TOM WYATT

Medford 9-2013 169My first call to a Thomas Wyatt in White City, Oregon, began with “Is this the former race car driver Tom Wyatt?”  The voice on the other end of the line said reluctantly, “Well…….I guess so…..”

One of Oregon’s top drivers, Tom had an interesting racing career worth looking back on that included championships at different tracks, a big win over a NASCAR legend, and disputes with a promoter that eventually lead to the end of his desire to keep racing.

Tom said that once he stopped he really didn’t have a desire to go back to the track just to watch others race.  “When I stopped in 1986 I stayed away from it.  It’s addictive; like a drunk going in the bar- you can’t have just one drink.”

With a tone that is humble and down to earth, Tom definitely comes across as a thoughtful man of principle, picking his words wisely while also honestly calling it as he sees it.  He was one of several top Oregon drivers to travel down to Redwood Acres during the golden dirt era to test our local hot shoes, enriching our driver fields while creating new rivalries in exciting races in the process.

scan00061b Oldsmobile

Early Oldsmobile raced before going into the service

“I was born in Medford, here in Camp White, a military facility in WWII”, Tom says.  “I was Drafted in November of ’66, I had raced an Oldsmobile before that.  Two years in the army, then came home.  My boss here at Boise Cascade in Medford was racing too; he built a car and I run a couple of races on leave here, just to keep the bug chewing on me.”

1956 Ford Tom raced before being drafted by the Army 1966

1956 Ford Tom raced before being drafted by the Army 1966

“I built a race car in Texas where I spent 18 months in Fort Hood.  I got acquainted with an old boy who had a junk yard down there, and he had numerous rentals, shacks, and said something one day about wanting to get them plastered.  Well, my dad was a plasterer and I knew how to sling mud; he just wanted them brown coated, chicken wired then sealed.  I said I could do that.  So I got free run of the junk yard.  That was right up my alley because I only had $245 a month income from the service and my wife was living with me.  I built a two door ’57 Chevy painted a beer bottle reddish brown with a white top, and I brought it up here and raced it at Medford.”

'56 Chevy which was also driven by Don Hood

’56 Chevy raced in the 1970s, which was also driven by Don Hood

MEDFORD SPEEDWAY

“On the old Medford Speedway they put on this black sticky orchard mud is what I call it; you get it to the right consistency and you can put all the horsepower you can make down.  But you get it dry it is the most tire-eating damn thing, just shreds tires.  It’s volcanic ash from Crater Lake when it went off.   I’ve got it in my back yard.  When you dig down, which I’ve done for ditches, you run into hard pan like bedrock.  You’ve got rocks, I call them big old agates, they were blown out of the mountain too when it went off.”

There’s an image: racing cars on dirt left by a volcano.  “Well, several thousand years later”, he says smiling.

Tom did well at tracks all over Oregon and northern California after the service.  He was Medford track champion in 1970 and at one time held the track record for fast time at both Medford and Cottage Grove.

“Cottage Grove was a place, when you broke in up there, they weren’t bashful.  They were real aggressive.  They’d gang up on out of town cars, put them out of the race.  I got beat up pretty good for a while.  But after a while you earn some respect, get to be part of the group.  I didn’t run a wing, but they all run wings up there. You couldn’t be fast without a wing.  Bert Beck and Don Hood, they all run wings.  To me the wing was a crutch; yeah, you had down force down the straightaway, but it was dragging coming off the corner.”

“I developed a diamond driving style; to where I could just bury it in the corner and then turn it and shoot off.  And I was in the road for them maybe coming off the corner, because they had more down force with the wing.  But then I had a lot more speed on the straightaway and I went in so deep, I’d go way in ahead of them get turned and here they’d come with their wing and they’d have to let up or drive through me, and it was frustrating for them.”

Tom and '57 Chevy later sold to Clyde Carlisle down at Redwood Acres.

Tom and the ’57 Chevy later sold to Clyde Carlisle down at Redwood Acres.

DRIVING STYLE

Tom’s son Steve Wyatt remembers his dad’s style of driving around the track at Medford:  “His style was so smooth; he wasn’t floggin’ the car in the corners- he was almost driving like pavement most of the time”.  Tom adds:  “Well, it was faster to drive around the corner than to slide around it.”

“I preferred the dry slick dirt race track (over sticky clay).  It made it more finesse- it wasn’t brute strength and awkwardness; you had to know what the car was doing and adjust the car accordingly.  To me that made it a lot more challenging.”

“I got into a rhubarb down there in Eureka one night, in fact I think Jim Walker was involved in it.  Two cars were going around the corner and there was enough room in the middle, and that’s where I went.  And I left doughnuts on both cars but they were clear up into their numbers.  Walker’s pit guy jumped all over me.  I said look where the tire marks are, I was clear up there that far when they come down on me.”

