Ray and Sonny ~
Wouldn’t It Be Nice To Have Local Stars Racing in Cup?
By: Frank Buhrman
I’ve been without cable/dish television for several years now and seldom miss it, but I felt like stuff-in-the-toilet last week when I couldn’t watch “Glory Road,” the NBCSN series about auto racing hosted by Ray Evernham. Last week’s episode dealt with the modified rivalry 50+ years ago between Richmonders Ray Hendrick and Sonny Hutchins.
WHAT? Real television going back that far to look at a couple of local hot rods? How did that happen? Well, it happened because Hendrick and Hutchins were larger-than-life figures in a weekly racing scene that was much more high profile than it is today. The principals also were great personalities: Hendrick, a building trades contractor and “aw-shucks” kind of guy with an awesome gap-tooth grin; Hutchins, a gregarious restauranteur with Coke bottle glasses that detractors blamed for his habit of knocking competitors out of his way.
Ray Hendrick in his most famous ride, the Jack Tant “Flying 11” modified.
Sonny Hutchins with a Junie Donlavey modified – the pair competed at various times in the #91 and #90.
I don’t know how many times I watched those two race, but I can’t remember them failing to entertain, and I’m guessing it made a promoter’s day to see those names on his track’s entry list.
It sucks that I didn’t see the show, but it sucks more that the racers of today who fill Ray and Sonny’s roles at local tracks don’t have the opportunities they had to occasionally mix it up with the big boys of NASCAR. Yeah, I know, I’ve harped on this endlessly, but it’s terribly important to the lost success of this sport. People come out to see the local heroes, but NASCAR traveling circus racing has become an all but closed club. To me, that’s on the list of reasons this sport is faltering.
Ray Hendrick drove 17 Grand National/Cup races over an 18-year period during his career, never more than four per season, and while a couple of those were in second cars for major teams, his closest stint to a “shot at the big time” came in 1968 when he drove four races in a month for Tom Friedkin, best known as owner for Jim Paschal (and later known as bankroller of a large conservation effort in Africa). In those four races (South Boston, Richmond, Hampton and Martinsville), he notched four Top-10 finishes, including a fifth at Hampton. Unfortunately, after that it was back to the weekly wars.
But I’ll bet that every one of those 17 starts saw promoters publicizing Hendrick’s entry, and I’ll bet fans came out to see him.
I couldn’t find an image of Ray Hendrick in a GN/Cup car, but here he is on the way to victory in the big late model sportsman race at Charlotte. He definitely could hold his own on any kind of track.
My memories start in September 1963, when Ray was entered in Richmond’s Capital City 300 driving a two-year-old Pontiac for “Rebel Racing.” Even in those days, it probably wasn’t one of the prime machines in the field, but Ray put it in Top 10 for most of the day and was flirting with a Top 5 finish at the end, albeit well off the lead lap. Then a tire blew with a handful of laps to go. A pit stop for that team would have cost multiple laps, so Ray just stayed on the track and slung the Pontiac around for two or three laps on three wheels, earning a seventh-place finish for his extra work (and a princely purse of $350).
Then there was the 1969 Grand American race at Richmond. One entry was a Camaro for Joie Chitwood Jr. (transported by one of the rocket-shaped haulers from the family thrill show). The car hadn’t done that well in previous events, but all of a sudden at Richmond, Ray Hendrick was its driver. Starting 18th, he quickly drove the #67 to the front and might have made it an all-time-great race, had not the car given up the ghost with two-thirds of the event to go. Watching that charge was a thrill like few others in the hundreds of races I’ve seen.
Later, at South Boston, Hendrick would drive the Chitwood Camaro again and finish second to Pete Hamilton, who won more races than anyone else in the division that year.
One last Hendrick note. In 1982, he picked up a temporary ride in what’s now the Xfinity Series, and in seven races, he notched three Top-5 finishes . . . at age 53.
Sadly, Ray Hendrick died of cancer in 1990 at 61.
