Thursday, May 25, 2017

5/30/76: Terry Ryan’s journey from Iowa short tracks to NASCAR superspeedways continues to this day

PHOTO: Brian Norton Collection
On May 30, 1976, Terry Ryan picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #81 WAM Racing Chevrolet fell out with a broken hub after 11 of 400 laps.  The finish came in Ryan’s 3rd series start.

Born in Davenport, Iowa on May 13, 1938 and raised on his family’s farm north of Dewitt, Ryan’s journey into racing began as a teenager, when he befriended local driver Harold Schroeder.  He got a job working on Schroeder’s crew alongside Mel Kenyon.  While Kenyon would soon begin his career as “King of the Midgets” in USAC, Ryan spent more than a decade working his day job as a truck driver, and continued to volunteer on short track crews on the weekends.

Ryan’s chance to drive came in 1967, when he and a friend Jim Hanford built a 1957 Chevrolet hardtop to run in the Sportsman division.  Over the next two seasons, Ryan and his #61Jr. won track championships at Davenport and Maquoketa, Iowa, as well as East Moline, Illinois.  While Ryan had sponsorship from Don Hobbs, who owned a local Roto Rooter franchise, he couldn’t afford to graduate to Late Model competition, a move required for Sportsman champions.  Fortune came through tragedy when other racers petitioned car owner Gary Schomberg hire Ryan to replace Jack Henson, killed in an industrial accident.  With Hobbs remaining as sponsor, Ryan and Schomberg had continued success on the Midwest Late Model circuit.

Ryan’s first taste of professional stock car racing came in 1971, when Hobbs bought him a 1969 Chevelle that Whitey Gerken raced in USAC.  Prior to USAC, Gerken had raced in NASCAR, having graduated from the short-lived Convertible Series to finishing 16th in his first-ever Daytona 500 in 1960.  Gerken’s car gave Ryan valuable seat time, particularly on the speedways that were becoming a larger part of the NASCAR schedule, but lacked speed to become competitive.  By 1974, Ryan was in the market for a new ride and a chance at NASCAR’s elite Cup division.

The opportunity came from, of all places, a local restaurant owner named Bill Monaghan.  A gearhead in his own right, Monaghan wanted to get his start in racing and wanted to hire the best Iowa driver he could find.  That path led him to Ryan, and the two looked to buy a car to enter in NASCAR.  During their search, Ryan and Monaghan caught wind that A.J. Foyt wasn’t happy with a 1974 Chevelle that Banjo Matthews prepared for him at Daytona.  The Purolator-sponsored #50 ran a strong 5th in the Daytona 500, but Foyt was so frustrated with the car at Atlanta that, after a few sluggish practice laps, he left the track in a huff.  Monaghan bought Foyt’s car, then acquired a brand-new 1975 Chevrolet Laguna the following year, laying the foundation for a brand-new racing team: WAM Racing.

One of WAM Racing’s first entries was ARCA’s 1975 season opener at Daytona.  There, Ryan stunned onlookers by winning the pole in his very first attempt, putting up a lap of 185.837mph, then coming home 2nd to Ron Hutcherson.  Curiously, A.J. Foyt withdrew from that same running of the ARCA 200, having not received permission from USAC to enter a race not on the FIA International calendar.  While Foyt picked up his partial Cup schedule driving for Hoss Ellington, Ryan and WAM fine-tuned their two cars in USAC with eyes on a Cup Series debut in SpeedWeeks ’76.

Once again, Ryan found himself a storyline in qualifying and, once again, inextricably tied to A.J. Foyt.  In time trials for the Daytona 500, Foyt earned the provisional pole, followed by Dave Marcis and Darrell Waltrip.  At the end of the session, however, all three had their times disallowed: Marcis for a modified radiator and Foyt and Waltrip for extra fuel lines allegedly used to inject nitrous oxide.  With the three drivers forced to improve their starting spots in Thursday’s 125-mile qualifiers, it was an all-Iowa front row.  The pole fell to unheralded superspeedway driver Ramo Stott, active on the Cup tour since 1967.  On the outside-pole was Terry Ryan.  While Stott’s engine blew, leaving him 26th, Ryan finished a strong 6th, four laps behind David Pearson and Richard Petty when they wrecked off the final corner.

“It took me three days to get used to that track,” Ryan said of Daytona.  “But once you get used to it you can keep the throttle down all the way around.  And when you’re comfortable you can put the car anywhere you want.”

While driver and team took home a $13,800 share of the purse at Daytona, Monaghan wasn’t having any success finding sponsorship.  Still, the two red Chevrolets, numbered #81 with WAM Racing’s logo over the rear tires, continued to find success.  Their next time out at Talladega on May 2, Ryan improved on his Daytona finish with a 5th, four laps behind race winner Buddy Baker.  All of a sudden, the short-tracker from Iowa was becoming a legitimate threat to win on NASCAR’s superspeedways.  Driver and team’s next effort would come at the end of the month, where Ryan would attempt his first-ever Coca-Cola 600.