“What happens on Saturday night is forgotten about pretty quick on Sunday, but still in the moment, it’s devastating.  Some people can handle it and some people lose their perception of what actually happened.   But then you talk to as many different people in the grandstands and you’d get just as many different views.”

THE BUSINESS OF RACING

“All those promoters look at it as- what am I going to put out, and what am I going to get?  They don’t want to do any more than they have to, yet they want the maximum amount of income out of it. You have to find somebody that is well-heeled, and is looking at the long haul of the interest of the people who are patronizing the place, and it won’t happen very often.”

“The fans want to see the biggest and the best and they don’t want to pay more than they have to for it.”

“It’s the same way with the cars; the promoters always blame us; ‘You guys want to keep outrunning each other all the time, spending more money, and that’s your problem’.  Yet the people flock to see that, and the promoter benefits from it, but they aren’t doing nothing to really promote it.”

“Racers – we are our own worst enemies; we are going to beat the other guy wherever and however, and some of them no matter what it costs.  Racing is a sport of kings, not paupers.  Speed costs money – how fast do you wanna go?  I went as fast as a lot of them and didn’t spend near the money.”

'70 Nova driven in 1976 - "beer bottle brown, metallic, with a pearl white top"

’70 Nova driven in 1976 – “beer bottle brown, metallic, with a pearl white top”

CONFLICT IN MEDFORD

“The Rogue Valley Racing Association was made up of drivers and car owners.  I was on the board of directors for years but didn’t want to be president, just wanted a little bit of input to steer it so the average guy could be competitive.  Damn near all of us worked for a living.”

“In the mid 70s NASCAR started a grass roots movement.  Roger Baer come out to Medford on a promotional thing for Winston cigarettes.  Ron Smith, my mechanic and right hand man, called him up to see if we could have a meeting after the race he was here for.  We had breakfast and asked him what are you promoting besides the race- at Medford you can fall through the grandstands, the restrooms are deplorable, money changing hands but nothing spent on facilities.  He politely listened to us and offered a little bit.  Later it got back to us that all we did was snivel and cry about insignificant things.  I later saw Roger at a track down south and apologized for bending his ear, Roger said no hard feelings.  I just wanted to enlighten him as far as the promoters.”

Dennis Huth promoted the races at the old Medford Raceway at the Posse Grounds in the 70s and 80s.

“Promoter Dennis Huth took our sport and made a business out of it, but didn’t include us in it.   He had three separate businesses; the back gate was one, the concessions was another, and the front gate was the third, of which we didn’t’ receive any of that.”

“Huth was charging fans at the back gate and keeping the money.  So I wrote a letter to NASCAR asking why two tracks fifty miles apart, both NASCAR tracks; one you had to be a NASCAR member to go in the back, but in Medford fans paid 5 dollars and got in the back gate and he was putting it in his pocket.”

“So he made a big announcement at the pit meeting one night:  ‘From now on everybody who comes through the back gate has to be a NASCAR member’.  And there was some groaning and moaning going on, and he said ‘It’s because somebody up here likes to write letters’.  And I said ‘Yeah, I’m the guy who likes to write letters!  You’re puttin that in your pocket, you crooked so and so..’. and that started the turmoil.  But I didn’t care after a certain point.  I’d almost dare him to treat me different than other drivers on the race track so the grandstand could see it.  He knew better not to monkey with that.   It was just a head beatin’ deal all the time.”

“I got told more than once I needed to concentrate on driving and leave politics alone.  Just get out of the way of it.  But I couldn’t; I felt I had some insight into where it was going, and it wasn’t productive.  I had a sense of responsibility that I felt I needed to exert to try and keep this all together.   Not that I was going to do it single-handedly, but I was trying to steer it in a general direction so that it would last.”

“I was at odds with the local promoter here, so decided it was a lot more fun to race some place else”  This lead Tom to spend more time at tracks around Oregon, including Redwood Acres Raceway down in Eureka, where he was track champion in 1976.

#2m Chevy Camaro in 1978

#2m Chevy Camaro in 1978

Tom would eventually gravitate back to the tracks closer to home.  Out of the grass roots project by Winston, NASCAR sanctioned both tracks at Medford and Coos Bay.  “I would compile points at Medford, and was usually in top 6 or 8 at Coos Bay.”   He accumulated enough points between the two tracks to be Oregon NASCAR Late Model Champion in 1978.

scan00069

By the 1979 season, Wyatt and Huth buried the hatchet, or at least agreed to disagree, and Tom resumed racing at Medford and Yreka full time.  The event was detailed in a local article in the Mail Tribune.  Huth had resurfaced the Medford track to add more racing grooves around it, and Tom enjoyed having two tracks so close together to race different nights a week at.  Quoted in the article, Tom said:  “I enjoyed racing at all the different tracks in past years because it was quite a challenge racing on foreign tracks against hometown drivers who were familiar with tracks and had an advantage on you.  But with the gas situation being what it is, its just getting too darn expensive to be traveling up and down the highway every week.”

