Born in Idaho and raised in Washington state before coming to Ashland, Oregon in 1960 where he lives today, Harold Hardesty made his money in excavation and construction, and his pastoral estate on Bear Creek is home to the evidence of his passion; collector cars and the photos and trophies from his hall of fame stock car driving career.
In 1956 Harold drove in nine NASCAR Grand National races with six Top 10 finishes (inlcuding a 7th at Redwood Acres), only once finishing worst than he qualified due to a bearing failure in Portland, the only race he was not still running in at the end. In 1957 he raced in four GN races but was plagued by car trouble and a crash, and only finished running in Eureka. In sixteen Grand National races he had eight Top Tens which included five Top Five finishes.
In twenty two Pacific Coast / Winston West races from 1966 to 1973 he had sixteen Top Tens, inlcuding seven Top Five finishes and two wins; one coming at Redwood Acres Raceway in 1968.
A member of the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame, Harold by all accounts won hundreds of races around the country, a major factor in his being one of only a handful of west coast drivers, along with Herschel McGriff, that have been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Harold owned and operated the track in Medford, and regularly traveled to races all over Oregon, Washington, and California, and was a frequent visitor to Redwood Acres Raceway in Eureka from the 1950s to the 1980s, where his reputation preceded him.
“Back in the Hard Top days they’d run about five, six nights a week, so I got to race a lot, and that’s what I really loved,” Harold says. “Up there in Washington’s Tri-Cities and Walla Walla, Ephrata, etc. I had a ’34 Ford, purple and white, with a flathead in it. I run it two years for a guy. But I had a lot of fun racing. I was lucky enough to be fairly good at it. Never made any money,” he says, laughing.
“You can see in an early photo I have a scar on my forehead” (shown in photo at right). “In the 50s I was partying pretty hard and hit my head on the windshield of a 1940 Packard convertible. Me and another guy was drag racing in Kennewick, and there was a passenger train stopped across the track and I went clear underneath it, clear to the windshield. The other two guys got out and ran. They only had two officers in Kenewick at any one time, and they took me to the hospital and the police chief called and said ‘Where are you at?’ and they said ‘We’re bringing Hardesty home’ and he said ‘Bring that sonofabitch down and throw him in jail!'”
“The #52 Hudson, it was the second car after the ’34 Ford. Everybody laughed about it, and I went out and won damn near every race with it. I’d go from last to first to last to first again in one lap. It had a super six cylinder Hudson engine; 270 cubic inches was the limit. I won a lot of races, so they made us go back to 150 cubic inch and we put that pacemaker engine in and it was faster, made the RPMs quicker.”
“I’m not a mechanic, I can’t even change spark plugs hardly. Wally Cannon who used to own my cars’ engines, he says ‘You let me work on them. You can tear them up, go out, over wind them, do whatever you want to do, let me work on them.’ So I did” he says, laughing.
1956 NASCAR COMES TO REDWOOD ACRES
Harold drove in nine NASCAR Grand National races in 1956, including the Memorial Day weekend race at Redwood Acres in Eureka. 5,000 fans, the largest local racing crowd to that time, watched 26 drivers compete in the 125 lap 100 mile race on the 5/8 “Big Track” (which ran outside the normal 3/8) for a purse of $4600. The field included two drivers from Eureka; Bob Havemann and Sam Steers. 1953 Champion and national point leader at the time, Herb Thomas of Charlotte, brought his Chrysler “300” to the race.
Eureka in the 1950s was known for its rough area of town – 2nd Street – a notorious section of bars near the bay frequented by burly loggers looking to let off steam.
“My first race at Redwood Acres in ’56 was when Gustafson Chevrolet sponsored me. I was working in their shop in Eureka, and I said ‘What do we do around here for fun?’ They said ‘Go into town but don’t go past 3rd Street. Those god-damned loggers are there.”
