It’s a time of the year when racing champions are formally ushered in along with winter’s cold wind – at least if you live in north Georgia. It’s also a time to stock up on fire wood and bring in the Christmas tree. For quite a few years now, that means heading down to the south side of Atlanta to the Minter farm near a little village known as Inman, located in the gentle swells of Fayette County.
Amid the oak, poplar and piney woods, fellow RacinToday.com writer Rick Minter farms landscaping trees year round, runs fresh vegetables to the local markets in the summer and hosts the Farm Heritage Days in the early fall. (Sometimes it seems as if Rick grows as many vintage tractors as anything else.) Once December hits, the business turns to Christmas trees, as in cut your own.
I always try to arrive at the end of the day as the sun starts to drop below the ridge opposite the farm house. On the broad hillside in the fading light, I searched out a Carolina Sapphire, a bushy tree that exudes the pale blue of a winter’s sunset and the sweet smell of spruce. Once loaded up and as the darkness falls, the talk turns to the subject of short track racing and heroes of yore, one of Rick’s favorite subjects.
For the first time in what seems like a blue moon, I brought up the subject of Butch Lindley, the fabulously talented short track ace out of Greenville, S.C. I don’t know why it should seem like a distant subject, given that I have a framed poster about Butch that I created from newspaper clippings that hangs in the office at my house. I guess I don’t find much occasion to talk about ol’ Clyde, his given name, because there’s always another race, another deadline and so many have passed since the day Butch died.
Also, I suppose I just don’t hang around short tracks like I used to when I worked for the Morning Herald in Durham (N.C.). It was at Trico Speedway (now Orange County) that I met Lindley, even-tempered, friendly and as approachable as any winning driver could be, which was helpful to a rookie reporter. There was a quiet charisma behind a soft drawl, which made him more credible than some of the usual braggarts. The son of a used car salesman, he offered such lines as “smiling like a horse eating briars” and was always quotable.
At 5-foot-seven, blond-haired Butch was short but tough, physically or otherwise. I remember him telling me his dream was to win a 200-lap race in the furnace-like heat on the short track at Huntsville, then get out and jog a victory lap just to demonstrate who was not only the fastest but strongest.
On the track, Lindley had a reputation for racing hard and clean – unless you gave him a reason to do otherwise. He believed in paybacks, but not the wrecking kind. “I don’t see why drivers get so mad at each other,” he said during his reign as the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman champion. “They get in front of 10,000 people and spin each other out and tear up equipment that cost more than most people make in a year. A lot of fellows try to outdo the other driver. I just try to drive my race.”
At a time when there was a lot of inflation about how many races any star short track driver might have won, Lindley had taken checks to the bank from nearly every major short track on the Eastern Seaboard and had won close to 200 major features by the age of 31. (I know because I eventually became his PR guy and reviewed his private records. From 1975 through 1980 alone, he won 154 races at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks in 385 starts – more victories than any other NASCAR driver in that six-year span.)
When I first moved to Atlanta in 1979, I had just won the top feature writing award from the National Motor Sports Press Association and a guy by the name of Dick Berggren called me to ask if I would write a story for his magazine, Stock Car Racing.
He gave me a list of three names that included Lindley and I quickly committed to writing about Butch, who was not only a two-time NASCAR champion but a guy I knew to be easily approachable by my experience in Durham. Typically, he was easy to reach by phone and invited me to go to the races with him if I drove up to Greenville. So I ended up in the family station wagon along with his daughter Tonda, son Mardy and wife Joan. We were headed for Caraway Speedway near Asheboro, N.C. With Butch doing the driving and answering questions, I sat in the front seat taking notes. That night, he raced against Harry Gant and Richard Petty, who was making a rare short track appearance in a Late Model event, among others.
Afterward, I rode back to Greenville shoulder-to-shoulder with the crew in the cab of the flatbed hauler. By the time I rolled back into Atlanta on Sunday morning, the sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon. Long before the term imbedded reporter was invented, it was as if I had been a de facto crew member for Lindley for just about 24-hours.
At the time, I was no longer writing regularly about motor racing after leaving my newspaper job and instead was selling printing and graphic arts. Looking for a way to stay connected with racing, I eventually signed up to help Butch land sponsorship that he needed to move to the Winston Cup Grand National Series, as it was then known. With the aid of a friend who had just launched what is now a very successful sports marketing company, the Championship Group, we came close with a pitch to the Mello Yello brand manager at Coca-Cola. But ultimately Butch concentrated on racing his way into the Winston Cup.
In a car owned by Emanuel Zervakis, Butch was leading at Martinsville in the spring of 1982 when Harry Gant, a lap down, spun him just as a caution flew. Driving the Skoal Bandit, Gant sped past, unlapping himself, and eventually won the race, his first victory in the Grand National ranks.
By entering selected events, Lindley was trying to follow the same path to the superspeedways from the short tracks as Gant, Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Bill Elliott had done at the time – race well enough against the established stars to draw the attention of a Grand National team owner or a major sponsor. In the meantime, he was winning major short track features such as the All-American 400 in Nashville and running Bob Harmon’s hot new All Pro circuit, where he won the title in 1984. If Gant had not started a regular schedule in the Winston Cup until the age of 39, there was plenty of time for a physically fit guy like Lindley.
It had been said quite frequently that Butch was scared of the superspeedways, a knock that may or may not have had some accuracy. Scratch any guy who stayed on the short tracks without ever trying to go to the Daytona 500 and you’d find a driver who knew the difference between 80 mph and 180 was significant. In the case of Lindley, he tried to break into the business of racing on superspeedways by taking the best path available to him – selected short track races against the best in the business in equal equipment. He told me that if he didn’t have a car capable of winning, he didn’t see the need to race in the Winston Cup events on the superspeedways.
It was during an All Pro race at the 3/8-mile Desoto Speedway in Florida in 1985 that a broken suspension put Butch into the wall on the last lap of a race he was leading. Had it been any other person, the effort to save him at the hospital from a closed head wound might not have ever taken place, so hopeless were the circumstances. As it was, Butch’s relative fame preceded him and everything was done to save him. He was put on a respirator but remained in a coma – for five years.
Through my association with Butch, which provided both incentive and expenses to go to the racetrack, I had been able to make enough connections to get started as a free-lancer, writing features for magazines and regularly reporting for a publication called On Track. I had given Butch a good link to a marketing company for the sponsor search and the job of writing and distributing press releases gradually faded away as I gravitated back to journalism.
In effect, Butch helped me bridge the gap from a newspaper writer to a full-time racing writer via a part-time job, which occasionally included helping out as a sounding board. Butch had a notebook about three inches high that was jammed with phone numbers and there wasn’t a driver or official in NASCAR who didn’t know him.
He was fond of calling people to seek opinions and I was flattered when he would occasionally call to seek my opinion on such things as whether he should take an ARCA ride at the Talladega Superspeedway in an era when there were many horrific crashes in the understudy series. (Butch told me NASCAR’s competition director Bill Gazaway had discouraged him from taking the ride, because even with the best equipment a bad pit stop could put him in the middle of the pack where it would be hard to control his own destiny. He eventually declined the offer.)
During the coma years, I visited his wife Joan on occasion and sent checks annually to a fund in Butch’s name. When son Mardy started racing, I looked him up at one of the Georgia short tracks to see how he was doing. Eventually you lose touch as the rhythms of life carry on, although I can’t drive through Greenville without taking notice of the White Horse Road exit that led toward Butch’s house.
In the back of my mind, there’s always the question. Would I have ever found a way to continue in motor racing without the genuine good ol’ boy friendliness of Butch Lindley? Then I’m usually reminded of one of his comments during that drive to Asheboro when I first got to really know him.
“I want to win a lot of races and make everybody happy,” he had said. Only Butch could deliver a line like that and make you believe it was entirely possible.
Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.