Eventually Dennis Huth would move on, and due to his relationship forged with Nascar, would be instrumental in the Nascar Trucks series, before working with the ASA.

#2m Tom Wyatt racing #49 Ken Wallan at Redwood Acres -  Tom: "He was a gentleman.  He was like Jimmy - didn't go home with a mark on his car."

#2m Tom Wyatt racing #49 Ken Wallan (in Jim Walker’s old car) at Redwood Acres circa 1976- Tom: “Ken was a gentleman. He was like Jimmy – didn’t go home with a mark on his car.”

RACING AT REDWOOD ACRES

Tom took his Texas-built two-door ’57 Chevy down to Eureka to race at Redwood Acres for the first time in the late 1960s, and it certainly was a strange day at the track.

“I came back from the service in ’68.  Must have been ’69 or ’70 when it was the first time I came down there. There was an old boy passed away down there, think it was during hot laps or qualifying.  He just pulled into the pits, said ‘I don’t feel good’, checked out right there.”

“I was used to a tiny bullring in Medford, and here was this big track.  I thought I’d just go from first gear to second gear.  It was fine off the turn to the flag stand, but from the flag stand to the corner cars were zipping by me.  I had a three-speed Corvette transmission, so we put that in while they packed the guy off.  Then we went out and run it in low gear like we had it in Medford.  Boy, what a difference.  It was pretty tight at the other end, but coming off the corner, it was a whole different ballgame.  I think I won the B-Main that night, it was the first night I had been down there.”

“Bob Britt was the class act at Redwood Acres before Jimmy Walker.  They’d show up at Medford and their car always looked brand new.  Not many came up to Medford, it was a tough playground.  Most didn’t even make gas money.  There were eight, ten, maybe a dozen drivers who could win on any given night.  For an outsider to come in and be competitive, it just didn’t happen very often.”

“I always enjoyed racing down there in Eureka.   You had time.  You’d almost look up into the grandstand down the front straightaway, it seemed like it went forever.  There was so much of it – 3/8 mile on the pole and damn near a half a mile on the outside.  At Medford our top speeds were maybe 65, 70 mph into the corners.  Someone came in with one of those sports radar guns and one night Walker and I were gettin after it and they said they had clocked us at over 100 miles an hour into the corner, on the dry slick dirt.  And it really didn’t give you any sensation that you were going really fast because everybody’s all together.”

“It took a lot of time in preparation getting the track ready to go.  The only squawk I had about it was that the day races were dusty.  I remember one Sunday Roger Lorenzini and I were running real close together.  We come off the second turn and I seen a car going into three down there spin so I moved up and here come Roger underneath me and we went down and I heard this CRASH in my ear – the dust was so thick he couldn’t see.”

“And then there was the fog- in the night races some times you couldn’t see from one end of the race track to the other.  I just didn’t race from the end of my hood; you gotta pay attention to what’s going on ahead of you.”

1976 Tom Wyatt Fair Nights program

1976: RACING THE ACRES FULL TIME

In 1976, disillusioned with the goings on at his local Medford track, Wyatt joined the Six Rivers Racing Association and came down to Eureka to race Redwood Acres often enough to be in the running for the championship.  The local race program Stock Report would note how much they appreciated his effort in making the weekly 200 mile tow to the track.  But there was a method to the madness of making the frequent treks south.

“We’d call Six Rivers Racing Assoc. Treasurer Clyde Carlile when we got to Crescent City to see how the weather was down there and if it was worth driving the rest of the way.  It was a coordinated effort.  Later we acquired a wing number off of an aircraft in Arcata so we could call down to the airport with that wing number to get a more accurate report; how low the cloud ceiling was, how much moisture was in the air.  We got good accurate information that way”, he says smiling.   “There were a few times we turned around and went back to Medford.”

Tom Wyatt and Charlie Crile at Redwood Acres 1976, the day of Tom's close finish with Don Price (from the Stock Report)

Tom Wyatt and Charlie Crile at Redwood Acres 1976, the day of Tom’s close finish with Don Price (from the Stock Report)

SETTING AN EXAMPLE AT REDWOOD ACRES

One of the most memorable moments at the track, and one which received heavy coverage in the race program the next week and in the Tom Dilling book Dirt Trackin’ At The Acres, occurred after a May 1976 A-Main.

At the start of the 35-lap race, Wyatt was on the pole with local driver Don Price starting 10th and Larry Pries of nearby Ferndale 11th.  All three had won races earlier in the day.

Wyatt got off to a big lead over the pack for the first 22 laps.  Then Price and Pries moved through traffic to narrow the margin.  On lap 33 Wyatt went high to avoid a turn four wreck, Price went low, and Pries had to stop to avoid a collision.  The result at the finish line was 1. Price 2. Wyatt 3. Pries.  It was the first ever A-Main win for Don Price.

