That day, however, there was a storm brewing in the sand hills of North Carolina, particularly the town of Rockingham. At the North Carolina Motor Speedway, there was going to be a race, but not any race in particular. That day there was going to be the debut race for the Buck Baker sanctioned National Pickup Truck Racing Association (NPTRA), the first series of its kind.
The premise of the series was simple: a cost-effective matter for drivers to graduate from the Buck Baker Driving School and get real experience while also being a ground for other drivers to race. The series attracted Driving School graduates Steve Sigurdson, Doug West, and George Pultz among the drivers entered in the first race.
The plan was to run 10 races as a premise and hopefully sell the series to NASCAR. Pete Keller, a former NASCAR official, served as an official for the series. The series was not even going to have points racing or a champion: it was just to test a concept, and one that had not been tested before.
To cut down on costs, the trucks were going to be built around pre-1981 NASCAR Winston Cup cars with 115” wheelbases. The teams were to take off the Winston Cup sheet metal and replace it with the sheet metal from an actual pickup truck. Trucks used in the series included GMC, Chevrolet, Dodge, and Ford. Under the hood would be a 364cc motor. To reduce speeds, Buck had the four-barrel Winston Cup carburetors replaced with two-barrel ones. To further cut the costs, Buck also arranged for teams to be able to get the Winston Cup 358cc engines so that the teams could re-bore them to 364cc.
The truck Randy Baker drove in the series was the original series prototype. Built around a GMC pickup and a car formerly driven by Richard Petty, Buck Baker himself put it all together and that truck now lives in the Memory Lane Auto Museum in Mooresville, North Carolina, along with other trucks from the series.
One driver who ran this series was Bobby Fleming. For my purposes, I called the Fleming Paint and Body Shop in Danville, VA. I was a bit surprised when Bobby himself answered the phone. Bobby ran two races at South Boston Speedway last year at the young age of 73, and he finished in the top-5 in both of them! As he said: “I just wanted to see if I’d lost my nerve.”
[caption id="attachment_5212" align="alignleft" width="300"] Bobby Fleming's truck that he raced in Buck Baker sanctioned National Pickup Truck Racing Association and in the Moroso Performance All-Pro Pickup Truck Series.[/caption]
Bobby was there for the NPTRA’s first race. In fact, he was there for every race the series ran. He took a different approach, building his truck out a late model stock car instead of a Winston Cup car and inserting an engine that used to belong to Richard Childress from when Richard was still a driver.
Saturday, June 4, 1983, was an important day as qualifications for the All-American Pickup Truck 200 took place. Only six drivers got a timed lap in as Bobby Fleming won the pole at 126.161mph ahead of Randy Baker (GMC), who ran a 124.445mph. The other qualifiers were Doug West (Chevrolet) from Salisbury, MD, at 123.772mph, George Pultz (Dodge) from Stuartsville, NJ, at 122.040mph, and Steve Sigurdson (Ford) from Charlotte, NC, at 114.807 mph. On race day, there would be 9 trucks on track.
On Sunday afternoon, 6,500 spectators (some say 5,000) watched the field of 9 take the green flag to get the series underway. The race immediately settled an early battle between Bobby Fleming and Randy Baker for the first 10 laps before Baker got the advantage. Fleming then dropped back to 5th to conserve his tires in the June Carolina heat as Tom Usry took 2nd.
As the race went on, the clouds rolled in, cooling the track off. Slowly, Fleming worked his way back up to 3rd behind Baker and Usry. As the drivers started the 92nd lap, rain began to fall in turns 1 and 2, and all three contenders lost control, slamming the wall. Fleming was fortunate, however, that he didn’t damage the suspension and was able to get going again; he was surprised to come off turn 2 onto a dry backstretch. Entering turn 3, he found it was raining there too! Fleming lost control again and spun, getting passed by Randy Baker as the drivers raced to the start finish line where the red flag was awaiting.
