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HEMI Driver Buddy Arrington makes RRML Hall of Fame

Friday, October 23, 2009
By JOHNNY BUCK - Bulletin Sports Editor

Buddy Arrington was inducted into the Racer’s Reunion Memory Lane Hall of Fame in Mooresville, N.C. The organization is dedicated to honoring “legendary personalities” who have contributed to the roots of the sport.

Racing down memory lane Arrington shares stories after making RRML Hall of Fame

Buddy Arrington - HEMI Racing Legend
Martinsville's Buddy Arrington has been inducted into the Racers Reunion Memory Lane Hall of Fame in Mooresville, N.C. Arrington, a Mopar loyalist to the end, was a member of the hall's inaugural class. (Contributed photo)
Buddy Arrington has always been his own man.

From his days touring the Grand National and Winston Cup circuits in a Mopar ride as one of the last truly independent owner-drivers, to his current role as owner of Buddy’s Taste of Home restaurant in Collinsville, Arrington has done it his way.

And he has no regrets about that.

“It ain’t in me to work for other people,” said the 71-year-old Arrington on Wednesday. “Let other people deal with what I can do or can’t do. I did my own deal, and my own thing, and it’s always turned out right.”

On Oct. 10, Arrington was a member of the first induction class at the Racers Reunion Memory Lane Hall of Fame in Mooresville, N.C. The organization is dedicated to honoring “legendary personalities” who have contributed to the roots of the sport.

Though his style and success created a die-hard group of fans during his tenure in NASCAR’s highest circuit from 1963-88, Arrington was surprised when he got the call to the hall.

“It really floored me. I was completely shocked, because I knew that maybe I might get it someday or another, but I didn’t think I’d be alive to get it. I figured I’d be dead and gone.”

* * *

Arrington’s first foray into racing didn’t occur on a race track, but on the highways of the Piedmont foothills. He drove hot rods that he’d souped up himself beginning at the age of 16.

“It wasn’t the right way to go, but I did it, and if it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have been able to do (get into racing). I was pretty tough out there on the road,” he said.

Most often, Arrington did his drag racing at night on lonely state highways. He also raced on the Rocky Mount bypass for a couple years before it was completed.

“They was building the bypass at Rocky Mount, and we would go up there and move the barriers and race on the bypass, because there was no traffic at all, both ends was closed up,” he recalled. “And all of the sudden, it got be like going to a Saturday night (race) ... because it was no traffic, closed up. And people got to coming to outlet roads that come to the bypass and set there on the bank and watched us race.”

At 18, Arrington traded a brand new 1957 Chevrolet for a service station in Villa Heights.

His reputation as a skilled engine mechanic soon had area drivers bringing their hot rods to his shop. In the early 1960s, Arrington agreed to accompany Grand National driver Larry Manning, of Richmond, to a race in Bristol.

“He came by one Saturday morning headed to Bristol and picked me up, and we went racing, just like that. And I was completely lost, ’cause I’d never worked on a race car before,” said Arrington. “So we went there and the first thing I knew, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta do this. I don’t want to help somebody else. I want my own deal.’”

That service station also helped him make business connections. He partnered with Ira Culler to help run Culler’s Dodge dealership in Rocky Mount, and soon bought a dirt track car for $3,500.

His first race was supposed to take place in Savannah, Ga., but that one got rained out. Undeterred, Arrington, along with his parents and brother, headed down the road to Jacksonville, Fla., and entered a Winston Cup race at Speedway Park the same weekend in 1963.

Though it was his first time on a track, Arrington finished eighth in a field of 22. Perhaps even more impressive, he said his first race wasn’t difficult.

“It was easy to me, because I was young and crazy and wild, and I could care less,” he said. “I could run off the racetrack and get spun out and get hit and banged and knocked on, and it was fun, you know? Like these cats, young people now, what they do is fun to them. You’re young, you don’t care.”

* * *

Arrington continued to race at NASCAR’s highest level, though he did so on a shoestring budget, most of the time without a major sponsor to help foot the bill.

The ability to build their own motors helped the Arrington team keep expenses down. So, too, did the use of a volunteer pit crew.

In fact, Arrington once drafted Jim Willard into his pit crew after Willard came to the Nashville track as a fan.

“I believe I was in the car (before the race started), and (Willard) said, ‘It looks like ya’ll need some help.’ I said, ‘Well, we ain’t got none,’” recalled Arrington. “...I go to the fence, pull a guy out of the stands and get him in the pits, just like that. And I probably couldn’t even get into Martinsville Speedway right now if I went over there tomorrow.”

By the late ’60s, he’d become close with Richard Petty. Soon, he was buying used Mopar parts from the Petty team, and eventually, he was allowed to use their race shop.

“It was parts that they took off and don’t use no more. We raced what you call out of the junkyard, and we raced from the Petty’s, out of the junkyard, because it was parts that was already made and built for a race car,” he said.