After the race was over Price was parked at the flag stand to receive his trophy, and Wyatt pulled up in his car and got out.  The following week the race program Stock Report chronicled what happened next-

Over the years we’ve seen many second place finishers come charging up to the finish line, ready to take a poke at the winner, or at least chew on the flagman and lodge a protest.  However, that wasn’t the case with Wyatt.  He came out of the #2 car grinning, with his hand outstretched, in a gesture of true sportsmanship.

In his book, Tom Dilling later wrote:

I was present when Wyatt came to Don’s car and I just assumed he was going to punch Don in the nose and I wanted to have a good seat; but he didn’t.  He just shook his hand and sincerely congratulated him for a fine race.

Wyatt explains: “We had a helluva race to start with.  What I understood at the time there was a lot of controversy amongst the drivers; there was thrashing and banging going on, so they expected a confrontation.  We are all legends in our own minds.  I got along with all of them, I never had a problem with anybody.  Don hadn’t won in a while they said.  It was just a gesture, that I appreciated racing down there and I appreciated running against good competition, and he filled the bill on that.  And the fact that he beat me fair and square.  He was a good racer.”

“The stands got quite a kick out of it, I know that”, he says laughing.  “They expected me to get out and start swinging at him.  I guess there were a couple of incidents prior to that where it almost come to that.”

Price (left) and Wyatt (right) after wins that day, and (meeting at the flag stand (center).

Price and Wyatt after wins that day, and meeting under the flag stand after the main event (center)

The display of good sportsmanship certainly made an impression on the Eureka racing scene at the time.  A profile of Tom in the program the next week stated “Tom’s biggest fans are his wife and two sons, age 7 and 2, though his support is great here.”

Tom remembers: “I commented in a speech at the track in Eureka that it was really a pleasure to race down there with the guys from the SRRA with as much coordination and effort put forth on a private basis to make that work.  It took a lot of sacrifice and a lot of effort to put on a race.  You know out of towners sometimes don’t get the benefit of the doubt when there’s a questionable call, and I never felt like that there at all.”

[On a side note; it turns out Tom Wyatt and Don Price now live just down the road from each other in White City and neither of them even knew it.]

1976 Fair Nights Stock Report

The Fair Nights program told the story of the previous week’s battle between Wyatt and Walker.   Tom (left) and his mechanic Ron “Zipper” Smith are shown working on the car in the infield pits.

1976: WYATT BATTLES WALKER / WINS REDWOOD ACRES TRACK CHAMPIONSHIP

At the June 1976 Saturday night race under the lights the week before Fair Nights, Tom out-dueled Ferndale’s Jim Walker in what was described as one of the best A-Main races at the track ever.

Wyatt started last in 14th; was up to 4th by lap seven, 3rd on lap twelve, 2nd on lap fourteen, then took the lead over Gordon Kuhnle on lap seventeen.  Walker meanwhile had started in 12th, up to 4th by the tenth lap, then tangled with points leader Don Price on lap fourteen and both were sent to the back of the pack.  But Walker was all the way up to 2nd on Wyatt’s bumper by lap twenty six.  The final eight laps were a race between the two with Wyatt winning, Walker 2nd and Ken Wallan 3rd.

Tom Wyatt would finish the 1976 season on top of the points in the Super Stock division as Redwood Acres Track Champion, followed by his friendly local rivals Don Price and Ken Wallan, in 2nd and 3rd respectively.  Trophies were actual burl slabs, all cut from the same tree, with the champion getting the biggest slab and each place down getting respectively smaller.

The July 1, 1977 Stock Report noted Tom's first race at Redwood Acres following his championship year was met with enthusiasm from the local fans.

The July 1, 1977 Stock Report noted Tom’s first race at Redwood Acres following his championship year was met with enthusiasm from the local fans. (note partial windshield, presumably to reduce drag)

WHEN UP IS DOWN

Not all races end in victory lane of course, or even right side up.  Tom found that out at Redwood Acres during a trophy dash,  driving his red Camaro.

“I went into the turn on the outside and the other guys figured if I could go around that fast they could too, and come underneath and hit me and I spun and went off backwards end over end off the first turn.  That was a long way down back then.  And I saw daylight-and-dirt, daylight-and-dirt, several times, finally ended up on my wheels, and it beat the car up pretty good.   They packed it back to the pits with two wreckers, and we started in.  It rung my bell.  I’d look at the car and see what I wanted to fix and then turn and go to the tool box, then I’d go back to the car, and finally they said ‘You sit down’.   It was a jarring experience.”  Tom was able somehow to get both he and the car in running condition and made it back for the main event.  “Back then without the wall there was a  25 to 30 yard buffer around the track.  I’d seen them go out through the outer fence into the parking lot.  I didn’t want to experience that.”

