David P. Buckson's idea came to life with the grand opening of the site's horse racing track March 8, 1969, while the NASCAR track hosted its first race three months later, on July 6.
A half-century ago, horseman David P. Buckson wanted to bring a new entertainment venue to Dover. He christened it Dover Downs.
Today it has become the Dover International Speedway and the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino, one of central Delaware’s top attractions, according to Trip Advisor. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and pumps millions of dollars into the First State’s economy annually.
Buckson shepherded the creation of Dover Downs over nearly three years, overcoming labor issues, weather delays and funding setbacks and culminating in the grand opening of the site’s horse racing track March 8, 1969. The accompanying NASCAR track held its first race three months later, on July 6.
The 50th anniversary of the track’s inaugural race will be commemorated throughout 2019, including the unveiling of two historical markers honoring Buckson, developer John W. Rollins, and builder Melvin Joseph.
Rollins and Philadelphia businessman Marvin Orleans formed a partnership with Buckson that saved the project when financial problems arose. Joseph and his Georgetown construction company designed and built the race track.
He knew what he wanted
A Townsend native, Buckson grew up around horses and horse racing. While studying at the University of Delaware in 1938 he worked at Delaware Park, hauling water, cleaning stables, tending the horses and later driving in harness racing. After a U.S. Army stint during World War II, he obtained a law degree and later was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas.
Buckson became lieutenant governor in 1957, and in 1960 was governor for 18 days after J. Caleb Boggs resigned to go to the U.S. Senate.
Although he later failed to reach the governor’s office in his own right, Buckson went on to be Delaware’s attorney general and a Family Court judge. He also held positions in the horse racing industry, including the presidency of Harness Horsemen International and the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association.
During his eight-year term as Delaware’s chief law enforcement officer, Buckson got the concept of Dover Downs off and running.
“We were sitting around our pool one day and he said, ‘I want to build a race track and I want it to be something everyone can come and use,’” Buckson’s wife, Patricia, recalled. “He knew he wanted horse racing and he knew he wanted car racing.”
Buckson, who died in 2017 at the age of 96, set to work, announcing plans for the race track at a June 1967 Dover press conference. He said it would cost about $1.5 million to build and he expected its first race in February 1968.
In addition to the horse track, the site would include a grandstand and clubhouse with fireproof concrete stables. Buckson pictured Dover Downs as a place for conventions, polo matches, and football games in the track’s infield.
Buckson planned to finance the project himself as a private corporation, eventually selling stock. According to deed records, he paid $350,000 for the 160-acre Thomas Murray farm at U.S. Route 13 and Leipsic Road. Later purchases increased the area to 600 acres.
The complex Buckson envisioned would include an extended runway for the Dover Air Park and the possibility of new homes and stores next to Nichols Discount City.
Delaware law governing thoroughbred racing at the time limited the number of racing days in the state, allowed only daylight racing and prohibited tracks measuring less than a mile in distance. Despite that, Buckson apparently already had the backing he required – how he did so is lost to history – but the same day he made his announcement, two lawmakers said they would sponsor bipartisan legislation to make the changes he needed.
“I think he had all his ducks in a row, and there wasn’t any real opposition,” Patricia Buckson said. “It was a very interesting concept. He wanted to do it for Dover. He was always thinking about Dover.”
Despite concern voiced by one legislator about the attorney general owning a race track, Buckson’s idea quickly passed the General Assembly, garnering approval from 27 of the 33 House members voting. The Senate followed suit, and five weeks after Buckson’s announcement, Gov. Charles E. Terry Jr. signed legislation giving him everything he needed.
Buckson and Terry had an interesting relationship. As Buckson liked to tell the story, Terry, a Democrat, suggested he run for lieutenant governor in 1956. Buckson won, and despite being a Republican, worked to elevate Terry as presiding judge of the Superior Court. Later, as attorney general, he backed Terry’s appointment as chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
But Buckson found himself facing Terry in the 1964 governor’s race, a contest Buckson narrowly lost. Apparently, there was little animosity between them since Terry unhesitatingly signed the legislation Buckson needed to get Dover Downs started.
