Pedley: McMurray Win Stirs Memories of Legend
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
One of the first things that flashed through my head after Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag at Daytona on Sunday was a mental image of Larry Phillips. It was an image which evoked both happiness and hollowness.
People who know racing, know of Phillips. Those who don’t know of Phillips, ought to.
Phillips was a driver out of the Springfield area of southern Missouri.
He was a rough and edgy driver back during the days when drivers had to be rough and edgy to keep their cars right side up. Sometimes they had to be rough, tough and edgy just to collect their winnings from promoters.
And Phillips, he was almost always in line at the pay window after races. The man stood alone when it came to driving stock cars.
The legend of Phillips – and that is what Phillips is in the Midwest, legendary – was humanized for me for the first time during a chat I was having with Rusty Wallace. It was in Wallace’s hauler at a track some where in the late 1990s. The tape recorder and notebook were stashed when the talk turned to Phillips.
The best driver ever, Wallace said with absolute conviction about Phillips.
Really, I replied. Better than, say…
The best, Wallace said, cutting me off. Ever.
Before chalking that up to Wallace hyperbole, ask Mark Martin who he thinks the best ever was.
Then check the numbers. They’re startling. And check the hardware. What’s left of it.
One day, when he decided he needed more room and fewer memories, Phillips asked a friend to cart some of his race trophies off to the dump. The trophies filled a good-sized trailer.
The reason not all of today’s fans know of Phillips is simple – he never opted to move up to NASCAR’s premier divisions. He spent his days making dang good short-track drivers look dang bad.
I asked James Ince, a former Cup crew chief, former Phillips crew chief and a great friend and confidant of Phillips that very question one day.
Ince, a bit of maverick himself, laughed and then said it was because Larry Phillips could not stand – would not stand for – the BS that can pile up so deeply in NASCAR.
Phillips had more crust on him than week-old French bread. Interviewing him was a challenge. One time he got sick of questions I was asking him and hung the phone up on me.
But watching him race was a joy for fellow racers and spectators alike.
And brother, did he ever love those fellow racers. He took many of them in the Midwest under his crusty wing. Wallace, Wallace’s brothers and Martin among them.
He also took Jamie McMurray, from neighboring Joplin, under that wing.
The love went both ways. His name came up several times in chats with McMurray and always in a reverential kind of way.
The last time I saw and talked to Phillips, it was in Sedalia. Early 2000s. It was at the wonderful old dirt track that sits on the state fairgrounds.
I believe it was for a World of Outlaws race – I’m not sure as there were things going on more important than the racing that weekend.
Rusty had suggested that I be there as he and several other Cup drivers, including Martin, had something cooked up for Phillips, who at that time had been diagnosed with cancer.
During a break in the action, Wallace presented Phillips with a new Harley that he and Martin had bought. A soft-tail as I remember.
Everybody cheered, drivers attempted to hug Phillips and it was just a great racing scene.
When the racing resumed, I sidled up to Phillips to talk as he stood in the infield as a spectator. As usual, he was more interested in the racing than reporters. I talked, he stared straight ahead at cars going around in circles and occasionally issued short responses.
Finally it was me saying, well, see ya Larry. And him saying, Yep.
I would talk to Phillips ust one more time. It was to set up an interview with wonderful sports writing ace and good friend, Joe Posnanski, who is now with Sport Illustrated. Not long afterward, in 2004, cancer did what very, very few race car drivers could do. It took down Larry Phillips.
The story which Posnanski wrote is still floating around out there on the internet somewhere. It was named national sport writing’s story of the year by Joe’s peers after it was written. I come across it on occasion and re-read it. It’s incredible.
When I do read it, I get that great/sad feeling I got when Jamie McMurray broke down in Victory Lane after winning the 2010 Daytona 500.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment