Sam Ard… As Good As There Ever Was… by: Bobby Williamson
by: Bobby Williamson
It was summer, 1967. I was 13 years old, but I knew what a race car was supposed to look like. That Sunday afternoon, looking at the ’56 Ford late model, I recognized it for what it was. Leland (NC) Raceway was brand new. The lights hadn’t been installed, so the track was racing on Sunday afternoons. Local Sunday racing was hardly given a second thought, back in the day. After all, that’s pretty much how NASCAR had begun, and, for the most part, still operates.
Leland Raceway, like its Wilmington(NC) area predecessor, Carolina Beach Speedway, was not (exactly) state-of-the-art, even for the mid ’60′s. What they both lacked in amenities, they more than made up for in crowd appeal. Crowd appeal, of course, translates into purse structure, and Leland Raceway, with its grey colored clay, vertical drop-offs everywhere except the front stretch, its dirt-bank inside retaining wall, and the nearby woods for the infield “facilities”, was paying $300.00 to the late model winner every Sunday afternoon. That was serious money in the eastern Carolina’s. Actually, it was exactly twice what our home track, Little River (SC) Raceway, was paying.
I was there with my dad. I was his crew. Sometimes my two cousins (15 and 12 years old) would come along and help, but on this Sunday, it was just me. My job was to run out on the track during cautions, which always were red flags, and wipe the mud off the windshield, and, if there was time, to clean the mud out of the screen wire in front of the radiator. My dad ran in the late model class and our 283 powered ’57 Chevy had won several races that season. We were a threat, a contender, Bobbie Gentry’s haunting “Ode to Billie Joe” was a hit song, and life was about as good as a 13 year old could imagine.
I knew this “new” car, this ’56 Ford, #0 was the real deal. I could see the aluminum hubs on each wheel, the Frankland quick change, and I studied the lettering on the car, to possibly determine who this car might be. See, I did not “know” the visitor, and that was unusual, and it bothered me. The car was painted a medium blue metallic, the lettering was all in white. Along the quarter-panels was “Central Oil and Machine……..Florence, SC” I knew THAT was serious. Because such lettering usually appeared on the formidable Junior Johnson team: Junior, his brother Cecil, his son “Slick” and Jimmy Hatchell, all of them numbered “1″ or “8″ or some combination thereof, and operating out of Florence, SC. (Tragically, Winston Cup driver Julius “Slick” Johnson would be fatally injured at Daytona in the early ’80′s)
Of even more concern was the lettering on the hood: “289 Cu. In. Sportsman”. Until this summer, Ford late model in the eastern Carolinas, had been required to use the old Y-Block 292 engine. The 292, or even its larger cousin, the 312, were no match for a finely tuned 283. But the Ford guys were smart. They realized that the 289 was an entirely different design, much more akin to the small block Chevy and that’s what they began running that summer. A 289 would wind-up at least as quick as a 283. It had an unmistakable high-pitched wail, and it was initially outlawed at Little River, resulting in a Ford boycott, when Hop Holmes attempted to run one. But, none of that mattered at Leland, and this new car had one, and that couldn’t be good.
In June of 1967, I did not know the driver’s name, scripted on the roof of that 1956 Ford Victoria, but I and millions more soon would. In neatly scripted white letters ………“Sammy Ard”. From Leland to Daytona, Sam Ard became very well known and respected as an incredible competitor. But Sam wasn’t just a driver. Sam was just as good as a car builder, and built all of his race cars. He was a crew chief, fabricator, a set-up guy, and tow-the-car-to-the-track guy.
Sam was from a different era, a different world. They don’t make them like that anymore. I’m convinced, that given the opportunity, Sam Ard would have enjoyed the same success in the Winston Cup ranks that he had experienced at the other levels. Unfortunately, a head injury at Rockingham prematurely ended his career. Appropriately, Sam Ard is in the Hall of Fame at Darlington, not too far from where he grew up.
Sam Ard… As Good As There Ever Was… Chapter 2
I think it was January 1968, Sunday afternoon, and me and my dad were headed to the Little River (SC) Raceway. We weren’t racing, this time, just taking the family car, ’cause Dad had heard (via the always-amazing racing grapevine) that Little River was racing, they were gonna “run for the gate.” The purse would be a percentage of what the track took in at the front gate. That was fine, by me, any racing, especially in the middle of winter, was about as good as it gets.