Sonny Hutchins had a more extensive run in the “big time,” driving 38 GN/Cup races, all but one over the ten-year period from 1965-74 and nearly all for owner Junie Donlavey. In 1967 they came home seventh in the Daytona 500, and in 1969 they had runner-up finishes at Dover and Richmond. None of these was on the lead lap – which wasn’t unusual then – but clearly the Hutchins-Donlavey combo was potent for a part-time team – after each of those races was over, they went back to preparing a modified or late model sportsman car for the next week’s weekly event at Southside, South Boston or another local track.
Here’s Hutchins in a Donlavey superspeedway car. Note that the front quarter-panel sponsor is Ray Hendrick’s company.
Donlavey’s cars were good at Daytona. Besides GN/Cup, he also ran the Permatex 300 late model sportsman (Xfinity) race frequently, and for three straight years (1972-74), Donlavey and driver Bill Dennis owned that event.
Hutchins and Donlavey won plenty of modified and late model races, and that made their entries in GN/Cup great stuff for promoters, too, since the combo would doubtless bring in more fans.
There’s a Grand American/borrowed car story about Hutchins, too. In 1971 he showed up at Dover with a “who’s that?” car and drove it to the lead as had Hendrick with the Chitwood car. Unfortunately, this car also failed to stand up to the hard driving and fell by the wayside, and Dover was the bizarre race where the final leader pulled into victory lane, only to have the winner – weekly warrior Frank Brantley – announce his presence to a stunned crowd that thought somebody else was driving the car.
Hutchins’ last GN/Cup start wasn’t for Donlavey, though, but rather for driver-turned-owner Emmanuel Zervakis. In 1974 at Martinsville, Zervakis entered a Chevy Monte Carlo that Hutchins put on the outside pole, beside Richard Petty. When the green flag fell, the crowd might well have included a lot of stunned fans, who never expected the powder-blue, small-garage special with the old weekly guy behind the wheel to out-drag the King for the lead, but that’s what happened. Sonny led the first 79 laps, during which Petty dropped out with engine trouble. Unfortunately, though, an accident ended the Zervakis car’s day, and Canadian Earl Ross scored his only GN/Cup win in a Junior Johnson Chevy sponsored by Canadian brewer Carling.
Here’s Hutchins in the Zervakis #01 next to The King at Martinsville.
OK, tell the band to stop playing; I’m done waltzing down memory lane – and you definitely don’t want to see me dance. All this relatively personal history was built around a point, though.
Guys like Hendrick and Hutchins – and their counterparts in the Carolinas, Tennessee and just about anywhere else the NASCAR gang showed up to race – had enough fans that, when they got a shot at the GN/Cup stars, fans showed up to watch, even if “Hot Rod” was in a third-rate car. There are a lot of vacant seats at Cup tracks these days that we might fill if we drastically reduced costs, deep-sixed the charter system, and gave the locals a chance to show their stuff again. We might even create more stories like the ones related here, and those would keep fans interested in NASCAR action a lot better than the latest news about bizarre inspection incidents or drunk driving arrests.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
If you’re anywhere near South Central Pennsylvania, this weekend is the annual Williams Grove Old-Timers/Eastern Museum of Motor Racing Convention at the Latimore Valley Fairgrounds, just south of Harrisburg. On both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, we’ll have track time for vintage race cars on the Latimore Valley track, which operated for racing in the 1930s. It’s not racing, anymore – a speed limit is strictly enforced – but you get to see some beautiful links to racing’s past.
It’s free, too, as is the museum itself, also a can’t-miss if you cherish the heritage of this sport.
This photo’s a few years old, but it’s a good example of vintage race cars cruising around the 1930s-vintage Latimore Valley Fairgrounds track at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing.
For several years recently, Roy Hendrick and friends have brought a restored version of Dad Ray’s Jack Tant “Flying 11” modified. Don’t know if it’ll be there this time, but for this fan, that would make the show even better.
For those who would like to see sprint car racing, too, the vintage cars will get track time during the racing program Friday night at Williams Grove Speedway.
You can find more information at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing.