By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
RACING TEAM TODAY: Getting together to reminisce about racing times are, from left, Jerry Stone with his wife Judy and Shane Carson with his wife Debbie. A group of retired drivers with their families and friends meet on the third Wednesday of every month at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa for lunch and fun.
Smiles, hugs and handshakes were as numerous as hot laps at an open wheel race car track. Old time weekend warriors warmly greeted each other, ready to again reminisce about their glory days. Bench racing took center stage as memories of bygone victories became more impressive with the passage of time.
The Oklahoma Dirt Track Legends were meeting again. Competition, feuds and rivalries were long forgotten, giving way to friendships formed during decades of racing at tracks like Tulsa Speedway, State Fair Speedway in Oklahoma City and a bevy of smaller venues across the state.
The retired drivers meet on the third Wednesday of every month at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa, sharing lunch and camaraderie with their families and friends. With Tulsa Speedway closing in 2005 and life’s checkered flag claiming more and more of them, it’s the last gasp for many drivers in a fading way of life.
The monthly meetings began 20 years ago, the brainchild of familiar dirt track veterans Mike Pogue, Chief Eaton and Don Bucy. There were perhaps five drivers attending the first event. Now 70 or more show up each month to renew racing relationships, including Shane Carson, Len Larkin and Jerry Stone.
“I like the people. The people haven’t changed a whole lot in 50 years,’’ said Larkin, who still races at the age of 72. “It’s still the same thing. You run hot laps, the heat race and then the feature. You go home and work on your car and come back the next week.
“There are good hearted, hard-working, honest people here. They’re kind of special people. About 20 Tulsa Speedway champions come here and I can look out and see six or seven right now. I’ve never won an A feature (in 52 years), but I just go racing and do the best I can.’’
While Larkin is still chasing his elusive A feature victory, Stone retired from the sport 13 years ago and now runs a machine shop in Bixby. Remembered as the mainstay of Ofixco’s team in the 1980s, Stone has many varied recollections from the sport. And some that have slipped his mind.
“The people I met are the best part of racing,’’ said Stone, whose career highlight was winning a World of Outlaws event in 1992. “I’ve also found out that a lot of things I remember aren’t always how they were.
“I’ve run 1,500 to 1,800 races and a fellow came down from Pennsylvania and stayed with me during the Chili Bowl. He brought some videos from when I raced in Pennsylvania and I ran well. I still absolutely don’t remember it.’’
Meanwhile, Carson is carrying on his families’ tradition. His father, Bud Carson, was a long-time promoter at State Fairway Speedway, leading to Shane’s involvement in dirt track driving.
“I guess I had no choice. I was born into it,’’ said Carson, now the chairman of the Oklahoma Dirt Track Legends. “All of our parents were involved as drivers and our racing families kept us going. They gave us the confidence to do what we did.
“So many of our people are passing and that’s the down side. Mike Peters died in February, but there are still a lot of good guys left in racing. Ray Crawford, Jerry Stone and Derrill Brazeal come out to our meetings and our slogan is ‘Promoting the Future by Preserving the Past.’”
Larkin has a past and still looks to the future. Best known for his green No. 13 car, Larkin tempted fate during a time when the color green and the number 13 were both omens of bad luck. Maybe that’s the reason he never won a main event.
“I did have some good finishes against the top drivers,’’ insisted Larkin, whose sons Roy and Joe also raced. “I made some life-long friends and I’ve found out the older you get, the faster you were. I just love going to be with the people. Being out there is the biggest part of it for me. I want to race as long as I can afford it.’’
Larkin has worn many hats in open wheel competition, including announcer, president of the , official with the and a brief stint as promoter of Tulsa Speedway. Carson also has an impressive resume. He was Rookie of the Year at Oklahoma City in 1973, Knoxville track champion in 1978, titlist in 1986 and inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2007.
“I believe the draw of the families was the best part of racing,’’ Carson said. “I grew up at the perfect time because of the (driver’s) kids were my age and now I can see it continue in new generations. We’re watching second and third generation drivers. The kids followed their dad like I did.’’
Carson is now more involved in the social aspect of dirt track racing and “making people happy.’’ Meanwhile, Stone may not recall all of his important open wheel successes, but he can reflect on incidents that seemed infuriating at the time
“Some racers hold grudges, but we let them go,’’ said Stone, who began his career as a national go-kart champion. “I still owe Mike Peters, but I guess I won’t get to pay him back now. Back in the 1980s, I was leading in Wichita, and he knocked me off the track on the last lap.
“I forgave him, but I never forgot. I really didn’t dislike Mike. He was a strong racer. But nobody likes Sammy Swindell. He runs over people.’’
Such is life in the world of dirt track racing. Both good memories and bad are slowing evaporating in the dust and the ghostly pits of tracks now gone. The members of the Oklahoma Dirt Track Legends will try and hold on to them until the final driver has crossed the finish line.