Thursday, September 7, 2017

2/21/82: Gary Balough and RahMoc Enterprises finish last at Richmond in the shadow of “Black Thursday”

On February 21, 1982, Gary Balough picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Richmond 400 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway when his #75 Sanyo Buick was involved in a multi-car accident, ending his race after 42 of 250 laps.  The finish came in Balough’s 16th series start.

The driver they called “Hot Shoe” would come to be known for two things: his domination as a dirt racer and the prison sentence that curtailed his NASCAR career.  It’s interesting to note that Balough didn’t get his start on the dirt, but on the paved Haileah Speedway in Florida.  In 1962, when he was only 14, Balough won in his first-ever start, then scored another 36 by the end of the year.  Balough moved to Late Models at 16, and in 1968 won the prestigious Florida’s Governor’s Cup 200.

It was Balough’s mentor and NASCAR legend “Tiger” Tom Pistone who first exposed the youngster to dirt track racing by sending him to Pennsylvania to shake down a dirt chassis.  An eager student, Balough learned from racers across the state, including Spud Murphy, who fielded his first cars on clay.

Balough was cocky and brash, but undeniably gifted behind the wheel, and despite his asphalt background, showed the ability to run smooth laps and save his tires on the tough dirt bullrings.  So gifted, in fact, that in 1976, he won the first of three consecutive runnings of the iconic Syracuse 200 at the New York State Fairgrounds.  Driving car #112, Balough would dominate Super DIRT Week a fourth time in 1980, running the iconic ground-effect-laden “Batmobile,” a heavily-modified Lincoln chassis designed by Kenny Weld.

By this point in his career, had already made his NASCAR debut in no less than the famous 1979 Daytona 500.  Driving for fellow Florida native Billie Harvey, Balough put Billie Harvey’s #87 Fast Lane Ltd. Oldsmobile 27th on the 41-car grid, but ended up 35th when he was involved in the early accident that eliminated David Pearson.  Balough finished 16th in his return to Daytona that July, 35th at Pocono, then in 1980 qualified 8th at Atlanta before a wreck left him 39th.  But, coming into 1981, as NASCAR downsized its stock cars to shorter-wheelbase models, Balough was without a Cup ride in 1981.  He’d soon find one with a young team called RahMoc Enterprises.

Butch Mock and engine builder Bob Rahilly co-founded RahMoc Enterprises in 1978 as a part-time team in the Cup Series.  The team campaigned car #75 from the very start on October 8, 1978, when Mock himself raced his way from last on the grid at Charlotte to finish 26th in a field of 40.  Over the next three seasons, Mock would hand over the wheel to a number of different drivers who would go on to have success in NASCAR, including Chuck Bown, Kyle Petty, and Harry Gant, as well as Lennie Pond, who edged Darrell Waltrip for Rookie of the Year in 1973, and Joe Millikan, who lost rookie honors to Dale Earnhardt in 1979.  A few weeks after Millikan was released following the 1981 World 600 at Charlotte, Tim Richmond made a lone start for RahMoc at Nashville, the same race where Mark Martin earned his first pole.  Richmond finished 12th, but the team had still yet to score its first Cup win.  The team’s best finish at that point were three 7th-place finishes – one by Gant, and two by Millikan.  And so, for the next round at Pocono on July 26, the team decided to put a RahMoc engine under Gary Balough.

Carrying sponsorship from Ferrailuolo & Sons Excavating, whose owners Tony and Ronnie Ferraiuolo fielded dirt cars for Balough in 1975, Balough started 15th and matched Richmond’s 12th-place finish – a new career-best for the driver.  He finished out the 1981 season with RahMoc, earning his first Top 10 at Richmond in September.  The driver also proved to be a solid qualifier that year, only once starting worse than 22nd on the grid, including the 4th-fastest speed at Dover and 3rd at Michigan.  On October 10, he won a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman race at Charlotte, beating Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, and Sam Ard with a Bob Rahilly engine.

