Gene Felton Restorations

1/1/1996 - Vintage Stock - Former road racer brings NASCAR racers back to life

By: Paul Dana
January 1, 1996

If you have a large chunk of change burning a hole in your pocket and plan to go vintage raing, you may want to consider investing in, of all things a good ol' Winston Cup car.

While a stock car may not evoke the same tweed-cap-and-scarf nostalgia as a Triumph MG or Porsche for less than $50,000 you can thunder down the backstraight of Sebring at 185 mph in a vehicle once raced by Bobby Allison, Neil Bunnett, Bill Elliot or any number of American racing heroes.

This new niche in the vintage racing world was created in part by Gene Felton, 59, a dominant force in IMSA Camel GT and IMSA American Challenge racing in the late 1970s and early 1980s before an accident in 1984 ended his professional career.

In a shop behind his home in Roswell, Ga., just north of Atlanta, the accomplished road racer has spent the last three years restoring about 20 Winston Cup cars.

As an outlet for his work, Felton and four racing buddies founded the Historic Stock Car Racing Group, which organizes about four events a year at revenues such as Elkhart Lake and the infield road courses at Pocono International Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Most of the cars are too new to be recognized as vintage or historic cars, says Frank Rupp of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association. "We've let [Winston Cup cars] run as exhibitions at our events because they do represent an important type of racing. They're a lot of fun and people love them," he adds.

"I'm having more fun now, doing this than my entire IMSA and SCCA career," Felton says in his sandpapery drawl.

Despite their bulk and oval-track roots, Winston Cup cars are ideal road racers.

"We've got guys who come out of Austin-Healeys, Sprites, and Alfas. They jump in these cars and are perfectly comfortable," says Felton.

One reason is that the cars are highly adjustable, so they can be set up to be completely neutral. "If you can drive a Porsche, you can drive one of these with one hand and with your eyes closed," Felton says.

Another reason is aerodynamic stability. At 185 mph "you feel like you're doing 80 down the highway in your street car."

The cars are also relatively safe. "You really have to drive into something intentionally head-on to hurt yourself," Felton says. "As opposed to driving an old Can-Am car or a formula car, [buyers'] wives will let them drive these."

And compared to '50s and '60s sports cars that can cause maintenance headaches, Winston Cup cars are easy and inexpensive to run. The more recent yet simple technology means parts are relatively common and inexpensive. The cars are also tough.

"They were built to do 500 miles flat out, and we don't do 500 miles in a whole season," Felton says. Vintage races typically last only 10 or 20 laps.

Despite the recent boom in the popularity of Winston Cup racing, retired stock cars are fairly scarce. Old cars are typically sold to teams in lower series, such as ARCA, or become show cars, or go to museums or are scrapped. The demand for NASCAR memorabilia boosts the value of each remaining car.

Felton relies on an extensive network of connections to find the cars.

He spends an average of 200 to 300 hours rebuilding each car. Engine and body work are farmed out to experts, but Felton and helper Matt Anthony do everything else in-house.

"When you get on of these back from the body shop with the original paint, then from the sign shop with the logos, just like it was five years ago in its glory, it's a thrill," Felton says.

A brief sample of his work includes two Richard Petty cars, two Dale Earnhardt cars and Bobby Allison's Miller-sponsored '87 Buick. Current projects include the Coors LIght Ford that Bill Elliott drove to victory in the 1991 Daytona 500 and a Kodiak sponsored '87 Pontiac driven by Rusty Wallace and Tim Richmond.

That's the kind of provenance that makes NASCAR collectors drool. Felton sells a few of the $30,000 to $45,000 ready-to-race cars to people who have no intention of racing them because they believe that the value of their cars will appreciate. "You'd be amazed that grown men can stand around on of these cars for hours with their hands in their pockets," Felton says.

But most of the cars are sold to people who would rather drive them, such as 44-year-old Bruce Worrall, who owns a priming company in King of Prussia, Pa. Worrall bought a David Pearson-owned 1989 Chattanooga Chew Buick, which he drove to a fourth-place finish in HSCRG's outing this year at Pocono, his first race.

"I've always been interested in NASCAR racing. I've always bought American cars," says Worrall. "After finding out that it is possible to sit in a Winston cup car and drive it, I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing."



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