“So Harold Beal and Bill Hyde arrive; two drivers from Portland, great big cussin’ guys – Beal used to break steering wheels in his hands in his race car. So they get here and ask ‘Where’s the party?’, and we said ‘Right down there on 1st Street!’ They went down there and I guess they had a helluva brawl!”, Harold says now laughing.
Harold finished 7th, with Herb Thomas winning after early leader Clyde “Bad Boy” Palmer from San Jose dropped out due to engine trouble. As for the 2nd Street brawlers; Beal would finish 19th and Hyde 20th, both perhaps a little worse for the wear from their nighttime excursion into roughneck 1950s-era Old Town, Eureka.
Rare photos of Harold and his car (above and below) in the pits at Redwood Acres in 1956 provided by Leon Warmuth of Leon’s Car Care of Eureka. Leon remembers, “I worked in the parts department of Gustafson Chevrolet and I was recruited as a tire changer for him and a mechanic named Phil Derringer for his mechanical ability. The big track was very dusty with potholes that broke two wheels on Harold’s car.” (photos courtesy of Leon Warmuth)
1956 MERCED FAIRGROUNDS – BATTLING WITH THE CHAMP
Next after the race at Redwood Acres, on June 3, 1956 at the Merced Fairgrounds, reigning NASCAR champion driver Herb Thomas (above, left) joined young Harold (right, in tank top) in the pits after doing battle in a 200 lap race at the 1/2 mile dirt track, Thomas winning and Harold finishing 2nd.
It was a big honor for Harold that the champ would come over to him and pose with the winner’s trophy, and it remains one of his favorite moments in racing. “I was changing the gears before the race so didn’t have time to put on a shirt before getting in the car.”
1956 SOUTHERN 500
The biggest drive of Harold’s career was at the 1956 Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina. Or to be more accurate, his biggest drive was to, at, and back from, the Southern 500 in Darlington.
“Hurst shifters wanted to take a car to Darlington. Beryl Jackson, who had a lumber business up there, had three 88 Oldsmobiles. Herschel McGriff and Johnny Kieper drove for him, other Cup guys. He let me take this car. We raced in Portland on Sunday afternoon, me and one pit man, two gas cans, three capped tires, and a tool box. After the race we changed the rear end, drove it to Darlington (nearly 3,000 miles). They put a new motor in it, because the motor had a Eldorado carburetor on it and it was illegal, so Oldsmobile put the new motor in it, and we did all this in a week.”
“Herb Thomas had come out and drove my car a couple of times after I had outrun him. We got to be pretty good friends, and he told me how to time in at Darlington. He said ‘Don’t try to go out there and break any track records, just get in one lane, one lane down from the top, don’t cross the yellow lines, just be consistent.’ And I passed my driver’s test. I then qualified 39th and then we went out and we run the race. I had one pit man. I had a flat tire before the first pit stop. And I hollered at my pit guy, I said ‘What happened? Did I wear it out?’ and he said ‘Yeah.’ So I run pretty slow until the next pit stop. And I come in and there’s this tire sittin’ there against the fence with a piece of chrome sticking out of it. I said ‘I thought you said I blew it out’, so I went back out and ran faster, ran pretty good. I finished 18th out of 70 cars. All those other drivers were driving factory cars. Bill Amick was from Portland. He was sittin up near the pole, and I didn’t even know him. Anyway, he finished 7th. And I bought that car, made a dirt track car out of it.”
Harold finished just behind Lee Petty and ahead of big names like Elmo Langley, Tiny Lund, Buck Baker, Parnelli Jones and Fireball Roberts.
“I was the first Oldsmobile to finish so I got extra money, I think I made $339 or so. Drove the car out there, drove it home. Drove it to Syracuse where they had a half mile dirt track, and I was running 2nd in the race, about 15 or 20 laps in and it started raining. It rained out and I never got to finish the race. I think one of the top drivers was leading, might even have been Petty. Petty was there.”
