by: PattyKay Lilley
If you’ve been around NASCAR racing for quite some time, then you might be familiar with the name Waddell Wilson, engine builder, transmission specialist and crew chief… sometimes all at the same time. If you haven’t been around that long, then please allow me to tell you more of a man that became a cornerstone of the sport of stock car racing… back when racing was fun. Trouble is, engine builders seldom seem to get much if any credit for their huge contribution to all phases of racing. Those mechanical beasts wouldn’t move at all, were it not for the engines that power them. Waddell built the engines!
His is, I suppose, a rather typical story of the early personalities in racing. Waddell was born back in the closing days of 1936, in the mountains of North Carolina in Bakersville, (NOT Bakersfield… that’s in California) up in Mitchell County, northeast of Asheville. Growing up, he was one of those boys that others follow, winning a record amount of merit badges from the Toe River Council of the Boy Scouts of America, shining brightly as a high school basketball star and all the while making good grades and acing every shop project on the curriculum.
College followed high school… Nashville Auto and Diesel College to be exact, before taking a job building motors for Cummins Diesel down in Miami. He and wife Barbara married in 1961 and remain that way to this day. They now make their home in Huntersville, NC and have raised four children, Gary, Greg, Lisa and Freddie to adulthood. That, of course, is the personal side of the life of Waddell Wilson. In the intervening years, he was more than a bit busy with the automotive side of his life as well.
“Ever since I was a little kid, all I ever dreamed about doing was being around cars and dreaming about flying a fighter plane in the Air Force, but when I was eleven, the mumps settled in my left ear, leaving it deaf, so I knew my hope of flying was out. This left me with cars. In high school at Bakersville, I hounded ol’ George Young into giving me a part-time job just so I could be around cars. To tell the truth, I had to learn to fix ‘em ’cause I didn’t have the money to pay someone else to tune my own.”
While in Florida, Waddell did try a bit of racing on his own, running the dirt tracks at Hialeah, Palmetto and Hollywood, and later running some stocks and modified cars as well. Though he ran well as a driver, his skill as a mechanic shone even brighter and it was in that field his life would continue. Meeting Ralph Moody in 1963 and accepting a job back in Charlotte with the Holman and Moody race shop, building engines for the new Ford Factory teams was what Waddell described as a “dream job” and it proved to be only the beginning of a stellar career. He recently described his first day on the job at Holman-Moody, saying that it began at 8:00 in the morning and ended at 10:00 at night, while paying the princely sum of $1.50 an hour to start.
While there, he built engines for such luminaries as Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Dick Hutcherson, Mario Andretti and of course, David Pearson, whom he helped to win two Grand National Championships, in 1968 and 1969. One race he recalled fondly was the 1967 Daytona 500 in which Waddell worked as part of a crew that included Ralph Moody and (Suitcase) Jake Elder, for a car driven by Mario Andretti of IndyCar fame. The car was set up to Mario’s liking, though the crew thought he’d taken leave of his senses. “We thought he was a wreck waiting to happen. I have been going to races for more than fifty years, and I have never seen a driving performance like Mario put on that day.” Only two cars finished on the lead lap that day. The other? The other Holman-Moody entry, driven by Fred Lorenzen.
Getting Waddell to talk about his days at Holman-Moody… or any other time, for that matter, can be tricky. When asked recently about his thoughts on dealing with the media, especially in those early days, a usually slow-speaking Waddell piped right up. “I wasn’t much to being an outspoken person. I just wanted to do my job and stay focused on that. A lot of them, they’d see a camera coming and it was just like a magnet. Me, I went in the other direction.” In light of that, I consider myself more than fortunate to have not only had a chance to speak with Waddell in person, but to have been granted both a phone interview and a radio interview as well, with a promise of another phone interview if needed. I guess in some respects it pays to be old and soft-spoken rather than young, blond, bouncy and bubbly… especially if the interview is with an old and soft-spoken gentleman.
Like any other interviewer, I asked Waddell some of those inane questions which never seem to produce an answer. When asked who might be his favorite person of all those he had worked for or with, instead of giving the usual evasive answer of being unable to pick one out, he answered, “Some of the people that stick out would be John Holman, Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, L.G. DeWitt and Harry Ranier. Those are the people that really helped me through racing.” I couldn’t help but notice that throughout our conversations and what I gleaned from a recent radio interview along with my own research, that the first two names on his list were repeated over and over… Fred Lorenzen and John Holman.
