Dirt Track Daydreaming

| April 07, 2005

Trucker Larry Bailey’s passion for racing has led him onto the track with NASCAR stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and behind the scenes with Cale Yarborough’s team.

Jeff Gordon. Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale Jarrett. Larry Bailey.

There are household names that everyone who loves watching the American sedan race knows. Then there’s the guy nobody knows. Larry Bailey loves racing and being part of it, from getting behind the wheel at small dirt tracks to helping teams racing the NASCAR Busch and Nextel and old Winston Cup circuits. And he helps independents, small teams made up of friends who don’t have a big budget and need volunteers to get to the track and race each weekend. While the big names light up the leader boards, the teams Bailey helps by doing anything from driving a transporter to working with parts and motors are fighting to be competitive with their small budgets and need to make their cars and parts last.

“I think a lot of teams and drivers in both Busch and Nextel Cup are better than their results suggest,” says Bailey. “If they had the budget of the big guys, I think you’d see them be much more competitive.”

For him, cars are outdoor sport, and garages and racetracks are where he goes when he gets back off the road after a week away from his Chattanooga, Tenn., home.

Bailey, 40, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., raced a Pontiac Sunfire in the NASCAR DASH series on and off for about four years, but this year the series went under, and he had nowhere to race. “Mainly these days I help out friends in the Busch and Nextel Cup races, and I’ve helped a few ARCA and late-model sports car race teams,” he says. “I may be with one team one week and another team the next week; then there’ll be weeks where I just go out into my little shop behind the house and fiddle around out there.”

And all the time, Bailey is waiting for his chance to go back behind the wheel.

While Larry Bailey is not one of the big names of stock car racing, he is typical of thousands of Americans, many of them truck drivers, who race cars or work with cars every weekend and spare moment, living for the thrill of being at the track and getting to race – even if it’s a small-town dirt oval – and the joy of working on cars and motors. He goes back to the roots of the megabusiness that is today’s NASCAR, the little guy driving for the love of it at tracks all over the South.

“Up until a couple of years ago, I raced the Sunfire on a limited schedule, maybe five or six races a season,” says Bailey, who drives for Active Transportation, delivering popcorn to movie theatres from Florida to Texas five days a week. “When I wasn’t able to race, I’d help some of the guys in the big leagues, and when I helped them, I’d come home with a few new parts for my cars. Those guys toss away parts that aren’t up to their standard, but they work on my cars just fine. I’d take home all sorts of thrown-away parts.

He does it all for the guys he works with. “Sometimes I drive transportation, handling the haulers, sometimes I work with parts, sometimes work on the cars, maybe I’d go get hamburgers for them,” he says. “I just love being part of it. But I don’t get into the pits. You have to be really agile to get over that wall and back, and besides, it’s dangerous out there. I leave that to the guys who are good at it.”

Bailey grew up around a Southern phenomenon that is still a stable of Southern life today.

“I grew up in the Carolinas, and stock car racing was always something important in our house and in our lives,” he says. “In the early 1970s my dad raced on dirt short tracks, and I’d be with him.”

At age 15, Bailey started racing on dirt short tracks in South Carolina. After a while, he improved and moved up to racing at the Concorde Motors Speedway and at Hickory in North Carolina and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. “They were big tracks for me,” he says.

As he kept racing, Bailey also got to race at some legendary circuits – places like Bristol, Martinsville, Daytona and Charlotte. In 1985 he started working with the Hardees Racing team, which then boasted NASCAR star Cale Yarborough, and worked his way up to driving the team transporter. And he got to do what Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and other big names in NASCAR are doing today – race with, and trade some paint with, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has also worked closely with Morgan Shepherd, who twice finished in the top 10 points race in the old Winston Cup series and has earned four wins on the big circuit.

“There was a time I raced with all of the Earnhardt kids, Junior, Kelly and Kerry,” Bailey says. “They started in a class where you basically built cars from scrap yards and raced them. They were good, but I think in those very early days, the boys’ sister, Kelly, was the best of them.

Bailey raced whenever he could find the time and money, joining hundreds of weekend drivers who make up the grass roots of the sport even today.

“Basically whenever I could find enough money to go racing, I’d pack up the truck and head for a track. But there’d be times I just plain couldn’t afford it. Sometimes at the dirt tracks a small Mom-and-Pop tire store would sponsor me for a few races.”

He began racing with a ’69 Chevelle with “most of the parts coming from the junkyard, but she wasn’t too bad.” With some roll bars added to comply with safety regulations, Bailey was racing. After that car came a ’76 Chevy Camaro that raced on dirt tracks. When he moved to asphalt, Bailey stepped up to a Camaro with an IROC setup and a bigger motor.

“That car used to be owned by [former NASCAR standout] Ernie Irvan. I got it and just dropped in a motor, transmission and rear end and went racing,” says Bailey.

There were some consistent times coming home in the top 10 and even some wins on dirt tracks but no victories on asphalt yet for Bailey. And there were crashes and rides into walls, but “nothing real bad,” he says.

Bailey, paying his own way with only the occasional short-term sponsor to ease entry fees and the price of gas, oil, tires and other bills, raced mostly for the thrill of it, realizing before he began in most races that many of his opponents had far better-funded teams. And those teams could afford to run better racecars. In his early days of racing, entry fees, tires and gas could cost him $1,200 a race, and today it’s more than double that even at small tracks. His last few DASH races cost him upward of $3,000.

“It’s tough to have just enough and be racing guys with tens of thousands of dollars of sponsorship money,” Bailey says. “You know what they say: ‘The more money you have, the more horsepower you have.’ And when you need every dollar, you tend to try and make the car last, and that means nursing it sometimes when the competition with the money is driving it as hard as it will go and don’t really care if something gets damaged.”

But the expenses are worth it when Bailey can get off the road and onto a track.

“Racing, or even just working with cars and helping race crews, is a great tension-breaker after being on the road all week,” he says. “I need to do something to make me relax.”

While there are a host of long-haul truckers who would try hard to avoid the roar of engines, the smell of burning fuel and rubber, the grease, the heat of engines and sitting in the seat playing with an accelerator and steering wheel, Bailey loves it.

“I know a lot of truckers head out into the woods or onto lakes to go hunting or fishing, but racing and being around racecars is my sport; it’s my way of unwinding,” he says.

As a professional trucker, Bailey also needs to change his mindset when he gets to the track, especially if he is going to drive.

“In a tractor-trailer you are always driving defensively, looking for an escape route, a safe way, and your speed and where and how you drive is geared to that,” he says. “You’re not only avoiding situations that could be risky, you are constantly trying to make sure they don’t happen. In a racecar you have to push it to the limit, and you do take risks. They’re calculated risks, not foolish ones, but it’s something you would never do in a tractor-trailer. There’s a really big difference when you get behind the wheel. On the track is the only place I get to go fast.”

When Bailey races, he’s a one-man team. “I have some buddies that help me when they can, turning wrenches, changing tires, but mostly it’s me. I’m the owner-driver-crew chief-mechanic,” he says.

Truck driving is also in Bailey’s blood. “It’s been in my family for as long as I can remember,” he says. “Uncles, cousins, all sorts of relatives drove trucks. It was kind of handed down to me.”

Bailey credits his work behind the wheel of racecars with helping his OTR skills. “I think I’m more alert and aware of what’s around me and how the traffic patterns can suddenly change,” he says. “And working with racecar engines has helped me really understand how my diesel works. I think I use the motor better because of that knowledge.”

Today, as a company driver delivering mostly to malls, Bailey dreams about high-speed ovals and sliding around dirt tracks while he rolls along in a 2004 Volvo VN. The job gives him the chance to be home weekends with wife Carolyn and daughters Jacklyn, 12, and Ashley, 6. “They’re not huge race fans, but they know I love it, and they know I’ll be out back in my little dirt-floor shop, working on cars when I’m home if I can.”

These days Bailey says his situation is not atypical of the little guy who likes to race. “I sold the car to pay off some debts. But when the chance comes to race again, I’ll get another one,” he says. “I’d like to get back to it. If I could find a sponsor, I think I’d be racing somewhere this weekend.”


Off-duty Destinations: Stage Stops
Just for once, what about a “great indoors” destination? The idea came to me from two different groups of truckers. Several drivers told me that as much as they’d love to go hot air ballooning or whitewater rafting (some of our earlier Destinations), they really don’t want to be that athletic in their spare time. And some other truckers told me that there were a lot of drivers out there who like to do some cool cultural adventuring when they have a layover in a town. You know, antiques, historical places, museums – that sort of stuff.

