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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Floyd's death hits home for Conleys

May 18, 2016, 2:46 pm

For everyone in the Dirt Late Model world, the death of Wheelersburg, Ohio’s Charlie Floyd on April 19 — four days after he suffered burns to much of his body in a fiery accident at his hometown’s Southern Ohio Speedway — was shocking and emotional.

For veteran racer R.J. Conley, the tragedy was much more personal.

While the 26-year-old Floyd was a Dirt Late Model upstart whose name was still unfamiliar to most of the division’s competitors and fans, he was anything but anonymous to Conley.

“I knew Little Charlie a long time,” Conley said last Saturday while standing alongside his race car in the pit area before the start of the evening’s Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series-sanctioned Buckeye Nationals finale at Atomic Speedway in Alma, Ohio. “I saw him grow up.”

Conley, 51, also is from Wheelersburg, Ohio, and has long been close to Floyd’s father — also named Charlie, hence Conley’s instinctive reference to the deceased driver as “Little Charlie.” As a result, Floyd’s passing hit Conley as hard as anyone in the sport.

“Me and Little Charlie’s dad, we’ve been best friends almost our whole life,” Conley related. “Matter of fact, he come up here (to Atomic) with me.”

Conley’s connection with Floyd’s father, who is one year older than Conley, extends back to the early ‘70s.

“Hell, when I was a kid, (the elder Floyd’s) dad, Jim, worked for my grandfather at a farm and they lived over there in one of the farm houses,” Conley said. “When I was like 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, I stayed over at his house four nights out of the week sometimes because they lived right next to the farm and I loved being on the farm. My grandfather gave us a greenhouse to put all our toys in, and we’d play in that greenhouse every day.

“And of course, when my dad (now 74-year-old driver and Conley Trucking owner Delmas) left the farm in ’75, (the elder) Charlie’s dad went to work for my dad as a truck driver. Charlie actually moved with his family down on our truck lot in a house trailer and I stayed there a lot too back when we were teenagers.”

Conley said he and the elder Floyd drifted slightly apart during their later years of high school because they began running in different circles (“I was an athlete and he didn’t play”), but they eventually renewed their close relationship as they grew older. The elder Floyd went to work at Conley Trucking — he would spend more than 20 years at the company — and became a regular companion at races with Conley, helping him at the track and sometimes even driving Conley’s hauler.

After Little Charlie was born in 1989, Conley soon began seeing plenty of his pal’s boy. Conley’s own son J.T. — now 27 and currently the youngest member of the Conley racing clan behind his grandfather, father and 54-year-old uncle Rod — was also born in ’89 and became a schoolmate and buddy of the younger Floyd.

“Little Charlie and my son were really good friends when they were growing up,” Conley said. “I can remember when Little Charlie would come over my house on the weekends and he’d spend the night with my son, and I would go out back and build them a little dirt track. They called it Little Eldora, and they’d sit there and play on it all day.”

Like their parents before them, the younger Floyd and J.T. Conley didn’t hang out as much as their high school years progressed. Floyd’s interests tilted toward golf (“He was a really, really good golfer and even played in so me junior pro-am tournaments,” Conley said) while J.T. focused on playing football and basketball.

When Floyd decided to purchase an open-wheel modified four years ago after previously driving go-karts, he didn’t seek out assistance from the Conleys despite having obvious connections to the family rich in racing experience. R.J. Conley said he would have liked to provide some tutoring to Floyd but the youngster was simply determined to learn the sport himself.

“I told his dad, ‘I just wish Little Charlie would’ve come around us when he said he was gonna try to race,’ ” Conley commented. “He could’ve come around us and learned a lot.

“I was raised around racing. When I was 13, 14, 15 years old, I was making bumpers for these cars, welding stuff. I was putting bodies on my dad’s cars … before we’d go to the World 100, I’d put bodies on each car. Little Charlie, he never really had that, and his dad told me, ‘You know, he really didn’t want me to help him. He wanted to do everything on his own.

“And that’s fine,” he added. “But you know, someone’s got to teach you. It’s hard to learn this stuff on your own.”

Perhaps Conley would have someday had the chance to take Floyd under his wing and offer guidance as he progressed in the Dirt Late Model ranks. But, in just his fourth full-fender start April 15 at Southern Ohio, Floyd’s car flipped and burned. Four days later he succumbed to his injuries, leaving Conley, like so many others, heartbroken.

“I was at Moler (Raceway Park in Williamsburg, Ohio) that night,” Conley said when asked where he was when he heard about Floyd’s accident. “Someone texted my wife and told her about it, and I’m thinking, I couldn’t be that bad … surely not. I’ve never seen a big fire like that, never been around one. You just don’t think it could happen, but it did.

“I’ve never watched the video,” he continued, referring to cell-phone footage that was posted on social media. “I refuse to watch any kind of video of that … just horrendous event. It’s just a tragedy.”

