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.

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