On “The Golden Boy”, Waddell once commented, “Fred gave everything he had to racing. He was very hyper, but smart. I ran around a lot with Freddy and had a lot of respect for him. He didn’t chase women or booze it up. He had a one-track mind…that race car.” That doesn’t surprise me one bit. In fact, it sounds quite like a description that might fit Waddell himself.
On John Holman, he recently said, “I was scared to death of the man, but he taught me so much. He was an amazing man to be around.” Though the team of Holman and Moody was one of the best of the early days of stock car racing, it seems that Holman had a temper every bit as sharp as his ability to put together winning cars. I’ve seen Waddell quoted as telling a tale that had Ralph Moody starting up a car engine in the garage… quite innocently, and not realizing that Holman was on the phone nearby. Holman quickly descended to the shop floor, and using a forklift, picked the car up from the garage floor and deposited it in the parking lot outside. Yes Sir, Mr. Holman Sir! Anything you say Sir!
As good as the Holman-Moody team was, they became dependent on the Ford Factory assistance, and when Ford announced that they would not be returning to NASCAR racing in 1972, John Holman followed suit, announcing that Holman-Moody would not be racing any longer either. Waddell promptly decided that he wanted to continue racing, and left his dream job, carefully making sure that it was when Holman was not anywhere around. “If they weren’t going to race in 1972, I didn’t need to be there. If John saw me packing up, he would have tried to talk me into staying. That’s why I waited until he was out of the building.”
He quickly landed a spot as engine builder with L.G. DeWitt’s small team, which was in the process of switching from Ford to Chevy power for driver, Benny Parsons and crew chief, Travis Carter. The following year would see Waddell Wilson engines carry Parsons’ Chevys to his (Parsons) only Winston Cup Championship. Later, in 1978, Wilson moved to the position of engine builder and crew chief with a team owned by Harry Ranier and Lennie Pond behind the wheel. Pond moved on at the end of the year and was replaced as driver by Buddy Baker, lovingly known as “The Gentle Giant”, but admittedly a hot-shoe from the old school, who knows only one speed… as fast as his right foot will take him.
The 1979 season was fairly successful for the Ranier team of Baker and Wilson, but Ranier wanted more. In a discussion on the upcoming Daytona 500, “Harry told me to do whatever it took, within reason and within the rules, to give Buddy a car he could put in Victory Lane…” Waddell assigned the job to a body and fabricating shop in Charlotte, but oversaw each step of construction on the new car personally. When it was to his satisfaction, “They brought it to our shop, along with the bill. It was $10,000.” Not much to pay for a car these days, but back then, it was much like a $million would be today.
Wilson, thinking he had overstepped his bounds by quite a bit, kept that little bit of news to himself until Buddy had won the Daytona 500 and wheeled the now famous “Grey Ghost” into Victory Lane. Only then did he explain to Ranier that the $100,000 purse would actually only be $90,000. With his car there in Victory Lane, Ranier didn’t care and only smiled. I’ve heard tell that race turned into a gas mileage debate near the end. Wilson instructed his gas man, Buck Brigance to add only one can of gas, but to wring every drop out of that one can. He then spent the remainder of the race trying to impress on his driver the importance of saving gas. The only answer forthcoming from Baker was, “I can’t hear you!”
Ranier and Wilson remained together for the next few years, fielding cars for Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Benny Parsons and Joe Ruttman. In 1983, a new driver entered the fold in the person of Cale Yarborough, a three-time Cup Champion on the back side of his stellar career. Though not wishing to run a full season, Cale’s winning ways were not yet behind him, as he would prove right out of the box. For the 1983 Daytona 500, Cale would qualify in the 8th spot, with a lap of 200.503 mph. That was on the first lap. On the second, he lost the car in turn three, flipped that Monte Carlo and turned it to scrap metal right there on the track. Wilson though, was ready for anything. In a time when a back-up car might easily have been a short track car just tossed on the truck for parts, Waddell brought out a Pontiac LeMans, ready to race. Yarborough won that Daytona 500 and would win again the following year, scoring his fourth and final Daytona 500 win. Little noted in that 1984 version of the Great American Race was the first start and 8th place finish by a brand new team called “All-star Racing”, with a “Yankee” driver named Geoff Bodine and owned by a car salesman named Rick Hendrick. We would hear more of that team.