Shortly after Terry approved the bill, Buckson announced construction was ready to start. He said a nationwide truckers’ strike probably would affect the availability of steel needed for grandstand and other construction. This pushed the planned opening off until March 1968. The projected cost also had risen to about $2 million.
Joseph’s construction company began work in August 1967.
Labor troubles arose in October when members of the Brotherhood of Iron Workers, Riggers and Rodmen set up pickets claiming nonunion labor was being used. Organizers said they wanted a settlement. It would not demand union labor, but would require Buckson to pay union wages.
Buckson wasn’t happy, his wife said.
“It was terrible,” she said. “David didn’t want unions, and not a lot of people liked unions.” Buckson nixed a planned tunnel to the infield because of what he considered unreasonable demands by the unions, she said.
That same month, Buckson announced the overall cost had doubled to $3 million. In November, Dover city council annexed the entire property, despite continuing questions about arranging sewer service.
“I think they thought this was a pretty good project,” Patricia Buckson said. “I don’t think he had any hurdles.”
The sewer problem eventually was resolved with the construction of a $75,000 pumping station.
In February 1968 Buckson announced another delay, until April, citing the steel issue and an ice storm.
But Dover Downs was also encountering problems of the financial kind.
By June 1968, work at the site had been suspended for several months and several companies had filed liens against the company, alleging they had not been paid for labor, materials and equipment.
“He was running out of money,” Patricia Buckson recalled. “So he called John Rollins and invited him down to our house. They came to dinner and David took him out there to show him what had been done so far. He was hoping John would invest and help him out financially.”
Rollins agreed to buy in. He, Orleans and Buckson formed a partnership that secured $3 million in financing. In July Buckson paid off the liens and announced a board of directors with himself as president, Joseph as vice president and Rollins as a board member.
It turns out Joseph was a natural pick for the second spot.
Already in business for almost 30 years, Joseph’s Georgetown company was responsible for many successful road construction contracts in Sussex County. He was an avid horseman, auto racing fan and pilot, and at one point had worked to salvage a sunken German U-boat.
NASCAR driver Bobby Allison once described Joseph as a man “who hated to lose and was as smart as they come, even though he left school after the eighth grade.”
Joseph designed and built Dover Downs’ original speedway, first in asphalt and later in concrete. As vice president of the board of directors, he was director of auto racing at the track and gave the command for drivers to “Start your engines” at every NASCAR race from 1969 through 2004.
Joseph was elected to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. He died in 2005.
A distinguished guest list
Buckson considered opening day for the horse track March 8, 1969, a great success, although winter storms blasting central Kent County in the days leading up to the Saturday inaugural meant there was slightly less attendance than he had predicted. Still, 8,641 people showed up to place their bets on the horses, short of the 10,000 he had anticipated.
Traffic into the new complex was backed up along Route 13 and the snow caused the still-unfinished parking lots to become muddy quagmires. Some of the interior work hadn’t been completed – ropes were used to separate the clubhouse from the grandstand, seats bore evidence of layers of construction dust, trash hadn’t been cleaned up and carpenters still were at work -- and celebrations were BYOB, as the raceway’s liquor license hadn’t been approved in time.
Guests included Gov. Russell Peterson’s wife Lillian standing in for her husband, former Gov. Terry, Dover Mayor Crawford Carroll and Philadelphia Phillies owner Bob Carpenter.
A horse named Pinehurst, ridden by jockey Fred Kratz, took the inaugural thoroughbred race as well as two others, and wagers for the day topped $385,000.
Patricia Buckson remembers the day well. She had arrived from the family’s Florida vacation home two days earlier.
“He was thrilled,” she said of her husband. “This had been his dream.”
Although not as much of a racing fan as her spouse, she was proud of his achievements.
“I was interested because he was interested,” she said. “I was glad to see it was such a success, but I followed the horses through his eyes.”
Buckson lived to see his two racetracks, as well as the adjacent hotel/casino complex they spawned years later, become an important part of Delaware’s economy, although that hadn’t been his initial purpose 50 years earlier.
“He would be proud of his creation and how it has benefited, actually the whole state,” Patricia Buckson said. “When he went to create this, I don’t think he was thinking about that. He wanted something the people would enjoy, he wanted something people could use and participate in.”