BUDDY ARRINGTON STORY: The MOPAR Marathon Man
It all began back in the '60s with Buddy Arrington and Car #67. Buddy was an independent NASCAR owner/driver who competed in the Winston Cup series for 25 years, before it became the Nextel Cup.
Born July 26, 1938 in Penhook, south-central Virginia, 25 miles from the Martinsville Speedway, Buddy began racing as soon as he felt the power of a rear-wheel drive Mopar behind him. His predilection for Chrysler and Mopar came from his teens, when he used to race HEMIs up and down the roads of Virginia with friends and became a fan of the Petty’s. “Once you start with something, and you like it, you stay with it,” says Buddy. There was never an alternative in his mind, until the manufacturer ended its supply of cars and parts dried up, and there was no choice.
Buddy raced informally on the streets with great success. No one could beat Buddy in his ’60 Plymouth Fury, (which still runs today at 68,347 miles), and he loved the feeling he got inside the cars. Without a family connection to any established racers, or the backing of a sponsor or manufacturer, Buddy turned to used cars, parts, and friends, to launch his racing career. He bought a ’62 Dodge from Cotton Owens and then received a delivery from Ray Nichels and Paul Goldsmith. “They had this truck full of parts. It really put us on the map, as far as racing,” recalls Buddy. He could not believe his good fortune. He brought the car and parts into the garage and began working immediately. It was the fall of 1963.
Preparing to drive in those days, was very different from today. Racers had jobs and lives to support their racing, and Grand National events were held with multiple races per day to make the most of the racers’ time and expenses. Without corporate sponsorship, intense media hype, or public popularity, the NASCAR Grand National purses were small. Buddy got enough money together for tires and gas and headed to Savannah, Georgia, to race. That day Buddy took a few laps around the track before the rain came and the race was cancelled. “I had only been in the stands of a racetrack before. I had never even been in the pits, and here I was, a kid, drivin’ in NASCAR,” Buddy told me.
Buddy’s first official laps came at Jacksonville Speedway Park on December 7th 1963. Asked how he felt on the day of his first race, he said, “I been hit so hard, so many times I can’t remember that far back, but I am sure I felt like the King Bee, racing against the big boys.” Jeanette Arrington, Buddy’s wife at the time, remembers things more clearly. She said he was focused, but not nervous, but that she, “started crying from the start of the national anthem, and could barely stop through out the whole race.” Buddy finished 8th of 27 cars in the field that afternoon. Those were Buddy’s first NASCAR laps in a career that totaled 147,999 laps.
Buddy’s warm smile and honest, good-natured character was well received in the racing community. He fit in well with the majority of racers, having the same background and desire to race. Life in racing was hard with all the traveling, but Buddy made life more pleasant for all around him.
Of course, life in racing was not as lucrative as it is now, and driving as an independent made life even harder. Buddy struggled to get by because he was never going to drive for anyone else, or take orders from anyone else. In the sixties, owning, preparing and driving the cars was possible, as long as you worked in your sleep and dedicated all your money and time to it. At some events NASCAR even financed drivers who did not win any money at the races in order to keep the sport going. “If you didn’t win money racing, you didn’t have the money to get home. I got money from NASCAR once or twice after the races, just so I could get back home,” admits Buddy.
Buddy does not credit his hard work to his success as much as he credits his friends’ efforts. “Sis”, Sam and Brenda Leash, and Jim and Phyllis Willard are high on Buddy’s thank list, as well at Bob Switzer and members of his family. These folks, and many more over the years, allowed Buddy to stay in racing and get to as many events as possible with his Mopar cars, for as long as he raced. Help for Buddy included packing and preparing food for race days, making travel arrangements, and Switzer even set Buddy up with cars and crews in far away events like California and Canada.
The money that supported the blue and red No. 67 came from Buddy’s various occupations. At times over his career Buddy was a Chrysler car dealer, a property manager, and a Union 76 service station owner. However, no job generated as much interest, or as much notoriety, as bootlegging moonshine in rural, southern Virginia.
If you were a driver in the South and needed to supplement your income, you knew what to do. He knew the risks, but racing was at stake. He collected the famous Franklin County ‘white lightning’, and ran it across county and state lines. On his last run, in November of 1969, he started out from Martinsville and headed east on Virginia’s route 58 to Burlington, North Carolina. He had not been in the bootlegging business for long, and he was nervous, and drove cautiously. The police pulled him over and arrested him, not even 20 miles from where he had started. The Chief Magistrate for the 22nd Judicial District of Virginia, James ‘Pops’ Osborne, let him leave jail that night, after Buddy promised to appear before him the next day. Buddy did as he promised, as usual, and came to courthouse prepared to pay for his crime. (Buddy is still friendly with ‘Pops’ to this day, and he recently bought back the car he drove that night).
