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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Recalling feats of the Virginia Leadfoot

April 22, 2015, 9:16 am

Rodney Franklin was always more racer than race fan, which is why the Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer from White Post, Va., largely disappeared from the local racing scene after his standout career ended just over a decade ago. But last Saturday night’s program at Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway was an event he dearly wanted to attend — if only he could have. | Slideshow | Obituary

The evening’s Dirt Late Model action was dubbed a Salute to a Champion — that champion, of course, being Franklin, who for much of the 1980s and ‘90s was one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s top full-fender drivers. His family members and friends joined with Hagerstown promoter Ernie Davis and his daughter, general manager Keya Davis, less than a month ago to hastily organize a special race honoring the cancer-stricken Franklin with the hope that the 61-year-old would be the guest of honor, but unfortunately his failing health prevented him from making an appearance.

Three days later, Franklin died, succumbing to the disease that he had been battling for nearly six months.

Before Franklin’s passing, however, his heart was certainly at Hagerstown, if not his body. The man who won two Hagerstown points titles (1997 and ’98) and sits second on the track’s all-time victory list (117 wins, including virtually all the speedway’s major events) was truly touched by the sentiment behind the event.

“He was very honored,” Franklin’s daughter Jamie said on Saturday while standing near a display of her father’s old racing pictures that was set up behind Hagerstown’s grandstand for fans to view. “He was very happy and very appreciative and wished that he could be here. He was hoping he could make it, but he’s just pretty weak right now and we knew it would be a lot on him to come. He needs to rest, so he stayed home with our mother (Darlene, Franklin’s wife of 45 years).”

Franklin was kept well-informed of the happenings at Hagerstown. His daughters Jamie and Bridget (a third daughter was unable to attend) spoke with him through FaceTime during the night and sent numerous photos, including some of the distinctive car that Franklin’s friend Devin Friese of Chambersburg, Pa., entered in the event: a maroon-and-yellow No. 01 that was a lookalike of the Creed Calton-owned machine Franklin drove for most of the last 12 years of his career. Come Sunday morning, Franklin had a video in his possession of the evening’s competition so he could watch the 33-lap feature — the distance a nod to the family-owned Franklin Oval Research No. 33 that Franklin steered to many of his 300-plus career victories — won by Gregg Satterlee of Indiana, Pa., who pocketed a mammoth payoff of $12,422 because he collected all of the $8,022 in lap money contributed by Franklin’s friends and fans in his honor.

The whole night was a fitting — and sometimes emotional — celebration of Franklin and his career that drew many of his family members and friends back to Hagerstown and prompted his old rivals to recall their past battles on the track.

“I wouldn’t miss this race for nothing in the world,” said the 71-year-old Calton, whose run with Franklin as his driver concluded in 2002. “I haven’t been here since we quit, but I wasn’t gonna miss this race.”

“Let me tell ‘ya,” added Billy Zirkle of Stephens City, Va., who drove Calton’s hauler throughout Franklin’s stint behind the wheel of the No. 01. “We would’ve had a big discussion with Mother Nature if this race got rained out.”

Zirkle painted a picture of Franklin — also known as the Virginia Leadfoot — as a “hard-core racer” who was “100 percent serious” at the racetrack, but who at his core was a “very humble dude and knows where he came from.”

“When we were racing, it was a blast going and coming,” Zirkle said. “Franklin — there ain’t too many like him. There’s racers, and then there’s Franklin.

“He took us places where we had never gone. To pay him back, we could never do it. He took us to races from up here in the north to Daytona, and wherever we went with him, we knew we could win. That’s a pretty good feeling to have.”

Zirkle’s brother, long-time race car letterer Stanley “Beaner” Zirkle, also of Stephens City, Va., has an even longer history with Franklin. He met the driver in the late ‘70s through a mutual friend and soon began helping him as a crewman. For more than 20 years Beaner was by Franklin’s side in racetrack pit areas and he remained close to his friend; in fact, the last time Franklin attended a Dirt Late Model event — about five or six years ago when he traveled to Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, W.Va., and West Virginia Motor Speedway in Mineral Wells to watch Friese compete — he was accompanied by Beaner, who, not surprisingly, spoke glowingly of Franklin the man and the racer during Saturday’s activities at Hagerstown.

“He’s 150 percent winner,” said Beaner Zirkle, who visited Franklin three weeks ago. “Competition brought the best out of him. He always liked a challenge, and one thing I do know because he told me out of his own mouth was that he never feared speed. In fact, he said something he always wanted to do was fly a (fighter) jet to experience that speed.

