SOURCE: Stock Car Racers Reunion
Standing next to the iconic black-and-silver Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt, Joe Dan Bailey had on his game face. Four years earlier, Bailey and his Whitcomb Racing teammates leapt for joy from Daytona’s pit wall as Derrike Cope pulled the upset in the Daytona 500. Now, he was working for Richard Childress, where the shredded tire from that 500 hung from the wall of the shop. Childress signed Bailey to help the team rebound from a disappointing 1992, which they did with a sixth championship the very next year. Now second in the 1994 standings, sixteen points behind Ernie Irvan’s dominant Robert Yates entry, Bailey and the rest of the Childress team looked to make history on the way to an equally-historic seventh title.
But first, Earnhardt and team would have to wait. They were twelfth in line, well out of view of the candy apple red Pontiac sitting at the front of pit road. The 36 car driven by Bailey’s 57-year-old father, Herring Burl, or as he was more popularly known, “H.B.”
H.B. Bailey sought to make his 86th Cup Series start, the latest chapter in a career that began forty years earlier at Playland Park in his native Houston. In 1962, Bailey made his first Cup Series start in a Pontiac he bought from Hall of Famer Bud Moore. Moore got Bailey in touch with the manufacturer, starting a relationship which continued for nearly three decades in both NASCAR Cup and Grand American competition. From very early in his career, Bailey’s cars were painted bright red with a white racing stripe across the roof, a design created for the sleek Firebirds he raced in the early 1970s.
“He ran the very first Trans-Am paint scheme with the bird on the hood,” said the younger Bailey. “Pontiac always took care of him. They’d send him 303 decks for the Grand American car for his Firebirds, so that’s why he always drove Pontiac.”
Bailey was also the owner of Almeda Auto Parts, one of the biggest salvage yards in Houston, and his means of funding his race team. Among ten acres of wrecked cars, two of Almeda’s 40-by-60 buildings made up Bailey’s race shop. One building contained a dynamometer Bailey bought from Cotton Owens. The other was the fab shop, where a young Joe Dan Bailey learned how to prepare his father’s number 36 Pontiac for race day.
“My Dad always told me this, he said, ‘Become a jack of all trades, and a master of none.’. . .I started out sweeping the floors and then I was packing bearings, then I was doing light aluminum work - what they call ‘finish fab’ today.”
“Back then, you actually went to the dealership, you got a header panel, then you had to make all these aluminum pieces to fill the holes and stuff. So, there was a lot more finish fab work back then. . .Now you just get a nose piece and you put it on and you’re done - you just have to do the duct work behind it. There was a lot of little tedious work back then and that’s how I learned to fabricate. By the time I was 17, I could pretty much fabricate anything on the car, so I guess four years it took me to learn.”
Then, as now, Cup Series teams based outside of the Charlotte area were a rarity. This required Bailey run a part-time schedule, never competing in more than eight Cup races each season. Although he ran several short tracks earlier in his career, Bailey preferred the big tracks, especially his favorite - Darlington.
“He loved Darlington. Darlington was his favorite place, and it’s still my favorite place. . .The eight races he always ran was both Atlantas, both Michigans, both Charlottes, and both Darlingtons. Now, when Texas World [Speedway] was on the circuit, naturally, he’d try and go there. But those four tracks he ran religiously each year and it was a lot of fun. But that was about all we did back then, you know, on a regular schedule.”
Bailey’s schedule provided its own logistical challenges as the team spent several weeks away from Houston, the team’s only car on a tag-along trailer behind their cab-over truck.
“We’d leave Houston and we’d drive to Jackson, Michigan. We’d run the August race at Michigan. Then, after we’d leave Michigan, we’d come to North Carolina and stop at Walter Ballard’s shop, go to Hutcherson-Pagan and rent a stall from them, and work on the car in that place down in the outer part of Charlotte, and we’d work for a week there. The regular series would go to Bristol, but then after Bristol, we’d go down and run the Southern 500 at Darlington. So, it was a three-week span when we were gone. And it was just me and my dad, and normally another crew guy. There was one crew guy who worked with him for years, David Jr., and then after David quit working with him, there was another guy working with him, Sammy and Buzz and those guys. But, normally, there would be three and maximum of four.”
Once they were in town for the race, Bailey and team benefited from a unique arrangement between contingency sponsors and underfunded teams. Today, the patchwork of tiny decals on the front quarter-panels of Cup Series cars looks nearly identical from one car to the next. The reason for this is that more teams are now capable of contending for the sponsor’s bonus money, so there’s no reason to leave any of them off. But in the 1980s, when owner-drivers like Bailey made up a bigger portion of the field, which contingency decals you carried depended on whether the company was providing any vendor deals to the team that weekend.
“We used to live on a lot of the products [the vendors] gave away. You didn’t want to buy oil, you know, because every week at the race track, you had to make sure you went over to the Union 76 building and you got two free cases of oil. And you took your rear end pump down there and they had a 55-gallon drum and they’d fill your rear gear. You always went over and got at least one set of ball joints from MOOG. Earl Parker was there with the Champion stuff, so you got your spark plugs for your next event.”