We know there are a lot of drivers who enjoy the arts, so this month we suggest local theaters as a fun destination. You don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare to love local productions of drama, comedy, farce, musicals or even tragedy. Cities and towns all over the country offer productions by local amateur companies, universities, high schools, churches and small regional touring companies.

Take a typical example, “Prairie Dog Productions” of Boise, Idaho, which bills itself as “Idaho’s Family Theater.” The company says its mission is to “cultivate theatrical audiences, make the arts accessible to all community residents and provide a venue for families to experience theatre together.” Tickets are just $10. In the Iowa City area there’s the professional Riverside Theater, but there are also the amateur Dreamwell Theater and City Circle Acting Company. If you’re hauling through Wisconsin, this site will give you a list of local theater and dance groups and current and upcoming productions.

Asheville, N.C., offers you theater by a number of outfits, including the North Carolina Stage Company, the Highland Repertory Theater, the Ashville Community Theater and Plaeides Productions. Kettle Falls, Wash., has Woodland Productions; Minnesota’s Twin Cities have a large number of theaters, including the Oops Dinner Theater, and you can find out about these and other Minnesota theaters at this site; and Stage Door Productions is a community theatre group in Fredericksburg, Va.

You get the picture, or I should say you get the show. Local theater is alive and well in communities large and small across the country. Try searching at Yahoo, using a combination of local/ regional/theater/productions and the name of the state.

Truckers come in all shapes and sizes and with a wide range of interests. I hope our little change of pace will give some of you the idea to attend local theater when you are held over. Enjoy the show.

Dave Coleman

Rods & Barrels: ‘Fishing Therapy’
Here’s a picture of a guy that says he’s just finished a perfect day’s fishing. Here’s a guy who puts “catching fish” well down his list of things that go to make up a perfect day’s fishing. Here’s Dave Coleman.

“Boy, was I relaxed in this picture,” he says. “I was just plum worn out. The fish hadn’t been biting, and I’d been out all day. We got back, and my buddy was just wasting film when he took this one. We were up at Reelfoot Lake, and you can see I’m beat. But any day fishing is a great day.”

Coleman drives a Volvo for Nashville-based Western Express and runs all 48. But it’s not your regular Western Express rig. It’s fitted out with the hoist on the fifth wheel, and Coleman goes out to recover broken-down or damaged company trucks and bring them back to Nashville for repair. He hooks up to the drive axles with a special rig and tows the tractor home backwards.

“I go out fishing to enjoy the day,” he says. “I go out for a day of peace and quiet, and that means more to me than catching fish. I get away from the truck and the traffic and people. I go to ‘fishing therapy.'”

But he used to be a much more aggressive fisherman. “I fished bass tournaments, but I quit doing that because I got all stressed out when things weren’t going well,” Coleman says. “All of those boats roaring across the lakes and river at 80 miles an hour – I had one that could do 82 miles an hour. I just got burned out on tournament fishing. That’s why today my boat has a 25-horsepower Evinrude. I don’t need that speed any more. My boat will do maybe 20 miles an hour wide open, but she cruises beautifully at 10 miles an hour, and that’s the way I travel on the water most of the time these days.”

Coleman fishes from a 16-foot aluminum Bass Tracker. “That’s my baby. I love that little ol’ boat. I’ve had it about five years now. I get home off the road, and I just have to go a couple of miles to put it in the Duck River and float out there and relax,” says the Tennessee driver. “People accuse me of being one of the most laid-back individuals they’ve met. But I’ve been at this driving business too long to let things get to me any more.”

Coleman used to hunt, but he gave that up after new hunters came onto the land he was hunting and shot the landowner’s cow and almost shot him and his buddy. “I figured that was a sign, and I gave it up. I love fishing so much that I don’t miss hunting,” he says. And he’ll fish for just about anything – bass, catfish, bream, crappie, trout.

Trout? Coleman usually fishes with a pretty standard spinning rod, but a friend of his ties his own flies, and Coleman took one out to try his luck in a trout stream. “I have a fly rod, but I haven’t mastered it yet. But I asked him to make me a fly, and he came up with one he said would work, and I caught a two-pound trout on it, and that was the biggest day of my fishing life.” The trout went back. Coleman is a catch-and-release guy except for the occasional mess of crappie and bream he’ll keep to filet and deep fry.

When Coleman is home, you can almost certainly find him out on the water, fishing but not fishing. But you can’t reach him out there – he doesn’t take his cell phone.

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