Conley thought highly of Floyd, an engaged father of an infant son who worked as an EMT for the Portsmouth (Ohio) Emergency Ambulance Service and was also a volunteer firefighter for the Porter Township Fire Department for eight years.

“He was a class kid,” Conley said. “He was never, ever in trouble his whole life. He was a good student in school. He always worked when he was old enough to get a job. And right up to when when he passed away, he would go to his grandmother’s house every morning, make sure she was OK, ask her if she needed something and take out her garbage — this was every morning.

“That’s the kind of kid he was,” he added. “He cared about people. That’s probably why he was a paramedic.”

Through all his years of racing, Conley had never been so close to a driver killed in a crash. The grief hit home, but his spirits were raised by the way he witnessed everyone across the Dirt Late Model landscape rally behind Floyd’s family in the wake of the disaster.

“The way the racing community come around that family …” Conley said, his voice trailing off for a moment. “Considering all the racing community didn’t know him because he’d only run a Late Model a few times in his life … his family, they were amazed (at the outpouring). Charlie’s aunt, she come up to me and she said she just can’t believe how the racing community has supported that family. It’s really helped them because they needed it.

“But I kept telling them, ‘You just don’t know racing people. Racing people are some of the best people in the country.’ Even us drivers, somebody might piss me off on the track, but if we go down the road and they’ve got a flat tire … hell, I’ll stop and help ‘em. I might want to beat someone up after I get done racing, but hell, next week, we’re OK. Me and Jackie Boggs were always that way. We was hot-headed when we were younger, but me and Jackie Boggs are really good friends now.

“All these racers are just good people,” he added, “and they showed it the way they got behind that family.”

Even Floyd’s father was left speechless by the racing world’s response.

“I can’t ever imagine what he’s going through, but he was overwhelmed by all the support people have given him,” Conley said. “His dad’s been around racing a lot … he’s been to many World 100s, many Dreams, so he’s been around the racing group. But did he know that the people were as nice as they showed him? Maybe not, but he learned that they are.”

Conley did his part to assist his good friend’s healing process when, on April 29, he won the AMRA-STARS Late Model Alliance-sanctioned Charlie Floyd Benefit Race at Southern Ohio. With Floyd’s father and fiancee in victory lane to meet him, Conley’s voice broke up and his eyes dripped tears as he spoke on the P.A. system.

“It meant a lot to me,” Conley said of the $2,000 triumph. “It was emotional … me and Charlie, we go back a long ways, so it was just a real emotional night. It was one of my special wins. I couldn’t have been happier to win that one for them.

“The whole community come out to that race. There was a big crowd that night … just everyone supporting the family.”

Floyd has been gone for a month now, but Conley made it clear that he’s not — will never be — forgotten.

“I told his whole family, ‘Charlie’s name will live forever,’” Conley asserted. “With what happened to him, he really woke a lot of people up in our sport.

“The simple fact is, the worst thing that I’ve ever feared in racing is fire. I’ve hit walls head-on at 100 mph, I’ve hurt my neck, but I survived that … I healed from that. A fire, you don’t heal from. So what scares me more than anything … I know (Michigan racer) Brian Ruhlman had a little thing on his Facebook about how hard it is getting in-and-out of these cars. I usually got to have somebody help me get (the HANS device) off, and these containment seats, they’re really good, but they can really hamper your exit from the car. And when you’re upside down, everything’s backwards.

“All I know is, his name will live on a long time because of this. A lot of people are going to look at safety a lot more now.”

That group includes Conley, who will have fire-suppression systems installed in all of his Conley Motorsports team cars to provide what could be just the few critical seconds necessary to escape a burning car.

“I don’t have a fire-suppression system on my car (at Atomic) but we just got seven of them from Poske’s (Performance Parts in Parkersburg, W.Va.),” Conley said. “They brought them yesterday. We ordered them from Poske … they were already out of them (from their stock). I’m sure they’ve got more ordered now.

“It’s a very inexpensive thing for my life. Will it give me 20 seconds (to escape the cockpit)? Will it give me 30 seconds? Well, let me tell you, that’s huge. That 20 or 30 seconds will give you time to unbutton your stuff and get out and everybody should be looking at it.

“I know Lucas Oil and the World of Outlaws (Craftsman Late Model Series) and everybody (from other series and tracks) are looking at things now and are going to do everything they can to protect the drivers,” he added. “No one likes seeing something happen to a racer, and everyone’s more aware of what can happen now. That’s why everyone will always remember Charlie.”

Ten things worth mentioning (Buckeye Nationals edition)

1. R.J. Conley said that Floyd’s passing has had a major effect on his son J.T. “It tore him up,” Conley noted. “He’s not even racing right now. He raced the first Lucas Oil race up here (at Atomic on March 18) and that’s all he’s raced so far this year. I think he was gonna try to focus on Portsmouth (Raceway Park) this year (the track opens on May 21), but this Little Charlie deal has really upset him. Little Charlie was one of his good friends growing up, and maybe he’s thinking, You know, this ain’t what I want to do. It’s hard when it hits that close to home.”