“Back then, if you weren’t getting your products like that, that was an extra couple hundred dollars you had to spend out of your pocket, either shipped to you or you didn’t have to get it or you weren’t gonna get it until you got to the next track. . .And the vendors were great about it, those guys just took wonderful care of you back then, and you depended on those guys. It was something that helped you get into the next show.”
“It was their ‘thank you’ for you running their product and having that sticker on their car, that type of stuff. It was a trade-off. That was the closest we got to merchandise deals or contingency plans back then. . .[Y]ou look at an entry blank from these guys back then, and it says ‘If you run the MOOG Suspension sticker and you finish first, you’re gonna get $50,’ and ‘If you run the Union 76 Oil sticker and you win it, then you’re gonna get an extra $50.’ But the thing is, when you looked at guys like J.D. [McDuffie] or my dad or Elmo [Langley] or Jabe Thomas or Cecil [Gordon] or any of those cats - they’re not gonna win it. They’re not getting that $50. It’s not that they’re not eligible for it, but they’re not gonna win the race, you know? So, that was a way for them to still run that sticker and be compensated for it. So, it’s a deal that back then, they understood these guys aren’t millionaires. . .They’re doing it for the love of it, and they need some help with it just like anybody else.”
“My dad would go through that decal package, and if they weren’t offering something like that, or they weren’t giving a free set of gauges, you know, Stewart-Warner wasn’t giving a free set of gauges or something, if you ran 20th, then there’s no sense in putting that Stewart-Warner sticker on the car. It’s as simple as that. It’s free advertisement otherwise. And NASCAR makes you run certain stickers on the car, but the other ones, if it’s not, then from an independent’s point of view, there’s no sense in doing it.”
|H.B. Bailey's #36 preparing to qualify at Indianapolis, 1994|
“ ‘Your first two years [in North Carolina], shut up. Learn everything you can and absorb it.’ And that’s what I did. There’s a lot of value in listening.”
It was a difficult transition for the younger Bailey, now working a full Cup Series season for the first time. One afternoon in Darlington was more difficult than most. While in the backstretch pits getting Waltrip’s car ready for qualifying, he heard a car slam into the Turn 2 wall.
“Caution came out and I looked in the corner, and Dad had lost a right-front tire and went in the wall pretty hard. He kind of nosed in rather than slid into it, so anyway, and I was changing front tires back then. I’m standing on the wall, and we’re pitting on the back straightaway. He’s over there in turn two, stuck in the wall there, and I keep looking up, looking at my dad, looking at the car, waiting to see him to drop the window net and he hadn’t dropped the window net, he hadn’t moved yet. And then about the time I see my car come down, I’m looking back and forth and here comes Michael, so I have to go over and do my job. I go over and change tires and get back. And normally, first I’m getting the tires back and making sure we’re not having a tire issue. But when I first got back, I asked ‘Did he get out of the car okay?’ and they said ‘Yeah, he’s in the ambulance.’ And I said ‘Good,’ so I was able to do my job. That was one of the times I remember when it was tough doing my job.”
H.B. Bailey was uninjured, and eight years later, father and son were again on pit road, again getting ready for qualifying. Earlier that August morning in 1994, Joe Dan talked with his father before he climbed in number 36. A photographer came by and snapped a picture of the two of them talking - H.B. in his bright red driver’s uniform, his son in GM Goodwrench black and white. “I loved that picture,” said Bailey. “That was the coolest picture.”
Minutes later, back with the Childress crew, the younger Bailey had the best seat in the house to watch his father make history.
“The guy with the booming voice, Tom Carnegie, he is in the booth and there’s a certain amount of excitement. . .So with that, Dad was on the track, he came down, and when he came down, Carnegie’s all excited on the P.A. system, so he makes his lap, he comes back around, and Carnegie yells out ‘There’s H.B. Bailey with a 51.40’ or something like that, and ‘A New Track Record!’ And that was something ‘cause Dad didn’t have the speed the whole time, and all of a sudden for this guy to get all excited about it.”
“And what [Carnegie] said was the absolute truth - that was a new track record. . .That was very cool, and I remember that well, just hearing his voice announce my dad’s name. I was the tire guy on the 3, so I was still doing my job, but as he came by, it was neat seeing him come by, that was really the best moment.”
Unfortunately, Bailey didn’t make the field for the Brickyard - ranking 69th of the 86 entrants - and he made just one more Cup attempt before he passed away in 2003. Yet still, Bailey holds a special place in both the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in NASCAR itself. To many today, racing is a career. But to H.B. Bailey, it was something much more.
“He always said racing was his hunting and fishing. That’s the way he looked at it. Some people go to Montana hunting or fishing wherever, but that was his vacation, his hunting and fishing. He’d save up his money and get enough to do that, and that’s what he did. That was his break from the normal everyday.”
Today, Joe Dan Bailey is still active in NASCAR as the Senior Engineer for Toyota Racing Development.