Quick change at the Acres infield pits (Photo courtesy of Jay McCleary)

Quick change at the Acres infield pits (Photo courtesy of Jay McCleary)

THE ACRES ENGINE SWAP

On another occasion,  some mechanical detective work lead to a brash move in the pits, further pushing the limits of what you could accomplish in the Redwood Acres infield pit area.

“Redwood Acres had a polished dry slick down there that you could be more competitive with a smaller motor against some of the brutes that showed up to race.  I know one weekend we were down there and we had a 406, it was one of Durnford’s motors.  We hot lapped and qualified with that motor.  We had an Oberg oil filter, which was a square thing with a hundred micron screen.  We had a dry sump in it, and all the oil came back and went through that and went back into the reservoir to be pumped out to the motor.  And there were aluminum shavings showing up in there.  100 microns is very small.  So we determined the spring retainers were going on it.  We had a roller cam in it with a rev kit,  valves probably had 300 pounds on the seat.  And then opened half an inch they had nearly 600 pounds on it.  At any rate, the springs were eating the retainers up.  The motor was salvageable but to run it would do more damage, so we loaded it up.”

“We had been carrying a pretty good 327 around with us in the corner of the pickup all year, ready to plug in.  My mechanic Ron said ‘We’ve been carrying that motor around, why don’t we put it in?  It don’t take too long.’  So we drained the water out of it, brought the wrecker over and swung the boom and took the motor out, set it on the ground, get the other motor and swung it over there, put it in and it was ready to go.  It only took us half an hour to change that motor.  It was more of an effort to keep people away to get back to it.   They had never seen nothing like that go on there.”

“Jimmy Walker’s mechanic Rick Harper come by and asked ‘What are you doing, putting a bigger one in?’ ‘Oh Yeah, this one’s a real killer, Rick’ ” he says, laughing now.  “Then he found out it was a 327 and we were running on Walker’s bumper all day.  He’d pull me a little bit off the corner but I could go just a little bit deeper on the other end.   It was a good little motor.   You could almost flat foot it where the big motor, you couldn’t do it, you’d just spin the tires.”

1981 Dirt is for Racing

1981 NORTH COAST DIRT TRACK CLASSIC

In 1981, Tom came to Redwood Acres with a bumper sticker that proclaimed ‘DIRT IS FOR RACING – ASPHALT FOR SISSIES’.  “We had another bumper sticker on the red Camaro placed where it wouldn’t be rubbed off that said: ‘THAT’S HOWE’.   This was a reference to Howe race cars – Dane Smith, Ron Martin had them – just to show them it didn’t take a Howe car to do it.”  Tom’s aim was to keep all other drivers behind him so they would have a good view of that sticker.

The 1981 North Coast Dirt Track Classic at Redwood Acres would become a weekend-long shootout between two popular drivers, Tom Wyatt from Medford and local favorite Jimmy Walker from Ferndale.  Two full days of racing with points accumulated throughout the weekend would determine the winner at the end, and it came down to the wire.

On Saturday Wyatt won the Dash, Fast Heat, and the Main Event.  After Day One he lead the points 93-91 over Walker.

On Sunday Wyatt won the Dash, was 5th in the Heat, and at the midday break was tied with Walker 133-133.  In the Main, Tom swapped the lead with Walker who edged him out to win the race, and by the narrowest of margins, won the overall weekend 173-172.

Wyatt (left, foreground) leads Walker (right, background) in the 1981 North Coast Dirt Track Classic

Wyatt (left, foreground) leads Walker (right, background) in the 1981 North Coast Dirt Track Classic

Reflecting now on the battle, Tom says “I wasn’t keeping track of the points.  That was the grandstand; that didn’t concern me.  We were there to win.  That was my philosophy: Winning’s Everything- 2nd Sucks.”

“I liked the outside and Jimmy would stay in the bottom.  As I’d rim-ride the thing and catch up with him, coming off of four he could get up underneath and he’d keep traction- that was the preferred line out of the corner with the slick track with the slick tires on the car.  You could pass three, four, five cars at a time round the top at RAR while everybody was all bumper to bumper down on the bottom, that’s just the way they raced.  When we showed up and ran high then they started venturing up- and you had to, either that or you’re gonna get beat.”

“Jimmy Walker was the class of the field most of the time.  He was a class act, there was no question about that.  Just to be competitive and close to him was a sense of accomplishment.   He was a gentleman racer; you could depend on him; his car never hardly went home with a mark on it.  I was a little more aggressive but still I respected him for the way he drove and I didn’t want to do any different when I raced against him.”

