Vintage stock car groups enjoy racing a piece of history
Forty stock cars come pouring down the infamous corkscrew at Laguna Seca Raceway. Their exhaust notes resonate off the hills surrounding this demanding Northern California road course as they snake through the series of curves and onto the long straightaway below where their big V-8s bellow before the grandstands.
It is a field of race cars like none other, made up of battle-worn veterans that often date back to the days when NASCAR was a regional attraction rather than a national phenomenon.
Drivers in the Historic Stock Car Racing Group are invited to compete as a support race for NASCAR weekends at Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca and are often the centerpiece for vintage racing weekends. The companion races to the NASCAR main events expose thousands of today's fans to the cars that helped develop the sport. For some of the fans, they offer a trip down Memory Lane at 200 mph.
Back In Time
Former sports car and NASCAR driver Gene Felton is the man most agree is behind the interest in vintage stock cars. He restored his first one 10 years ago when he bought a Sunoco Oldsmobile. "The series has grown little by little," Felton says from his crowded 3,000 square-foot shop in Roswell, Georgia. "We have 60 cars on the East Coast and another 55 on the West Coast." Felton has restored about 100 cars in the past decade. While most of them hit the tracks as vintage racers, a few end up in private collections for display only.
There are a lot of old-time racing organizations in the nation. Many of them let owners fabricate new "old" cars using reproduction body parts and up-to-date construction techniques. Others will allow someone to put a rollcage into an old sedan rusting behind a barn and declare it a "vintage" car even though it has no racing history. To some, as long as it looks right, it is right.
What makes the Historic Stock Car Racing Association unique is Felton's insistence that each car in the field has a pedigree. "They have to be a '93 or older car," Felton says. "And each one of them has to be documented as having been raced back then. We don't allow anyone to build a car and call it something it never was."
Felton says the paperwork is often the hardest part of a restoration. He says most teams didn't keep records of which chassis raced at what track in which event, and that most of the cars never carried any identification to help track their history. "Even the teams can't tell you where a particular car raced, unless it was something like the only road course car they had that season," he says. "I go through the chain of ownership to determine where the car began," Felton continues. "It's a pain in the butt. There are some cars out there that no one ever will be able to document. It's a shame because some of them you just know have a history, but I won't buy one without knowing I can trace it."
Many old Winston Cup cars end up in a series like ARCA or Winston West. The longer they are raced, the less the present owners may know about them. "They are still out there," Felton says. "I'm looking for them constantly, always beating the bushes. I've been racing for 40 years so I have a lot of contacts. A guy called me four or five years ago and had a Sportsman car. He described it over the phone and I bought it. When I traced the history it turned out to be a Nova that was a Dale Earnhardt car. He raced it with his dad's number on it."
The history of the Earnhardt car alone makes it carry a premium price. "To some people the history means a lot," Felton says. "That is especially true for collectors who want to own an ex-Cup car and sit around and tell lies about it. I sold an ex-Davey Allison car to a collector in California. I had 100 percent of the documentation. It was a car Davey didn't like a lot, so it only got raced a few times. It probably isn't going to see a racetrack. Other drivers don't care much who owned their car, as long as they can race it."
Keeping It Original
Although they spent most - if not all - of their competition days on ovals, the historic cars are raced only on road courses where there is ample run-off room for drivers of disparate talent and experience. And there are both on-track and off-track conflicts among owners. "I have a 25 Ricky Rudd car," Felton says. "I know it's authentic because I bought it right from Hendrick (Racing). But in 1992 and '93 there may have been 30 of those cars and there are a lot of folks who could claim to have the same one."
When does an original car cease to be original? "They get crashed and clipped all the time," Felton explains. "If they were raced at all, they were repaired." Felton says he tries to restore cars to the condition they were in when they were raced in their prime, but that sometimes it is hard to figure out just what that means. "Cars were changed all the time, and in some cases the equipment was changed based on the track they were at on that weekend," he says. "And the folks who are buying them, well, they are racers. The more the cars are raced, the more they get changed. Big brakes. Different cams. Everyone knows what a '90 Thunderbird looks like. As long as it looks right, for some owners it is right," he says. "They keep changing this and swapping that and raising the bar for the drivers they race against."
Felton says changes and updates are more common on the cars being raced on the Eastern Seaboard rather than the West Coast. They (West Coast) are about five years behind us," he says. That's just fine with owners like Mark Mountanos, who says that updating vintage cars with non-period specifications is like trying to change history. The California businessman helped bring historic stock car racing to the West Coast and doesn't like where it seems headed. "At first we said a car had to be a 1990 or older," he says. "Then we said 1991 was OK. Then we moved it to 1995. I'm sorry, but that isn't a historic stock car. It may be someday, but it isn't now."
Mountanos races a 1987 Richard Petty aero coupe while his wife competes in a 1990 Lumina that Earnhardt raced during one of his seven championship seasons, and used for tire testing at Indianapolis. "Neither one of them are what you might call `restored,’” he says. "The Lumina still has all the little dents and scratches on it. The inside is full of nicks. It even has the original racer's tape."
