Sometimes lightning does strike twice. When the cell phone rang, a familiar but hoarse-sounding voice was on the other end. To get a call from my longtime friend Gene Felton was not unexpected, but the transmission difficulties of our respective cell phones gave me a flashback.
Some 22 years ago, Gene called me from a hospital near the Riverside International Raceway and for the first time I heard the hoarse-sounding voice that I was to come to know quite well in the ensuing years. I couldn't understand what the caller was saying at first and didn't realize it was Gene. I knew about the crash in a Trans-Am car that had broken his neck, but didn't know the effect on his voicebox. Soon enough I realized the ever-friendly driver was calling from the hospital during his recovery to let me know how things were going.
In the present, Gene was calling while driving to Savannah from his home in the Atlanta suburbs, but the cell phone signal en route was slightly garbled. This time I knew it was Gene, since I see him regularly at a local gathering of motor racing enthusiasts. He wanted to know if I had seen an article on him in Dick Berggren's Speedway Illustrated? For my part, I wanted to know when the vote will be getting under way for the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame at Talladega.
Gene made the ballot reserved for the top 20 from the first round of voting last year, which meant he was on the final ballot that also included the likes of Dale Earnhardt, among others. This year, he hopes to not only make the final ballot, but grab the brass ring. I'm not on the International Motor Racing Hall of Fame's voting committee, but as a journalist who covered his professional racing exploits and now a longtime friend, I couldn't think of a more appropriate candidate to represent the demands made on winning drivers during the era when Felton competed so successfully.
For Gene, it all started as a boy. He would sneak into the Lakewood Speedway to see the stars of NASCAR wheel-twisting their American iron at breakneck speeds on the dirt mile. "I used to walk in through a storm sewer pipe that was near the entrance on Pryor Road," said Felton of his visits to the legendary track in the 1950's.
Nothing, it seemed, would ever come between Felton and racing. While serving in the Marines, Felton started his racing career on motorcycles in Okinawa. Once back in the states, Felton taught himself to race cars while delivering beauty supplies on the curvy roads in the north Georgia mountains aboard a Mustang.
On weekends, Felton first jumped into his wife's "grocery getter" to race, then later went A Sedan racing in the SCCA aboard a Mustang. He also joined the swarm of stock car racers at the Peach Bowl's flat quarter-mile bullring, which had taken over from Lakewood as Atlanta's home for heavy metal action. He won a championship at the track in the city's old stockyards, but it was road racing where Felton finally found his niche.
By time he was finished with his professional career, no driver had won more major races or more consecutive championships while driving American cars on U.S. road circuits than the man from Atlanta.
A hallmark of speed and consistency, Felton scored 46 career victories in the International Motor Sports Association from 132 starts. Even more impressive were his qualifying statistics. He started from the class pole 73 times in IMSA's professional categories, or 55 percent of his races. Counting qualifying and race laps, Felton set 63 track records during competition on the high-speed courses like Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta, among many others.
Easy going off the track, the fiercely competitive Felton personified one of the most unique eras of American racing. He vaulted to stardom during a time when hard-working individuals built their own cars in their own shops. This required something more than a little ingenuity. To check out his motor and transmission combinations in his Mustang, for example, Felton would ease over to one of the long hills in what was then the sparsely populated suburbs outside I-285 late in the evening in his race car, then cut it loose to see how the engine pulled. On weekends, he joined the others who climbed on board at the race track to prove who had the fastest machine.
Unfortunately, the Mustang was crashed beyond recognition at the SCCA ROAD RACE OF CHAMPIONS at Daytona in 1967 "Somebody blew a tire and came back across the track and took me out and Peter Gregg, who was driving a Porsche in B Sedan," said Felton. Due to the twice weekly shows at the Peach Bowl, located in the city's old stock yards, Felton switched to ovals, then naturally transitioned into NASCAR's old Grand American series for pony cars, which competed on a variety of circuits.
In 1971, Felton started last at Road Atlanta in a Camaro re-built from a heavy crash (by another driver) at Dover. The car owner, it seems, owed Felton some money and loaned him the wrecked Camaro so Gene could race it to collect the debt. "That car was b-a-d bad," said Felton of the junked heap which he put back together in his own shop. "When we got to the track we didn't have a rear gear so we couldn't qualify and started in the back," continued Felton. "Tiny Lund loaned us a rear gear for the race. I knew the track and was determined to get my money back. I finished second behind Tiny and ahead of Bobby Allison in the second of two races and collected $700."
When IMSA's fledgling Camel GT made allowances for American muscle cars, Felton created a purpose-built Camaro for road racing, then nearly destroyed it in the rain at Mid-Ohio. Next, Felton took the road racing world by storm in November of 1972 when he scored a 250-mile Camel GT victory on the original ultra-high-speed oval and infield road course at Daytona. This was back when things on the road courses were wild and wooly as IMSA founder John Bishop tried to jump-start his sanctioning body with a rulebook that welcomed all and rewarded inventiveness.
