Muhammad Ali... Drag Racing... and Me

I was fresh out of college and working for a company called United States Auto Raceways. The company operated three oval tracks (Lorain County Speedway, Painesvile Speedway and Cloverleaf Speedway) and two dragstrips (Dragway 42 and Thompson Drag Raceway.) I was doing a combination of announcing, marketing and PR for the drag strips and one oval.

The company was owned by Carl Lombardo, who made his mark in Cleveland area real estate. One of Carl's passions was boxing and his ultimate goal was to bring a World Championship featuring Ali to Cleveland. After negotiations with another infamous Clevelander, Don King, Carl got his wish and fronted the $1,000,000 purse for the fight. In 1975 that was a lot of money. The fight was going to be a 15 rounder with the opposition being Chuck Wepner, who was known as the Bayonne Bleeder.

I didn't really care about the match but I really did care about the party Carl was going to throw and I was one of the invitee's. I remember we were picked up in a bus and the first stop was Carl's opulent home where he threw a party to rival anything I had experienced in my life. The one vivid memory I had was that Carl made his entrance wearing what appeared to be an African Dashiki. It was not lost on me that here was a 100% Italian wearing 100% African clothing. I also knew that since Carl put up the million he could do whatever he wanted.

So, after consuming more exotic food and liquor than should be allowed by law, I piled on the bus and prepared to see Ali wipe out this white guy in a couple of rounds. The problem was, someone forgot to tell Chuck Wepner. Wepner not only went nearly 15 rounds (the fight was stopped with a few seconds left in the 15th), Chuck actually put Ali on his back in an early round. I had never seen such a display of pure heart that Chuck Wepner showed that night.

So on March 25, 1975, a county bumpkin named Aaron Polburn got to see one of the most famous sports figures ever and had it not been for drag racing it would have never happened.

Side Bar #1: I did get my 3 seconds of fame. If you watch the fight on ESPN Classic and if you know where I was sitting, I did get about 3 seconds of TV time.

Side Bar #2: There was also a guy that watched the fight by the name of Sylvester Stallone. He was so impressed by Wepner’s heart and courage that he decided to write a screenplay about it. You may have heard of it. It was called Rocky.