One of the real old-time racing promoters who knew what it meant to go out and promote a race, Sam Nunis fell in love with racing cars the first time that he saw them come to his Cedartown, Georgia, home on a railroad freight train. When he was 16, he hopped aboard another freight train and left his Georgia-Alabama roots to try and get involved with racing.
That initial quest, however, proved to go unfilled and he ended up working in a Ford body plant just north of Detroit. But shortly after the end of World War I he hooked up with Ralph Hankinson’s traveling “Big Car” races and became a driver on the country fair circuit.
In 1926, Nunis’ race-car driving came to an end when he was seriously injured in a crash in Concord, North Carolina. But after 18 months of recovery he became Hankinson’s assistant and spent the next 10 years traveling up and down the East Coast learning how to promote races.
After World War II, Nunis founded the National Stock Car Racing Association, which predated NASCAR. He also promoted nearly all the American Automobile Association’s races – and then those of the successor United States Auto Club – in the East. In these capacities his “office” was really the brief case that he constantly kept with him and to show a bit of style and class in his operation he drove a series of Lincoln Continentals.
By the mid-1960s Nunis became the Promoter-Manager at the old one-mile asphalt-paved Trenton (N.J.) Speedway where his skills at drawing top cars and drivers constantly filled the old fairgrounds-style grandstand with fans for every event on Trenton’s hefty schedule, be it USAC Championship races in the spring and fall, NASCAR National Modified Championship and NASCAR Grand National (Cup Series) races, or long-distance USAC Midget races.
From 1958-1971, the NASCAR Modified race was a prime event. The inaugural was 100 miles on the newly-paved Trenton layout, but in 1963 it was extended to 200 miles to make it one of the longest and highest-paying Modified-Sportsman events in the nation.
Come September at the annual New Jersey State Fair, Nunis had as a major attraction the famed “Triple Header” that featured a 50-lap Modified-Sportsman stock-car race, as well as a 25-lap Midget main event and a 25-lap United Racing Club Sprint Car headliner. To show that he wasn’t afraid to try something different, Trenton also held a 100-mile Super-Modified contest in 1968 for all of the East’s top drivers in that kind of exotic racing machinery.
From the 1940s, Trenton Speedway was a one-mile oval until George Hamid Sr. & Jr. – entertainment impresarios who also owned the world famous Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey – reconfigured the track in 1968 into a 1.5-mile “kidney bean” shape with a 20-degree right-hand dogleg in the back stretch and a Turn 3 & 4 complex that was wider than Turns 1 & 2. In quick order Nunis let everyone in the media know that this unusual layout – which was frequently seen on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” television coverage of USAC’s National Championship Trail – was really going to be something to behold.
The trimly-built and bespectacled Nunis had a way of getting his events newspaper, radio and television coverage, even if the stories that he told about himself might have stretched the truth a bit. He also did what had to be done to get people to his races – such as producing four- and six-page photo-packed and copy-rich ticket-brochure mailers for his Trenton races on colorful 8½” by 11” paper. Iit was also a sure thing that he would be in the Victory Lane photograph with the winner of any race that he promoted handing that driver his trophy.
Sam Nunis effectively retired from promoting races in 1973 when he left Trenton Speedway as a result of his bouts with emphysema. Sadly he died in Florida in February 1980 due to complications from heart and lung disease.