Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Way Things Were--In The Good Old Days!

I have a story for you (I actually wrote this in 2008) and it doesn't really have much to do with drag racing, per se, but it tells a little about me and a lot about racing history, especially where I come from…which is really where almost all round track racing came from. No one in drag racing ever bothered to ask me where I came from, what my credentials were, where did I get my knowledge (just where the hell did I get off thinking I knew something about racing! HA! Read on…) Don't get discouraged and stop reading because if you read the whole thing, you'll be going, "Gee whiz!" when you finish.

I grew up in a little one horse, one stoplight town…Boonville, NC… my father's family, the Woodruffs, came there in the 1800s. For the first five years of my life, I lived in a dinky little two-family house on Woodruff Road (remember the name of this road as you read). Many, many family members lived near by and we were farmers (I am still a farmer at heart) and our lives were pretty much ruled by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and one of the major milk processors, I don't remember which.

When I was five, we moved about a quarter mile off the dirt to just across the highway where Woodruff Road ended (one end of it anyway). We were only a mile out of town, but it wasn't much of a town and even our school days were governed by the need for kids to work on the farm, especially in tobacco. Only five houses away from our house was a garage, a fairly large garage by the standards of those days. No, I ain't telling you the years, at least not exactly! The name of this garage was Steelman Motor Company. The garage was started by Frank Steelman Sr and they fixed everyone's cars around who didn't fix their own, they fixed all kinds of farm tractors and other farm equipment AND…when the JUNIOR Frank Steelman got to be the age of legal driving…they built race cars. So if y'all have ever wondered why I've always LOVED race cars, the fact that I lived so close to this particular garage was probably the major reason.

One of our coaches and physical education teachers when I was in school was Mr. Bob Crissman, who was pretty much a local 'boy.' When he decided to quit teaching, he went to work for The Enterprise, a local newspaper. He also worked for the Elkin Tribune for a time. While I was going through some old stuff a few nights ago, I came across the 1984 3rd Annual Summer Racing Preview from The Enterprise. It was written by Bob Crissman. On the cover of this publication was a photo of Shorty York, N.C. # 9 from Boonville, NC with Steelman Motor Company on the quarter panel of their dirt track 1939 Ford with a flathead engine built by Frank Steelman, Jr (everyone just called him Frank Junior! He built the car and the engine).

On page 2, where the information is given about the photo, it also says this: "Another of his (Steelman's) cars, a 1937 Ford with a 292 engine, was driven by Ken Rush to a season championship at Bowman Gray Stadium (Winston-Salem, NC). Steelman's other drivers included Grand National greats Curtis Turner, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Isaacs and Ralph Earnhardt, father of Dale Earnhardt.

Also on page 2 was a column actually written by Junior Johnson titled Bonnett, Waltrip compete against each other. That is not the article I am going to reprint here, but I will reprint the first paragraph…"I am writing this racing column for Bob and The Enterprise right before the qualifying for the Atlanta race. So, I don't know at this point in time what the future holds in store for the Johnson-Hodgdon Racing Team in the Coca-Cola 500. (How many of you drag racers remember Warner Hodgdon's involvement in drag racing?)

Okay, on to the subject of this story. On page 10 of this special addition to The Enterprise, there was a story entitled: Steelman recalls dirt track battles by Bob Crissman and I am reprinting it here….

"It was a time of racing like we will never see again. A time when everybody drove dirt tracks, even the big name drivers. A time of rip-roaring, fender-bumping, smashups and chain-reaction wrecks."

"Speaking was Boonville's Frank Junior Steelman who still operates his shop on Hwy. 67 where his dad ran it before he did. And a shop where some thirty to forty race cars were built over a 14-year span. They were built, primarily, to run on dirt tracks of the Forties and Fifties, before the days of the asphalt speedway. And where cars were built for racing and driven by some of the biggest names in racing of yesteryear in the early days of a sport which is being currently revived. But one which, from 1940 until 1948, flourished throughout the Carolinas like the proverbial green bay tree.