Balough remained with RahMoc into 1982, when the team entered him in both the Daytona 500 and the weekend’s series debut of the NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series (now the XFINITY Series).  Again, Balough impressed, charging from 33rd to 4th in the Saturday race (trailing Dale Earnhardt, Jody Ridley, and Sam Ard), then going from 31st to 11th in “The Great American Race.”  By this time, Balough had also signed with Harry Ranier to drive the #28 Pontiac that had gone to Benny Parsons, that year’s polesitter of the 500, with Waddell Wilson as crew chief and Robert Yates engines under the hood.

But five days after the 500, as crews headed to the next round in Richmond, disaster struck.  On February 19, Balough was indicted along with 65 others in a $300 million marijuana and cocaine smuggling ring that had operated since 1976.  Among the claims were that the drivers and mechanics worked on the fast powerboats which were used to bring drugs from the Bahamas, and that both NASCAR cars and haulers had been used to transport them into the Carolinas.  The complaint alleged that at least some of the drugs had been ferried through Balough’s home town of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Jim Hunter, the NASCAR Spokesman at the time, commented that Balough and William Joseph Harvey, another driver from the 500 implicated by the FBI, “are not prominent drivers. They are here, I think, because they like it but not to make their living at it.”  Chris Economaki, who dubbed the announcement “Black Thursday,” would later write, “The unfortunate headlines of last week concerning a few racing insiders caught up in a drug investigation is another slap in the face for our sport. Unlike the ‘moonshiners’ of the ’30s and ’40s who broke an unpopular law, drugs, particularly the hard ones, are a cancer on the American scene. Papers that wouldn’t carry a race result if the mayor of their city won at Indy, bannered the racing connection of the drug story.”

“I’d gotten into situations in the late ‘70s that I shouldn’t have been around,” said Balough in 2009. “To get enough funding, because there weren’t any major corporations around then, we made some mistakes.”

Balough was released from a Miami jail on a $100,000 bond in time to join the RahMoc team at Richmond for the second race of the season.  Under this looming cloud of controversy, the driver performed well in qualifying, earning 11th on the 32-car grid.  During the final pace lap, ESPN’s Larry Nuber made brief mention of Balough as “racing moved from the sports page to the front page” as “one of the most famous and concurrently infamous short track drivers Gary Balough, was indicted in an alleged Miami-based drug-smuggling ring, but he’s here this week and ready to go racing.”

Starting last in the field was 32-year-old owner-driver Jimmy Means, embarking on his seventh season on the circuit, in the #52 Broadway Motors Chevrolet.  At the end of Lap 1, the spot fell to Tommy Gale, who was driving Elmo Langley’s #64 Sunny King Ford.  Just as Gale worked his way through Turns 1 and 2, he saw trouble up front as Balough spun his powder blue #75 onto the apron.  Balough regained control without hitting anything, and filed in at the back of the pack.  Lap 3 saw Harry Gant drive down pit road in his #33 7-Eleven / Skoal Bandit Buick, but didn’t make a stop and rejoined the tail end of the field next to Tommy Gale.  Gant would be held a lap under the second caution of the afternoon, then made an unscheduled stop which likely dropped him to last.

Balough’s final bid for last came on Lap 36, when he tangled with open-wheel star Tom Sneva’s #37 Simoniz Buick in Turn 3.  Both cars managed to keep rolling under the yellow, but each had noticeable damage to the front valence.  Balough’s car had the left-front fender caved-in on the tire, causing the #75 to trail smoke as it limped back around the track.  Irritated, he then rear-ended Sneva’s car down the backstretch, then sped past the leaders to get to pit road.  Balough came back out on track, but was quickly black-flagged for passing leader Darrell Waltrip in the pits, costing him a lap and dropping him into contention for last with Gant.  It’s unlikely Balough returned to the track after that, as he was credited with just 42 laps complete, and the race restarted after his wreck on Lap 42.  Sneva’s car fell out soon after with rear end trouble, followed by Gant, whose earlier issues were apparently due to engine trouble.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were owner-drivers D.K. Ulrich in his #6 Buick and Vermont native Joe Fields in his #92 Richmond Printing Buick.  The win would go to Dave Marcis, his first since 1976 and the fifth and final of his long Cup career.

