to Bettenhausen in 1980 returning to the Indiana State Fairgrounds after missing the show in 1977. He qualified fourth and ran second for a time before dropping out and the 46 year old Texan intended to run again. However, a nasty crash in the Michigan 500 nearly tore off his right arm and left the 1973 Silver Crown champion hospitalized which opened the door for another driver in the Delrose stable, 1979 Hoosier Hundred pole sitter Steve Chassey.
Other notables in a massive field included veteran Jim McElreath, Sheldon Kinser, Joe Saldana, Billy Vukovich, Bobby Olivero, 1978 winner Billy Engelhart and Rich Vogler. A baby faced Al Unser, Jr. was also in the pit area, driving for Gary Stanton and getting coaching from his father Big Al, a four time Hoosier Hundred winner. Rice would roll out for practice in a Grant King car wearing the familiar colors of George Middleton’s Pizza Huts and wrenched by Junior Knepper.
One thing was evident race morning, the track crew, in an attempt to get a good cushion and surface, watered the track heavily and it required a number of slow warmup laps by the machines just to get the track in raceable condition. Practice times weren’t very quick and neither were the times in qualifications as Rice’s low 35 second circuit led the way. Bettenhausen believed the 14 machine faster than his normal 1 so he swapped rides with Chassey and qualified second. Mark Alderson put a third Grant King chassis in third
With Johnny Parsons in fourth. Bigelow, McElreath, Saldana, Engelhart and Vogler qualified fifth through ninth with Chassey eleventh. Gold Crown title contender George Snider wasn’t fast enough and had to be added to the field as a promoter’s option as was Silver Crown title contender Jack Hewitt. They would start 25th and 26th.
A dry and very click race track awaited the 26 car field for the 29th Hoosier Hundred and the groove was going to be right along the rail the hole way. Passing would be at a premium as would the ability to keep the car straight and not spin the tires. Rice was a master at this type of race and at the green out dragged Gary into the first corner as the field settled in single file.
Engelhart was the first to go out on lap 10, Steve Cannon, Jim McElreath and Larry Dickson all lost engines before lap 20 and Saldana crashed on the 21st circuit. Sometime around lap 30 Bettenhausen got too close the inside rail and blew out the left front tire and knocked a chunk out of the wheel while Vogler moved toward the front.
Chuck Gurney wrecked the ex-Marion Andretti Viceroy machine on lap 40 and slowed the field again giving Bettenhausen a respite from his ill handling car. At speed Gary was able to three wheel the car but in the corners ran the risk of having the left front dig in. The Delrose crew desperately wanted to change the tire but time ran out during the yellow and he waved the crew away.
Lap after lap Rice kept both Bettenhausen and Vogler at bay. Bettenhausen was on the verge of losing control more than once trying to get around Rice and finally lost second to Vogler. In a dash to the checker reminiscent of the 1953 race Rice crossed the line first, with Vogler second and Gary B. a close third. Alderson ended the day fourth with Bigelow fifth. Snider came from twenty-fifth to eighth at the end and add to his Gold Crown point total. Hewitt managed to finish thirteenth as the next to last car on the lead lap.
While Bettenhausen got a standing ovation for three wheeling a car for seventy miles it was an emotional Rice who greeted announcer Gary Lee in victory lane that day in Indianapolis. Larry had seen or participated in every Hoosier Hundred and aside from winning the Indianapolis 500 across town, winning the Hoosier Hundred was a lifelong dream. The victory propelled him to become the first ever two-time champion of the USAC Silver Crown Series.
Larry would go on to race in, witness or participate in every Hoosier Hundred for the next 28 years! After he retired from driving he headed for the TV booth and called the first telecast of the Hoosier Hundred in over 20 years in 2003 and served as co-announcer with good friend Gary Lee on a number of occasions. Rice-A-Roni passed away in 2010 losing a brave fight with the cancer that eventually silenced him. You can bet that like Rodger Wolcott, Jo Quinn and many others before him, his spirit is present once again for the annual dirt car festival at the fairgrounds.