When I started covering NASCAR back in the Dark Ages, I developed an affinity for independent drivers, those who didn’t enjoy factory support or major sponsorship.
They owned their own teams, got their hands and clothes dirty working on their cars, utilized borrowed or used equipment and cobbled together whatever pit crews and sponsorship money they could.
Many of them competed only in those races they felt offered them the best chance to make money if they minded their expenses and nursed their cars to the best finishes possible – and, perhaps, get some “go home” cash from the track promoter.
They got a career boost in the mid-70s when their demands for some equity got the needed response from NASCAR President Bill France Jr.
Under his guidance, a plan was created to give independent drivers a monetary bonus of various amounts if they entered and attempted to qualify for every NASCAR Winston Cup Series race.
This would offer an extra yearly income of around $36,000 – a tidy sum for the time.
But for some independents, it wasn’t nearly enough, mainly because they could not afford to prepare their cars for every Winston Cup race, not to mention they did not have budgets that supported increased travel expenses.
But some of them did have the means to compete on the full schedule. Thus, they were able to take advantage of what became known as “plan money” and the point fund, which increased annually.
No, they were not able to compete for victory. In fact, a vast majority of competitors weren’t, either. Throughout the 1970s, only five or six drivers were regular winners, with the occasional surprise or two.
In most races, independent drivers developed a strategy in which they raced cautiously. They could ill afford accidents or mechanical failure. Instead of victory – which was virtually unattainable, anyway – they competed against each other for the highest finishing position possible.
The higher the position, the larger amount of points money received. And the higher they finished in the final point standings meant even more income.
They were called strokers. It had somewhat of a derogatory meaning, but they didn’t care. A big handful of independent drivers were making a living in racing – and not a bad one at that.
Guys like Richard Childress, Jimmy Means, Dave Marcis, Frank Warren, James Hylton, D.K. Ulrich, Buddy Arrington, J.D. McDuffie, Cecil Gordon and Tommy Gale were seldom if ever considered contenders for victory.
But they competed week after week, year after year.
My affinity for them was not solely based on their status but also on their availability and cooperation with me as a motorsports writer.
It didn’t take me long to learn that if I wanted to know what was going on at any given race, it was an independent driver who would tell me.
These drivers were not swarmed by the media as were their more successful – and prominent – colleagues. As such, they welcomed reporters like me instead of trying to dodge them if possible.
Sure, I chatted with, and interviewed, the stars of the day and became friends with many of them.
But I became close to so many independent drivers who willingly gave informative interviews and engaged in lively conversation.
It was fun to listen to Childress and Hylton talk about their “feud” in which one tried to outdo the other with practical jokes.
Hylton, incidentally, was the voice of the independents during their uprising against NASCAR. Because I knew him so well (I worked in Roanoke at the time and he had family there), he told me everything. I was able to produce more about the controversial situation than any other writer.
I went fishing more than once with Marcis, who was an excellent outdoorsman. He also had a prodigious appetite and he told me the story of being thrown out of an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.
McDuffie was a prodigious poker player and joined games routinely played in motels populated by NASCAR drivers, media and officials.
But for me, McDuffie was a confidant. At Martinsville one evening, my buddy Tom Higgins and I were at a steakhouse when he came in alone.
I saw him and waved him over to our table. He joined us for dinner and regaled us with information and humorous, personal stories.
He laughed as much as we did – and thanked us for our company.
I visited Means just a short while back. Like he was when he drove, he was his usual pleasant, quiet self. We got to poke some fun at each other. We had done the same years before.
Ulrich joined Rick Houston and I as a guest on The Scene Vault Podcast last year. He was never shy about speaking his mind as a driver, and believe me, he hasn’t changed.
When Arrington passed away at 84 last year, it saddened me tremendously.
He was the first driver I ever interviewed. I was working at the Martinsville Bulletin as a very inexperienced sportswriter when I got a phone call from him. He told me he had a new car at his shop, and I needed to come up and see it.
I did and we talked. I had a lot of dumb questions. He answered every one of them.
Over the years Arrington became a prime target for information. He also became a friend.
We were so close I could chat with him and his wife in their motel room. I could drop in at his home, where we once watched a college basketball game together.
He told me the details about the report he was the last NASCAR driver caught hauling moonshine. He admitted it.
Once, he was hospitalized after a serious accident during practice at Talladega Superspeedway. I took a chance and called his room. To my surprise, he answered and we talked despite the fact he was having a sponge bath at the time.
Before he retired in 1988, Arrington became one of the most successful independent drivers. No, he didn’t win or become a prominent team owner like Childress.
But he did compete in 560 races over 25 years, finishing seventh in points in 1982 and earned nearly $2 million, mostly during an era when to earn $100,000 in one season was considered a stellar achievement.
In this age of multi-car teams, some owned by corporate millionaires and investors and all armed with NASCAR charters, the age of the independent driver has long since come to an end.
But for one man, and for NASCAR, it was indeed a memorable time.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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