2. The Charlie Floyd Benefit Raffle held during Friday night’s qualifying program at Atomic was well-received. Organized by a group that included former Dirt Late Model regular Josh McGuire and his wife, Tracy, and veteran driver Eddie Carrier Jr. and his wife Jamie, the fundraiser featured nearly 50 door panels and other body parts donated by teams; an autographed helmet from Don O’Neal; and a Lucas Oil Series ultimate fan experience package that included an opportunity to participate in the victory lane ceremonies. The raffle raised $3,877 — including $720 from an earlier raffle arranged by 21-year-old racer Devin Moran — and another $700 was collected through the sale of memorial T-shirts, bracelets and other items. The money will be put into several CDs for Floyd’s infant son Liam, whom Floyd’s fiancee, Quin Rosenburg, delivered late last year.

3. Tracy McGuire was thrilled by the success of the raffle. “Although my heart is still so broken for our racing community in the wake of Charlie Floyd's passing,” she wrote in a Facebook post, “tonight my heart is humbled and full of love for everyone that helped to make our event so special and successful — fans, drivers, volunteers, the racetrack, Lucas Oil , etc. I couldn't help but have tears stream down my face the entire way home Friday night. It was such a strong mix of emotion, but the one that was shining through the most was LOVE … and that stems from the energetic spirit that I get when I'm around race fans. Proud to be part of such a loving group wanting to reach out and support in this time of need.”

4. After finishing fourth in Saturday night’s Buckeye Nationals, Chris Madden made the long haul home to Gray Court, S.C., with a purpose. On Sunday, he shifted gears to play a different role — crew chief — for his 9-year-old son Avery, who took his first laps in a go-kart during a practice session at Patriot Speedway in Blacksburg, S.C. “Lord help this wife & momma,” Madden’s wife, Stephanie, wrote on Facebook after watching the couple’s son test his go-kart. “He loved it … it’s in his blood. He was smooth.”

5. Speaking of Madden, he received some extra assistance in the pit area at Atomic from Derek Gahring, a Georgian who spent several years traveling the World of Outlaws tour as a full-time mechanic for Chub Frank of Bear Lake, Pa., and Clint Smith of Senoia, Ga. Gahring said he was just lending Madden a hand and isn’t planning to jump back on the road with a Dirt Late Model team.

6. Devin Moran’s younger brother, Wylie, reported at Atomic that he was in the process of completing his final online courses to become a high school graduate. The 18-year-old has no plans to walk through a graduation ceremony with the public-school class he was part of before opting to obtain his credits working online from home. “I asked (a school official) when (the formal ceremony) was,” Wylie said. “She said it was Memorial Day weekend, so I said, ‘Nope!’ ” Indeed, Wylie will be busy for the entire holiday weekend with his brother, who is eagerly anticipating entering WoO events in the team’s Dresden, Ohio, backyard on May 27 at Moler Raceway Park in Williamsburg, Ohio, and May 28-29 at Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, W.Va.

7. I couldn’t help noticing the sneakers that Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., wore before the start of Friday night’s action at Atomic. His Nikes were bright yellowish-green accented by blue — just like the scheme on his Bob Cullen Racing machine. You have to like how he keeps things in synch.

8. After noticing an 11-year-old open-wheel modified driver, Harrison Hall of Circleville, Ohio, in the Atomic pit area clad in a Team Dillon Racing uniform that was virtually identical to one worn by the team’s hired gun Dale McDowell of Chickamauga, Ga., Steve Casebolt of Richmond, Ind., ran into McDowell’s crew-chief brother, Shane. “I saw that kid walking around in Dale’s suit and I thought Dale had shrunk,” Casebolt quipped. (Hall, by the way, got the TDR uniform from team owner Mike Dillon, who bought it for the youngster after he visited the team’s shop with his family.)

9. An early cancellation of Saturday night’s scheduled regular show at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky., because of wet, unseasonable weather conditions worked out good for Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., who kept some manpower for Atomic’s finale that he otherwise would have lost if Florence had run. McCreadie, who doesn’t have a full-time crew chief (his lone regular traveling companion is his truck driver, David “Frog” Griepsma), often picks up assistance at events relatively close to Cincinnati from Eddie Burgess, whose 20-year-old son, Ethan, is a Dirt Late Model regular at Florence. The elder Burgess was planning to help T-Mac only on Friday because his son, who finished third in his last Florence start, would be in action at his home track, but the cancellation allowed him to return to Atomic.

10. Rocket Chassis co-owner Mark Richards looked like he had just been through a mud storm when he walked down Atomic’s high-banked first corner to enter the infield before the start of Saturday night’s 75-lap feature. The front of his jacket and pants were almost completely covered in slop — a predicament he good-naturedly blamed on his son Josh. “I was pushing Josh’s car (in the pit area) and he gassed it up right when he hit a mud puddle. I was behind it and everything he threw up went all over me,” Richards said while unsuccessfully attempting to wipe the splattered mud off his coat.

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