Balough remained with RahMoc for another three races, including Atlanta, where he matched the team’s best finish with another 7th-place run, but was released after Rockingham and replaced by Joe Ruttman.  It was then that Balough entered the darkest period of his career.  From 1982 through 2010, Balough would spend more than 45 months in prison, preventing him from getting back into racing full-time.  He won the 1986 title in NASCAR’s All Pro Super Series, scoring 14 wins in 22 races, and courted Domino’s Pizza for a 25-race, $750,000 sponsorship deal which ended up falling through.  He made three more Busch Series starts in 1990, another three in Cup for Jim Rosenblum in 1991 and 1992, and was there for the start of the Truck Series in 1994 and 1995, but didn’t find the success of a decade earlier.

During this same period, RahMoc Enterprises finally found victory lane.  On May 29, 1983, during the World 600 at Charlotte, Neil Bonnett led 69 laps, including the final 53, and beat Richard Petty for the win by eight-tenths of a second.  By the late 1980s, Bonnett had scored four wins for RahMoc, the last of which coming in the final race at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway in 1988 before the track was re-configured into today’s Richmond Raceway.  Though no other driver won for RahMoc, the team continued to show flashes of brilliance into the early 1990s.  The team’s final two of their 36 top-five finishes both came in the Daytona 500, where Joe Ruttman ran 3rd in 1991 and Dick Trickle, without a sponsor, finished 5th in 1992.

Between the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Butch Mock left RahMoc Enterprises to start his own team, Butch Mock Motorsports.  Mock would continue to campaign the #75 for the rest of the decade, but in 209 Cup starts would finish no better than a 3rd by Todd Bodine at Atlanta in 1994.  In late 1999, Mock sold the team to Darwin Oordt, who presided over the renamed and short-lived Galaxy Motorsports in 2000.  Meanwhile, Bob Rahilly and his brother Dick have kept the RahMoc name alive with RahMoc Racing Engines.  The power plants built by the Rahilly brothers still can be heard roaring around the confines of Bowman Gray Stadium.

As for Balough, his prison days are well behind him, and he still resides in Florida.  Like fellow dirt tracker Jimmy Horton, he’s kept ties with his clay oval roots, including a return to Syracuse.  In 2015, he was inducted to the New England Modified Hall of Fame, where his 1980 “Batmobile” is on display.  He currently operates his own team, Gary Balough Racing, where he acts as driving coach and aero and chassis setup.  His Facebook page can be found at this link.

*Balough’s last-place finish was the first for RahMoc Enterprises.  The team’s #75 wouldn’t finish last at Richmond again until after Butch Mock started his own team.  On June 6, 1998, Rick Mast lost the engine on his #75 Remington Arms Ford after 113 laps of the Pontiac Excitement 400.  It proved to be Mock’s 13th and final last-place finish as the team’s co-owner, then sole owner.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #75 in a Cup Series race since September 15, 1974, when Johnny Barnes’ Hawks Enterprises 1972 Chevrolet lost an engine on the opening lap of the Delaware 500 at Dover.
*This was also the first last-place finish for car #75 in a Cup race at Richmond since June 5, 1960, when John Dodd, Jr.’s 1960 Ford lost an engine after 37 laps of the Richmond 200.  Since Richmond wasn’t paved at the time, Dodd’s finish was the #75’s most recent last-place finish in a NASCAR dirt track race until Caleb Holman’s run at Eldora this past July.

32) #75-Gary Balough / 42 laps / crash
31) #37-Tom Sneva / 94 laps / rear end
30) #33-Harry Gant / 138 laps / engine
29) #6-D.K. Ulrich / 169 laps / engine
28) #92-Joe Fields / 190 laps / running

*Autoweek Staff. “Special report: Racers who have run afoul of the law,” Autoweek, April 27, 2014.
*Hedger, Ron. “Looking for Pay Dirt: Gary Balough searches the soil for a little magic,” Stock Car Racing, February 2009.
*Managing Editor. “Gary Balough to be Inducted Into NE Modified Hall of Fame,” Dirt Track Digest, June 3, 2015.
*Strauss, Valerie. “Stock car racers charged in drug smuggling ring,” UPI Archives, February 19, 1982.
*Waltz, Keith. “Black Thursday Saw Racers Arrested In Drug Ring,” Speed Sport, February 16, 2010.
*Williams, Deb. “After more than 4 decades, the Rahilly brothers still enjoy building race engines,” The Charlotte Observer, July 29, 2014.

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