Piedmont profile: Luther Harkey, early race car driver

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Luther Harkey laughed when asked if NASCAR is more tame today than it was decades ago.
“A lot more tame,” he replied.
And then he told the tale of a race he ran in his early years as an example of how far the sport has evolved.
Back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the drivers who were laying the foundation for what would become the riches of NASCAR drove at what were referred to as “outlaw tracks.”
They were spread across the South, small venues where high-octane gas fueled the cars and even higher-octaned alcohol fueled a fair number of the spectators.
“I remember one race I ran at some little track up in the mountains,” Harkey said, relaxing in the sunroom of his house in Salisbury on a recent weekday morning, “where there were more quarts of moonshine than quarts of oil.”
Harkey, 66, who retired following a long and interesting career, swears this tale is true.
“People were sitting in the stands holding shotguns,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling as he spoke.
Harkey then paused.
“I never went back to that track,” he finally decided.
Harkey may not be remembered as one of NASCAR’s legends, but he sure bumped shoulders (plenty of fenders, too) with some of those who made the sport what it is today.
In a career that spanned from the late ’50s to the late ’60s, Harkey raced against a Who’s Who of NASCAR’s best ó Junior Johnson, Lee and Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Bobby and Donnie Allison, included.
At tracks from Winston-Salem to Gaffney, S.C., Harkey fired his aged Plymouths and Dodges to life and sent ’em out to do battle with a host of other drivers, all of whom at the time participated more for the love of the sport than the dream of any major paydays.
Harkey raced against Ralph Earnhardt (the father of Dale Earnhardt Sr.) and spent many an evening hanging out in the Earnhardt garage in Kannapolis, the atmosphere there at the time more family reunion than driving competitors.
“We started out pulling our (race) cars on tow bars behind our trucks,” Harkey said. “I finally moved up to a trailer, but I never did have an enclosed trailer in all my years of racing. Never.”
It didn’t end there.
“I’ve slept many a night in my car because I couldn’t afford a hotel,” Harkey said, chuckling at the memory.
Would he do it again?
“In a heartbeat,” Harkey admitted.
Harkey said he was either 16 or 17 when he started racing and said that because of his age, he couldn’t participate in his first NASCAR-related event without a parent’s signature.
Harkey said his parents didn’t mind that he raced, but they didn’t go to watch him. So Tony Myers, his brother-in-law and fellow racer, signed his father’s name to a release form the night the signature was required.
“And that’s how I got my NASCAR license,” Harkey said.
For years, he drove a 1957 Plymouth Fury, red and similar to the car that Stephen King would make famous years later with the book, “Christine.”
Harkey said pit crews consisted of friends and relatives. For years, his cousin, Charles Hillard was his crew chief and also built his engines.
Harkey said that in all the years he drove his ’57 Plymouth, he never invested more than $30,000 in the ride. It wasn’t unusual for him to race three times in a single weekend, his greatest hope being that he’d win enough money to cover the cost of gas and maybe a meal on the drive home.
“We went through a lot of different fenders and windshields, but the car stayed the same,” Harkey said.
Lee Petty ó Richard’s father ó built a motor for Harkey in his early days of racing. Harkey also bought a Hudson Hornet racer (“Every race I ran in that car, I led at least one lap,” he said proudly) from the Petty patriarch.
Harkey also raced against Wendell Scott. Scott was a black pioneer in the sport, a driver who didn’t have much in the way of financing, even less than the white racers he drove against. Movies have been made of his adventures.
Harkey remembered giving Scott both tires and motors in an attempt to help him remain competitive. Harkey said Scott’s son served as the one and only member of his race crew. He said that in the 1960s, he saw Scott make a pit stop, climb from the car as his son changed the tires, then proceed to the concession stand for a pack of crackers before returning to the track and the race.
Harkey said the white racers of the era didn’t fare much better. He paused before making a crack about the prize money he took home from the hundreds of races he drove.
“You could make a small fortune in racing,” Harkey said, managing to keep a straight face as he spoke, “providing you started out with a large fortune.”
Harkey and his wife, Ellen, married in 1964. Ellen is a Methodist minister. The couple have two children, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Harkey said his wife never gave him an ultimatum that he get out of racing, but he said that with the expense and danger of the hobby, and the fact he was starting a family, he decided in the late 1960s that it was time to pursue other interests.
Harkey, a native of western Rowan County, for 19 years owned Carolina Business Products with offices in Salisbury and Hickory. He also over the years worked for Loeblin Furniture Co. and Daniels Construction.
Harkey worked about eight years as a Rowan County magistrate and in the 1980s made two unsuccessful bids for sheriff. After being retired for a few years, he got tired of sitting around the house and took a job selling cars for Asheboro Nissan. He’s now retired from it all.
Harkey said he still enjoys NASCAR, providing he can stay at home and watch it on his television.
Nowadays, Harkey spends a fair amount of time watching his 6-year-old grandson, Charlie Klingler, race go-carts at Rowan County’s quarter-midget track off Interstate 85.
Charlie’s mother and Harkey’s daughter, Beth Harkey, was for years one of the best female drag racers on the East Coast, winning races in IHRA and NHRA divisions.
Harkey proudly shows pictures of his grandson at the wheel of his racer. The go-cart is wrapped in a steel cage, making it probably the safest place for a 6-year-old to be.”If any of them want to race,” Harkey said of his children and grandchildren, “I’ll help them any way I can.”