“Off the track he was real fun and he’d do anything for you … he helped me out a lot through my down times. At the racetrack, though, people would judge him sometimes because he was just serious and it was all racing for him. He didn’t want nobody (on the team) venturing out … we had to concentrate on our little square (in the pit area). That’s just how he raced.”

When Beaner thinks back on all his years with Franklin, memories of big and little moments, wins and losses, come flooding back to him.

“I remember one time when he drove for (the late) Vernon Harris we went up to I-79 (Speedway in Shinnston, W.Va.) to race,” Beaner said. “Rodney run good in his heat but got taken out and didn’t qualify, so he had to run a C-Main. We ran it and won it, and then he ran the B-Main and won it. In the A-Main we got up to like fourth or fifth and then got shoved back a little — every panel on the car was beat to pieces by the end of that night, but the following week (then track promoter) Mark Richards called Vernon and wanted to know if we was coming back because he said he had so many phone calls about Franklin passing cars and people wanted to watch him do it again.”

And how could Beaner ever forget the memorable circumstances surrounding Franklin’s victory in the 1993 Winchester 200 at Winchester (Va.) Speedway?

“We qualified on Friday and then was gonna race Saturday night,” Beaner said. “Saturday night it rained, so they were gonna race Sunday. Well, Hagerstown had a race Sunday also and we wanted to come over here and race it, so we parked the rig at the back pit gate (outside the track) so we could get out fast for Winchester in case we started running bad. When Rodney started the race we had everything loaded, and about halfway through the race he stopped to bring the caution out and he pulled off and drove right into the trailer. We loaded it up, got in the truck and Rodney told Creed, ‘You’re not driving because you drive to slow.’

“We made it to Winchester (about 45 minutes away) as they was calling the cars to go out on the track to lineup. We was in the parking lot so we unloaded, put tires on it and Rodney drove the car in. Then he started on the outside pole, led every lap and won the race.”

That was just one of many major triumphs for Franklin. His daughters said he gave special relevance to his $20,000 win in the first-ever STARS series event held on June 9, 1984, at Hagerstown. Billy Zirkle said he often heard Franklin talk fondly about his 1986 NASCAR Winston Invitational checkered flag during Speedweeks at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., and his 100th career win at Hagerstown. Perhaps his biggest, most satisfying victory, however, came on Aug. 16, 1998, when he captured the lone Hav-A-Tampa-UDTRA Series event of his career at Hagerstown with a late-race charge that carried him past national legends Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., and Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe I won this race! I beat Scott Bloomquist!’ ” Billy Zirkle commented.

Calton ranks the Hav-A-Tampa score above all others as well: “That was the best race we ever had and the best race we ever won. He will tell you that. He said he had bigger money wins, but that race meant more to him than any race and it did to me, too.”

Franklin accorded himself well when he hit the road to run some of the sport’s crown-jewel events — he finished as high as second in the World 100 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio (1986) and third in the Dirt Track World Championship at Pennsboro (W.Va.) Speedway (’84) — but it was his success on his home turf at Hagerstown that brought him the greatest acclaim. The half-mile oval was also the site of some of his hardest-fought races — none more intense, of course, than his battles with Gary Stuhler of Greencastle, Pa., who throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s waged a sometimes bitter rivalry with Franklin.

Stuhler, now 60 and still a top contender at Hagerstown, recalled his old wars with Franklin before climbing into his car for last Saturday night’s competition.

“He wanted to win and I wanted to win,” Stuhler said. “I think that was all part of us being competitive, him racing hard and me racing hard. We made contact a couple times, but … you had to race hard to beat him. You weren’t gonna just stroll around here and outrun him. I knew he was the one, when you lined up for the feature, he was one of the ones you were gonna have to outrun — and when you outran him, you were proud to do it.

“He would get madder than hell when I would outrun him, and I probably felt the same way. When I ran second to him, I’d be mad.

“He was tougher than nails,” he added. “I’ve told everybody who’s called me for a interview and asked who was my toughest competitor, and I said it was either him or Ronnie McBee. They were the two that you had to beat.”

Stuhler was never especially friendly with Franklin off the track, and he surmised that “it’s been quite a few years” since he last spoke with Franklin. But “as time went on,” Stuhler said, their relationship became less frosty and they developed a mutual respect — perhaps with some gentle, good-natured prodding from another accomplished hometown Hagerstown racer, Nathan Durboraw, who, at 58, now spectates more than he races.