Walker (left) and Wyatt (right) after wins at the 1981 North Coast Dirt Track Classic

Walker (left) and Wyatt (right) after wins at the 1981 North Coast Dirt Track Classic

FROM DRY SLICK TO STICKY CLAY

In the mid 1980s Redwood Acres went from dry slick to wet clay, and Tom quickly discovered the difference with the new track.  “There as a guy from Sacramento who’s father was a racer, his family had Tri City Buggy and tire dealerships, the kid was pretty good if a little on the wild side.  One day down there at Eureka I had a 350 in my car, just after they put the heavy clay on the track and we had that same stuff in Medford so I had a rough idea of how to set the car up.  But he was following me one day and coming off the corner he come underneath me and pulled me about five car lengths down the straightaway and I thought ‘what the hell am I doin’ here, he’s going to be lappin’ me in ten laps!’  He had a 406 on alcohol.  I was always on gasoline, and it did make a helluva difference.   The old adage money talks and b.s. walks.  Well, that was a helluva wake-up call there – the heavy clay.”

“They couldn’t keep it wet enough.  It was good clay, they dug up a street down town and run into a big vein of that so they hauled it up to the race track and put it on there.  But it didn’t polish off as smooth and slick as what was there before.  The older (dry slick) really wasn’t that hard on tires.  I run a 100 lap race down there on a brand new set, I still had 50% at the end of the race.  And if you had run 100 laps on those softer tires on asphalt, you’d be down to the cords.”

“I went to one race down there after they blacktopped it (in 1988), that tour race was in there.  It was all high dollar deal,  fancy 18 wheelers.  I liked the old dry slick.  You didn’t have to have the most horsepower.  You had to be able to read the track; where the moisture was on it, and of course where the other drivers weren’t, and that was the challenging part of it that made it fun.”

#86 Dane Smith (standing, left) and #69 Tom Wyatt (in cap on right next to his Durnford car) line up for a start at Anderson 1978 (Photo courtesy of Dane Smith)

#86 Dane Smith (standing, left) and #69 Tom Wyatt (with cap on right next to his Durnford car) line up for a start at Anderson 1978 (Photo courtesy of Dane Smith)

RIVALRY WITH DANE SMITH

Popular fellow Medford driver Dane Smith describes he and Tom as “heated rivals” who ironically lived a couple of houses away from each other at the time they were competing.  Both raced up and down the I-5, at Medford, Anderson, Cottage Grove, Eugene, Roseburg, Lebanon, and elsewhere.  Dane now notes that besides being a “Helluva talent” as a driver, Tom “built his own cars, great cars”.

“Oh, we had our moments”, Tom says now.  “Dane has great eye-hand coordination.  He’s a 300 bowler,  and I don’t know what golf handicap he plays under.  So he has that ability.  But back when we built our own cars, he didn’t know one end of the crescent wrench from the other.  He had some pit men who were scrupulous.  For the most part Dane and I got along pretty good.  He was a good competitor.  We were both aggressive; there was room, sometimes if there wasn’t even quite enough room, you made room.  But my brainset was to see how many cars I could pass, not how many you could keep behind you. So if I got behind somebody who was running all over the race track, they usually got to see where they came from pretty quick.  I wasn’t bashful about it.” he says laughing.  “We were out there to win, not play follow the leader.”

The #69 Camaro and custom trailer owned by Phil Durnford.  Tom:  "He was into grandstanding"

The #69 Camaro and custom trailer owned by Phil Durnford.   Tom: “He was into grandstanding”

THE DURNFORD CAMARO

“This was a car Ron Smith and I built for Phil Durnford.  Phil had cars, he raced cars at Redwood Acres on a limited basis.  Got into logging in Medford area.  Come into money and took a liking to Ron and I and next thing you know I was driving for him and he built a shop to keep the car and it was almost like a fairytale.  Money doesn’t always guarantee success, I don’t know what in the hell runs second place to it, but it’s not always the answer.  Things weren’t always going as well as expected, so we went back to having our own car.  So this car had been built by him and then run by Bobby Allison.  An asphalt car.”

1980 BOBBY ALLISON Headline

RACING BOBBY ALLISON AT MEDFORD

By August 9th, 1980, the Phil Durnford owned car was being driven by Mark Beasley and was borrowed by Bobby Allison for a race at the dirt track in Medford.

Tom recalls:  “This was a big deal.  Had heard a lot about the guy, of course seen him on TV.    I got to talk with him for a while. I’m sure he knew about most of the competition he was going to be facing, he’s as competitive as anybody else.   He didn’t want to enter into something that he didn’t have a chance.   He said ‘I get beat, no question about it.’  But it’s tough to go in on a home track against guys who’ve been running on this thing forever, know all the nicks and crannies.  He said ‘I don’t come in here and expect to kick butt, but I want to make a good showing’.”

In the main event Allison moved up through the pack quickly and had taken the lead on lap 16.  Tom had gone wide on lap 2 and found himself at the back of the pack, but made it all the way to 3rd, trailing Rollie Elsea in 2nd and Allison in 1st, on lap 22 of 35.