Buddy is not proud of the incident, and does not talk about it, simply stating, “I paid my fine and didn’t do it anymore.” However, in those days, the racing community was still deep-rooted in southern, country traditions, so his occupation, and subsequent legal problems gave him more credibility with the other drivers. He recalls being welcomed back to the racing fold with more pats-on-the-back and camaraderie than in years past. As he puts it, “It was like I was Junior Johnson.”
How does Buddy describe his driving style? “I laid back in most races. I drove ahead of myself and when I came out of a turn, I was looking at the next one. I had to. If I tore up the car, I had to fix it, and that cost money,” he says honestly. Finishing races in one piece was a must for the independent driver. A wreck could be season ending on the budget that Buddy had to work with. “I could’ve run harder if I had more money,” he says, looking back.
Despite taking care with his car, Buddy did hit the wall…hard. In the 1969 Firecracker 400 Cecil Gordon spun out and left a wake of wrecked cars behind him. Buddy got caught in the fray and landed in the hospital for two weeks, returning to Martinsville in the NASCAR plane. His worst wreck came the next year in the famed Daytona 500 when his winged, red Daytona got into trouble and he hit the outside wall at full speed. The hospital records show a ruptured spleen and numerous broken ribs, and Buddy remembers it as the worst accident of his 25-year career.
With the Mopar connection, the blue and red paint, and the close proximity between their shops, Buddy’s strongest ties were with Petty Enterprises. Maurice Petty, the engine builder, and younger brother of Richard, was a great friend to Buddy, and helped him through some rough financial times. Maurice is quoted as saying, “We helped him out. He was one of the nicest guys around. He is just a prince of a guy. We just done our best to help him when we could.” With donations and sales of parts and items they deemed unfit for racing, they kept Buddy in the driver’s seat. Maurice was drawn to Buddy’s honesty, dedication to racing and his good nature. “If Buddy Arrington said he was gonna do something, he would do it. He was as honest as the days are long. He was just a super guy. He still is,” said Maurice in a recent interview.
The relationship between the two teams did cause controversy on the circuit. In 1975, at Dover International Speedway, in Delaware, Richard Petty, “The King”, was two laps behind the lead with 20 to go, and in need of a caution. Buddy was having trouble keeping his car running due to a faulty steering box. Buddy’s car stalled on the high side of the track, bringing out a caution flag. Richard used the caution to catch up, and ended up with the checkered flag and a spot on victory lane. Critics discovered that Buddy had bought a truck from Petty Enterprises prior to the race, and supposed Buddy staged the caution in order to repay the debt.
“We was good friends, but there was no deals. I bought and paid for that truck before the race and still have the receipt, and the truck. I would not do that for anyone, anyhow,” says Buddy. Bill France and Bill Gazaway looked into the matter in their typical swift, and unilateral manner. They found no complicity and closed the investigation.
Buddy’s relationship with the Petty family did more than keep Buddy in NASCAR. It also developed his son, Joey’s, interest and skill in engine building.
Buddy stayed with Chrysler through criticism of their aerodynamics and their lack of participation in NASCAR. After driving a ’64 Polara, Buddy drove a ’68 Charger, then a winged ‘69 Charger Daytona, a ’73 and ’74 Charger, a ’78 and ’79 Magnum, ’and an ‘81 Imperial, even when he was the only Mopar driver, and the corporation no longer had a hand in racing. According to Buddy, the Chrysler cars ranked as high with aero as anyone else’s. No one could dissuade his point of view, and he had no time for people who detracted from the cars he had been successful with. He thought that the Imperial was the most aerodynamic car Chrysler had put out, and he was sure of it because of the way it performed for him on the speedways.
The most memorable, and financially rewarding race of Buddy’s career, was the Talladega Race in 1979 with the Magnum. The weather was clear, and the car felt as good as it could get. He drove his ’79 Magnum and said, “It was honkin’. It felt real good. My Magnum was the fastest car out there. I could pull out and pass them anytime, anywhere I wanted.” Buddy also remembers the fans going crazy for him. “You could hear the fans over the noise of the cars, and fans were climbing the fences with banners for me, and cheering me on,” he says. Buddy was running out front, when he pulled into the pits, a clear favorite. It was, unfortunately, not-to-be for the legendary Mopar marathon man.
When Buddy drove into his pit box, he did not recognize some of the crew because members of other teams had come by to help him pit. But, when the No. 67 pulled out the gasman had left the can still mounted in the hole. Buddy was forced to come back to pit road and lose a lap. No. 67 lost the race to Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, finishing 3rd. The twist of the story is that he finished ahead of the manufacturer-supported field, and ahead of Richard Petty, the man who gave him his car, after he no longer wanted it.
“As far as I’m concerned, I won that race”, says Buddy to this day, and not many would disagree. On returning home to Martinsville, his hometown fans thoughts so too. The service stations were decorated in banners and there were people outside his house to welcome him. The attention was great, but Buddy never forgot that the fans’ memories are short, and you are only as good as your last race. In the Winston Cup, the next race was a week away, so the glory could only last a week. Asked if he forgave the man who left gas can in the car he said, “I never worried too much about that, and don’t even know who he was.”
