By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
INDIANAPOLIS -- Before he was a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Bobby Unser was winning sprint car races sanctioned by the United States Auto Club in the commonwealth.
The popular non-wing USAC National Sprint Car Series returns on Tuesday for the start of the 7th annual Eastern Storm.
This year's four-race schedule begins at Grandview on June 5 with the Jesse Hockett Classic. The series moves to Path Valley in Sinking Spring on Wednesday. Following a day off, the series resumes on Saturday, June 8, at Port Royal and concludes June 9 at Susquehanna Raceway Park in Newberrytown.
The ARDC midgets will be on the racing card at Grandview and Port Royal.
Last year, Bryan Clauson of Noblesville, Ind., the two-time defending USAC National Sprint Car champion, won the features at Grandview and New Egypt (N.J.) en route to his first Eastern Storm title.
Chris Windom won his second race of the series at Big Diamond while Concord, Calif., driver Damion Gardner won the finale at Port Royal.
The series has drawn drivers from all over the nation for years and for Unser, it was always a welcome return to the Keystone State.
"For many years going to Pennsylvania was like a second home for me," Unser said. "I was always going there to race a sprint car or a midget or any Indy car race. That was a hot area for racing in those days in the 60s and 70s."
Unser won twice at Reading, with his first win coming in 1965, three years before his first 500 win.
"My favorite track was Reading, but I'd rather tell you about the track I hated the most and that was Langhorne," Unser said. "Nobody liked Langhorne. A guy who liked Langhorne had to be on dope. That was a terrible place to race. I say that jokingly, but it was probably the most dangerous race track on the earth and the hardest to run."
Unser was a two-time winner at Langhorne. Each time it was a 150-mile champ dirt car race. He also won the Indy car race at Pocono in 1980.
"Good race drivers had to go to Pennsylvania; that's were the good races where," he said.
"That (Jan) Opperman could really driver a mean dirt car and we all liked to watch him."
Opperman made two starts at Indianapolis in 1974 and 1976.
Unser, who started on the pole and won his last Indy 500 in 1981 in his 19th and final start at the speedway, recalled how times have changed with sponsors dictating how racing is today.
"Those were really good days," he said. "I think the fans liked to see Bobby Unser, (A.J.) Foyt, my brother (Al Unser Sr.), Mario (Andretti). They wanted to see us driving a sprint car or a champ dirt car and they'd follow you and go to every race. They are real good race fans in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey."
Unser's most memorable moment of racing in Pennsylvania came at the place he dislike the most.
"I won the last two races at Langhorne and that is a big memory for me," he said. "I remember at Reading the night when Jud Larson and Red Riegel got killed. It happened right in front of me and I ended up winning that night. What an empty feeling that was. Larson was one of my heroes when I was younger."
USAC's first sanctioned race in Pennsylvania was in 1956 at the Reading Fairgrounds.
It was won by Tommy Hinnershitz. Hinnershitz, a three-time starter in the Indy 500, won five of the first 10 USAC sprint car events in the state.
USAC has been battling rain this year. In its first 12 races of the season, one has been rained out and four were postponed.
Chase Stockton of Sullivan, Ind., leads Dave Darland of Lincoln, Ind. by 14 points in the national standings. Kevin Thomas Jr. of Brownsburg, Ind., leads the series with three wins.