“Allison was leading the race, and there weren’t many laps left, I was running in 3rd at the time, I figured I’d best get with it here or I’m going to run out of laps. I got a good restart; I have a habit of watching the flag man and the moment he starts to raise his arm I’m gone.  So I jumped one car on the restart and they squawked about that; but it was legal.”  This put him into second behind Allison.

“Allison didn’t try to block; I followed him for a couple of laps.  I got up to him, he had his line out of the corner, I decided on which was the best place for me to set up and make my move,  and I passed him on the outside so they couldn’t yell about getting in underneath and muscling my way through.”

For his part, Allison offered to the reporter of the Mail Tribune that night; “I came close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”, he said with a wink.  “This is my fun stuff.  Oh, I wanted to win all right; I always try to do my best.  But I’ve won 450 races in my career, so I don’t really have to win to enjoy myself.  I would have rather won, but Tom hooked up getting a better bite on the racetrack.  I was a little conservative and he got me.”

The paper reported Allison climbed into the pilot seat of his twin-engine Aerostar jet and headed for Portland to race in the G.I. Joes Portland 200 NASCAR race, saying “It was a good night- I got to enjoy what I like doing.”  Tom’s words to the paper on beating Allison: “It was an honor, so to speak.  He’s a pro to start with and that was an added incentive.  But on the other hand,” he added grinning, “the guy puts on his fire suit the same as I do.”

Tom says now: “After the race they run him back around into the grandstand where he could sign autographs, and we got the trophy and were back in the pit in our area and I never saw him after that.   I figured oh well, it is what it is, I got the win.”

“He had his own plane.  He raced at Medford Saturday night then Portland on the half mile and laid it on them up there.”

Tom’s son Steve remembers:  “When they opened the Southern Oregon Speedway in the late 90s or so and they knew me as a little bitty kid, that was our family’s claim to fame; we took down Allison and won.”

1981 Red Camaro

THE MECHANICS OF RACING

Known as an excellent race car builder, Tom is quick to point out he did not work on the cars alone, that his partner in the garage was Ron Smith.

“I had a guy, Ron Smith, we called him ‘Zipper’, a long tall drink of water, skinny guy, he was a good mechanic, good motor man.  It was just a good combination.  Ron was the nuts and bolts guy.  I did the suspension work and pretty much called the shots with what we did at the race track.  The car was at my house.  I couldn’t stand a dirty bench, and Ron couldn’t stand a dirty floor, so we worked together, it went hand in hand.   We were together and successful at it for ten years.”

With racing, especially on dirt, the innovations are not always just under the hood.

574849_439487602730971_1352825526_nIn 1982 Tom was running the “whale tail” on the back of the red Camaro. [pictured at right]  Steve remembers: “There were two pieces of aluminum that were molded and there was a wire/cable from the top up to the roll cage to hold it.  I dug that when I was a kid, thought that was pretty cool.”  Tom adds:  “Just a different idea.”

Another addition to the Camaro were the sideboards. [pictured above]  Tom:  “We used Lexan, and around the corner it acted as a wind break to keep the car from sliding.”  Steve notes: “You also covered the passenger side window, sealed it.  Towards the end- there was the For Sale sign on the side – while the newly built blue car was ‘in the hanger’.”

Something Old, Something New; Tom in his blue outlaw style Camaro racing his old red Camaro, which had been sold and driven by Tom Glover, “an up and coming talent at the time", Tom says.

Something Old, Something New; Tom in his blue outlaw style body Camaro racing against his old red Camaro, which had been sold to Medford Plating and driven by Tom Glover, “an up and coming talent at the time”, Tom says.

“Another trick” Tom says “was these guys were spending a lot of money for these little bitty lightweight clutches, six to eight hundred bucks.  So I got a yoke that was splined, that went on an inboard boat, and took a clutch disc, took the center section apart, and took that hub, that the splines go into, and mated that to the end of the crankshaft, and used a flex plate for an automatic transmission and bolted that on there.  And I always used a high-torque starter.  So that you put the car in gear, start, and it was gone.  Because it had no clutch.  It was real responsive” Tom says, smiling.

“This stuff was going on in your head all the time, 24-7”, he says now laughing.  “Rules were only good to be … maneuverable around, through em, whatever, to your advantage.   Very seldom would they write a rule you couldn’t see two or three deviations to make it more advantageous to you.   If you didn’t, then you just…. followed… I guess.”

“The guy who bought my last car was a truck driver, and he watched me many times from the grandstand.   I guess he thought he’d get right in there and would do the same thing.   He had a helluva time and he even put Dane Smith in it, and it was foreign to him.  I only had one brake on that car, that was on the left front.  And I’d pitch the car into the corner and tag that brake, that front wheel would grab, and that car would pivot and my foot was flat to the floor, it sounded like I had never let up on it in the corner.  But that was for qualifying.  So it was tough for him to figure out how the car worked.  If you drove it around the corner it was going to push.  I didn’t use much stagger; my rear tires were pretty much the same size.  That way I could control where the car went.  When you ran stagger you were committed to the arc that you had to turn, and if you upset that it would tend to loop the car and spin it out.  It was just something I picked up on and it worked good.”

