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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Mayor Barnett decides to call it a career

March 29, 2017, 6:37 pm

The first thought that crossed Steve Barnett’s mind after he underwent surgery to repair the T-5 vertebra he fractured in a wild, flipping accident last Oct. 1 at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway was, naturally, when he would return to the cockpit of his Dirt Late Model.

Barnett might have been a thoroughly beat-up 59-year-old after the vicious crash, but the Franklin, Ind., resident certainly wasn’t ready to let it end his long, distinguished driving career.

“The accident happened on Saturday night, I got operated on Sunday, and when the doctor came in (later) Sunday after I got woke up I said, ‘Am I gonna be able to race again?’ ” Barnett recalled some five months after the wreck. “They told me if I follow their instructions and go through physical therapy I’ll be just fine, so my immediate thought was, I’m going to race again. I didn’t lay there and feel sorry for myself.”

Earlier this month, of course, Barnett, who turns 60 on April 18, did announce his retirement from competition. He made sure to stress, though, that it was for personal reasons — specifically, his ascension to the mayor’s position in his hometown of Franklin following nearly a decade of political activity on the City Council — rather than any physical or mental problems resulting from the crash.

“I ended up with two titanium rods and eight screws in my back,” Barnett said. “However, I want you to know that had nothing to do with me retiring. I actually waited until the doctor told me that I was released (from physical restrictions) and cleared to race before I announced my retirement because I didn’t want to give people the wrong impression that I retired because I was hurt. That’s not it.

“It was just the right thing to do,” he continued. “I had several people around town who were worried about my well-being as the mayor, and I just thought if people wanted to put faith in me to be the mayor of a city with 25,000 residents, then I wanted to show them my sacrifice to do that since I was gonna step away after this year anyway.”

In the immediate aftermath of Barnett’s accident, there would seem to have been plenty of cause for Barnett to stay out of the cockpit for good. When he regained consciousness following his back surgery and his wife of 39 years, Jeannie, and the couple’s two daughters were in the hospital room, the extent of his injuries — he also had two black eyes, a broken nose and a broken collarbone — produced a reaction from his family that left no doubt what they thought Barnett should do.

“They all wanted me to retire from racing,” Barnett said. “They’ve all lived at the racetrack, and they’re just like the citizens in Franklin — they’re worried about my well-being. I mean, that was a pretty good scare for my family. It wasn’t for me because I knew I was gonna be alright, but it was for the family.

“The doctors told me that I was just a few centimeters from being a paraplegic, so at that time, of course, you wake up in the hospital and my daughters and wife are there beside me crying … that was pretty dramatic.”

Barnett doesn’t deny the magnitude of the wreck, which saw his Rayburn Race Car barrel-roll several times on the opening lap of a heat race and come to rest on its roof off Brownstown’s wall-less first turn after he was sandwiched between a car that slid high and another following him. It didn’t shake his racing resolve, however, because he felt he might have escaped none the worse for wear if he had utilized all of today’s safety precautions.

“If you watch the tape and see all the still photos of it, it was a pretty violent crash,” Barnett admitted. “I’ve been racing 40-some years and I never remember a driver in Late Model stuff getting helicoptered out (for injuries) at a race I was at. They actually took me out in an ambulance but they put me in a helicopter and took me to Indianapolis (to St. Vincent Hospital). I don’t remember a whole lot of it, but whenever I watch it it kind of brings back what was happening when it was happening. It was nobody’s fault … it was a racing accident.

“I should have been using more safety equipment,” he continued. “I’ve always been an old-school guy. Like with the HANS Device (head-and-neck restraint) — I never liked wearing one. I didn’t have window nets. I didn’t have a full-containment seat because I was just kind of old-school and felt I never needed it. I had a headrest, but I had the minimum safety equipment, and there was stuff out there that could’ve been better and if I would’ve had that stuff I don’t think my injuries would’ve been like they were … probably just bruises and a little sore.”