Not counting any side races, all told the 500 race and trip to and from Darlington put over 6,000 miles on the car that week.
1968 & 1969 RIVERSIDE
In 1968 Harold raced a Ford for Bob Bristol in the Pacific Coast (Winston West) race at Riverside, but went out on lap 67 due to a crash. He returned to Riverside in 1969, qualifying 29th in a field of 44 and finished 10th.
“I was the only one that passed Richard Petty, I passed him twice. Passed him into turn 6, but he got back around me down the straightaway. I couldn’t run with his car, I was in a two year old car. I ran it for Bob Bristol for a couple of years.”
1968 PACIFIC COAST LATE MODEL WIN AT REDWOOD ACRES
“I knew Bob Britt (of Britt Lumber and 1969 RAR track champ)”, Harold recalls. “I got to know him pretty good. I don’t think I ever got to run the 101 track (that Bob built between Arcata/Eureka). I won a lot of races there at Redwood Acres in Eureka, though.”
On Friday, September 13, 1968, Harold came down to race in the Pacific Coast Late Model Series at Redwood Acres. Scotty Cain of Fresno, the eventual champ, won the A-Trophy dash with Ray Elder 2nd. Ed Tanferani of Fortuna won the six-lap ‘early-model’ trophy dash, while Jim England won the late-model heat with Bob Britt of Eureka finishing 2nd. Unfortunately the rains had arrived all week and a low turnout of 11 Late Model cars resulted in the scheduled 100 lap distance being shortened to 50 laps. Harold ended up borrowing local driver Ed Tanferani’s car for the Main Event. The local paper reported that Harold took the lead on lap 35, taking the checkered flag.
The field of 11 cars was the fewest in Pacific Coast late model history. Facts on the race are a bit vague, with only 7 of the 11 finishers documented. They included Cliff Garner finishing 2nd, Ray Elder 3rd, and Bob Britt 4th. Not mentioned in the records is Herschel McGriff, who Harold says was in the field as well. It is reported that Harold’s qualifying fast time of 21.22 was a new track record, which considering the conditions, seems a minor miracle.
“I borrowed Ed Tanferani’s Ford”, Harold recalls. “They let me drive it because they didn’t have enough cars to start the race. They let me start in the back. They told me run a few laps then pull in, because they needed more cars. It was rainin’ and sort of slick, they were trying to get the race off. So, I got to racin’ with Herschel and I won it. And NASCAR came over and gave me an ass chewin like you never seen! I won a NASCAR race in a ’58 Ford. Oh, they were pissed. They held up my money for a year. And they wouldn’t give me credit for that race, and they give it to me a year later. But I got paid! Anyhow, that was sort of one of those things.”
Part of the lore of this strange race is that when the race was red flagged due to rain and the promoters did not offer fans a refund, “several local Indians” tried to burn down the grandstand in protest. Another story was that they were just trying to keep warm and started a fire nearby.
Harold also brought his parents down to Eureka to see the race and they were able to celebrate the win with him. “My parents had never been to Mexico and I had the motor home, so I picked them up in Pasco, Washington. I took them down to Eureka and watched the race when I won. My mother kept that trophy which is why it didn’t burn up in that fire.” [Not the fire in the grandstand during the race- there was a fire a few years ago in one of his offices which resulted in the loss of many of his trophies won over the years.]
The swapping of cars becomes confusing when figuring out the night. The advertisement in the local paper shows Harold was bringing the #18 Holman Moody Ford, a Grand National car like the others that ran in the Pacific Coast series. But he borrowed Ed Tanferani’s local car that Ed had raced earlier in the night, winning the main event in it. Yet the winner’s photo that clearly shows Harold with his parents with the trophy appears to be taken in front of his #52 short track car with mud on the tires. Ed says now he believes Harold’s #52 car might have broke (after qualifying on pole?) and that is why it was in the photo. Either way, Harold won perhaps one of the strangest races in the history of Redwood Acres.