But it took more than a tinkerer's knowledge to get through the Turn Three on the Daytona oval with the throttle wide (you-know-what) open. This was before the organizers began using the motorcycle chicane for the sports cars and, well, they went through the 31-degree banking after whistling down the 3,000-foot backstretch just like the NASCAR guys.
Piloting his home-built Camaro, one of those muscle-bound versions where the rear tires were so wide they looked like a couple of barrels that had been turned sideways, Felton blew away a field of factory-backed big block Corvettes and a Porsche brigade that included the Carreras of Gregg and Hurley Haywood. "I guess we didn't know we couldn't win that race," said Felton. He came back the following July to play the part of Paul Revere in the night race that preceded Daytona's Firecracker 400, winning IMSA's 250-mile sprint again.
Before his road racing hit high gear, Felton took the time to make his debut in NASCAR's premier Winston Cup series at age 40 by driving the Truxmore Ford entered by Junie Donlavey to 16th place in the Dixie 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Next, Felton put all his experience to good use on the road courses in IMSA's Kelly American Challenge Series. From 1977-80, he collected four straight championships, a record for consecutive titles in IMSA that stood for 11 years until tied by Geoff Brabham. The Georgia driver swept nine straight races from the pole aboard a Chevy Nova in the final year of the streak. The following season, he became one of the first drivers to win under power from GM's history-making V-6 race engines. Felton eventually racked up 25 career American Challenge victories behind the wheel of Buick Skyhawks, Novas and Camaros, all built and prepared in Atlanta by the driver plus a single crewman.
He carried the number 96, said Felton, because nobody else wanted it. "Most drivers don't like that number. It's the only one that reads the same when the car is upside down," he said, grinning like the cat who might just eat the canary. "I didn't know the difference. Nothing too much rattled me at the time."
Felton made his mark in major endurance races with victories in the Daytona 24-hour and the Sebring 12-hour races in 1984, when he co-drove a Camaro with two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte and Billy Hagan. Felton first began racing with Hagan in the Camaros prepared by legendary NASCAR crew chief Tex Powell in 1982 at the world's greatest road race at Le Mans.
In France, Felton again got the job done with home-built attitude, piloting a short wheel-based pony car whose front end kissed the pavement and a rear that stuck up higher in the air than a French poodle's coiffeured tail -- but only while standing still. At speed the Camaro hunkered down like a greyhound.
Fans often pointed and waved with approval each time the potent American product flew past with so much roaring power it shimmied. (Believe me, I was there.) It was just the sort of test a man with Felton's experience could relish. In his first appearance on the mammoth 8-mile circuit through the French countryside, Felton set a qualifying record before finishing second in the IMSA class with the Hagan team over the course of 24 hours due to mechanical problems.
"My memory of Le Mans is taking the kink at 215 miles per hour (on the old Mulsanne straight)," said Felton. "Hal Crocker was out there shooting photographs and he told me that I was putting the left front tire in the dirt at the exit. But that was just during qualifying. We broke the IMSA qualifying class record by so much we got called to the office. But we were deemed to be legal."
Back in the states, his eventual total of 13 victories in the Camel GT coupled with his Kelly American Challenge record and eight victories in the Radial Challenge series aboard an AMC racecar gave Felton a total of 46 victories, ranking him second behind Al Holbert in career IMSA victories. Only five drivers have scored 40 or more career victories in the professional classes under the IMSA sanction, now including the American Le Mans Series. In addition to Holbert (49 victories) and Felton, the others are Irv Hoerr (43), Peter Gregg (41) and Jim Downing (40).
As for the SCCA Trans-Am, Felton scored a victory in his very first appearance in America's oldest professional road racing series in 1983 at Moroso Park aboard a Pontiac Trans-Am. But in the fall of 1984, he suffered a fracture in his cervical spine in an accident at Riverside occasioned while avoiding Paul Newman's Nissan, which was slowing to enter the pits under a just-issued red flag. Newman's car was unscathed, but the heavy crash ended Felton's professional career.
Having started by winning a motorcycle championship in Okinawa as a Marine, Felton's love for racing never wavered. After recovering from what many concluded was an injury that would prevent him from racing again, Felton returned to his NASCAR racing roots.
The former Peach Bowl champion made a proud comeback to building cars and racing by launching the Historic Stock Car Series, a vintage organization for Winston Cup cars competing on road circuits. At age 70, Felton continues to restore, prepare and race vintage stock cars from his shops in Roswell, Ga., adding numerous victory trophies to an extensive collection that represents a lifetime of dedication by the iron man of the American road.