It was in fact, to that team, then and now carrying the name Hendrick Motorsports, that Waddell moved in 1987, to be paired with a new driver to the Hendrick fold, one Darrell Waltrip by name, fresh from the Junior Johnson team. The new pairing of Waltrip as driver and Wilson as crew chief was billed as “The Dream Team.” Alas, some dreams are indeed nightmares. The two did not hit it off, and I had the decency and good sense not to ask Waddell for details I neither needed nor wanted. Suffice it to say that he moved the following year to the team of Geoff Bodine, replacing the departing Gary Nelson who was headed for bigger and better things as replacement for NASCAR’s long-time “Top Cop”, Dick Beaty. Crew chief Jeff Hammond was brought in to work with the not-so-easy-going Waltrip, with whom he had some experience and success.
In 1992, Waddell moved to the engine research and development department of Hendrick Motorsports, and remained until 2000, when he took a consultant’s position with Jerico Transmissions, where he remains involved today. He rather shyly admits that they confided way back in the Holman-Moody days that he had a special talent for building engines that they had never seen before. Despite brushing aside that remark in an “Aw shucks” manner, you could hear the pride in his voice as he told of it all these years later.
As you can see, his winning record has been with a veritable Who’s Who of drivers, scoring wins with racers such as Fred Lorenzen, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Mario Andretti, Darrell Waltrip, Lennie Pond, Geoff Bodine, Ricky Rudd and a few I’m sure I forgot to mention. He has 109 winning race engines to his credit along with winning 123 NASCAR poles. He has won 3 NASCAR Championships, two with David Pearson in 1968 and 1969 and one with Benny Parsons in 1973, and his engines have won the Daytona 500 seven times.
He was the first engine builder to have an engine exceed the 200 mph mark, when Benny Parsons broke that barrier at Talladega in 1982. That 1980 Daytona 500 won by Buddy Baker’s “Grey Ghost”, custom built by Waddell Wilson, body and engine, remains today the fastest overall Daytona 500 ever recorded, with an average speed of 177.602 mph. Thirty-two years and holding. Nashville Auto Diesel College inducted Waddell into their Graduate Hall of Fame and he is also on the board of directors of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC.
In January of 2011, along with motorsports journalist Tom Higgins and Cup Champion and Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, Waddell was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame. Each inductee chose the person he wanted to introduce him and Waddell chose Kyle Petty. Petty, always the clown, opened his remarks saying, “I’m here for Waddell. I talked to Waddell the other day and I asked Waddell, ‘Why am I introducing you?’ and he said, ‘Because the Pettys have always been a pain in my ass.’” That of course, referred to the years of competition between engines Wilson built and engines from the wildly successful Petty Enterprises that carried King Richard Petty to most of his 200 victories.
When, during our phone interview, I asked what he considered his greatest accomplishment, Waddell did side-step just a bit, humbly answering, “I remember the failures more than the wins. John [Holman] always expected us to win every race, and not cheat doing it.” But then he went on to mention his win with Buddy Baker in the 1980 Daytona 500. ” A lot stand out, but that one had more meaning to it. Another thing would be breaking 200 mph with Benny Parsons at Talladega in1982.” Last but perhaps not least was Cale Yarborough’s Daytona 500 win in 1983. No, he never did fix that Chevy.
Today, Waddell still acts as a consultant for Jerico Transmissions, but doesn’t keep regular hours. Like most folks his (our) age, he takes life a little easier these days. “Golf and fishing. That’s pretty much all I do.” And that’s OK my friend. I’d say that in your lifetime, you have done enough to impress royalty and heads of state, never mind the millions of race fans that may not have known your name, but have cheered your work for some 50 years now. They know your name now! Once again, I apologize that it took so long to put these thoughts into print. I hope I got everything correct and spelled your name right. Oh, and Waddell… Thanks for those 50 years! Both they and you were great!
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