Inside Dirt Late Model Racing
Column: Late shock rep's efforts were instrumental
Rocket Chassis co-owner Mark Richards wasn’t prepared for the sad news he heard upon awakening last Saturday morning in his toter home parked at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway in Imperial. When he learned that his long-time friend and business associate, motorsports shock guru Mike Farr, had passed away Friday night at the age of 65, it was like he absorbed a sucker-punch to the gut. | DirtWire
While Farr’s health had been declining since he was diagnosed with cancer Aug. 14, Richards nor most all of Farr’s other friends in the industry — and make no mistake, he had many — were aware of that fact. Even as Farr spent the last week of his life in an intensive care unit at Northside Hospital in Cumming, Ga., near his home in Roswell, Ga., the racing community he was so much a part of for four decades largely had no idea about his fate.
“He didn’t tell us,” Richards said when asked about Farr’s cancer diagnosis. “There were only a couple people that knew. He didn’t want none of us to know … he didn’t want none of us to worry about him. That’s the way Mike was. He didn’t want to be a bother to nobody.”
Farr was certainly a friend to just about everybody in the sport, though. During his life-long involvement in racing — from driving a Limited Late Model on the Stateline-Eriez circuit near his native Erie, Pa., home in the ‘70s and ‘80s to his stints working for Carrera Shocks, Pro Shocks and VP Racing Fuels and, since 2006, operating Genesis Shocks with partner Mike Lutz — Farr gathered a circle of friends stretching from the garage areas of NASCAR’s major leagues to the pits of the smallest dirt tracks.
When Richards’s 28-year-old son, Josh, was asked after winning Saturday night’s Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series-sanctioned Pittsburgher 100 at PPMS if there was anyone Farr didn’t know in racing, he could only smile and chuckle, “I don’t think so.”
Indeed, Farr worked with racers across virtually the entire motorsports spectrum. He was, for instance, part of Bobby Allison’s Daytona 500-winning team in 1988 as a shock specialist, and during his years as a shock tech rep and business owner he cultivated relationships with drivers, car owners and crewmen in not only the Dirt Late Model division but big-block modifieds, sprint cars and short-track asphalt racing as well.
“There’s gonna be a lot of people who are really gonna be saddened by Mike’s death,” Mark Richards said matter-of-factly.
People like veteran Dirt Late Model racer Chub Frank of Bear Lake, Pa., who as a kid watched Farr race at Stateline Speedway in Busti, N.Y., and Eriez Speedway in Hammett, Pa., and later counted Farr as arguably the biggest influence on his emergence as a full-time race car driver who now boasts a resume that includes crown jewel victories (World 100, North-South 100), four STARS series titles and more than a decade of regular national touring series competition.
“When he went to Carrera (for his first stint with the company from 1984-94) it was big for me to have Mike on my side,” Frank said on Saturday while competing at PPMS. “When I was running them shocks and working with him, he got me hooked up with a lot of people. He knew a lot of people. We used to go to the PRI (Performance Racing Industry trade) show and he’d take me around and meet all these different people. I mean, it worked great for getting product sponsors, especially with people who wanted new stuff tried.
“And then he did PR stuff for me for quite a while (during the ‘90s into the 2000s), and he was instrumental in getting me that Lester Buildings deal (in 2004) — the biggest sponsorship I ever had. He was very good at just dealing with people. He could pretty much talk to anybody.
“Pretty much everything I did career-wise, for quite a while, was what he did for me,” he added. “If it wasn’t for Mike, I probably wouldn’t have done what I did over the years. He knew a lot of people in the industry, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.”
Frank, 54, didn’t use Farr’s Genesis Shocks in recent years, but his friendship with the thin, mustachioed Farr remained. There’s no doubt that Frank will miss the phone conversations — some interminably long, he noted with a smile — he had with Farr over the years.
“He was kind of quiet in a way — he’d just hang around and watch (at the track), make sure everything was getting done right,” Frank said. “But Mike, he was easy to talk to. You could have a conversation with him for two hours on the phone if you weren’t paying attention. A lot of times I’d look down at my phone and see how long we’d been talking and I say, “Mike, holy s---! I gotta go back to work!’”
Frank’s cousin and teammate, Boom Briggs of Bear Lake, Pa., held Farr in equally high esteem. The 45-year-old driver grew up watching Farr race against his father on the Stateline-Eriez circuit and became close to Farr once he became a shock company rep. Briggs’s best memory of Farr is standing alongside him on the winner’s stage at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, after Frank won the 2004 World 100 with Briggs turning the wrenches.
“He did so much for me when I first started racing too,” Briggs said, “and I still believe he’s the one who put Chub on the map.”
To honor Farr’s memory, Briggs said both he and Frank will do something special with their cars for this weekend’s $100,000-to-win Rhino Ag Dirt Track World Championship presented by Optima at Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park.