Barnett ended up with significantly more injuries, but two days after the accident he was already well on the road to recovery. That day his good buddy Tony Stewart — the three-time NASCAR Cup champion who drove a Barnett-prepared Dirt Late Model in selected events for the better of a decade beginning in 1997 — visited Barnett for several hours and energized his friend.

“Tony Stewart comes in and before he leaves he makes me get up out of bed and starts helping me walk around a little bit,” Barnett remembered. “He really did … he said, ‘I’m not leaving here, buddy, until you get out of bed.’ I think he’d been there for about four or five hours and I was tired of hearing him, so I said, ‘OK, alright, I’m gonna try to get up.’ Then he and another one of our friends, they got me up, and I walked around the room a little bit. I laid back down and Tony said, ‘The next time you get up it’ll be easier,’ and it was. Tony’s been through (a back injury) and he come back to race, so he told me what to expect and what I needed to do along with the physical therapy people.”

Now, as racing season has arrived, Barnett has no doubt he’s in good enough shape to get back in a Dirt Late Model if he wanted to. He’s not, though, because of a momentous turn of events away from the track.

“My back’s feeling good, and quite honestly, if you saw me and you didn’t know I had a bad back injury, you would never know it,” Barnett said. “Everybody is amazed that they can’t even tell I was hurt. I got good movement … you just can’t tell. The doctor actually told me that if I wanted to come back in a year they could take the rods out of my back. They didn’t recommend it unless it got to bothering me, but as of right now I don’t even feel them there.

“I think the desire of wanting to come back and race, that’s what healed me up so fast,” Barnett commented. “I think I had the mindset that I was gonna come back and go in a race car, but then, in January, I’m just starting to get back to normal, and that’s when I got the call that our mayor was stepping down and I knew right then that it was my opportunity to try and get that position. It kind of changed my life again … I had a real good job with Miller Pipeline (as area manager), so I knew it was time to retire from that and retire from racing.”

Eight-and-a-half years after being elected to a position on Franklin’s City Council at Large and then becoming steadily more involved in the town’s political scene — winning two more City Council elections, becoming the Council’s president and serving on the Board of Works with Mayor Joe McGuinness — he found himself named interim mayor in early January when McGuinness resigned after being appointed by Governor Eric Holcomb to be commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation. Shortly thereafter, on Jan. 30, Barnett was chosen to become the new full-time mayor by a 14-7 vote in a special Republican caucus and went to work serving out the remaining three years of McGuinness’s term at a salary (according to the Franklin Daily Journal) of $80,000 per year.

Barnett’s new job provides him a challenge very much like racing did.

“Quite honestly, it does,” said Barnett, who plans to run for re-election in 2019. “I haven’t heard anybody ask me that, but it does fill that need. You have that desire to be a good mayor, be a mayor that people remember, just like you want to be a good racer, so it gives you that competitiveness to do the best you can.

“I have found out that there’s a lot more time involved than you could imagine. It’s not just an 8-to-5 job … it seems like it’s 24-7. You get phone calls at home, you get all different stuff every day, different subjects. I’ve always been a multi-tasker with having a business and being involved in politics and racing, but this job keeps me busy.

“Fortunately, we have good city employees,” he continued. “We have department head meetings once every two weeks to talk about strategies: How do we take care of this, how do we take care of that … this person has complained about this and can we get it addressed? We kind of vet all the out. Learning a city is just like learning a business … probably even more so, because you have to be very conscious of what you do with taxpayer dollars. You may be a little more risky with your own dollars, but when it’s taxpayer dollars you’re pretty conservative on what we do and make sure we take the right approach — at least I am.”

Barnett might have never envisioned himself becoming the Mayor of Franklin while working his way through the Dirt Late Model ranks after launching his driving career in 1975, but his personality and sensibilities fit the position. He was, after all, the veteran go-to guy to represent the competitors at the track.

“I was never called the ‘Mayor’ in the pits,” Barnett said. “But I do believe that, as the years went on, other drivers looked to me to be the spokesperson at, like, drivers’ meetings, or to talk to track owners about rules or talk to track owners about how they do the track. I mean, there’s a lot of drivers who would come to me and say, ‘Could you go tell this track owner this, or this track owner that?’ I was always the one who was able to take that role and do that. Sometimes it worked out good, and sometimes it didn’t.

