NASCAR community shares memories of Bristol car owner Ed Whitaker, who died Friday
Posted: Friday, August 22, 2014 8:39 pm
BY KEVIN CASTLE
BRISTOL HERALD COURIER
BRISTOL, Va. He did more with less and grabbed that checkered flag in the process.
That is how former NASCAR series car owner and city native Ed Whitaker was remembered by the racing community just hours after his death Friday.
Whitaker, who celebrated his 76th birthday just two months ago, died at his home, according to his wife of 53 years, Maxine, who talked about his love of family and racing at their residence, where she said the two blended so well.
"For him to die the day of the Bristol race is just so ironic," she said. " He loved every driver that ever got in one of his cars. They were family to him. Many of them would come to see him even after he was out of the business when they came in the week of the race. Boys like Dale Earnhardt and Bobby and Davey Allison even stayed at the house when the rain would wash out the race.
"We were going to have a little get-together for some of the drivers and members of his pit crew tonight. It was something that he always appreciated in his life, to be associated with them. He had a good time while he was doing it and had fun with them. The drivers made a big impression on him. The amount of calls and messages weve gotten from people in racing has been overwhelming to us."
Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Caldwell said in a prepared statement Friday that Whitaker was the type of owner who proved you could win big with a small operation.
"The term throwback gets used a lot, but Ed was a true definition of it. We are proud of the achievements he had in a sport we all love. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family," Caldwell said.
A brick building constructed in the 1940s on Wagner Road in Bristol, Virginia pales in comparison to the mammoth garages of todays NASCAR, but that little shop produced race cars that towered over the competition on race day 28 times in what was once known as the Busch or Sportsman Series.
And they had Whitakers blueprint for speed all over them from 1982, when Mark Martin drove a machine prepared by the car owner, until Regan Smith parked the last ride he crafted in 2002.
"These days, they tell what parts to put in the cars and its much bigger. Ed loved working on cars and making them run fast. He had a true gift for it and I think he could make a car do something that other [owners] wish theres could do," his wife said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove one of his first races at Bristol in an Ed Whitaker-prepared Chevrolet in 1997. The late Alan Kulwicki, Rick Wilson, the late Tim Richmond and the late Dale Earnhardt all raced for him.
But Maxine said that Harry Gant was probably her husbands favorite among those who drove for him. Gant drove the Skoal Bandit machine that was fine-tuned in Bristol to Victory Lane for 19 wins, including a 1992 win at BMS.
"Harry would come up on his motorcycle every time he was in Bristol and visit him," she said. "He was one of our favorite because he drove so long for us. Eight years."
Morgan Shepherd, who won with a Whitaker car three times at Bristol in 1983 and 1986, said Friday he always looked forward to Bristol because he knew he was coming to see Ed and eat Maxines home cooking.
"Its hard when you lose friends like that," Shepherd said.
" It was still done the old way. It was where local guys here at Bristol and Kingsport come over and helped him. He helped train some pretty good guys in racing. It was fun racing with him. The car [he gave us to race with] was always fast. He operated on very little money. Its just a big loss."
Fellow car owner Charlie Henderson of Abingdon knew Whitaker for decades. He said Friday that Whitaker was probably one of the smartest men to ever stick his head under a NASCAR hood.
"The man was a genius," Henderson said. "He could make a car do things that some people thought couldnt be done. He taught me a lot about racing and a lot about life and I listened every opportunity I got. Im just devastated that hes gone. A lot of people are going to miss him."
Regan Smith got one of his first opportunities in an Ed Whitaker car and Friday he said that he will remember Whitaker as an owner who wanted to give racers a chance.
"You look at the things hes done and the guys who have driven for him throughout the years, hes been a huge part of our sport and growing our sport and giving guys opportunities and I was the same," Smith said. "Im going to miss him. Its definitely a big loss for all of NASCAR."
Sports writers Nate Hubbard and Allen Gregory contributed to this report.
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