One thing is for sure, the show Harold put on that night made a lasting impact on those who witnessed it and has become one of the most memorable moments in the history of the track. While Redwood Acres was normally a dry slick dirt track and cars used asphalt tires, when the rains came Harold got a chance to introduce the local drivers to some new kind of racing.
In his book Dirt Trackin’ At The Acres, Tom Dilling wrote-
Remember Harold Hardesty with Ed Tanferani’s Ford in the mud? Harold would slam that thing completely sideways at about the flagstand, never take his foot out of it, and flat clean the turn – then do the same on the back chute. He did this lap after lap. Mr. Hardesty gave a little demonstration that night on how to play in the mud!
Long time Redwood Acres driver and mechanic Casey Dungan remembers:
“Hardesty was sliding around backed into the middle of the straight at the flagstand and everyone thought he had spun out, nobody knew what he was doing. So everybody thought we better learn how to do that.”
On dirt track racing, Harold says-
“Herschel McGriff and I used to kid about this. He was super on the road courses. Him and I was just about equal on asphalt. But he couldn’t catch me on dirt. Dirt seemed to be my specialty. On the slick tracks, I could get crossways and in two laps I could figure it out. That’s when I won that race in Tanferani’s car, NASCAR just about had a fit.”
Howard sees dirt tracking on mud as the great equalizer. “On the wet and slick, power didn’t mean much.”
1972 REDWOOD ACRES OPEN COMP RACE
In 1972 Harold won the International Drivers Challenge series which took place at several tracks in the Washington and Oregon pacific northwest.
In October the Six Rivers Racing Association open finale at Redwood Acres saw several drivers dominate from the Medford area. Markey James won a 25-lap “Race of Champions” between association titleholders from different areas, over a field that included local racers Ray Luzzi and Jim Walker, and Pappy Boyd from Anderson. Tom Wyatt of Medford drove the car of Eureka’s Clyde Carlilleto to win the 75-lap B Main. And Harold Hardesty held off Bill Schmitt of Redding and Ray Luzzi to win the 100-lap main event.
Harold operated the Medford track for a period of time in the late 60s/early 70s, and one of his promoting adventures at that track involved the most famous daredevil of all time.
“I met Evel Knievel in Spokane Washington way back in the 50s. He’s from Butte Montana right close there. Then I hadn’t seen him in a while and he was doing a jump in Yakima where I was at a race. He missed his jump; he missed more than he made. I won the race. He came limping over and told me ‘I hear you own the Medford Speedway. I’ll make a jump for you’. So he came in on a big limo. He had to build a track in the infield. He jumped 12 buses or so. You could hear a pin drop in that crowd. He made that one.”
“He was quite the character. We went out drinking the night before. Every time we went to a bar someone would call out ‘Is Evel Knievel in the crowd?’ and he’d say ‘Yeah!’ and he’d go to the phone. And I couldn’t figure out where in the hell they were finding out where he was. He finally told me he’d hired four girls to page all the bars and ask if Evel Knievel was there. He was quite a promoter.”
“He got in some sort of jam down in Riverside. He got thrown in jail for something. Then for all the inmates that got out for daytime shifts he was renting limousines to pick them up and drive them around and the judge found out about it and he really got on his ass.”
AMAZING HIMSELF AT MEDFORD
“One thing happened and I sort of amazed myself”, Harold says. “You know I won a lot of races there at Medford. I owned the track, late 60s, early 70s. They always complained about me; that I was grading the dirt track to suit me. I was sitting in the grandstands because I was letting my step son run the car. And I’d grade it and get it all ready. Sometimes I’d go race somewhere else.”