The 80’s brought new Mopars to Buddy. He and Joey campaigned a '81 Dodge Mirada for all of the 1981 and 1982 NASCAR seasons. For the superspeedway races in those years he used the ’81 Imperial. Buddy also alternated between the Mirada and the Imperials in the 1983 season. For 1984 and 1985, Buddy continued to use the Imperials on the superspeedways and the Cordoba, a Mirada Joey converted by changing the nose cone and bumper assembly, for the short tracks.
In 1982 Buddy had his best overall season in the thirty-race schedule. Buddy attributes the success to the investments he made in his engines. “We bought new blocks, cranks rods and pistons that year.” With the new components, and his hard work, Buddy showed the world that he had the skills to win races if he had the equipment. Only Cup-winner Darrel Waltrip completed more laps that year, and Buddy finished 7th overall in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with 8 top-10 finishes, an amazing accomplishment for an independent racer in that era.
With the influx of big corporate money from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and the creation of the Winston Cup Series in 1972, the popularity of stock car racing increased, and so did the stakes. The manufacturers spent more on development, the sponsors gave more to the teams, and teams need to spend big money to compete. Independents like Buddy were out of the loop, and tried to catch up to the money. By the mid-eighties, “it was awful for the sport to get as big as it got, and you had to go out and get a big sponsor to make ends meet on those race cars,” said Buddy. Buddy was a driver, not a PR guy, so getting sponsors doing public appearances was not what he wanted to do. Things were made harder for Buddy when Chrysler took less of an interest in performance engineering, NASCAR racing, and therefore, Buddy.
Buddy and his team worked through the trouble, staying loyal to Chrysler and occasionally accepting whatever they could offer. Sometimes he would get a block or two, and other times he received sheet metal, but he never saw the spare parts he needed. The dilemma for Chrysler was that it had race fans, and race drivers, but did not want to spend the money to produce parts for cars that they no longer made. Buddy understood that, but said at the time, “there are a lot of Chrysler fans left out there and if you could see my fan mail, you’d see that. They don’t care whether we’re racing the Imperial, a K-Car, or a Daytona. They just care because it’s a Chrysler car, got Chrysler’s name on it, and that’s what it’s all about!”
In June of the 1985 season Buddy was again the only Mopar in the field, and he faced a difficult decision. Ford and Chevy were spending a lot of time and money on their performance engines, while Chrysler’s V-8 engine development program had moved away from NASCAR racing. The Arringtons had learned how to harness enough power from the older Mopar small blocks, and they were willing to stay with Mopar a few more years. However, for the 1986 season, Chrysler did not have a car that would be eligible to race in NASCAR. Buddy had to choose between turning away from Mopar, or walking away from NASCAR. The Budweiser 500 at Riverside, California, was the last race Buddy ran with Mopar, but was not his last race.
Buddy says he thinks Chrysler left NASCAR “over the Hemi stuff. The Hemi was so far ahead of everyone else, and NASCAR just kept taking stuff away from Chrysler, that they got tired of it. The Chrysler people and France never got along so good to start with anyhow.”
Buddy used his friendship with Bill Elliot to procure Ford Thunderbird cars and parts to race. Mopar fans understood why he switched, and still supported him. In 1986, Ed McDowell, of the WPC News, a publication of the WPC Club, Inc., wrote, “All Chrysler fans owe Buddy Arrington their thanks for holding out as long as he did. Maybe, one day, Chrysler will go back into NASCAR. In the meantime, every die hard Chrysler fan will probably wish Arrington/67 the best of luck with his new deal.” Those words were spoken out of genuine respect and admiration for a man character, talent, and loyalty to Mopar.
In 1986, the local Martinsville newspaper announced Buddy’s Retirement from driving in NASCAR. In reality, he was not ready to retire, and he raced 20 races in 1987. In 1988 he only raced four of the twenty-nine races, but still finished with an average finishing position nine places higher than his average starting position. At the age of 49, Buddy finished his 25-year driving career in Daytona at the Firecracker 400 on July 2nd, 1988.
At Daytona, in 1989, Buddy owned a car in NASCAR with Joey as his crew chief, and Brad Teague as his driver. The team qualified for the Daytona 500, on Thursday, and was ready to race. Another team, sponsored by GMAC out of Ohio, failed to qualify, and Buddy made them an offer. He gave them to chance to buy his starting position, his car, and his motor right there on the spot. They accepted, and with that deal Buddy Arrington left NASCAR and never returned.
Today, Buddy is still a favorite among people in Martinsville, and his warm smile still hasn’t left his face. His normal car is a Jeep Grand Cherokee, to have room for his dogs, but he prefers to drive his lawn tractor.