MOTORSPORTS: 'Lost hero' of racing a survivor Felton a road racing legendPublished: 8/12/08
by Rick Minter - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gladeville, Tenn. - During last week's ARCA and Craftsman Truck Series races at Nashville Superspeedway, Roswell's Gene Felton roamed the garage area checking out the vehicles being prepared for racing. To many of the young drivers and crew members, he was just another old man in the crowd.
But some knew better. Among them was Eddie Sharp, the former driver-turned-team owner. Sharp fields cars for up-and-coming drivers like Scott Speed, the former Formula One driver who wound up winning the ARCA portion of Nashville's doubleheader.
Sharp once was a student of Felton's and wound up being his co-driver in some road races. He was one of only a few in the Nashville garage who knew that Felton, now 72, was the one-time king of American road racing, a driver who scored 46 career victories in the International Motor Sports Association, second only to Al Holbert, as well as 73 poles. He won at Daytona and Talladega, and can say that he raced in everything from a Late Model race at Dixie Speedway in Woodstock to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
"Gene is one of the lost heroes," Sharp said. "I had the honor and privilege of co-driving with Gene in his later days and my early days of road racing."
Sharp today is one of ARCA's most successful car owners, and much of his success comes from using the lessons learned years ago from Felton.
"I really enjoyed his hard-nosed, very serious approach," Sharp said. "He was one of the pioneers that knew how to do it."
A savage crash at Riverside, Calif., in 1984 nearly claimed Felton's life and essentially ended his professional career.
When a red flag flew, he tried to avoid a collision with Paul Newman and wound up slamming into a concrete wall. "I went from 140 mph to zero," he said.
He sustained a spinal injury and was partially paralyzed. He still speaks in a raspy, barely audible voice, the result of damage to his vocal cords.
"They didn't move me for 70 days," he said.
Felton recovered to race again, but not in the quality cars he'd driven before the crash.
"I never got any good rides after that," he said.
He raced on and won occasionally but eventually gave it up and began earning a living restoring old NASCAR racers, which he sells to members of a vintage racing league. He still races occasionally.
The vintage cars he drives today could well have been driven by him back in the day, if the breaks had gone his way.
Sharp, the former co-driver, said auto racing was changing about the time of Felton's crash, and that's the main reason his name isn't a household word for race fans.
"It's just timing," Sharp said. "He was an established road racer and got hurt. About that time the NASCAR thing started to build momentum. It got huge, and stock car racing took over the front pages."
But Sharp, and a lot of others, always will remember that Felton, like Dale Earnhardt Sr., A.J. Foyt and all the iconic racers of that era remained true to his independent ways and his back-yard shop roots.
"He did it his way. He didn't kiss up to anybody," Sharp said. "He just got lost in the shuffle. A lot of people did."