“And then all of the sudden, we got in enough with them to get in the shop and do work in the shop at Petty’s,” he continued. “So that’s what really put the icing on the cake, was being able to get in a real race shop and see what’s going on, and how they do it. And getting to use some of the up-to-date modern equipment.”

In 1970, Arrington built a new race shop on Kings Mountain Road. He didn’t have the money to do so, but Hugh Frith, a construction worker who helped build Memorial Hospital in Martinsville, used leftover materials from the hospital to construct the shop.

“He was helping us race, and he said, ‘We’ve got to have a shop. We’ve got to have a shop.’ And that’s how I ended up with a shop — Hugh Frith really built my shop and give it to me,” said Arrington.

When the Petty team switched to Chevrolet in 1978, Arrington bought one of their old Chrysler Magnums. He used that car to earn one of his best finishes, third place at Talladega the same year. Arrington said he led most of the day before the last pit stop of the race, when a crew member left the gas can attached to his car. He was stopped at the end of pit road and lost the lead.

“That was probably one of the biggest, greatest races we had, was that Talladega deal. And the thing of it is, it was with a Petty car,” he said. “They was barely making races with it, because of I don’t know what. But Joey built the engine for it, and we just went down there and set the woods on fire with that car.”

Arrington finished ninth in points that season with an average finish of 15.7.

* * *

When Chrysler began to scale back their track-racing program, most drivers using their parts and cars switched manufacturers.

Arrington was the most notable exception, however.

“I could care less, you know? I got a race car, and I’m goin’ racin’,” he said. “I could care less about Dodge, Chrysler, NASCAR or anyone else. So I kept going, kept racing.”

Arrington was always well liked in the garage area, and that became even more evident when drivers began switching away from MoPar cars.

The Pettys sent him a truck load of parts free of cost, as did the driver Paul Goldsmith’s race team. Arrington’s best season was 1982, when he finished seventh in the points and traveled to New York City for the first season-ending NASCAR banquet.

Chrysler made its last two-door rear wheel drive car in 1983, and NASCAR’s three-year model rule meant Arrington was not allowed to drive a Mopar ride by the end of the 1985 season.

It was in ’85, however, in a used Ford purchased from Bill Elliott, that Arrington had his best run at Martinsville Speedway, staying “on the scoreboard all day long” before the water pump went through the radiator and ended his day with about 10 laps remaining.

Before the malfunction, however, Arrington had battled with Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“He’d run all day right behind me, just, you know Earnhardt, bang, bang, bang, bang — bumper knocking. But he never done enough to mess me up, because he knew that I had more than he had,” said Arrington. “And he fell out of the race before I did. This is the God’s honest truth: He took his tires, and he knew that we was out of tires, and he ... brought his tires to my pits and give us tires.

“He came over and told me, he said, ‘I knew you was gonna win this race. I knew you was out of tires, because I could tell when you give out of tires,’” Arrington said. “And then all of the sudden, he fell out the race, and he give me his tires. I won’t forget that.”

* * *

Arrington retired in 1988 after a career spanning 25 years. He finished with 103 top-10 finishes in 560 races but never got a win.

However, Arrington said the lack of a Victory Lane appearance doesn’t bother him.

“Not a bit. This is the way I see it: Talladega, to me, was a win. Running good at Martinsville was a win, although I didn’t get the trophy. But I run good, and I got the money, and we won everything at Talladega that particular race,” he said. “We were the highest price paid cat up there. I came home with — I don’t know — about $30,000, and back then that was big bucks.”

Arrington said he didn’t retire because of waning skills or a lack of passion for the sport. Instead, it was a simple matter of dollars and cents.

“It was all the money. I wasn’t the age to quit. I could still, well, back then it would be like Mark Martin now. I would have been 45, 46, 47, 48 years old and going strong, but the money forced us to hang it up.”

He’s now the president at Arrington Manufacturing, which is run and owned by Pendergast Partners, a private equity firm. Arrington also keeps busy with Pendergast’s shophemi.com after-market parts business.

Arrington attributed his notoriously devoted fan base to the way he dealt with people off the track, a trait he picked up from a good friend named Richard Petty.

“There ain’t a cat racing that’s got more racing fans than he’s still got,” Arrington said of Petty. “And I’ve been to his shop for autograph sessions way back when, and I’ve seen him come in there and sit down on his daddy’s porch at 9 o’clock in the morning, and I would leave at almost dark, and he would still be setting there on his porch signing autographs. I seen it more than one time.

“You make fans and make friends; you can’t shut them off,” he continued. “You can’t turn them down. That’s what it’s all about.”

Of course, Petty won more than 200 races. Wouldn’t Arrington like to have at least one Cup trophy with his name on it?

According to the man himself, no.

“If I was 24 years old, and I started racing today, and I knew what I’d just done, I would do the same thing I just did, even if I knew I wasn’t going to win a race,” he said. ‘I’d keep on going and keep on trying, and we made a bunch of fans over the years.”