“I guess I just have the right kind of personality (for politics),” he added. “You know, I always looked at being a racer as like a showman — it’s ‘showtime’ whenever you go to the racetrack. That’s what we’re there for, to entertain, and I think over the years I got better at being, let’s say, a more fan-friendly person the older I got. I realized that the fans were what we there to take care of.”

Barnett certainly cultivated plenty of fan support during his four decades behind the wheel. He authored a resume that ranks him as one of the top Dirt Late Model drivers to hail from the Hoosier State, winning more than 200 features (highlighted by 50 Brownstown victories that place him behind only Jim Curry, John Gill and Don O’Neal on his long-time home track’s win list) and 22 track and series points titles, including six Northern Allstars Late Model Series crowns, four championships at Brownstown (tied for most all-time with Curry) and multiple titles at Indiana’s Twin Cities Raceway Park in Vernon, Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville and Whitewater Valley Speedway in Liberty.

What’s more, Barnett was victorious on at least a half-dozen different current and defunct Dirt Late Model series, including the NALMS (10 career wins between 1998 and 2005); UMP DIRTcar Summernationals (’95 at GLV Raceway in Owensboro, Ky., and ’96 at Barren County Speedway in Glasgow, Ky.); STARS Renegade Series (’93 at Twin Cities); UMP Outlaw Nationals (’97 at Vermillion County Speedway in Danville, Ill.); Sunoco American Late Model Series (’97 at Brownstown); and Battle of the Bluegrass (’05 at Brownstown). He also won twice during Georgia-Florida Speedweeks (back-to-back NALMS wins in 2000 at Thunder Cross Motorsports Park in Okeechobee, Fla.) and made multiple crown jewel starts, including the Dream three times (top finish of second, in ’97), the World 100 three times (eighth in ’82 and ’91), the North-South 100 five times (fifth in ’91) and the Dirt Track World Championship four times (11th in 2002 at Bluegrass Speedway in Bardstown, Ky.).

In a career with so many checkered flags, so many trophies, so many memories, Barnett quipped, “It’s really hard to pick one that stands out.”

“There’s just been so much stuff that happened,” Barnett said. “I remember things like winning the Kentucky Klassic down at Glasgow, Kentucky (in 1994) … many wins at Brownstown Speedway … going to Pennsboro and running in the Dirt Track World Championship (he started the race at the legendary West Virginia track in 1985 and ’93) …  running the STARS series (he was the tour’s rookie of the year and finished sixth in points in ’93) … racing with Tony Stewart, who everybody knows is one of my sponsors and one of my friends, at racetracks like Terre Haute (Ind.) when I won he Tony ran second and then at Findlay, Ohio (Millstream Speedway) where he won and I run second, those are good memories right there … and just running with guys like Jeff Purvis and (Jack) Boggs and Billy Moyer and Kenny Brightbill and Larry Moore, and local guys like Don Hobbs and Ray Godsey and Paul Crockett …

“I mean, it goes on and on,” he continued. “To say that I got to do all that and I was still racing up to this past year … that’s pretty amazing. I’ve seen a lot of guys come and go. I’ve seen a lot of young kids who are gonna be the next Tony Stewart or the next Jeff Gordon, and they get real aggressive, they tear up a lot of stuff, they run out of cash and they don’t make it. Man, 40 years, that’s a lot.”

There were also some moments that remain ingrained in Barnett’s head because of races that got away, none more memorable than the 1997 Dream at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. He finished second to a young Jimmy Mars of Menomonie, Wis., in a 100-lapper that is famous for the Scott Bloomquist-Bill Frye tangle at the front of the pack and Frye’s subsequent caution-period drilling of Bloomquist.

