Legends Like Archer Part Of Racing’s Dusty Past
The ongoing debate over who should be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame is healthy because it causes people to think about who their heroes – racing and otherwise – really are.
For many, their racing heroes aren’t the Pettys and Pearsons of NASCAR. They’re the short track racers they watched every Saturday night at tracks across America.
Around the Atlanta area, in the 1970s and 1980s, dirt tracks were king, and the Late Model drivers were the top stars. They didn’t get near the recognition of drivers elsewhere when it came to national magazines, so local folks were left to wonder how their heroes stacked up against the big names from the little tracks elsewhere.
The formation of the National Dirt Racing Association answered those questions. Robert Smawley’s trail-blazing circuit, with its big purses and even bigger promotions, drew the best dirt racers in the country, and its first championship went to one of the Atlanta area drivers – Leon Archer from Griffin.
Archer and Chevys numbered 222 had been winning big for years at local tracks like Dixie Speedway, Senoia Raceway, East Alabama Motor Speedway and Rome Speedway. But once the NDRA came along, the rest of the world got to see what the Atlanta folks had been seeing for years.
It’s been years since Archer drove a race car, and he’s not big on promoting himself at old-timers functions, so his place in history could be considered somewhat of a question mark by some. But for those who watched him race, there’s really no doubt.
In his many years as a racing executive, NASCAR president Mike Helton has seen a lot of race drivers
When he was employed at the track now known as Atlanta Motor Speedway, he spent a lot of Saturday nights in the pit areas of the short tracks around Atlanta.
He even raced a car at Senoia Raceway a time or two before he realized that his career prospects in racing were better if he was in the control tower instead of behind the wheel.
In his dirt track days, Helton got to watch the top drivers of the day, men like Archer, Roscoe Smith, Mike Head and Ronnie Sanders.
More times than not, when Helton was in the pits at Senoia, Archer and his burgundy Chevrolets left the track with the fattest envelope.
So how would Helton size up Archer and his career?
“He was a legend, I thought,” Helton said. “He was one of those guys that convinced you to be a fan of the sport. He brought people into the community.”
Helton said that drivers like Archer played as important a role in the growth of NASCAR as some of the Cup circuit’s star drivers. “They brought fans into the sport, and those fans became part of the NASCAR fan base,” he said.
Helton remembers Archer as a tough competitor who got no pleasure in settling for second place.
“He was a winner-take-all kind of guy,” he said. “He was a lot like some of the guys on the Cup level today. To them, winning is everything, and that’s good. That’s what makes racing entertaining.”
In Archer’s time, he was as serious about racing as Cup teams are today. While many a
racer let his car sit untouched until about Thursday afternoon, Archer was getting a leg up on them. For him, dirt-track racing was his full-time job.
But it didn’t start out that way.
Like many others around his hometown of Griffin in the late 1960s, he was drawn to the races at nearby Zebulon Speedway, a track that recently reopened as a go-kart track after being idled for nearly 40 years.
In 1968 or so, Archer built a 1955 Chevrolet and ran his first race at Zebulon.
“It was just something to do on Sunday,” he said. “Me and a boy that worked for me bent some pipe, stuck it in there and went racing.”
Archer’s wife Sandra recalled the announcer commenting that Archer covered as much of the track as the water truck that first day.
It wasn’t long before Archer was venturing out, running at tracks in Newnan and Cumming, among other places. As he did throughout his career, Archer often chose to take on the toughest competitors he could find instead of settling for the more sure money around home.
“I picked up more when I went off to different race tracks,” he said. “About the third time I went to Cumming I did really good. The next weekend, a lot of boys I had been running with at Newnan came up there, but they didn’t come back.
“You had to get on with it up there.”
Archer was one of those drivers who enjoyed working on his own car, and figuring out how to make it run faster, as much as he did driving it.
“If you try something and it didn’t work, put it back like it was,” he said, adding that the key to winning, then and now, lies in hard work. “Some of the drivers in NASCAR have
got more skill than anybody, but they still have trouble winning. A man can be on top this month, and next month can’t find his way around. You have to keep working.”
During his racing career, Archer’s work week started early Monday morning. By Monday night he’d have his car in pieces, trying new chassis ideas and making sure it was ready to race. When he left for the race track, every bolt was secure and every adjustment checked and rechecked. Nothing was left to chance.
Sandra Archer remembers times when her husband would have his car ready to race at Rome Speedway on Sunday night and then the race would be rained out. Still, he’d unload the car and go right back to work on it Monday morning.
“I’d say, ‘I though you were ready to go last night,’” she said.
But her husband didn’t see it that way.
So did he consider himself a more serious racer than his competitors? “I guess so,” he said.