“I got along with him great,” Durboraw said of Franklin, whose short stint behind the wheel of the late Raye Vest’s car in 1995 came after Durboraw campaigned the famed No. 24. “Me and him ran a lot of hard races — it was wide-open the whole time with him, buddy — but we were good friends. We never had a word, never had a feud. I went to his 50th birthday party with him.

“But back when I first got to race with him and those guys (at Hagerstown), they were all kind of like hardball. They kind of thought that you couldn’t be friends and race. Then once I come along, I showed ‘em that you could be friends and also race hard — when it was over, we could hang out and drink some beers together. A lot of these guys, it was like they thought they had to be enemies, but once I kind of showed ‘em that wasn’t case, I think they all seen a different view of things.”

Franklin’s relationship with Calton? That never needed time to evolve. They were a perfect match from the start.

“We clicked, just absolutely clicked, and we become very good friends,” Calton said. “It was because we both come from the same background. Both our fathers had nothing and lived the American dream, and our fathers taught us how to live the American dream — and we both did.

“The one thing we also had in common was, if you have a hobby that you love, and your entire family loves it and is involved with you, it don’t get no better. We both had that. Wives, children — we both had that.”

Franklin and Calton became so close, they effectively left the sport together in 2002 after more than a decade of successful action. Franklin did make a handful of starts after that — including a final drive in Friese’s second car at Hagerstown’s 2005 Octoberfest — before a bad back and some subsequent heart problems prompted him to leave the cockpit for good, but his regular racing ceased when Calton parked his machinery.

“We had talked about it and we decided we would both quit together,” Calton said of Franklin, who was inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2004. “When the time come, that’s what we did.”

Since then Franklin and Calton remained pals, seeing each other and traveling together often.

“Most people don’t know, but after we quit the stock cars we went to motorcycles together,” Calton said. “We rode motorcycles for the past 10 years. He has a Harley and I have a Goldwing, and we’d put ‘em in trailers and take ‘em to east Tennessee and then ride for a week a couple times a year. We loved mountain riding, and we did a lot of it.”

Their last trip to the Volunteer State came last fall, just before Franklin received his Oct. 26 cancer diagnosis.

“We were on the motorcycles in October in east Tennessee,” Calton said. “He left to come home, and I left and went to Florida. Two weeks later I got a phone call that he’s in the hospital. Shortly after that, they called and told me this (cancer news) … it was just shocking.”

Calton visited Franklin every week for the past six weeks, spending precious time with his friend and remembering all their great moments together on and off the track.

“He’s a tough boy, a hard-nosed racer, but soft-hearted when he needed to be,” Calton said. “He could be tough as hell when he needed to be too. He’s just a great guy … just a great friend.”

Ten things worth mentioning

1. During an intermission conversation with Nathan Durboraw in Hagerstown’s pit area on Saturday night, the veteran driver mentioned when he found out about his old friend Rodney Franklin’s failing health. “I never knew until about a month ago,” he said. “I was actually watching some old racing tapes — I just stick ‘em in, don’t matter who wins — and it was a race that (Franklin) won, and just something told me to try and call him. I called down to Winchester (Speedway) to try and get ahold of him and Jimmy Spence told me he was pretty sick.”

2. Unlike Franklin and many other drivers, Durboraw doesn’t have trouble visiting the racetrack as a spectator now that he spends little time behind the wheel of a Dirt Late Model. (He made just two starts in Jack Bland’s car last year.) “Just watching never has bothered me,” said Durboraw, who is working on putting a Limited Late Model together for his 15-year-old grandson Cody Myers. “A lot of people can’t deal with it (after leaving the cockpit), but I can. I just look at them out there and say, ‘I can do that. I’ve done it.’ ”

3. Durboraw’s friendly, outgoing personality also makes a trip to the racetrack a social event for him. “The good thing about me,” he said, “when I proved you can race hard and still be friends with guys, it got me a lot of friends. Now I can go to any big race and get on (Earl) Pearson’s truck, (Scott) Bloomquist’s truck, and watch the races. They never forgot me. That’s what I always wanted to prove to them all about racing hard and being friends.”

4. As for Durboraw’s unique perspective on the once heated Franklin-Stuhler rivalry: “Rodney and Stuhler had a battle there for awhile. I used to get to third (place) and, if they were first and second, I just set back. I knew it was gonna go down … and it did more than once.”

5. Billy Vacek, who heads the MBH Race Cars business in Martinsburg, W.Va., that was founded by his late step-father Huey Wilcoxon, also had a take on the old Franklin-Stuhler rivalry from a youngster’s perspective. Now 28, he was in elementary school when the two drivers were battling hard every week at Hagerstown. “Stuhler was driving the 44 car for Speedy Hays and Franklin was in the Creed Calton car, and every week I used to draw a picture for Speedy of the 44 car,” recalled Vacek, who noted that Wilcoxon worked a crew member for both Franklin and Stuhler. “One week I drew the (Calton) 01 — and, well, my mom got mad and told me I had to throw it away because that wasn’t allowed in (Hays’s) truck just because the rivalry was so big.” The pick-your-side nature of the Franklin-Stuhler tussle definitely overtook little Vacek. “I lived in Maryland when I was in elementary school and my school bus would drive right past Creed Calton’s house every day and that hauler of his — one of the first stacker haulers in the day — would always be sitting there,” he said. “I remember driving by the rig all the time on my way to school and I used to say, “You suck!’ I was a kid … I didn’t know any better. But looking back now, I know that Rodney Franklin was a real racer and that rivalry him and Stuhler had going was a great time for racing around here.”

6. Saturday, of course, marked exactly one year since Wilcoxon died at 50 after suffering an apparent heart attack that sent the vehicle he was driving into a guardrail on Route 5 near La Plata, Md., as he headed home alone from Potomac Speedway in Budds Creek, Md. “I just miss getting his opinion on things like life,” Vacek said of his step-dad.

7. The familiar face of big, burley Randy Grove was back prowling the Hagerstown pit area Saturday night. A long-time track-prep master at his hometown Hagerstown oval who also handled surface work at the dirt tracks at Charlotte and Las Vegas for several years, Grove missed some early-season action at Hagerstown while recovering from back surgery but is rounding back into shape. He oversaw the pit scene on Saturday from behind the wheel of a Gator utility cart with his young granddaughter riding shotgun.

8. Coleby Frye of Dover, Pa., ran Saturday night’s event at Hagerstown on the eve of his 30th birthday — and now with a Fu Manchu-style moustache replacing the bushy beard he’s been sporting. Frye, who finished 16th in the feature, also reported that he and wife, Jenn, became parents over the winter with the Jan. 19 birth of their daughter Braylyn.

9. While interviewing Billy Moyer Jr. of Batesville, Ark., on Monday about the bombshell news that he’s taking an indefinite leave from racing at the age of 27, I asked him what his legendary father, Billy Moyer, thought about his decision. “He just said, ‘I told you from the get-go how hard this stuff was,’ ” the younger Moyer commented. “He just said, ‘It is what it is.’ He didn’t try to talk me out of it. He tried to suggest, ‘Well, you can run around home on a regional level or something.’ But I just don’t want to do that … I’m either all or nothing. I’m not saying that if I do it again I gotta be up-and-down the road, but I don’t want to just run every race around here for $2,000-to-win.”

10. While checking in Sunday with UMP DIRTcar veteran Kevin Weaver of Gibson City, Ill., about his noteworthy outing in the previous night’s World of Outlaws Late Model Series Illini 100 finale at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway — where he set fast time, won a heat and was battling for fourth place on lap 27 of the 75-lap feature when he spun out of contention in a tangle with Chase Junghans of Manhattan, Kan. — he proudly noted that he’s now in his eighth year sporting corporate sponsorship from the Champaign, Ill.-headquartered Jimmy John’s sandwich chain. He also related an anecdote about how he’s come to realize the extent of Jimmy John’s growth since he’s carried the restaurant’s banner. “I wear a Jimmy John’s hat all the time,” said the 52-year-old Weaver, who has watched Jimmy John’s expand from about 350 to nearly 2,000 stories over the past eight years. “I got stories where people looked at my hat (eight) years ago and they’d be like, ‘Jimmy Johnson!’ I’d tell them, ‘No, that’s not it.’ A lot of people didn’t know what Jimmy John’s was. Now, when they see the hat, they ask me, ‘Do you work for Jimmy John’s?’ because a lot of their delivery guys wear these hats. They don’t want to say, ‘Are you the old guy doing the deliveries for Jimmy John’s in the (television) commercial?’ ”

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