Musings and Memories
By Gene Felton
As related to HSCRS member, Michael Cesario
Quick question for the group – which American driver has won the most major races and championships while driving American cars on American road racing circuits? NASCAR aces Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt & Richard Petty all spring to mind. How about sports car legends Al Holbert, Bob Tullius, Hurley Hayward or George Follmer? Perhaps open wheel stars like Dan Gurney, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti or anyone from the Unser family? All wrong! The correct answer is Gene Felton who for almost two decades was at the top the American road when it came to road course racing.
Never one to wait for someone else to hand him anything, Gene early on grabbed rides and raced in SCCA and the Nascar Grand American series as well as on circle tracks like Atlanta’s Peachbowl & Senoia speedways. Gene even got hired to drive a Junie Dunlevy back-up Winston cup stock car in the 1976 Dixie 500 at Atlanta Speedway with non-qualifier Bill Elliot standing by for relief. Gene finished 16th but at 40 was considered too old to be a Nascar driver. Driving almost weekly and primarily for under-financed teams Gene scored victories and championships in almost every venue he competed.
Gene’s professional driving record in IMSA alone includes 4 season championships and 46 career victories. Even more impressively, Gene qualified on the pole 73 times or in 55% of the IMSA races he entered.
Along the way his resume includes wins in the GTO class at both the 1983 Daytona 24 hours and 12 hours of Sebring co-driving with Terry Labonte and car owner Billy Hagan. The previous year Gene set a qualifying record at Le Mans in a Tex Powell prepared Camaro which received a hefty load of American grunt from a Junior Johnson NASCAR power plant that put the fear of god in the French fans as he hit 217mph on the Mulsanne straight. Despite a series of mechanical gremlins Gene carried the team to a runner-up position in the French classic that year.
Now in his mid 70’s Gene is an American legend who is a great example that this country is still the land of opportunity for the person who sets goals, works hard, has talent, and earns a little luck. Funding for his early racing career for Gene meant repairing Honda’s in a $150/month, basement work shop that had no heat or water. Through the years Gene had a one-man crew with a cube van and open trailer traveling coast to coast while winning 4 IMSA championships in 1977, 1978, 1979 & 1980 and scoring a runner-up ranking in 1981.
It actually gives pause to someone like myself, who played at racing in the 70’s but wished for the resources to move to the next level, to wonder if perhaps the real reason I stayed an amateur racer is that I didn’t have the belief and competitive fire in myself that a person like Gene did in himself. My impression of Gene is that he never questioned his ability, focused on the job at hand and did the best he could every time he fired up the car. Perhaps there is a lesson there for all of us that it isn’t enough to just dream about what could be, but to have the guts to go out and do something about it.
Gene quickly became the hired gun who was picked by unproven race teams to showcase a car’s potential and get results. Throughout his career gene got the results, but unfortunately then was out of the ride when, after showing what the car was capable of, he was replaced by someone who had the money to buy the ride.
Gene’s professional career ended in 1984 as a result of a near fatal and partially paralyzing crash during a Trans Am race held at Riverside. His raspy voice and continued issues with his neck and back serve as lasting reminders of that incident.
The passion and intensity of Gene’s distinctive voice raises a couple of octaves as he proudly reminisced recently about winning the first Trans Am race he ever entered.
The year was 1983 and this was a race that almost didn’t happen for Gene. Hired over the phone by Minnesotan, Gordy Oftedahl, Gene met the team on the road as it traveled to Moroso Park in West Palm Beach, Florida. The motor home driver was having trouble handling the load and asked Gene to drive it. 25 years later Gene bemusedly comments that he did an inspection of the motor home and discovered that it had a inside tire that was flat and, on the transporter, the air compressor controlling the air brakes was leaking. After you hit the brakes two or three times the air support was gone and so were the brakes. This was not the best introduction to the professional level of the Oftedahl team. More reminders of this were to come.
At the track Gene remembers Oftedahl removing and prepping the racecar bearings on the tailgate of the truck the morning of the race. On the first lap the engine note seemed a bit soft and the oil temp went to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and Gene expressed concern over the radio. Told by Oftedahl to “just drive the mother”, Gene nursed the Firebird over the initial stages of the race and kept the car in the top seven. After the last pit stop Gene said “let’s go for it” and ran down the field which included factory camaro driver Willy T. Ribbs, Huffaker pilot Elliott Forbes Robinson, Tom Gloy in a factory Capri, Greg Pickett in a Corvette and a certain actor/race driver in an unlimited boosted Datsun. On the last lap only ex-F1 driver David Hobbs, manhandling the other works Camaro, was left to pass. Back then Moroso had a zig zag back straight section with a canal on drivers left. Gene faked one way and when David took the bait Gene took the less than optimum route on the canal side of the track, made the pass and snookered the Englishman at the finish by less than a tenth of a second. It was believed that the Hobbs Camaro was beginning to lose a cylinder.
David Hobbs shared his memories of the race which included frustration that he had been held up by Paul Newman for several laps but despite that, “Gene drove a good race and capitalized on my loss of momentum, and he was one of those drivers who put a lot into motorsports and I’m glad he has that win to add to his many trophies.”
Gene took the Oftedahl ride for 5o% of the prize money ($8,000 to win) and expenses but this was the last time he and the team visited victory lane. Gene was often the top qualifier but the underfinanced team had problems putting a solid car under their driver and Gene suffered several DNF’s. Despite this Gene was leading the points when he was replaced by a paying driver later in the year.
Gene wasn’t all that sorry to leave the Oftedahl team as the car preparation wasn’t always the best. Gene tells of an experience he had during a qualifying session at road America when he spun three times. Getting out of the car gene discovered that the 27 inch rear tires had actually been put on the front and the 25 inch front tires were on the rear. Gene still qualified 10th out of approximately 40 cars for the race.
After that Gene drove for a variety of Trans Am and IMSA teams and was leading in points in both series until the accident at Riverside in the fall of 1984 put him in the hospital for over 70 days and ended his pro career.
Gene still draws admiring glances from his younger competitors after he dusts them off in historic stock car races around the country. Gene was one of the founders and leaders of the historic stock car racing phenomenon in the early 1990’s and to this day his company Gene Felton restorations, located in Roswell, Georgia is the leading restorer and supplier of truly authentic Nascar stock cars to customers all over the world.
Gene has also been invited the last four years to bring Nascar stock cars to the Goodwood Festival of Speed where he has enjoyed blasting the bonnets off the euro set as he charged up lord march’s driveway in either a Jeff Gordon DuPont/Rainbow Warrior Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Mr. Goodwrench Chevy or a Kasey Kahne Dodge.
As Gene’s friend Bill Elliot has said “Gene has done it all.”
I don’t believe it will take anything less than an act of god to pry Gene out of a racecar anytime soon so look for this American legend at historic and vintage races in your area. And for fellow competitors the best advice I can give you is to “watch your mirrors” because Mr. Felton is still quite capable of coming to the front of the pack.