The news of C.J. Rayburn’s passing on New Year’s Day didn’t necessarily come as a shock to those closest to the legendary chassis builder from Whiteland, Ind. Rayburn, 81, died after battling the complications from Covid-related pneumonia, a tough out for an old bird who was every much an eagle in the eyes of nearly everyone he crossed paths with.
Don’t believe me? Try finding a negative comment on social media about Carl Jerome Rayburn. I bet you’d spend hours searching fruitlessly. Folks rarely speak ill of the dead, but that’s of no consequence, because no one I know spoke ill of Rayburn when he was alive. It’s rare when you stumble upon a character who enjoyed the success of Rayburn, yet still somehow managed to remain so likable. But the inaugural National Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer accomplished the feat and he did so by being brutally honest while always wearing a smile.
The stories and anecdotes shared through social media are a tribute to Rayburn. It’s a tribute to the lumbering man who gave his life to the sport he loved. And it seems as though just about everyone has a C.J. Rayburn story to tell. Some are brief, fleeting moments of that one time so-and-so was at the track and saw Rayburn in the pit area or perhaps had a chance to watch him race. Other stories are longer, more personal, and penned with heartfelt emotion in regard to Rayburn as a great mentor and supporter.
And then there are those that push the PG-13 rating, stories you may need to pick up the phone and make a call in order to find out what really went down. I’m not without a Rayburn story or two myself, though I assure you all of mine are pretty much G-rated.
My brother Jim Gray’s first race car was a brand new 1995 leaf spring Rayburn. It was one of a half dozen or so Rayburn cars we owned through the years, going back to the first one we bought in 1989.
Although my brother didn't begin racing until 2002 — seven years after we purchased that brand spanking new chassis — he went along for the ride in '95 to pick up the new car when he was just 14 years old. I don’t think anyone would have guessed at the time that he’d be the first person to turn laps in the machine.
That trip to Whiteland in ’95 was actually the second time he’d met Rayburn. Jim tagged along to pick up a couple used cars we bought in ’89 when he was only 8. He doesn’t remember a whole lot about those trips, other than what truck he rode in with his dad up there. He does remember going to lunch however. And who wouldn’t?
Going to eat with Rayburn was a right of passage. If you ever got the opportunity to climb into Rayburn’s pickup and head to one of the greasy spoons he frequented — one of those spots in Whiteland or nearby Franklin where it was obvious that everyone knew his name — you felt like you were a member of an elite club. Rayburn had a way of making you feel that way.
When you were at his shop, he made you feel like you where just one of the guys. Sometimes he even made you feel like an underpaid employee, something I learned firsthand in 2006.
That’s the year that Jim decided he was ready to buy a new race car. He was in the Navy stationed in San Diego at the time and rarely able to get home, so he put me in charge of the purchase. I’d sold the Warrior Race Car we ran from 2003-’05 and we pooled our resources. After talking to Rayburn on the phone, I decided to drive up and see what he had.
I didn’t think we necessarily needed a brand new car, so I looked through Rayburn’s junkpile out back. Sitting there was a former Michael England car that needed a new front clip. I saw England win the 2005 Possum Town Grand Prix at Columbus (Miss.) Speedway in a Rayburn mount and was pretty impressed with the Kentucky youngster, so I bought the car and Rayburn agreed to clip it for me.
It was funny in that I’d never met Rayburn, not even when I worked at National Dirt Digest in 2001, and me not having the same last name as my brother and my stepdad, he really had no idea who I was.
But it didn’t take long for him to figure out the connection. We owned a barbecue restaurant when I was younger, and every time my stepdad Jimmy Gray heading to Indiana, he took Rayburn a few pounds of barbecue and some ribs. He always called my stepdad "the barbecue man." Maybe it was a term of endearment or maybe it was because he really couldn’t remember his name. But it didn’t matter and we never asked. It wasn’t important.
Fast forward to the spring of ’06 and I was ready to go get the car. We bought most of the parts from Rayburn needed to make the car a roller (a loosely used term meaning we’d be able to roll the car onto our trailer), but I brought my own hubs with me when I went back to pick it up. I got there with my four new hubs and expected to hand them the boxes and then wait for Rayburn’s guys to finish it up.
But when I got to his shop, our frame was still sitting outside, no rear end, nothing. The once bare metal on the front clip was a nice orangish-brown hue from the light coat of surface rust acquired from sitting outdoors. Of the rust, I remember Rayburn said: “Hell, that’ll make the paint stick to it better.” With little body shop experience, I couldn’t decide if he was being serious or just trying to make me feel better.
So I get the hubs, tell his guys what I’m there for and they get my car inside, grab a brand new rear end from the attic space up above the floor where they fabricated cars and they started putting my car together. I learned quickly, however, that Rayburn wasn’t one to let you just stand around and watch. He expected participation.
A few minutes passed and Rayburn walked back in the shop. I naturally was still standing there watching. The two of us chat for just a minutes more and then he turns to me and says: “Boy, you’re gonna have to get your hands out of that jacket. You can’t get any work done that way.”
I looked kinda puzzled and then realized he was serious. He expected me to get in there and help them finish up my car, which, of course, I did. I’ll never forget it. Maybe it was just a test, but I remember thinking as I took my jacket off and began working how thankful I was that someone taught me how to pack wheel bearings. That could have been really embarrassing in a hurry.
Most know that Rayburn would go out of his way to help you, but that didn’t mean he was gonna stop doing things his way. He had a routine, and a way of going about that routine, and he didn’t like to deviate from it. As I was working on the car there in his shop, someone said it was about time to go to lunch. I thought surely we’d finish up my car first so we — my mom had made the trip — could get on the road back towards Tennessee. When I questioned the timing, someone informed me that "he's not gonna miss lunch.” And they were right.
Rayburn walked back in and said, “Let’s go to lunch. I know a little place.” So off we went. Me, Rayburn and my mom, heading into town to have lunch. I remember we talked a little bit about racing and a whole lot about barbecue and my stepdad, who had passed away two years earlier. I thought, damn, Jimmy sure would have loved to have been there.
Rayburn’s reach has stretched decades and will likely continue for some time. Jim, who is now 40, never talked to Rayburn again after their meeting in 1995, but Rayburn’s now-famous sayings aren’t lost on my brother. We were at North Alabama Speedway in Tuscumbia racing on a Sunday earlier this season and with the track having some traction early, Jim decided to free up our car a little before qualifying. By the time we went back out, the traction was gone and we were too free. Jim climbed out of the car after qualifying. “I should have taken Rayburn’s advice," he said. "I should’ve just gone to the hot dog stand.”
Truer words were never spoken. A lot of guys have taken Rayburn’s advice through the years and lot of drivers who didn’t probably wished they had, because more often than not, Rayburn was right. He’s the only person I know to have a shirt with his own sayings on the back. The T-shirt full of Rayburnisms, as they are called, still ranks among my all-time favorite race car shirts.
The one thing I realize as I write this is that almost everyone in the sport can relate similar stories. But Rayburn had a unique way of making you feel like you were the most important driver or car owner — or person — in the whole world at that moment. He had a time set aside each morning for guys to call in and talk tech. And not once when I was talking to him did he rush me off the phone. There were a few times he talked to me like my ornery ol’ grandpa would, but just like with a grandpa, you felt like he was doing so out of love. He wanted the best for you. He wanted to see you have success.
I remember when we won at ECM Speedway on Labor Day weekend in 2006, just the sixth night we’d been in the car. I couldn’t wait to call Rayburn and tell him. When I called the following Tuesday morning, he seemed genuinely happy for us. And it wasn’t I-sold-you-that-car happy. It was more happy like a parent who had finally earned the trust of their teenager. He wanted to know that the information he shared with us worked and if it didn’t, he wanted to know why.
Every time I talked to him, if he knew we were coming toward Indianapolis — Rayburn lived just 19 miles south of Indy — he invited me to stop by the shop. I know I’m just one of thousands who got that treatment. Still, if he knew you’d be passing by on I-65, which was less than 2 miles from his shop, he welcomed you. Each and every time I stopped for fuel at the Love’s Travel Stop at exit 95, there was a yearning to just keep going west on E500N and stop in for a visit. If you didn’t, it sort of felt like driving by a family member’s house without stopping. That’s just how he made you feel.
It's a feeling I'll sorely miss each time I pass by in the years to come.