"In the 14 years I was in racing, we had some of the roughest, but the best drivers in the land," recalled Steelman at his Boonville garage and shop. "Our pit crew and mechanics were tops, too. They were Ralph Garner of Winston-Salem and my brother David Steelman. "Bobby Isaacs was my main driver," said Steelman. He came from over near Hickory, the Newton-Conover section.

"But I had a lot of other good drivers and we would race almost anywhere on the eastern seaboard: Richmond, VA Fairgrounds, back when it was dirt; Atlanta-The Lakewood Speedway; Knoxville, TN; Spartanburg, SC; Myrtle Beach, SC; Charlotte Fairgrounds; Hickory Speedway; North Wilkesboro Speedway; Bowman Gray in Winston-Salem; Concord, NC; South Boston, VA; Greensboro Fairgrounds; Asheville-Weaverville; Hillsboro; you name it. Bowman Gray was the only paved track. (Ed. Note: There was NO Charlotte Motor Speedway then.)

"We even went up to New York and raced," recalled Frank Junior. He smiled. "Our drivers were nearly all country boys from the south. They showed those Yankees how it was done!" He continued, "My dad built a 1939 Ford Coupe for Curtis Turner to drive at South Boston, VA. "You have heard of most all of our drivers. We had Pee Wee Jones, Ned Jarrett, Ken Rush, Ralph Earnhardt (Dale's dad), Curtis Turner, Bobby Isaacs, Shorty York: a lot of them won. Our main driver, I'd say, was Bobby Isaacs.

"About the only asphalt we ever raced on then was Bowman Gray. Ken Rush of High Point drove our car there at the stadium. It was a 1936 Chevy with a 427 Ford engine. Ken won the championship at Bowman Gray that year. There were no sponsors back then," recalled Steelman. "Of course, tires, paint, parts and equipment weren't nearly as high as nowadays and it didn't cost much to keep a car running.

Frank Junior recalled his first race. He had built the car, a '37 Ford. "Shorty York drove it for me at the old High Point dirt track. I don't think we won, but Shorty finished well up front. He was always in the thick of it." One of Steelman's racing career highlights came with the last race held on dirt at Hickory Speedway. "Bobby Isaacs drove my car and won," said Frank Junior grinning. Junior Johnson was driving for Ralph Earnhardt. He came in second. And that didn't happen very often." (There's a photo of Curtis Turner and Frank Junior beside the car Curtis drove for Frank in the early fifties.) (Note by Becky: They still run the Bobby Isaacs Memorial Race every year on Labor Day weekend at Hickory Motor Speedway.)

In this same publication, there is a photo of Buck and Buddy Baker with their car, Jonesville's Barney Hall, who was the MRN anchor man at the time, Richard and Lee Petty, Linda Hurst, Tim and Fonty Flock (remember them from the fifties?) and, of course, Junior Johnson. There is also a really neat Budweiser ad on the back of the publication. There was an article about Farmington Dragway's 22nd year with a photo of Wayne Dollyhigh's Corvette and an ad for Farmington Dragway.

Want to know where I got my interest in racing? Well, here it is folks. But that isn't all. Woodruff Road was a dirt road less than a quarter mile from Frank Junior's shop. What a perfect place to test dirt track race cars, the only difference being they weren't making left turns on a quarter mile track so they could really let 'em out! One of my mother's biggest complaints was about the red dirt on her white house! And where did I sneak off to every chance I got? You got it. Got any idea how many times I got switched with a keen little hickory branch all the way back to my house? My legs pretty much looked like I'd been in the briar patch with Br'er Rabbit most of the time. But it was worth it!

