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I raced, too: Buddy Arrington

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by Anthony Hager
July 24, 2007

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Buddy Arrington
Ken Noffsinger

It’s July 31, 1965, a relatively mild summer evening at the old half-mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Off the fourth turn a familiar Plymouth charges to the checkered flag, winning the Nashville 400. It’s Richard Petty’s first win in 9 months. Finishing second is the point leader and eventual Grand National Champion Ned Jarrett.

On Sunday, May 6, 1979, the Winston Cup competitors gathered at the 2.66-mile Talladega Speedway for the Winston 500. Bobby Allison survived a 20-car wreck on the race’s fourth lap and drove Bud Moore’s Ford to victory with Darrell Waltrip finishing second. What could possibly link these two races, separated by more than 14 years and 80 mph in average speed?

Believe it or not, there’s a common thread. Buddy Arrington finished third in both races. They would be the best finishes of his 25-year career. In fact, by Buddy’s own account that Winston 500 was the best race he ever ran.

Buddy Arrington’s NASCAR career rose from the youthful desire to go fast. He made his first Grand National start in December of 1963 at Speedway Park, a half-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Florida. He finished eighth that Sunday. But the 5000 fans in attendance will remember it not because of Buddy Arrington’s first race. They will remember it as the day Wendell Scott became the first and only black man to win a race at NASCAR’s highest level.

Such would be the case for Buddy’s 25-year NASCAR career. Even on his better days, the spotlight shone elsewhere. That didn’t, however, blunt Arrington’s desire to race or his loyalty to the Chrysler brands. Perhaps it’s fitting that they rode together when all others left the fold.

Overall, Buddy Arrington started 560 NASCAR races and completed 147,899 laps. He may not have been on the point that often, but you didn’t have to look at the rear of the field to find him. Buddy posted 103 career top ten finishes and placed 15th or better in Winston Cup points 7 straight years between 1977 and 1983, including a career best seventh in 1982.

Despite the lack of checkered flags, no one questioned Buddy’s ability. “He ran a clean shop, as efficient as any big money operation,” said Will Pannill, marketing director for the former Pannill Knitting Co., Buddy’s last sponsor. Buddy knew the situation, and himself, better than anyone.

Throughout his career, and even now, he never doubted that he could’ve won races driving for a better financed team. But Buddy was determined to drive and operate his own way. “I’m just too independent,” he says without apology. He never considered a full-time ride in another man’s car.

Arrington’s equipment failed him at times, but he rarely failed his equipment. Crashes sidelined his entry only thirteen times during his career. However, wrecks are a fact of racing, and when they found Buddy they left a lasting impression.

At the 1969 Firecracker 400 Cecil Gordon’s Ford broke loose on Daytona’s long backstretch, forcing Buddy to take evasive action. Hoss Ellington’s Mercury slammed Arrington’s Dodge and then collected Bobby Allison. Ellington and Allison suffered only minor injuries. For Buddy, the price was several cracked ribs.


Buddy Arrington and his #5 Dodge Daytona
Ken Noffsinger

Daytona’s backstretch would again prove unfriendly in 1970’s 500-miler. A cut tire veered the #5 Dodge Daytona into a viscous rendezvous with the outside wall. Buddy suffered rib injuries, again, and a ruptured spleen in what he remembers as the worst wreck of his career.

Every driver feels the pain of an accident. But for the owner-driver that pain extends to business, too. When there’s no factory support or deep-pocket sponsors the shops aren’t filled with disposable race cars. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t unusual for an independent to arrive at the track wondering where he’d get his next set of tires. Buddy was no exception to the rule. But what he lacked financially he made up for with friendly volunteers.

Unsung volunteers contributed to every owner-driver’s operation. All were appreciated, but there’s always a few who stand out above the rest. At Arrington Racing those standouts were Sam, “Sis” and Brenda Leash, and Jim and Phyllis Willard. Buddy recalls their contribution as, “a big part of us making it as long as we did.” Not only did they help with the car on race weekend, they also prepared meals for the other crewmembers. And keeping people fed was a major expense for Buddy.

