By Linda Emley
Editor’s Note: With the Rotary Club’s Reverse Raffle coming up and several items of NASCAR memorabilia on the block, Linda Emley thought it would be appropriate to rerun some of her earlier columns on Ray County’s own NASCAR track. Ray County had a NASCAR track? Linda should know; her father was one of the drivers. Read on … Remember, the dates and events below are from a previous year. This year’s Reverse Raffle will be held Feb. 23.
In 1951, the Richmond National Guard was activated and sent to Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. When the race track opened there in the spring, the guys spent Saturdays at Columbia Speedway watching the stock cars. Anyone who knows my dad J.B. Martin knows he was not happy just watching, so he got a NASCAR pit crew license and hung out with the drivers and mechanics in the pit area.
On April 12, 1952, all those days hanging out in the pits finally paid off. A 38-year-old Lee Petty drove his ‘51 Plymouth to Columbia and qualified for the race. His car was pulling hard so he needed to get it fixed before the race that night.
Lee’s pit crew, his brother Julie and his 15-year-old son Richard, were driving down from Randleman, N.C. later that day. Since his “crew” was not there yet, J.B. offered to help. They got busy and figured out that the rear end needed a bearing. The local Chrysler dealer’s shop was closed on Saturday, but the parts department was open. They got the part and the dealer let them use his shop to fix Lee’s car.
Lee won the race that night, but due to a scoring error he finished second. Richard and J.B. wanted Lee to protest, but Lee said that he would take the $700 second-place prize money and let Buck Baker win. If they had protested, it could be days before it was settled and everyone would have gone home empty handed that night.
When the Richmond, Mo., Speedway opened in 1953, Lee helped J.B. get the paperwork to start a NASCAR track. Since Lee was No. 42, J.B. decided to be 42 JR . A few years later, Richard would be No. 43 and as they say, the rest is history.
Lee’s 1953 Dodge Hemi V-8 had problems with its four-barrel carburetor flooding out on corners, so Lee called J.B. He was working at the Ford Plant in Kansas City and used some aircraft rivets to figure out a way to make the carburetor stop flooding. I’m sure Ford would not have approved, if they knew their rivets were helping a Dodge race car.
J.B. called Lee and explained how to fix it and that was the end of the flooding carburetor for Lee. The other drivers noticed that his car wasn’t flooding, so one guy offered Lee $1,000 if he would fix his carburetor. When Lee told J.B. about the $1,000, J.B. asked why he didn’t take the money. Lee explained that he was beating this guy all the time and if he fixed it for him, it would only take one first place win for him to get his $1,000 back.
In 1954, J.B. wanted to race late-model stock cars with IMCA, so he called his buddy. Lee told him to go to the Kansas City Auto Show and look up a short guy that looked like he was from Texas named Bill Hill and tell him that Lee Petty sent him.
Bill was one of the Detroit guys that could make sure you got the “special” racecar. Bill called Lee to check out J.B., and a few days later he was on the Dodge racing team. J.B. had to buy his car for $1,800, but Dodge supplied him with parts. No matter where you were, if you called Detroit by 5 p.m., the parts would be shipped on a TWA plane and be waiting for you the next day at the nearest airport.
J.B. got a 1955 Dodge Hemi Coronet that had a special six-cylinder. He took off a few days later and drove his hemi down to see Petty, who helped give it that “extra” touch.
As the 1959 season was winding down, J.B. got a call from Lee. “What you doing? Can you get loose for awhile?” J.B. asked, “What you got?” Lee told him he needed some help because his mechanic was going to be gone for a year due to a little moonshine issue. Two days later, J.B. and his father Olie were on the road to North Carolina.
A month later they were back in Richmond towing a Petty racecar trailer. It was loaded up and the Martins headed south to the land of Plymouths and Pettys.
By this time, Richard and Lee were both racing. The guys worked seven days a week and ‘til 9 p.m. every night. They had to build four cars for the next season because Richard and Lee both needed a car for dirt tracks and another one for asphalt tracks. That winter, J.B. learned the secret formula for “Petty Blue” paint, which to this day is still a highly discussed issue. Many have tried to recreate it, but most have failed.