“Me and Chub will have a nice tribute for (Farr) on both cars,” Briggs asserted. “It’ll be especially relevant to the people who saw him in the ‘70s and ‘80s racing at Stateline and Eriez.”
Briggs and Frank won’t be the only drivers who salute Farr at the racetrack this weekend. Two of his biggest supporters, Robbie and Max Blair of Centerville, Pa., will certainly show their respect for Farr when they enter the ULMS-sanctioned Fall Classic at McKean County Raceway in East Smethport, Pa.
“The Blairs, they’re really indebted to Mike,” Mark Richards said. “I talked to Max today and he said, ‘This is really gonna be a change for us because he did so much to help us.’ ”
Max Blair’s Facebook post reacting to Farr’s passing on Saturday morning was, for many people, the first time they became aware of the news. Sadness was evident in the written words of the 26-year-old driver, who has developed into a prolific Super Late Model and Crate Late Model winner on the western Pennsylvania circuit.
“Today is a very sad day for the racing world — and especially my team and family,” Max Blair wrote. “We lost a friend, supporter and a great person. I wouldn't be anywhere close to where I am in my career if it wasn't for Mike’s help and support over the years. I owe so much to him for everything he has done for me. No words can explain how appreciative I am.”
Farr also played a role in the advancement of Josh Richards, doing PR and marketing work for the young driver that helped open some doors that gave Josh chances at NASCAR pavement racing.
“He was Josh’s first ‘manager’ and made a lot of connections for us early with the pavement stuff,” Mark Richards said. “Mike knew a lot of people. He knew a lot of people in a lot of forms of motorsports that you probably didn’t realize that he knew. We’d walk in that (Sprint) Cup garage and he knew a lot of people.”
Farr even served as a conduit to bring Mark Richards and NASCAR star Tony Stewart together for some Dirt Late Model racing.
“The first Dream Josh went to (at Eldora in 2005) Josh won’t the heat race,” Mark Richards recalled. “Tony was standing with Mike and he said, ‘Whose kid is that?’ Mike said, ‘That’s Mark’s kid.’ Well, then Tony said, ‘Tell Mark to call me.’ Us getting together with Tony was kind of a Mike Farr-push deal.”
Farr’s talent as a PR and marketing rep wasn’t to be taken lightly as well. Lucas Oil Series director Rick Schwallie noted how much he learned about that aspect of the sport from Farr.
“Back when I was just a photographer and becoming an official (in the ‘90s with the STARS series) I got to know Mike pretty well,” Schwallie said at PPMS. “He would call and we’d talk for a long time on the phone — he was a hard guy to get off the phone with — and showed me a lot about how to take care of a sponsor. He did a lot of PR work for Chub Frank back in those days, and, me being a photographer, he would buy a lot of pictures from me to use for promotional stuff. Chub was our (STARS) champ at the time, and I just saw a lot of ways how Mike was promoting Chub as our champion as well as taking care of Chub’s sponsors.”
More than anything, though, Schwallie had great respect for the passion Farr held for racing — Dirt Late Model racing in particular.
“His heart was in Dirt Late Model racing the whole time,” Schwallie said. “He was always a big supporter of the STARS series … and, even now, he didn’t support our series as a sponsor, but he was always supportive of what we were doing. I’d see him at the trade show and he’d always have some insight to tell you.
“Every day he got up and wanted to do better for Dirt Late Model racing,” he added. “Whatever side of the fence he was on, it didn’t matter. That’s what he wanted to see. There ain’t a lot of people out there like that, and Mike was one of those.”
Farr is one of those guys whose absence from the Dirt Late Model scene will be noticed.
“I knew Mike for 30-some years and it’s just sad to say he’s gone,” Mark Richards said, shaking his head. “I’m gonna miss him. I mean, he would’ve been the first one texting me after the race tonight to congratulate us on winning.
“He was a great guy and a huge race fan as well as a manufacturer of a product. He loved the sport more than anybody. That guy loved racing, and he loved to talk racing — and truthfully, that’s all he did.”
Ten things worth mentioning
1. I asked Chub Frank to relate one of his favorite stories about Farr. He didn’t need much time to think of one that brought a smile to his face. “We were talking to him about this not that long ago,” Frank said. “We were at Cedar Lake (Speedway in New Richmond, Wis.) one year and got wrecked a little bit and the front end got shoved up. We come in the pits and Mike was in there helping. You gotta see it because it was funny as s---. When I stopped, Mike jumps up on the front of the damn car to knock it down — his whole 108 or 110 pounds — and it shot him off the car onto the ground. It was hilarious. I was in the car because I was going back out and I just started laughing. He was giving it his all, but with the 100-and-whatever pounds he weighed, he didn’t move that nose. The car kicked his ass.”
2. Schwallie offered a memory of Farr as well. “One thing I always remember about Mike is talking to him on the phone when he was at home and hearing his birds (cockatoos) squawking in the background,” Schwallie said with a smile. “The first time I heard them I was like, ‘Mike, what’s that?’ Those things were loud.”