Mountanos says the history of the car is what makes it significant. "My Petty car is valuable just because it is the only one left," he says. "It was an era when Richard was having a hard time financially and he only had four cars built for the season. This is the only one left, as far as we can determine. But Petty wasn't doing very well then, so it never won anything. While the owner was significant, the car really doesn't have much of a history. The Earnhardt car is really special. It's a warrior," Mountanos continues. "We bought it right from the Richard Childress shop and haven't done anything to it other than maintain it."
He says the Lumina's pedigree makes it among the most valuable stock cars in the series, its history pushing the value to between $150,000 and $200,000. "I don't think Linda would ever sell it," he says, "she's always been such a big fan of his. Anyone can take an ex-stock car and make it into a show car. All that takes is time and money. But you can't put back the patina that is acquired in competition. Once that is gone, it can't be reproduced." Mountanos says his crew will paint and replace panels that are damaged in competition, but won't go beyond what a race shop would do during a season.
Attention To Detail
Because much of the value of a vintage racer is in its history rather than the sheetmetal, there is little risk in writing off the entire car in a wreck. "The cars can be worth a lot of money," Mountanos says, "but they are easy to fix and don't cost a lot to repair. The hardest part about keeping them original is finding the decals." "The details like the right decals will drive you crazy," agrees Chuck Shafer, who recently finished restoring an ex-Richard Petty Plymouth. Shafer estimates he spends 10 hours a week doing research to find just the right parts for his modest fleet of race cars.
Petty raced the car in '71 and '72 and it is probably the one Petty won in at Riverside. He sold it to Hershel McGriff, who was both a friend and driver for Petty. McGriff, who retired from driving this year at the age of 73, finished fifth in it at the 1973 Daytona 500.
The car ended up with McGriff in the Pacific Northwest and went through a number of owners. Each new owner knew less about its history than the one before and the car finally ended up on a quarter-mile dirt track. Shafer, of Portland, Oregon, says that Petty shop numbers were discovered on some castings on the car and that other identifying marks were unearthed under seven layers of paint.
Shafer is more particular than most historic racers. He insists that even his race machines look museum ready and are uncompromised originals. Shafer's shop is located next to J.R. Enterprises, operated by Hershel McGriff Jr. The son of the NASCAR legend helped with some of the interior detail and sheelmetal work. "I've spent hours looking at old photos and going through picture archives and back issues of Stock Car Racing magazine for photos of the car," says Shafer.
Matching decals and parts can prove challenging. For instance, while Chrysler Corp. at one time sold cars they called "Petty blue," Shafer knew the factory color wasn't an exact match for the race cars. "I had to go to Petty Enterprises," he says. "It took a bunch of letters and calls to do it, but I finally got permission to allow the paint supplier to mix me up some of the original color."
He jokes about getting into a bidding war on eBay for a decal and losing the piece with two seconds left to go when his competitor topped his offer. The work by Shafer and others provides new life for old cars. If you ever wonder what happened to a car driven by one of your favorite racers, chances are it is involved in an "old-timers" race at a track near you.
Jerry F. Boone. TIME TRAVELER. Stock Car Racing. January 2003.
We all remember our first love. For Gene Felton, that was 50-plus years ago at age 14 when he began to watch the Saturday Night Specials bumping around Lakewood Park Raceway, located outside Atlanta, Georgia. He was hooked! What followed was a young man racing motorcycles while serving a tour with the Marines in Okinawa. Discharged, his passion grew as he exploded on the amateur-racing scene capturing the South Eastern Championship with 42 wins between 1964-1969. Graduating to NASCAR’s Grand American Series in ’69, Felton chased NASCAR great, Bobby Allison, scoring a second place in his very first NASCAR race.
By the seventies, professional motorsports was embracing outside monies’ to support the speedy sport and its contestants. Winning was becoming a direct link to the depth of the pocketbook, and more importantly, the lack of such needed funding created a class of endangered species that was only able to chase the big dogs’ exhaust fumes. Felton bucked this hypothesis with sheer physical skill behind the wheel winning not only his first pro race in his third attempt in ’72 (Presidential 250 at Daytona) in his home-built Camaro, but competing successfully against a who’s who of famed road racers like David Hobbs, John Greenwood, Peter Gregg, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Hurley Haywood, and others, defeating many well-financed factory teams in the process. "Traveling the country with one drivers buddy, cube van and an open trailer", recalls Gene, his spectacular career sped into the 80s victorious in his augural Trans-Am attempt and compiling an impressive laundry list of victories that included 50 American Road Race wins, a record that stands behind another road racing legend, the late, Al Holbert. Unfortunately, Felton sustained a professional career-ending injury at Riverside Raceway in 1984.
Amassing 25 IMSA American Challenge, 11 IMSA Camel GTO, eight IMSA Champion Spark Plug Series wins, four consecutive IMSA’s American Challenge Championships 1977-1980, 73 pole positions, 63 track records, two victories with the Audi Factory Team in the Escort Endurance Racing Series, three firsts on 3/8-miles of dirt, and even bringing home the Manufacturer Championships for both Buick and Chevrolet, Felton fought (and won) many of these battles on a shoestring budget, devoid of the limelight awarded many of his peers. He has climbed the mountain the hard way, almost lost it, but restarted his rise to the apex with a new avocation, restoring ex-Winston Cup cars and jumping head first into vintage auto racing. He has added another 100 victories and still counting, to the books that include GTO class wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring, and a second place victory at Le Mans in '82.