This time around, Ryan struggled in qualifying, earning just the 31st spot on the grid.  Starting last in the 40-car field was Rossville, Georgia driver Bob Burcham, active in Cup since 1968 and making his fourth and final start for car owner Harold Miller.  At the end of the race, Burcham finished 35th, just outside the Bottom Five, when the sway bar came loose on his #91 Chevrolet.  By then, Ryan was long since out with hub failure, done after just 11 laps.

Finishing 39th that afternoon was rookie driver Jimmy “Smut” Means, who had himself just transitioned from the short tracks of Alabama and Tennessee to race his #52 WIXC Chevrolet.  Seven laps after Means, 1970 Cup champion Bobby Isaac fell out with engine trouble on Neil Castles’ #6 Howard Furniture Chevrolet.  It was, as it turned out, Isaac’s 308th and final Cup start, ending a career with 37 career wins, 11 of which in his championship season alone.  37th went to owner-driver Bruce Hill, then in his third year of competition driving the #47 Howson Algraphy Chevrolet.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Wilmington, North Carolina native Jackie Rogers, who had a steering issue on Lou Viglione’s #60 Red Dog’s Chevrolet.

Ryan ran just two more races in 1976, finishing 32nd at Michigan, then 9th in the season finale at Ontario.  An elusive sponsorship deal finally came the next year from Valvoline, and the team began another seven-race stretch on the circuit’s superspeedways.  Three consecutive engine failure in the opening rounds taxed the team’s resources, and after a 9th-place run in the August race at Michigan, Ryan and WAM Racing abruptly disappeared from NASCAR.  Records indicate the duo made just one more attempt, looking to break into the 1980 Daytona 500 in an Oldsmobile, but an 18th-place finish in his 34-car qualifying race wasn’t quite enough to make the cut.

As late as August 17, 1980, Ryan was still winning on the USAC Stock Car circuit, taking the checkered flag at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.  Still under the banner of WAM Racing, Ltd., Ryan drove another quick car, a 1979 Chevrolet Camaro built by Hutcherson-Pagan with a 550-horsepower engine.  He made his final USAC start on October 12, 1980 at Springfield, where he came home 7th, then returned home to work on his farm.  Unable to sell his Camaro due to a series of rule changes for 1981, Ryan parked the car in a corner of his machine shed, covered it up, and called it a career.

Then in 1996, Ryan reunited with Bob Runge, his crew chief back in his NASCAR days, and along with crewman Buddy Jones formed R&R Vintage Racing, a team geared to compete in vintage racing events on dirt tracks across the midwest.  Ryan dusted off his old Camaro, fixed it up, and brought it to the track.  Interviews with Ryan showed him racing well into his 70s, and his accomplishments are still being recognized.  In 2008, Ryan was admitted to the Quad City Raceway Hall of Fame.

“We’ll go as long as the Lord lets us,” said Bob Runge in 2009, “As long as our bodies are capable.  I just don’t know how long we’ll go.  Maybe one of these days Terry will just decide he’s had enough.”

By Ryan’s account, that day may not be anytime soon.  “It’s just to have fun, and to spend money,” he said.  “Maybe if you’re lucky you make a little and get a little ahead.  But they say speed costs money.  How fast do you want to go?”

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #81 since February 16, 1975, when Warren Tope crashed after 3 laps of the Daytona 500, and is to date the only last-place finish for the number in a Cup race at Charlotte.
*This was the 14th and, to date, most recent time that a last-place finisher of a Cup Series race exited because of hub failure.  Prior to Ryan, it hadn’t happened since August 24, 1965, when Tom Pistone’s #59 1964 Ford started last and exited after 1 lap of the Moyock 300 at the Dog Track (North Carolina) Speedway after the left-front hub failed.  It’s also the only time a Cup Series last-place finisher at Charlotte retired for this reason.

40) #81-Terry Ryan / 11 laps / hub
39) #52-Jimmy Means / 32 laps / engine
38) #6-Bobby Isaac / 39 laps / engine
37) #47-Bruce Hill / 51 laps / transmission
36) #60-Jackie Rogers / 88 laps / steering

*ARCA Racing Results Archive
*Associated Press. “Surprising Ryan wins pole position,” The Montreal Gazette, February 8, 1975.
*Bloomquist, Nate. “Ryan keeps pedal to the metal,” Quad-City Times, April 2, 2009.
*Randy Ayers NASCAR Modeling Forum
*Roberts, Phil. “Terry Ryan: Still turning laps at age 71,” Late Model Illustrated (reposted at Front Porch Expressions), September 2009.
*Smith, Steven Cole. “Top NASCAR Engineering Cheats,” Popular Mechanics, August 27, 2010.

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