“I remember running about eighth or ninth and coming around and I see Frye up in the wall,” said Barnett, whose runner-up finish earned him a career-high payday of $20,000. “Then I see him chasing after Bloomquist and running over Bloomquist. I know Bloomquist got back out on the track and I think he was leading and I was about third or fourth, and then I seen Bloomquist pulling into the infield so I’m smiling ear-to-ear because two of the best cars were just taken out.

“I can’t remember how we got to the end there, but I knew Jimmy Mars and I were racing pretty hard (for the lead) probably for 20 laps. Everybody remembers the winner, but they didn’t remember that we ran door-handle to door-handle and I didn’t get into him and he won the race. If I wanted to be that dirty guy, if I wanted to be just a little bit more aggressive, I could’ve got into him and won the Dream, but that just wasn’t really me.

“I’ve probably been accused over the years of being a dirty driver, but in my mind I never thought I was a dirty driver. I thought I was a clean driver, and I thought I was the type of guy who said, ‘If you race me clean, I’ll race you clean. If you race me dirty, I’ll race you dirty back.’ ”

And there was Barnett’s many close-but-no-cigar outings in Brownstown’s annual Jackson 100. He has started his home track’s marquee event more times than any other driver (27), but he never was able to reach victory lane. He doesn’t dwell on that missing achievement, though.

“Quite honestly, I’m not really upset with the fact that I didn’t get it,” said Barnett, who finished second in the Jackson 100 three times (’82, ’92, ’03) and and recorded four other top-five placings. “It just didn’t happen. You can only do what you can do, and I’ve had a great career so I can’t be unsatisfied. I am satisfied.

“I’ve won big races before. I’ve won Summernationals races, the Kentucky Klassic, races in Illinois. I’ve won a lot of races, so you can’t just say because you didn’t get one that you’re disappointed in your whole career.

“Would I have liked to have won the Jackson 100? Well, I think anybody that’s ever been to Brownstown Speedway wants to win the Jackson 100, but everybody can’t do that. It just worked out that way that I didn’t. I think there was one night I led about 80 laps and (Pennsylvanian) Kenny Brightbill ended up winning (in ’85). There was the time my dad’s car won (in ’82) with Russ Petro driving, and I led several laps in that race, too, and finished second. It just didn’t work out. It’s just the way it us.

“I’ve always thought I could’ve won more races than I did win,” he concluded. “But I was the type of person that, if my car was a fifth-place car, I ran fifth. If I had a 10th-place car, I ran 10th. I didn’t try to take a fifth-place car and try to win. I tried to beat the racetrack and I tried to race within the means of what my car was, so there’s a lot of nights I ran second — I’ve probably got more seconds than anybody in the world if you counted ‘em up. It was just my style of driving. I didn’t tear up a lot, and it kept me racing all these years. I was able to afford it.”

After so many years fielding his own team, Barnett has a mountain of equipment in his shop to liquidate, including a race-ready MasterSbilt Gen-X Crate Late Model, six engines, his Freightliner toter home and trailer and assorted spare parts. He estimated he has over a quarter-million dollars of “racing stuff” to sell off.

Once Barnett’s garage is empty, his retirement will become even more real. He can handle the hole in his life, though.

“It’s one of those things where it really is sad for me to quit,” Barnett said. “It was hard to say that. It’s really tough to say, ‘I’m retired.’ Around home here, a lot of people know me from racing cars and a lot of people talk to me about racing cars. It wasn’t the fact that I owned a business that had 75 employees in my hometown … everyone remembers me from racing.

“Racing has been very good to me. It’s helped me get to places, opened up doors for me, but like I tell people, ‘There’s more to me than racing,’ although racing’s a big part of my life.”

Barnett doesn’t plan to disappear from the racing scene, but he knows it won’t be easy to watch Dirt Late Models flying around Brownstown or anywhere else and not have the urge to be out there as well.

“Well, I’m gonna try to be a fan, and the reason that is, I’ve sold some cars and motors to some guys over the years and I want to try to go watch them,” said Barnett, who later this year will be honored with a Steve Barnett Appreciation Night at Brownstown during a Sept. 22 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series event the evening before the Jackson 100. “I think I’ll be able to do it and be OK with it, but I don’t know until I see the first race. I mean, I made more Jackson 100s than anybody else, but there’s been times I did not make the race, and if I did not make the race it was really hard for me to sit there and watch it. I even left before it was over before.

“But I still want to go and be a fan because I love dirt track racing. I can’t just walk away from it even if I’m not racing.”

Ten things worth mentioning

1. Barnett’s association with Tony Stewart goes back two decades to when the future NASCAR Cup champion was beginning to emerge on the national scene. “Tony was about 18, 19 years old, and he was driving for a guy by the name of Glen Niebel (in USAC sprint car and Silver Crown competition),” Barnett recalled. “Glen Niebel built my motors (at his Niebel Engineering shop in Edinburgh, Ind.) and he told me about this kid he knew that I should put in my Late Model. He said he’s really good. Well, we had a (UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned) race at the Indy Fairgrounds on the mile track (in 1997) … of course, a mile track is hard on motors, so I told Glen, ‘You know, I’d really like for him to drive my car, but it’s hard on my motor on that track.’ He said, ‘Well, if you tear the motor up, I’ll rebuild it for you and it won’t cost you anything.’ So we put Tony in the car and, quite honestly, I blew my motor up and Tony ran (fourth) to Billy Moyer that day.”

2. Stewart didn’t let his pairing with Barnett become a one-and-done deal. While he was driving an IndyCar and beginning his NASCAR career, “Tony called me up and just asked me if he could help me,” Barnett said. “I thought that was awesome, and we built our relationship from there on. Tony’s a great guy … he’s helped guys in midgets and sprint cars and go-karts, and I think people see to this day that he’s still trying to help people that need a little bit of help to go do stuff. He’s just a super person, he gives a lot to charities … he’s been a great friend all these years.”

3. For most of Barnett’s career he was close with legendary chassis builder C.J. Rayburn, who lives just 3 miles from Barnett, and drove Rayburn-built cars. “I was racing dirt cars (in the ‘70s) before C.J. started building cars, and back then Late Models were like Chevelles and Novas and Camaros,” Barnet said. “They were kind of like street stocks and stuff nowadays — put rollbars in ‘em and beef up the suspensions. Well, my dad (Jim) took C.J. to a race, and a few weeks later C.J. came to my shop and said, ‘Boy, you’re a pretty good worker. Me and you could build a race car and we could kill all these guys.’ So C.J. built a real light race car. I think my car weighed, I don’t know, 4 or 5,000 pounds, and C.J. built like a 2,000-pound race car, and we started racing with each other. I think early on in my career I had a head-start on people because I had that good, light car that could beat people. Then they started catching on, and that’s what got C.J. going (with new ideas).”

4. Here’s Barnett on Rayburn and the impact the 77-year-old had on his racing career: “I just describe him as very innovative. He’s forward-thinking, and he just has a passion to race. He is a racer’s racer, and he was pretty instrumental in teaching me how to be dedicated about racing. If you’re gonna be a racer, you’re gonna be dedicated. These guys who want to go out, have somebody work on their car and just show up at the racetrack … they’re not racers. Racers are people who are dedicated and they sacrifice, and C.J.’s one who sacrificed, I’m one who sacrificed. C.J. helped teach me all that stuff.” Barnett paused, and then added, “I tell people that I was raised by Jim Barnett, my dad, he was like a Bobby Knight (the former Indiana University basketball coach), and C.J., he was like a Gene Keady (Purdue University’s basketball coach). It was like IU and Purdue, here in Indiana. I had to put up with both of them, but that was a good experience. They both really helped me.”

5. When asked about Rayburn’s 2017 house car program with Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio — who drove his new Rayburn mount to a $5,000 victory last Saturday night at Mansfield (Ohio) Motor Speedway — Barnett asserted that his old pal still has some success left in him. “I know what C.J. is doing with Rusty there, the kind of car that they’re putting together, and it’s a good car,” Barnett said. “And Rusty’s got some good knowledge and C.J. has the ability to come back if he wants to come back. I think C.J. does what he wants to do, and he didn’t want to get back and sell 200 cars a year anymore … I think he wants to go out with a few good drivers, enjoy life, and I think this year everyone will see. C.J.’s legacy should live on. He’s the one who took it from real heavy cars to the light jig-built cars, and they’ve all stayed with that same idea that C.J. came up with back in the ‘80s. He’s tried to innovate stuff, and sometimes he’s innovations were good and sometimes they were bad, but he’s always been forward-thinking and always trying to improve.”

6. Considering that Rayburn lives so close to Barnett, I couldn’t help checking with Barnett on whether Rayburn in under Barnett’s jurisdiction and will have the opportunity to vote for Barnett in the Franklin mayor’s race come the 2019 election. “He’s not,” Barnett said, “but he’s called me and told me that he’s very proud of me. I may not get his vote, but I guarantee I got his endorsement.”

7. While it certainly helped, Jason Covert of York Haven, Pa., didn’t need his back-to-back victories in last weekend’s season openers at Potomac Speedway in Budds Creek, Md., and Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway to put himself in a great mood. His physical condition in the wake of off-season hip-replacement surgery already had him in a wonderful place. “I feel so good,” said Covert, who was born with a degenerative hip condition that caused him to walk with a pronounced limp and left him knowing he would eventually need a hip replacement (he had his left hip replaced in November and will have his right hip done later this year). “I’m very blessed and lucky to have a surgeon who did such a great job. It’s the best thing I ever did — I cannot wait to get the other one done. Actually, I was just counting it today — it’s right around seven months and I’ll be prepping to have that done.”

8. Covert noted that it actually took him a couple races to get himself “feeling comfortable again” with his new hip, but that’s just a sign of how dramatically the surgery changed his everyday condition. “It’s a drag on you,” he said of the chronic pain he experienced before the hip replacement. “You don’t realize it until it’s gone. I mean, it was like a toothache times 10,000. Now I don’t have that constant pain. I can stand and talk to guys, I can walk around the pits. One guy said to me he couldn’t believe I could hop in-and-out of the car like I do now. I’m in such a better place personally now because you don’t have that pain on you every day. I definitely have a better attitude — well, I don’t know if my wife and daughter will agree, but for me, I’m just better. It’s fantastic. There’s no words enough to describe the difference.”

9. Veteran racer Ryan Markham of Ashland, Ohio, and his wife, Lora, spend the racing off-season closely following their hometown Ashland University’s women’s basketball team. Last Friday night, however, the couple had to split up as the end of the hoops season matched up with the start of Ryan’s racing campaign. It turned out to be a very memorable evening for the Markhams — as Lora sat in Columbus, Ohio, witnessing the Ashland girls complete an undefeated 37-0 season with a 93-77 victory in the Division II national championship game, Ryan was at Attica (Ohio) Raceway Park kicking off 2017 with a triumph in the track’s UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned Super Late Model feature. While Ryan wasn’t physically with his wife at the Division II national championship game, his heart was certainly in Columbus. Underneath his racing suit at Attica, he wore his Ashland University Elite Eight T-shirt and his lucky purple-and-gold beads.

10. This weekend’s Lucas Oil Midwest LateModel Racing Association season opener — the Spring Meltdown doubleheader at I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb. — will boast a mixed qualifying format. For Friday night’s $2,000-to-win show, passing points will be used to set the feature lineup. On Saturday, meanwhile, every competitor will draw for a heat-race placement and then hot-lap/qualify to earn starting positions in their prelims. According to MLRA assistant series director Ernie Leftwich, the mixture of passing points and hot-lap/qualifying is for I-80 only; MLRA will utilize the hot-lap/qualifying combination for the remainder of the season. “Two years ago we tried A-B group qualifying (like the Lucas Oil Series and World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series) but the tracks were unable to handle that many laps with all combined classes (scheduled on race nights),” Leftwich commented. “Last year we went back to just passing points and no qualifying.”

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