“One night I was sitting in the announcer’s booth at Medford, and the guy from Grants Pass set a track record, and I had the track record. I was sitting up in the booth and everyone was yelling that I should have the chance to beat him. But there was a guy, Carl Wolfe, that just built a Dodge, only it’s second race, it was the only Dodge out there. It was in the B-Main, so I walked down out of the grand stand and got in that Dodge. They give me one lap to warm up, and I reset track record. So he come back out and broke it again. So I went out and broke it again. I broke it three times in one night and ended up with the track record that stood for a long time, in a car I had never set in the seat. I think that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know what it was…. I could get in strange cars.”
“In fact in the 70s people would call me from Washington- Seattle, Spokane, Wananchi – and want me to drive their car. At four o’clock in the morning I’d get up and get on a plane, fly to Portland, fly to the race track and I’d be there before ten o’clock. I did that for about two or three years. So I was awful lucky about getting into strange cars. I did well enough to have them call me up and drive their cars, I don’t know if I won them all, but I won quite a few of them. And I enjoyed doing that.”
“Every car is different. I could get into a strange car and get the feel within a couple of laps.”
TECH TEAR-DOWNS and ONE CYLINDER SHORT OF A V8
Along with Hall of Fame recognition, winning so many out of town races can bring other kinds of attention as well.
“When I won in Salem or Roseburg they’d tear you down to determine if you were legal or illegal, and they’d come up with the phoniest damn things. I got tore down quite a bit.”
“Then these guys built me a Chevrolet, a ’60-something. I went to Klamath Falls, a 1/4 mile asphalt, I passed Ray Elder and Jack McCoy on the outside in practice, they come over and measure my car, it was a quarter or half inch short on the driver’s side and they told me they wouldn’t let me run if I didn’t change it. I’m not a mechanic. So we loaded the car up and me and my partner had an airplane we flew to British Columbia and raced it out of state,” he says laughing.
“We went down to Anderson when it was still a dirt track. I took my car out there and I was playin’. I had fast time, and somebody broke my time, and they let me go out and try again. I broke a timing chain, bent two valves, so I called Wally Cannon (the You Drive It I Fix It mechanic), and we got it started. One cylinder was clear dead, one had a little bit of compression. It was a pretty good pay race. I could get in the lead, but if they had a yellow flag about four cars could get by me on the restart before I could get my speed up again. I lost the lead four times that way but we won the race. But they came over and gave me shit for running on seven cylinders and still out running them.”
RACING ON DIRT IN THE 80’s
“They went to wedge cars and I never went much into those. But Dane Smith, and his wife, used to follow me. If I was going to Sacramento, they’d follow me down. I don’t think he won too many at that time but then he started driving that wedge car, and he was doing good out there. Dane Smith, Don Harper…Tom Wyatt was pretty popular out there. But they came after me, when they started doing good.”
While he says he never really made any money from racing, Harold’s excavation and construction companies and other business interests “Keep me in beer money”, as he likes to put it. He still enjoys maintaining the grounds and puttering on his old cars, with several restoration projects in the works. And he still watches the NASCAR Cup races with keen interest on TV from the bar at his house on Sundays.
Harold has hosted many large parties over the years at his Ashland estate, with different car clubs passing through, often having their classic cars photographed in front of the vintage gas station he moved from main street in Ashland. He restored the gas station and outfitted it with Gilmore signs and memorabilia as a nod to the company’s connection with racing in the early days. “Several car clubs have stopped here. I’ve had 225 Model As on the property. Cruise of Oregon would stop here and we’d feed them hamburgers.” Neighbor and former character actor Jack Elam was a frequent visitor to poker games at the house over the years. “I’ve had a great life, and met a lot of interesting people” he says.
“There weren’t too many race tracks around where they didn’t know me…. a little bit….so that makes me feel pretty good. I can’t say too much about it; I was just too damn lucky.”
It was an honor to meet Harold and I want to thank him for his generosity in opening his home and museum of collector cars and race memorabilia. He definitely strikes you as a guy who has been around the world a time or two, and has some great stories he’s collected along the way, and enjoys telling them. And he’s one of the very finest pure racing talents ever seen at tracks out west.