During the delay, Fleming worked hard on his truck to bang out what were mostly dents. He then assisted Randy Baker and then Tom Usry with fixing their trucks. During the two-hour rain delay, the crowd held strong. Buck Baker was quoted in an AP interview as saying “As hard as it rained and as long as it rained, you keep watching the parking lot, and as long as nobody goes home you know you got a good show. The fans were extremely happy with the show.”
When the race went green, Ferrel Harris, in a Dodge built by Ed Negre, seized control for 10 laps. After that, Bobby Fleming took the lead and went to the checkered flag. As he said in my interview with him, “I didn’t know if I was going too fast or too slow because there was no one around me.” In his victory lane interview, Fleming said, “I told my crew if we could win this first race, we’d go down in stock car racing—I mean truck—history. It’s hard to say truck instead of car.”
For Bobby Fleming, it was his only victory in the series. However, the results were strong as Buck Baker found a sudden interest by tracks all over the country wanting his series to race at them. Buck was able to add tracks to the schedule such as Hickory Speedway before the next planned race at Atlanta.
Over the course of the year, Tom Usry dominated winning at least 4 of the 11 races that actually took place, including winning a 125 lapper at Caraway Speedway flag-to-flag in a field that had nearly 20 trucks. During the season, Bobby Fleming finished no lower than 6th, but if there had been a champion, he says it would have been Usry. Fields grew to over 20 trucks by the season’s end.
At the end of the year, Buck Baker proposed a sale to NASCAR, who turned down Baker’s offer. Instead, Buck sold the series to Bob Harmon’s All Pro sanctioning body who got sponsorship from Dick Moroso, renaming the series to the Moroso Performance All-Pro Pickup Truck Series for the 1984 season.
During the season, 10 races were held all over the Southeast, and drivers like Fleming, Doug West, and Steve
Sigurdson returned for the second season while new drivers affiliated with All Pro came into the series as well. The series made some changes, allowing the offset chassis used in the All Pro stock car series to compete as well. These chassis were much lighter and more nimble, giving them a large advantage over the NPTRA drivers. Drivers with the All Pro trucks included Freddy Fryar, Ed Howe, Mike Brown, and Billie Harvey, with Fryar winning 8 of the 10 races and the championship.
The series continued to attract big names, however, as in the race at New Asheville Speedway on July 10, Freddy Fryar had to pass Bobby Allison to win the race in a field that also included Tommy Houston. Allison was driving a truck built by Kenny Kuhne and Robert Hamke. The best any of the NPTRA drivers did was two 3rd places by Bobby Fleming.
The race at Jefferson, GA, proved to be interesting as Freddy Fryar won ahead of Billie Harvey, Bobby Fleming, and Doug West. In post-race inspection, Fryar was found to have an illegal carburetor; as a result, the officials went to Harvey to give him the win should his truck pass inspection. The officials found the same kind of carburetor in Harvey’s truck too. Next they found Fleming, who simply told the officials: “I bought my carburetor from the same place they did!” Doug West, however, had already left the track along with everyone else. As a result, the finish stood.
At the end of 1984, Bob Harmon was battling some medical issues and had to, for the time, hand the series over to others, who axed the truck series. This was the end of what was born as the National Pickup Truck Racing Association under Buck Baker’s auspices, but this was not the end of the story.
The truck driven by Randy Baker was used at the Buck Baker Driving School for several years before finding its current home, the Memory Lane Racing Museum in Mooresville, NC, and that museum may have other trucks from the series. Bobby Fleming’s truck sat in his shop in Virginia for 10-12 years before winding up at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Museum in Talladega, AL.
For the drivers involved in the original truck series, it was a worthwhile time, though. These men became the pioneers of pickup truck racing in the United States, a sport that continues to this day.
I thank the following people/groups for their help in this endeavor: Billy Biscoe, Mike Sykes, Dennis Andrews, Chase Whitaker, Bobby Fleming, Memory Lane Racing Museum, Harvey Tollison, Dave Fulton, and Robert Patterson.