3. One of the many pictures on Farr’s Facebook page is a shot his wife Bobbie snapped of him standing alongside a young Jeff Gordon early in Gordon’s NASCAR Busch Series career. Bobbie Farr wrote a neat back story to the shot on her Facebook account, noting that her husband knew Gordon as a up-and-coming teenager and “got him hired in a winged sprint car owned by Stan Shoff.” She added with an “LOL” that, of course, Gordon “got fired (by Shoff) and replaced by Frankie Kerr (who raced Shoff’s No. 23s for years before becoming a NASCAR crew chief).” Gordon’s release by Shoff — after crashing twice in as many nights as a 16-year-old in 1987 — was famously the only time in Gordon’s fabulous career that he got the ax from a car owner.
4. Entering PPMS’s Pittsburgher for the first time since 2013 brought back memories for Brian Ruhlman of Clarklake, Mich., who was an annual participant in the half-mile oval’s marquee event during the early- to mid-‘90s when he lived in Youngsville, Pa. The 46-year-old spoke fondly of his first attempt at the Pittsburgher in 1991, when he was a rookie Dirt Late Model racer running an ’88 Swartz car for … Chub Frank. “He gave me one car, one motor and some spare parts and we went racing,” Ruhlman said. “I missed qualifying for the Pittsburgher by one spot, but we won the Eriez championship that year.” Ruhlman, who has finished as high as sixth in the Pittsburgher (1994), didn’t qualify for Saturday night’s main event.
5. Ruhlman raced at PPMS with a prototype left-side seat extender on his car, a contraption he said in an Oct. 5 DirtonDirt.com story that he was convinced to develop after last month’s death of Ohio racer Shane Unger in a heat-race accident at Eldora’s World 100. His removable left-side head restraint, which effectively creates a full containment seat for bigger guys like him, received plenty of attention from pit-area observers.
6. Eric Wells of Hazard, Ky., raced to an 11th-place finisher in the Pittsburgher 100 one week after scoring a $3,000 victory in the Oct. 1 Ironman Mountain Championship-sanctioned Halloween 30 at 201 Speedway in Sitka, Ky. Apparently the 27-year-old driver had some extra incentive to claim his first win since a World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series triumph on April 28, 2013, at Duck River Raceway Park in Wheel, Tenn., courtesy of his 4-year-old daughter Nylla, who watched her dad race from the pit area for the first time. “We won the heat and she said, ‘Daddy, did you get a trophy?’ ” Wells said with a laugh. “I told her, ‘No,’ so I guess I had to make sure I won the feature for her.” Wells came through for his little girl. “I got her that trophy,” he said. “It’s in her bedroom on her nightstand now.” Wells’s father, David, was happy to see the affect his granddaughter had on his son. “I told him, ‘If you’re gonna keep winning races like this, she’s gonna have to come more often,’ ” David said.
7. Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., competed at PPMS with a pink number and accents on his K&L Rumley machine in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Davenport’s car owner, Lee Roy Rumley, said his team decided to add the pink to the car in support of his wife, who has battled breast cancer, and Longhorn Chassis rep/Dirt Late Model racer Justin Labonte’s wife Miranda, who was diagnosed with the disease this year.
8. Lucas Oil Series events are a no-drone zone, so when one of the flying unmanned aerial vehicles was spotted flying over the PPMS track and pit area on Saturday night the action was halted to find the drone’s operator. On two occasions — during the fourth heat and after the feature’s four-wide pace lap — racing was held up until the drone was removed from the sky.
9. There weren’t too many racers that hung out in the PPMS pit area last Friday night due to the rain that washed out the scheduled Pittsburgher 100 qualifying program, but those who did stay outside periodically got some comic relief from watching people attempt to walk cross the oval’s extremely slick third turn on their way to the backstretch parking lot. It was like a slow-motion ballet as the brave souls carefully inched up the banking, slid down and then repeated the process until finally reaching salvation on the other side — not always without muddy pants.
10. Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., didn’t waste any time loading up his team’s hauler and heading for the pit exit after finishing seventh in Saturday night’s Pittsburgher 100. He had to hit the road to make a six-hour overnight haul to Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway, where he was scheduled to start from the outside pole in Sunday afternoon’s big-block modified Bud Light 200 after locking himself into the Northeast-based division’s marquee event through time trials last Thursday. Driving a modified from the Sweeteners Plus Racing team’s stable that was campaigned throughout the 2016 season by his teammate Vic Coffey’s son Kyle, McCreadie nearly pulled off a $50,000 victory; he was leading the race with eight laps remaining when Stewart Friesen slid past him to assume command and march on to the checkered flag. Though McCreadie spun with a deflating tire one circuit after losing the top spot and made a pit stop, he rallied to salvage a fifth-place finish worth a respectable $6,000.