373. Floyd Samuel Nunis
Sam Nunis grew up west of Cedartown GA. The first racecars came to town aboard a freight train and caught the young boy’s imagination. When he was sixteen, he hopped that train, but couldn’t find work in the racing game. He wound up laboring in a Ford body plant north of Detroit.
Shortly after WW1, he joined Ralph Hankinson’s traveling show. “There were eight or nine drivers in the troupe, and Hankinson owned the cars. Sometimes, they would fill out with locals, but the winner was usually prearranged.” Hankinson’s racers eventually joined the AAA circuit. In 1926, at Concord, Nunis was seriously injured when he crashed through the fence and his racecar overturned. After eighteen months of rehabilitation, Nunis rejoined Hankinson as his assistant and spent a decade learning to promote races up and down the east coast.
In 1944, Nunis bought Paterson NJ’s “Gasoline Alley” and the local tavern from Joie Chitwood. After the war, “Slippery Sam” returned to promoting races, including nearly all the AAA contests on the east coast. His P.A. announcer, Chris Economacki described Nunis’ empire, “I always loved Sam’s bullshit. For example, he used letterhead that proclaimed, ‘Sam Nunis, National Headquarters, Abe Lincoln Hotel, Reading PA.’ He actually had a desk there, in the mezzanine… In reality, everything Sam owned was basically in his briefcase.”
Chitwood & Nunis
That briefcase was missing after the first day of a two-day meet in Springfield MA. Nunis called out half the police department to search for the “thousands of dollars” from the first day’s gate. Nunis left for another race at Allentown, leaving Economacki to recover the briefcase. The cops detained the most unsavory characters in town, racers Jimmy Bryan and Buzz Barton. The briefcase was recovered when a young couple reported that a hotel porter mixed it in with their luggage, but it contained no money. When Economacki phoned Nunis with the bad news, Sam revealed the gate receipts had been in his glove compartment the whole time. “… Now I have two very pissed-off detectives who have worked all night…”
“Give ‘em a couple of tickets to the races.” Of course, Nunis already had his headlines on the front page.
Muhlenburg KY Fairgrounds
Economacki contrasted JC Agajanian’s boisterous and generous manner with Nunis’ stingy habits. “Aggie… always carried a handful of race tickets… At the slightest interest expressed by anyone he encountered, out would come the tickets… Sam would probably not give a free ticket to Jesus Christ himself.”
Nunis & Ted Horn
When WW2 ended, there were only two paved tracks in the US longer than a half-mile, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 5/8-mile oval at Thompson CT. There were thousands of dirt tracks at county fairs, and races were usually only one of the attractions at a weekend festival. Customers expected a bit of huckster, of “sizzle,” from their promoters. NASCAR’s superspeedways changed that. With time, fairground races moved to hundreds of purpose-built stadiums that sprang up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Economacki remembered what life on the road was like, moving from one bullring to the next. “I was rooming with Sam in Cedar Rapids IA… Sam opened his suitcase and there, on top of his clothing, was a length of coiled up rope. ‘Sam, what’s that for?’ I asked.”
“’Well, if we don’t make any money, I lower my suitcase out the window with the rope,’ he said, matter of factly. ‘Then, I walk out the front door, go around the corner, get my bag, and leave.’”
1949 NSCRA Champ Ed Samples
By the mid-‘60s, Nunis seemed settled at the one mile paved Trenton Speedway, successfully filling seats for scheduled events with race fans, instead of fairgoers who’d never seen a professional race. He promoted races until 1973, when emphysema finally slowed him down.
“His wife, Dottie, got mad at him for dying when he did, because it was bad timing. She had been planning a grandiose funeral, but Sam died in late January, and the funeral was a day or two before the Daytona 500 and everybody in racing was in Florida for Daytona and couldn’t come for the funeral.”