While many who sell race cars make sure to take all the geometry settings out of the front end, the ‘good’ setups that made it run well on the track, before handing it over to the next driver, Tom says he always left his cars ‘as is’, the way he drove them.  “If you bought a car from me it was the way I left it.”

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Wonderfully atmospheric post race scene at Medford Raceway

Tom’s final car was an Outlaw style ‘wedge’ Camaro body that was a distinctive light blue.  “We found that light blue in a spray can.  B&C, or sponsor, had a gel coat the same color.”

“The front end clip came from the Midwest, lightweight aluminum GM calipers, we were trying to get rid of unsprung weight.  That was the evidence of ideas and engineering from the middle of the country working its way out west.  That stuff wasn’t cheap either, but you had it in your head that was going to make it.”

“Things were pretty competitive around here until the store bought stuff started to show up. Tri City Buggy, Howe Race Cars, CJ Rayburn.  Stuff that was fast out there started coming out here, the magazines were the beginning of the downfall of the backyard competitor.  I got acquainted with a guy from Missouri who did well back there and since I wasn’t going to be competitive with him he opened up and gave me a lot of  insight with rear suspension; using leaf springs instead of coil springs, coil overs; the traction arm you bolted right to the rear end, there was another coil up in the front with the transmission that arrested the roll so that it let the car get a hold of the race track better.  Just a lot of little things, but it was all home built.”

“Everything in the car was built offset.  I was going to sit on the other side of the drive line and move everything to the inside but they dictated the rules that all drivers will sit to the left of the drive line.”

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“Then in the middle of the 1986 season I finally got fed up with the politics and Huth, and I told my mechanic Ron Smith that with all the time and effort and money we put in this deal, it just isn’t fun any more.  He said ‘I gotta agree with you’.  So we sold everything and went different directions.”

Tom placed an ad in the racing magazine Wheels which read:
#2 CAR FROM MEDFORD FOR SALE –  TIRED OF PROMOTER’S BULLSHIT

“You wouldn’t believe how many phone calls I got over that.  That’s just the way I felt about it.  Some of them thought that was great-  said ‘I wouldn’t have the guts to do that!’ and I said ‘Well, I don’t care anymore.  I’m not trying to kiss anyone’s hind end or nothing, that’s just the way it is.’ ”

“The promoter from Cottage Grove asked what was going on down there, and I said ‘You can tape this if you want so you won’t miss none of it, and give it back to Dennis, but he’s well aware of what’s going on and I’ve just had enough.  I’ve spent too much time doing this to be negative all the time about it.  The best thing to do was get the hell away from it.’   And that was the end of it.   It was right at 20 years I had spent racing.”  Midway through the 1989 season, the Medford Raceway at the Posse Grounds closed down for good.

Back when Tom was in the service in Missouri he was in basic training in Ft. Lewis, and took training to be a crane shovel operator in Ft. Leatherwood.  “Every hole in the wall back there had a race track; Gold Hill, Rogue River,  Central Plains.”  Tom still lives in the Medford area in White City, and though retired works the crane now and then.  At this time he is putting that license to good work, as an independent operator setting concrete for a bridge for Pacific Power & Light.  “It keeps me in beer money”, he says.

As Tom reflects on his racing career; he noted he had a lot of spirited battles, both on and off the track.  “It was a lot of fun.  Looking back on it…. I’d probably do it again”,  he says, laughing with his family.  “When I think of the money spent, it probably could have been better used”, he says with a smile.

Tom Wyatt today with his redwood burl slap trophy won for being Track Champion at Redwood Acres in 1976

Tom Wyatt today with his redwood burl slab trophy won for being Track Champion at Redwood Acres in 1976, displayed in his living room

Thanks to Tom Wyatt for being so open to talking about his racing history, and for making the long tow down to Redwood Acres all those years; and to his two sons for supplying all the great photos.

Thanks also to Tom’s son Steve Wyatt for joining in and adding his own perspective and passion to the conversation.  It made for a great visit with the family.

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5 thoughts on “TOM WYATT

  1. Great article, they don’t make them like Tom anymore. Nice to finally read some of his tricks. He was ahead of his time.

  2. A great story … I remember seeing him race at Anderson, Ca. in the late 70s in the #69 car sponsored by the Mustang Ranch … their “customers always come first” or some such slogan, and watched him often at Cottage Grove in his #2 bright red Camaro … great memories of great times

  3. I remember the old track from my highschool days and got my first tast for stock car racing with (arkie)Don Haper where i started helping him in the pits and wrenching on the car. Lots of storys for sure

  4. Medford Raceway was a fun track to race at and I enjoyed being able to watch the likes of Tom and Dane and most of all I enjoyed racing there.

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