By the late 1970s, Archer was one of the dominant drivers in the Southeast, but when Smawley started the National Dirt Racing Association and began offering thousands more in prize money than the average Saturday night track, Archer was among the drivers who began following the circuit, once again giving up the relatively sure money around home to test his car and his skills against the nation’s top dirt racers.
“I never had run for $10,000 to win,” he said. “After I ran with them a time or two I felt like I was right there with them, as good as they were.”
It was on the NDRA circuit that Archer scored what he considers the biggest win of his career. It came at Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 1979.
“We went over there with Firestone 125 tires,” he said. “We didn’t even carry any extra tires. We weren’t used to wearing out a set of tires.”
The caution flag was thrown at Lap 50, offering drivers a chance to change tires. The local Goodyear rep furnished Archer a set of asphalt-type slicks.
“I was running about third when they stopped us,” he said. “We put those Goodyear slicks on, and I hadn’t ever had anything like that before.
“It was like a train on the tracks, all you had to do was mash the accelerator.”
Archer won the NDRA championship in 1979 despite having his race car and ramp truck stolen from a motel parking lot prior to a race at Atomic Speedway, an incident that seems to bother him even decades after the fact.
“I don’t know how to explain that,” he said. “At first I thought somebody was pulling a joke.
“It was rough. They took everything I had. I was in the points lead. We had to build up a new car.”
Archer’s truck showed up at Atomic one weekday morning, but his car was never recovered intact, and no one was ever found to be responsible.
“I always had my suspicions but nothing I could prove,” he said. “I spent several days looking around up there.”
A few years later, he did find the old chassis.
“I was at Atomic driving for Barry Wright,” he said. “A boy walked up to me and said, ‘I think I wound up with some of your car.’
“Sure enough it was the chassis. But I never could find out anything else.”
Among the challenges Archer took on in his career was the World 100 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, the premier dirt race in America.
His best finish was a second in 1979. He said he liked both the track and its long-time promoter, Earl Baltes.
“He was strictly down the line,” Archer said. “He didn’t favor anyone. I liked that. And he didn’t take anything off anybody.”
When Archer was chasing the NDRA circuit and running races like the World 100, he continued to race close to home when he could. As always, he sought out the strongest competition.
Rome Speedway on Sunday night was his kind of place. Throughout the years, Rome has drawn a strong field of cars and drivers for its Sunday night races, when most tracks are idle, and it was at Rome that Archer scored many a memorable victory.
“They’d really fall in up there on Sunday night,” Archer said. “They had a hornet’s nest up there.”
In the early 1980s, Archer was headed to Rome for one of those hornet’s nest showdowns when the valve that switched gas tanks on his ramp truck malfunctioned just outside Griffin, leaving the engine starving for fuel even though one tank was full.
Archer eventually rigged up the system and hit the road again, arriving at Rome after Late Model practice has been completed. He started his heat race from the rear of the pack and was working his way forward when a tire went flat. He then started the feature from the rear and stormed through the field to take second place at the finish.
One of his crew members that night observed that, all things considered, second wasn’t bad given the obstacles that were overcome.
“Nobody cares who runs second,” Archer shot back.
In the latter stages of Archer’s career, he drove a car owned by Bill Plemons and Charles Prater and won nearly every time out. Those who were around at the time figure he won more than 30 races in less than 40 starts in that car.
Archer agrees it was a big winner.
“We won everywhere we ever went with that car,” he said. “It was like the one that got stolen. You could do something small to it and you’d know it. Some of them you can jack around on them, and it doesn’t do anything.”
By most accounts, Archer raced for the final time in the late 1980s, driving a car owned by Ricky Williams. He started on the pole and finished second at Seven Flags Speedway in Douglasville. Then he basically dropped out of sight.
“I’d go to a race and get to missing it, so I stayed away,” he said. “I’ve been to maybe a half-dozen races and a very few old-timers meetings. I don’t even take any racing magazines or anything.”
A visit to his home in Griffin gives no indication that a racing legend lives there. There are no trophies to be seen, nothing from his storied career on display.
“Some of them are upstairs,” he said of his trophies. “I guess they’re still up there.”
The only real evidence is that he still has that competitive streak. At age 71, his focus has shifted to the motorcycles he rides.
“He’s the same way with motorcycles that he was with his race cars,” Sandra Archer said. “He wants to have the best one, the fastest one.”
Archer is in the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame, having been inducted back in 2003. But there are plenty of people in the sport, including Mike Helton, who feel he deserves much more.
“Guys like Leon Archer and Mike Head and Roscoe Smith and Ronnie Sanders are legendary,” Helton said. “They all belong in a Hall of Fame somewhere.”
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments