Kentucky's Checkered Flag
Lap the track beginning in Corbin 1954 to Sparta 2012 and you’ll uncover some surprising NASCAR winning connections
Kentucky’s relentless pursuit of a NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) sanctioned race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta finally paid off.
With the inaugural Sprint Cup Series now in the rear-view mirror, hopefully also are the first-year foul-ups, such as the traffic jams that kept a few thousand of the 107,000 tickets sold from reaching their seats last year.
Track general manager Mark Simendinger says he and his crew are ready for this year’s big race weekend, which kicks off Thursday, June 28, with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 225, followed by Friday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series Feed the Children 300, and ending with the grand finale, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400, on Saturday, June 30.
“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work,” he says. “A pedestrian tunnel is in place, the exit ramps have been widened, and we’ve acquired 172 additional acres for parking, and even smoothed out some of our hilly property so it can be used.”
With that said, it should be noted that stock-car racing, and NASCAR in particular, has been a point of interest to Kentuckians for decades, long before the Kentucky Speedway.
While most novice fans are sure that the Sparta Sprint Cup race last year was the first official NASCAR race in the state, they would have lost money if they bet on it. That honor actually belongs to Corbin, a railroad town of 7,000 in the southeastern part of the state, where a 200-lap NASCAR race on a half-mile dirt oval was held in 1954.
The most out-front Kentucky names in NASCAR are the drivers and their Owensboro connection.
The Waltrip brothers, Darrell and Michael; the Green brothers, Jeff, Mark, and David; and Jeremy Mayfield all hail from Daviess County.
Though no longer a driver, it is Darrell who lays claim to being the most famous. His high-profile gig as lead racing analyst for FOX Sports and January induction into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame make him one of the most recognizable in all of sports. (For additional information on Waltrip, go online to www.allwaltrip.com.)
But other Kentuckians also play vital roles in NASCAR today. Somewhat lesser known is the influence and current involvement Prestonsburg has to big-time racing.
It all began back in the 1950s with H.B. Ranier, who owned stock cars that were raced on eastern Kentucky dirt tracks. Then son Harry came along and he took the family racing name to another level.
Harry Ranier parlayed some of his coal interest into NASCAR as a car owner, which eventually led to three of his cars winning the Daytona 500, once with Buddy Baker (1980) and twice with Cale Yarborough (1983 and 1984).
Harry’s son Lorin has carried on the family tradition.
“I grew up in it,” says the 46-year-old Lorin, who lives in Davidson, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte. “We moved from Prestonsburg to Lexington when I was 13 because of a horse farm we bought.”
Ranier works full time for car owner Chip Ganassi, where he serves as a spotter for driver Jamie McMurray. In addition, he works as a driver development scout and manager at Spire Sports and Entertainment, looking for young talent.
One-time NASCAR star Davey Allison was one of Ranier’s discoveries, as was Tony Stewart in 1996.
Ranier’s efforts are responsible for the creation of the Ranier Racing Museum in Prestonsburg inside the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
At 6'3" and 280 pounds, former University of Kentucky defensive lineman Mark Jacobs easily makes his presence known while working as the jackman for the pit crew of Juan Pablo Montoya’s #42 Target car.
“I didn’t get drafted in the NFL, so I tried the Canadian League and some arena football,” says Jacobs. “I had made the connection with a guy in Kentucky that had some NASCAR ties, so I eventually got in touch with Lorin Ranier and he gave me a shot.
“I jack up the right side first and then pull the right rear tire off. Then I carry the jack (40 pounds) to the left side,” he says. “Then it is my responsibility to make sure everything has been done before I signal the car to go.”
J.D. Holcomb, a Whitesburg native, is a front-tire carrier in Jeff Burton’s #31 Chevy pit crew, owned by Richard Childress Racing.
In NASCAR racing, safety cannot be over-emphasized. Prior to a race, NASCAR technical inspectors carefully check every inch of every car. On race day, most inspectors also function as NASCAR officials, one to each car on pit road.
The official is the guy in the white fire suit and helmet, checking to make sure the pit crew does their job properly in about a 14-second pit stop, and assessing penalties if they don’t.
Dann Fenwrick from Livermore is one of those guys.
“I’m basically a referee,” he says of his responsibilities on race day. “I’m there to make sure everyone is safe and follows the rules. If they are speeding on pit road, I get a call from the tower and I inform the crew chief of the violation.”
Fenwrick has been a NASCAR official and tech inspector for the last seven years, and before that he worked with Brewco Motorsports in Central City. His experience there and the connections he made helped open the door to NASCAR.
“There are an amazing number of Kentuckians in the business,” Fenwrick adds. “When you consider that even some of the dirt tracks are associated with NASCAR, and then you have the modified, late model stocks, ARCA, Nationwide and truck series, and then the Cup, it takes a lot of people.”
One of NASCAR’s most successful owners is Jack Roush. Born in Covington and educated at Berea College, his next win in any of the three major series will be his 300th career victory in 25 years of competing.
Army Armstrong is definitely a motorsports guy. The Owensboro resident, although not directly involved with NASCAR, is a huge fan.
If it has wheels and goes fast Armstrong is for it, and his involvement as an announcer with Monster Truck events throughout the nation has led to his induction into the Monster Truck Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Motor Sports Hall of Fame.
Armstrong enjoys talking about Owensboro native Darrell Waltrip, especially the racing legend’s early days.
“He was a hot-shot kid who liked to go fast in anything he was driving,” says Armstrong. “He would just fly down Frederica Street.”
Armstrong likes to tell about the first time Waltrip went to Daytona.
“They took up a collection at the local Dairy Drive-In to help buy him a driver’s suit,” he says. “Ray Skillman had a car dealership here and Darrell was one of the clean-up boys, so Ray made sure there was enough to get him one of those Goodyear driver suits.”
It wasn’t exactly easy to get Waltrip’s car to that first Daytona 500 race. Armstrong says four Owensboro men bought him a 1958 Ford with a 427 cubic-inch engine.
“They loaded it on a flat-bed truck and headed out. It was orange with big black #98 lettering,” he says. “But when they got there, there was already a 98, so they took some shoe polish and closed in the 9 to make it an 88. No one knew him. He was running fourth or fifth with just a few laps to go when his alternator fell off. From then on he was a name.”
KENTUCKY’S NASCAR HISTORY
It was August 29, 1954, when Lee Petty and 20 other drivers blasted off as Eddie Poynter, a local, waved his green flag at the Corbin Speedway.
Petty, who had already won at Daytona, was the day’s superstar and also the father of future racing great Richard. As expected, he won the 200-lap race on the half-mile dirt oval and with it the $1,000 purse.
Race records show that Petty drove his 1954 Chrysler at a pedestrian-like speed of just over 63 mph average. Four drivers in the race that day, Petty, Hershel McGriff, Buck Baker (Buddy’s father), and Herb Thomas, wound up listed among the “50 Greatest NASCAR Drivers of All Time.” And as if on cue they finished 1, 2, 3, and 4.
“It was the real deal for us,” recalls 86-year-old Allen Dizney, who brought his 1947 Jeep to the track that day. “I volunteered to tow or push cars off the track or out of the pit if need be. I could push them out of the way or throw a chain across their front bumper and pull them.”
Dizney, a Corbin resident, says even though the official NASCAR race results that day show Petty driving a Chrysler, Dizney has his own memories of the historic race.
“They said he drove a Chrysler, but I recall him driving a Dodge,” says Dizney. “I was in the service station business for 20 years, I know a Chrysler from a Dodge.”
Paul Jones was also there. A driver at several dirt tracks in the area, he drove in the preliminary race.
He always wore his old WWII Navy flight helmet, the one he had used as a pilot.
“That helmet was special and I tried to keep it looking good,” the 89-year-old Jones says. “One of our local boys, Dick Vermillion, won the preliminary and also drove in the big race.”
For more than 30 years, Jones had seven prime seats for the Daytona 500.
“Top row on the finish line. They finally kicked me out,” he laughs. “Actually, I voluntarily declined the seats due to pricing.”
Both Dizney and Jones give credit to another local driver, Bub King, for getting NASCAR to Corbin.
“King had run races everywhere, even at Daytona Beach,” Dizney says. “He knew some of the NASCAR people and that was the connection.”
Many of the makes of cars on the track that day are no longer manufactured. Petty’s Chrysler was the only one in the race, but several Hudsons, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, Dodges, Vermillion’s Buick, and King’s Lincoln made up the 21-car field.
“Sometime as little as two-tenths of a second can be the difference in a lot of money,” says Mark Jacobs. “Our crew practices to find every fraction we can, even to how we roll a tire we take off.”
As the jackman for Juan Pablo Montoya’s #42 Target car, Jacobs is one of six crew members permitted to go “over the wall” when his car pits for four tires and 18 gallons of gas.
“A good stop is 12.5 to 13.5 seconds,” he says. “Anything more than that can cost you. A fourth-place finish compared to a second can cost our team $125,000 to $150,000.”
The six-man NASCAR pit crew is composed of two tire changers and two tire carriers, one each front and rear; one gas man; and the jackman, who also has the responsibility for keeping a clean windshield.
“We use those ‘tear-off’ clear layers,” Jacobs adds.
Jacobs also says once the race starts there is no real downtime for the crew.
“We have to be ready at all times,” he says. “We never know when the caution will come on or when a tire might go flat. There is absolutely no restroom or concessions break.”
As Jamie McMurray propels his #1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonald’s Chevy racecar around a NASCAR superspeedway at close to 200 mph, he doesn’t always know what’s ahead, around the approaching corner. That’s why Lorin Ranier, his race day spotter, is so important.
The starting field for a NASCAR race is always 43, and Ranier joins 42 other spotters at the highest point of a raceway in order to serve as the eyes for what McMurray can’t see.
“With the HANS safety restraints in place, the drivers have limited peripheral vision as they can only see what’s straight ahead of them,” says Ranier. “I let him know what’s up ahead, what’s beside him. I have the best seat in the house, usually a designated area above the press box.”
Of course a driver has to trust many on his team to be successful, but the relationship between the driver and spotter is very important.
“My primary function is all about safety,” adds Ranier. “I’m his eyes for what he can’t see. If there’s a wreck in front I tell him to go high, go low, or keep it straight. The toughest is when he has to drive through smoke. He can’t see anything.”
Ranier has been a spotter for 15 years, and says that to be successful a good spotter must have a good knowledge of the rules and racing in general.
KENTUCKY SPEEDWAY 2012 SCHEDULE
UNOH 225 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Feed the Children 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series
Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Kentucky 201 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Kentucky 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series
Tickets vary based on quantity and seat location. Season tickets range from $179-$309 each. Sprint Cup Series tickets run $129-$209 per package. For more details, go online to www.kentuckyspeedway.com or call (888) 652-7223.
WIN SPRINT CUP
Four winners, drawn randomly, will receive:
• 4 Tickets to the Sprint Cup Race, June 30
• 4 Hospitality Passes to the Kentucky Speedway Tent
Click here for complete details on how to enter.
Deadline: May 15, 2012
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >TALKING NASCAR
Read other vignettes from folks like NASCAR great D.W. (Darrell Waltrip), Sonora fan Charlie Thurman, and ARCA racer Steve Blackburn by going to Kentucky NASCAR.
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