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Phillips Needs To Be In Hall: Sooner The Better

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 21 2013

Larry Phillips won a few races during his time behind the wheel. Many at I-70 Speedway in Missouri. (Photo courtesy of RacinBoys.com)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rusty Wallace likes to talk. And when he gets going, he can say a lot of things in a short amount of time. Separating the nut from the shell takes a good ear when listening to Rusty go.

It was during one of those go-times 10 years ago, sitting in the lounge of Wallace’s hauler at some NASCAR track for some race, that he said something that stuck.

The subject of racing in Missouri came up and then the name of Larry Phillips. “Best driver I’ve ever seen,” Wallace said.

“Better than…”, he was asked.

Before the rest of the question could be asked, Wallace blurted, “Yep, the best.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the racing world will see if the voting panel for the NASCAR Hall of Fame agrees with Wallace. Phillips, it was announced earlier this year, has been placed on the ballot for the 2014 class at the Hall. His will be one of 25 names on the ballots handed out to voting panel members at the Charlotte Convention Center.

To many fans around the country who are, say, under the age of 30, and/or who don’t live in the mid section of

Larry Phillips was a racer's racer. On Wednesday, his name will appear on the NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

the United States and/or who don’t really follow weekend short-track racing, the nominating of Phillips to the NASCAR Hall may seem odd.

Phillips, a native of Springfield, Mo., and who died in 2005, never won a Cup race. He bothered to enter only one Cup race, actually. And, he said, never really followed Cup racing.

But racers – many of whom did/still do drive Sprint Cup cars – followed Phillips. His skill, personality and numbers demand that.

The numbers include an unequaled five NASCAR Weekly Series championships (1989, ’91, ’92, ’95 and ’96).

They include 226 victories in 308 starts in the Weekly Series.

Though virtually impossible to verify, they include what some believe to be over 2,000 short track victories in his career.

On the intangible side, many drivers – some famous and some obscure – remember Phillips for being the toughest of the tough. He was one hardened racer (“racer” used here as the ultimate compliment a fan or driver can pay a wheelman).

Another racer talked about Phillips recently.

“Anyone who raced against him will remember him,” Mark Martin. “He was unique. He was fast, won lots of races and beat a lot of people with slower race cars. That says a lot about him.”

Martin actually worked for Phillips; at Phillips’ Performance Parts in 1975 just after high school graduation.

“The first day I was there Larry threw out a bunch of steel on the workbench and he told me to build some upper A-frames,” recalled Martin. “I really couldn’t weld. But I tried. I don’t know if he could have ever sold them, but I did them.”

Martin worked on Phillips’ race cars during the week then raced against him on Friday and Saturday nights. Here’s a little item that Martin learned in the latter role.

“Larry would try every trick in the book and he caught me once when I was a teenager,” recalled Martin. “I was running second to Larry, but so much faster than him. I had him beat. There was a restart toward the end of the race. He was riding around with his hand out the window with a cigarette in it. I had no idea there was one lap to go before the restart.

“He threw the cigarette down and took off and I was not ready. He had lulled me into thinking there were more laps left. He threw it down, jammed the gas and drove off. I didn’t catch him in time.

“He pulled that trick on a lot of other people over the years,” Martin said.

Phillips’ 24th-place finish in the 1976 Ontario Speedway race was his only Sprint Cup appearance. Could he have succeeded on the highest level?

“I think so,” replied Martin. “But, Larry was only going to do it on his terms.”

James Ince, who had served as Phillips’ crew chief for many years before he himself moved up to Cup, was asked why his old boss never made it to The Big Show.

Simple, Ince said. Didn’t want to race in Cup. Didn’t want to because Larry Phillips did not like putting up with bullshit. Wouldn’t put up with it.

Phillips cared about driving and winning. He didn’t care about money or fame or trophies.

Especially trophies, as it turns out. Ince, a fellow Springfield dude, tells of the time when Phillips told him he needed more room around the shop. So, Phillips told Ince to haul a load of some of his trophies to the dump.

Ince says he filled up a large trailer with racing trophies and carted ‘em all off the the local landfill.

Only racing and winning matted to Phillips during his driving days.

Word is, that changed late in Phillips’ life. With cancer closing in, and his friends and former competitors becoming increasingly concerned, a couple of them decided to honor Phillips. They knew he had long wanted a Harley-Davidson soft tail. So, Wallace and Mark Martin and a couple others chipped in and bought Phillips the bike.

It was going to be presented to him on the down-low during racing at the wonderful old dirt track at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia.

I got invited down and went. When the mushy presentation stuff ended and the racing started, I sidled up to Phillips as he stood on a truck watching hotlaps in the dying sunlight of a hot Missouri day.

Phillips didn’t much like reporters. There was considerable awkwardness as I tried to get a quote or reaction from the man in the low-hung jeans, old cotton shirt and well-worn boots. His eyes never left the racing. Figured it was a lost cause and turned to leave. Just then, the hot-lap session ended.

“OK, whatcha want?,” Phillips said. Lesson learned. When cars were on the track, talk was put on hold.

Several locals hanging around Kansas Speedway during the NASCAR weekend there a couple weeks wanted to know Phillips’ chances of getting into the Hall. The thought here is; probably not this year. Voters have been all over the board when it comes to short-track drivers with big numbers. Richie Evans got in a couple years ago. Jerry Cook, who has been on the ballot the past several years, has not.

Those hesitant to vote for drivers like Cook and Phillips have said that there are just so many nominees with big numbers in Cup that need to go in first. Then there are those who say it is essential to get the short-track superstars into the Hall as it is they who laid the groundwork for the superstars.

Both views are valid. As with the last four classes, I will make up my mind on whom to vote for during Wednesday’s meeting of the voting panel. Really want to hear what people like Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Bud Moore have to say.

But I firmly believe that Phillips will get into the Hall some day.

Has to happen if the NASCAR Hall of Fame wants to continue to be considered a shrine to the greatest of American stock car drivers. Because Phillips, it has been said, may have been the greatest of them all.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 21 2013
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