Arrington found another ally in California businessman Bob Switzer. It would prove one of the best associations of his career. Packing up and heading West wasn’t a cost-effective choice for independent drivers. So when the Winston Cup Series traveled to Riverside and Ontario, Bob would provide the car, crew, and place to stay. Switzer, himself a former Winston West driver, would even qualify the car before turning it over to Buddy on race day.

Considering that Arrington favored a Dodge, often painted in some combination of blue and red, the most natural connection is with Petty Enterprises. The Pettys sold extra parts to Arrington Racing, and often provided used parts without charge. They obviously impacted Buddy’s operation materially, but he remembers them as more than business associates. “Richard and Maurice are good folks,” he says, “they helped any way possible.” In fact, it was Maurice who helped Buddy’s son Joey, current president of Arrington Engines, get started in engine building.

The Petty-Arrington relationship was close, and it sparked the most controversial moment in Buddy’s career. Petty was the class of Dover’s Delaware 500 in 1975, but problems put the King several laps behind. With 20 laps remaining and Richard needing a caution Arrington’s car stalled twice, the second time bringing out the yellow that led Petty to victory lane and losers to crying foul. Buddy had recently bought a truck from Petty Enterprises, and competitors claimed the caution was part of the payment plan. He remembers the incident differently.

“No deals,” says Buddy, who blames a seized steering box for the incident. NASCAR parked Arrington for the rest of the race. But later on both Bill France and Bill Gazaway investigated the matter and found no conspiracy. The truck, STP logos intact, still sits in Buddy’s basement. And if anyone wants to re-visit the ruckus, well, Buddy has a canceled check for the hauler’s full price payable to Petty Enterprises.

Arrington flew the Chrysler banner long after other teams had abandoned the cause. But the parts stream would slow to a trickle, and eventually dry up. On lap 50 of the 1985 Budweiser 500 at Riverside, California, an oil problem forced Buddy from the track. He’d made his last stand for the beloved Mopar.

The new association with Ford brought a new set of allies. Bill and Ernie Elliott filled the role the Pettys had before, making the transition to Thunderbirds a little easier for Arrington Racing. And anything that made racing life a bit easier was enthusiastically welcomed. Several times Buddy was forced to supplement his racing career with other businesses.

He once operated a gas station. Other times found him at work in the used car business. And yes, true to NASCAR’s legendary roots, Buddy Arrington ran a little Franklin County moonshine through the hills of southern Virginia. Only one problem, he got caught!

“I paid my fine and didn’t do it anymore,” Buddy explains. Ironically, that 1970 incident may have been his rite of passage. Buddy recalls a greater level of acceptance upon his return to the garage area. “It seemed like I had more respect, like I was Junior Johnson,” as he puts it.

Buddy’s last start was the 1988 Firecracker 400. He drove a Chevrolet for only the second time in his career, the first being a 1984 race at North Wilkesboro. When he left Daytona he never looked back. Today, Buddy isn’t involved with racing. Even though Arrington Engines evolved from Arrington Racing, the successful business is “Joey’s deal.”

NASCAR has changed since Buddy’s day, for the better in some ways and the worse in others. At any rate, “It ain’t what it used to be,” as he says. When Buddy cut his teeth a hundred dollar bill meant as much to him as a half-million does now. As of the Pepsi 400, 29 drivers have won more money this season than he did in his career. The winnings from his first race will barely buy fans a ticket and a t-shirt today.

Buddy remains in good health to this day. He earns a living in the car business with partner Thomas Hurley and does some landscaping. On the rare occasion that gas prices drop he can be found topping off his reserves. “Saving it is like making it,” according to Buddy.

That’s not bad advice. It kept number 67 circling NASCAR’s top tracks for 25 years.

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