A Winning Combination

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Marine “Kuzie” Kuzmanich is a party guy. He’s been throwing parties for himself for as long as anyone can remember.

Used to be that he’d prepare all the food for the party too, but at eighty nine, he now leaves that responsibility to others. Today he is confined to a wheelchair and has little mobility; still he enjoys being the center of attention. It is hard to imagine that fifty some years ago, behind the wheel of a stock car, he was virtually unbeatable.

Kuzmanich and Donald “Duck” Collins met as teenagers. Both attended Benson technical high school in Portland and became fast friends. After the war, Collins pieced together a roadster and joined a group of grass root enthusiasts out at the Portland ½ mile oval. Initially, Collins planned to pilot his creation himself but when his buddy was able to circulate a second and a half a lap faster, Kuzie became the designated driver. In their first outing, Kuzmanich hustled the roadster up to second place in the fifty lap Feature before a front tire disintegrated. After quickly replacing the wheel, they reentered the fray and finished seventh. It was out of the money but still deemed a success and a partnership was born.

The late 1940’s and early fifties were filled with low key circle track events (and even some drag racing) primarily at Portland and nearby Jantzen Beach Arena. In the mid-fifties, stock cars became the rage and the team assembled a ’48 Mercury to compete in the Early Model division. All the while, Kuzmanich and Collins worked fulltime jobs and raised families. To them, racing was just a hobby yet they were always competitive and won their share of races.

Stock car racing continued to grow in popularity and after Kuzie captured the Late Model Championship in 1958, the racing community really began to take notice. Saavy businessman Bud Meadows who owned the Pontiac dealership on Sandy Boulevard, was one who’d had his eye on the duo. Meadows first became interested in racing while watching his daughter (Merit) wheel quarter midgets. Merit Meadows was a talented enough racer to win back to back state championships and in 1959 claimed a national title. At sixteen years of age she hung up her helmet however, so her father was on the lookout for his next racing venture.

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With a full understanding of the adage: “Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday”, Meadows chose to align himself with Kuzmanich and Collins. He put Kuzie on a flight to the Midwest to pick up their new racer; a flat, sleek looking Catalina. The Pontiac was purchased with a 389 c.i. engine. It had dual four barrel carbs and NO options. Norm Zaayer who was an original crew member on the team, laughs “It had glass in it and that was all! No heater even, so Kuzie about froze to death driving it home!” Once back in Portland it was gutted and prepped for racing. On the hood it boast 333 horsepower (apparently Bor-A-Car did some of the machine work) and “Little Beaver” adorned the front quarter panels.

The Pontiac was fast right out of the box. In an early season contest that included several NASCAR hot dogs up from California, Kuzmanich came out on top. First he lowered the track record in qualifying then led every lap of the Feature. Many of the five thousand plus in attendance that day said it was the finest race they’d ever seen. Kuzmanich completed the 175 laps in one hour and twenty two minutes. The race was run without a single incident. When NASCAR brought west coast Champion Eddie Gray up from Southern California for a 250 lap race he had his hands full with local talent. Portlanders Art Watts and Carl Joiner both gave Gray a run for the money but it was Kuzie in the Pontiac crossing the finish line in second. By the conclusion of the ’60 season the Bud Meadows team had broken several track records, won numerous races and garnered third in the overall O.A.R.A. (Oregon Auto Racing Association) championship.

For their 1961 entry, Kuzmanich and Collins only had to drive as far as the dealership. This model (a “Ventura” procured from one of their salesmen) too was a winner thanks to Kuzie’s skill behind the wheel and Collins’ race prep and maintenance. Rarely did they not finish a race and as a result, they improved their championship standing to second. They liked their ’61 car so well in fact, that they elected to run it again it ’62. While their competitors were busy sorting out new mounts, the Meadows team won three of their first four races. By early Fall, they were O.A.R.A. Champions. And as if to prove this was no fluke, they repeat as champions again in 1963.

At some point during the ’63 season, a new Pontiac with stacked headlights was introduced. This racer, perhaps the most handsome of the lot, was painted black with only the roof and rear quarter panels in white. It boast 405 horsepower from its 421 c.i. mill and had a huge numeral “1” emblazoned on the doors. At the end of their second championship season, it was announced that a new “Tempest” would be built to defend their titles but apparently this car never materialized. Instead the ’63 car (now renumbered #28) was campaigned again in 1964 and though competitive, it was not the winner the 1960 or ’61 cars had been.
Shortly thereafter, Meadows decided to pursue other interests and the team was disbanded. Collins shifted his focus to open wheel cars though he and Kuzie remained the best of friends. Kuzmanich’s last race was likely a NASCAR Winston West meet in Monroe Washington on July 4th, 1968. He is credited with finishing eighteenth.

Today Kuzie’s room at the retirement home is devoid of racing mementos. His family tells me that he doesn’t like to be reminded of things he can’t do any longer. I can tell you that no one looks forward to the Old Timer’s picnic more than Kuzie Kuzmanich- He still likes to party.

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