How many of you can say you KNEW ALL THESE GUYS? I met every one of them. From the time I was about eight, I was a fender lizard. Sometimes, they would even hand me a wrench or a screwdriver! I loved it. Before then, I was driving tractors and trucks on the farm. I loved to see those cars go flying up that dirt road. Of course, you could only see them when they first hit the dirt, then they were obscured in that cloud of red clay dust. But just to hear the sound of those engines was the most thrilling thing about living in the country working on the farm and slipping off to get closer and closer and learn more and more.

The pay us kids got for working in tobacco (in place of slaves), other than room and board and food and clothes and all that stuff, was to load up in my uncle Sam's Ford farm truck on Saturday night for our weekly trip to Bowman Gray Stadium and since my uncles and the Steelmans grew up together and worked on the farm equipment together and were friends, they were always welcome in the pits at the races. Things were definitely different then.

By the time I started dating, I knew how to change spark plugs and that was about all they would ever really let me do, but during my teen years. While the other girls sat about in the house with the old ladies, guess who was out under the shade tree with her head stuck up under a hood? For those of you who don't know, I do have a diploma in auto mechanics from Rowan Tech in Salisbury, NC (which is now Rowan-Cabarrus Community College) and I taught several extension classes in Auto Mechanics for Davidson Community College in the mid '70s.

When I found that old paper and read that stuff, a flood of memories came back to me so strong, it put tears in my eyes. Many of those guys are gone now. But the impression they all left on me will be with me until I'm gone. The town of Boonville was in Yadkin County. Yadkin County shared their borders with Wilkes County; at that time, Wilkes County was the 'Moonshine Capital of the World' and basically, the place where round track racing got its start. Round track racing came from the moonshine runners and a track was built for them to compete against each other…North Wilkesboro Speedway, the first round track anywhere around the area. The movie Thunder Road was filmed practically in our back yards. Guys like those already written about here as well as Benny Parsons and many others were already legends (some simply because they were so good at eluding the law!) by the time I was a teenager but they were always accessible to any of us. We could go to their shops (as long as we didn't go too often or stay too long). I may write more about that moonshine later…that is part of my history, too.

It is odd that I never cared anything about round track racing, I still don't. I always thought it was boring (I still do)…just to sit and watch cars go around and around and around was to me, well, I won't say. I think that's why I always enjoyed drag racing so much. There's SO MUCH going on, all the time. I have photos of all three of my girls before they were six months old at Farmington Dragway! Teresa was born the year Farmington (Sportsman Park Dragstrip) opened…1963.

But whether it's drag racing or roundy round, it's the people that make it, not the cars or the direction in which they're going. And I had some of the BEST people in the whole world to look up to when I was a kid…they are all my heroes, if for no other reason than that they let me hang around and ask questions and get in their way. They always were good to me and answered my questions even though I bugged the hell out of them. They even let me stand right beside their cars when they cranked them up. It's miracle I'm not even more deaf than I am! I just wanted to let y'all know why I've loved you all so much all my life! STILL Drag Racing's MOST Dedicated Fan! Becky


Anonymous said...

maybe we could learn now from then how to do it so all could enjoy it as it was intended to be run

osupremegrandmotherone said...

My grandpa made moonshine too! My Uncle had to serve time for running the stuff.It will sure as heck get a cold out of you!

Teresa L. Steelman said...

I enjoyed reading your article very much Becky. I also had the privilege of working on some race cars with Frank Jr.,Philip (Frank Jr's son),Denny and Punk Wood. Which ran a dirt track car, NC 9,at Friendship race track back in the 1980's. Philip and I married in 1987 and have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. Kimberly and Lindsey Steelman. Frank Jr. passed away on Jan. 1 1997. He was a terrific father-in-law and we all still miss him very much. Thanks for bring back some great memories and sharing such touching memories yourself.
Teresa L. Steelman

PS. David Steelman, Frank Jr.'s brother still lives in Elkin, and tells some wondeful stories of those early days also.

William said...

Great stuff as always Becky. By reading the comments above, I found out that my great grandfather made moonshine and great uncle did time for running it... haha. Thanks Becky!!