I asked my dad if it was all work and no play and he told me they had snow days. The guys used an old car hood and went sledding. They drilled two holes and added a rope so they could steer it. I’m sure they had the fastest sled in town.
Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and when Feb. 14, 1960 rolled around, Lee and Richard were both driving in the second Daytona 500. One of the largest car wrecks in NASCAR history happened on turn four when 37 cars crashed. J.B. said he was watching a Petty car and then all of a sudden everything got real quiet. He turned around and saw all the cars piled up everywhere. This was one of the first races that CBS Sports filmed. When the checkered flag came out, Richard was third and Lee was right behind him in fourth.
J.B. went with them in 1960 as a mechanic, not as a pit crew member who jumped over the fence to do a tire change or refuel. His job was to sit on the wall and hold a chalk board with a message for Lee or Richard. If J.B. had fallen off the wall, they would have been disqualified for having too many crew members on the track side.
Many years later, J.B. was teaching auto mechanics in Excelsior Springs. A company that makes piston rings called “Perfect Circle” sent out a 16-mm movie for his class to watch and everyone was surprised when they saw their teacher sitting on the wall at Daytona. J.B got a copy from the company and it’s still on a shelf in his basement.
But how many people have a 16-mm projector these days? One day a few years ago, I was in a store and found a VHS video of the greatest moments in NASCAR. I got a copy for my dad and guess what he saw? There was this young guy from Richmond sitting on the wall at Daytona. So now he can relive the days of Daytona anytime the mood hits him.
Another memorable race was Feb. 28, 1960 when Richard Petty won his first NASCAR race at Charlotte. J.B. was driving on the way home with Lee and Richard riding shotgun. Lee got a little nostalgic and told J.B. that there might not be a Petty racing team if they had not fixed his car back in 1952.
Lee said that the $700 he won at Columbia was used to pay off a bank note that was due the following Monday morning. So Richard and J.B. finally knew why Lee did not want to fight the protest when they both knew he had really won the race at Columbia.
Richard’s last race was in 1992. Lee wasn’t able to be there, but there was no way that J.B. was going to miss it. He and my mother, Betty Lou, got in the motor home, picked up a couple of friends and headed for Atlanta. They parked in the infield at the racetrack and didn’t leave until it was over four days later.
In the 1960s, Lee Petty promoted an additive called VX-6. On the box it says, “I’d rather race without tires than without VX-6 in my battery.” One day J.B. asked Lee if it really worked and he said, “Well it sure won’t hurt anything.” Lee got paid $1,000 for having his picture on the box, so Lee was right, it sure didn’t hurt.
Lee Petty died April 5, 2000 and I remember that day like it was yesterday. It had been a few years since Lee and J.B. had seen each other, but it’s always hard when you lose an old friend that you’ve know for 50 years.
When the Kansas Speedway had its grand opening in 2001, Richard was invited to the party. Clyde Ellis, an old racing buddy, got tickets and asked J.B. to go. The Kansas City Star took a picture of Richard and J.B. that appeared in the paper and in a book about the Kansas Speedway called “Fields of Thunder.” My dad keeps this book handy, just in case he finds someone that hasn’t seen it yet.
We can’t end this story without mentioning bootleggers, so I asked my dad the million-dollar question. He said while he was there, he worked on engines for cars other than racecars. The revenuers and the bootleggers both wanted to have the fastest cars and both knew who could make it happen. For some strange reason, most of the bootleggers’ cars were just a little bit faster than the revenuers’ cars.
If I could go back to April 12, 1952 and tell Lee and J.B. that someday that 15-year-old boy would be called “King Richard,” I’m sure they would have laughed and then asked me to pass them a 3/16 wrench because they had a Plymouth that needed fixin’.
Have a NASCAR memory, photo or memorabilia? Let Linda know at email@example.com.