When we got to the track, we just drove right in the infield pit area. Since we were racers, ourselves, we never sat in the stands, and we wanted to see, up close and personal, the new cars that had been built over the winter. Boy, THAT didn’t take too long! When we got there, a crowd was already gathered around a ’64 or ’65 Chevelle RACE CAR!
Up until that moment, 1968, the latest model race car that had ever been on the coastal Carolina racing scene was, perhaps, a (disastrous) ’59 Chevy. Without question the tri-five Chevys, and Fords were the cars of choice. And here was a race car that was only THREE or FOUR years old?! Man, the world had changed, and BIG time, since those long ago days of 1967!
It was a familiar red with a black top, number 81 and was neatly lettered with the familiar Central Oil and Machine, Florence, SC banner. Only thing was, the “1″ was changed to a “4″ with white shoe polish. So, the Chevelle was actually #84. There was a couple other notes of interest, in front of the rear fender opening was a new proclamation: “owned by John Altman & Sam Ard”, “Sam Ard” on the roof and (REALLY impossible to miss) on the rear valence: “BIG DADDY”.
The “crowd” never materialized that sunny afternoon, and the race was cancelled. But, among the critical intelligence that Dad and I learned: the Chevelle was built by and for (Florence, SC’s) Junior Johnson, was on a ’55 Chevy chassis, had a 350 engine and had been sold to the new team of Altman and Ard. Just like that, the age old engine rules, 283′s and 289′s had been removed, and nothing replaced them. Run what you brung! The coastal Carolina racing scene could not imagine and, really, did not have a clue as to how its world had already changed. Forever.
Back in my 8th grade class, the next day, I took out note-book paper and began the process of learning to draw a ’64 Chevelle late model.
The ruins of the Twin City Raceway met bulldozer’s blade in early 2008. Twin City Raceway was located off US Hwy. 701 between Loris, SC and Tabor City, NC, on modern-day ‘Morgan’ Road. Forty years ago, Morgan road was narrow, dirt, and it wound past tobacco fields, woods, and a dirt track with ‘heated’ grandstands. Built and opened in late summer of 1964, Twin City, was planning on racing year-round and enclosed the stands with roofing tin and placed tobacco barn burners underneath to provide the comfort. It’s difficult to determine if the heating idea was good or not. Management, almost immediately, ran afoul of the various governmental revenue agencies. Promoters came and went, the on-track action was as wild as possible and the last straw was the ultra-modern Little River Raceway that opened in nearby Little River, SC in the spring of 1966.
Twin City sputtered on for a while longer, and on a late April Friday night in 1968 hosted one of their very last events. The new-car sensation had taken hold, and Myrtle Beach’s Danny Smith was present that with a brand new Bob Hucks prepared ’67 Chevelle. Also in the pits was a new potent ’65 Fairlane with hard-charging Lee Edwards at the wheel, as well as Hop Holmes with his short-lived ’61 Ford Starliner. Potent.
Also in the Twin City Raceway pits, and fresh from winning Leland Raceway’s annual and opening night ‘Azalea 250′, where he had led virtually ALL 250 DIRT TRACK LAPS, was #84 Sam “Big Daddy” Ard. The late model race started, and #84 took command, never being closely challenged. On a customary red-flag-’caution’ Sam Ard zoomed off the track, sacrificing the lead and into the pits. In a blur, and I was witnessing this drama first hand, Sam climbed from the cockpit ( Mr. John Altman had already jacked up the rear end) slid underneath the rear axle, removed the quick-change cover, discarded two completely SMOOTH spur gears, replaced them with two GOOD ones, reassembled everything, climbed back in the car, went back, out and won the race from the rear of the field! Unbelievable!
I asked Sam Ard in 2004, while he was at Myrtle Beach Speedway with his son’s truck racing effort, how he had been so sure of the sheared spur gears at Twin City, all those years ago. He said he just knew, he could tell by the way the car felt.
Don’t see that too much anymore!
There is another chapter in Bobby’s Tribute to Sam Ard, which will run on these pages next week. Please gentle readers, return then for “The rest of the story.” (Thanks Paul Harvey)
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