Born in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, Brightbill began as a crew member for another team at the nearby Reading Fairgrounds. Unwilling to wait two years to start driving, he started his first race in 1967, the same year Morgan Shepherd began his own ageless career at Hickory. Brightbill was 19 then, and chose that number for his car, fashioning a decal out of strips of tape.
Since his mother didn’t want her youngest of ten sons to race, Brightbill worked on his car at his brother Harry’s house, and competed part-time for the next three years. Success came slowly, but when he went full-time in 1970, he won his first feature in a modified race at Reading. From then until the track’s closure in 1979, another 134 wins would come at that track alone. So began the career of “The Shillington Slingshot,” or “Mr. Outside.”
“As a kid I always cheered for Buzzie Reutimann and that's why I run the double zero number today,” said fellow racer Doug Manmiller. “Watching the races you always knew Kenny Brightbill would be there, racing at the front. He would always get to first, somehow. He always was exciting and a good runner. I cheered for Buzzie so I wanted Buzzie to beat him, but it didn't always work out that way. No matter what, you knew Kenny would get the job done.”
In 1974, as he headed to the first of four track championships at Reading, Brightbill made his first NASCAR start in the inaugural race at Pocono. Making a one-off start in place of owner-driver Walter Ballard, Brightbill rolled off 19th in a field of 35 and grabbed a strong 10th, edging David Sisco for the spot when the race was shortened by rain.
His next start came that fall at Dover, this time driving in place of Ramo Stott on the same Norris Reed team that would go on to win the pole for the 1976 Daytona 500. Again, the rookie impressed, racing from 23rd to 8th at the finish.
As he had many times before and after, Junie Donlavey took notice of the young talent, and for the following year’s race at Dover hired Brightbill to drive alongside Dick Brooks in a second Truxmore Industries Ford. Not only did Brightbill beat Brooks, who lost an engine and finished 29th, but he again improved his career-best run, taking 7th. Among the drivers in his rear-view mirror were Darrelll Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, and Donnie Allison.
To date, Brightbill is the only driver from the modern era (1972 to present) to finish inside the Top 10 in his first three Cup Series starts. He may have earned more success in NASCAR, perhaps with the Donlavey team, but things didn’t work out that way.
“He told me he had three guys in mind at the time,” said Brightbill of Donlavey, “myself, Ricky Rudd and another guy whose name I forgot. . .Rudd's father put up $80,000 for tires so Ricky could get the ride. . .I offered to drive the car for nothing just to get started, but they wanted money. If I had packed my bags and just moved down to North Carolina at that point I might have picked up a ride. At that time, NASCAR didn't pay what they pay the guys now. NASCAR only paid around $2,000 for 10th place. . .I figured I could make a better living if I just kept racing at the local tracks. I have no regrets. I did what I thought was the right thing at that time, and that's the way it was.”
While Brightbill continued to dominate at Reading and other dirt tracks across the northeast, he would go on to make another three Cup Series starts. His return to the series came in 1977, the year which culminated with the race that’s the subject of this article. That season, Brightbill teamed with car owner Jim Makar, who acquired a Mercury from Roger Penske. The New Jersey-based Makar team debuted that year at Atlanta with Jody Ridley, finishing 14th, then Morgan Shepherd put the #84 Mercury 10th at Dover and 13th in the World 600 at Charlotte. Brightbill’s season debut came at Pocono, where he came just short of a fourth-straight Top 10, finishing 12th.
At Dover in September, Brightbill made the field once more, lining up 17th on the grid alongside James Hylton. The only driver sent home after qualifying was the #44 S&S Auto Supply entry of Kentucky native Robin Schildknecht. It was to be the final Cup attempt for the 23-year-old Scchildknecht, who finished 21st and 15th in his only series starts earlier that year at Richmond and North Wilkesboro. 40th on the grid belonged to Minnesota native Steve Stolarek, who was making his series debut in Norris Price’s #07 Chevrolet.
Just twelve laps into the race, disaster struck. Heading into a corner, Brightbill tangled with Jim Hurtubise and Tighe Scott, steering the #84 Mercury nearly head-on into the outside wall. Brightbill struck the barrier so hard that the car switched ends and tumbled down the banking. The driver walked away with minor injuries, but the car was completely destroyed. As an interesting side note, Jim Makar’s 21-year-old son Jimmy was then sent to bring the wrecked Mercury to Robert Gee’s shop in Charlotte, where he worked with Banjo Matthews. Impressed with Makar’s work, the kid was offered a job. In time, Makar became Bobby Labonte’s championship crew chief in 2000 and is now Vice President of Racing Operations at Joe Gibbs Racing.
|Brightbill (center) gets on two wheels during his crash at Dover, 1977|
PHOTO: Crashin.nu, RaceFansForver.org
Brightbill returned to Makar’s team in 1978 at Pocono, where he finished 23rd. It was ultimately the final Cup start for both driver and team.
Back at the dirt tracks in his #19, Brightbill picked up right where he left off, rounding out the 1978 season with another 40 wins. He would win no fewer than three features a season for the next 25 straight years. Among them was the Eastern States 200 in 1980, an event won by both the earlier-featured Gary Balough and Jimmy Horton. Even more incredibly, after six winless seasons, Brightbill returned to his winning ways in 2010, and at age 65 won the 2013 track championship in the Action track USA SpeedSTR division.
A six-time honoree for his accomplishments, including the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame (as a member of the Class of 2012), Brightbill, along with former Makar Enterprises teammate Morgan Shepherd, is currently celebrating his 50th year in racing.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #84-Kenny Brightbill / 12 laps / crash
39) #0-Jim Hurtubise / 12 laps / crash
38) #98-Marv Acton / 16 laps / crash
37) #45-Baxter Price / 17 laps / radiator
36) #07-Steve Stolarek / 21 laps / wheel
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #84 in a Cup race at Dover. The number wouldn’t trail at the track again until September 23, 2007, when A.J. Allmendinger picked up his own first last-place run in the #84 Red Bull Toyota.
*This marked the first NASCAR last-place finish for Mercury since August 12, 1973, when Paul Tyler’s #83 Smithville Farms 1971 Mercury had ignition problems after 10 laps of the Talladega 500 at Talladega. The make would finish last in just four more Cup races, the last of on May 25, 1980, when Bill Elliott’s #9 Dahlongea Ford Sales machine wrecked with Lennie Pond after 6 laps of the World 600 at Charlotte.
*Burhrman, Frank. “A Little Ramble in Delaware,” RaceFansForever.org, May 10, 2017
*Kane, Randy. “Kenny Brightbill’s 50-year career will be celebrated Wednesday,” Reading Eagle, July 16, 2017.
*Managing Editor, “Return of Kenny Brightbill To Modified Racing Takes Place Thursday, June 15 at Rescheduled Delaware Internaitonal Speedway STSS ‘Diamond State 50,’ DirtTrackDigest.com, June 5, 2017.
*Minter, Rick. “Joe Gibbs celebrates 25 years in NASCAR racing,” The Flagship, January 27, 2016.
*Kenny Brightbill (YouTube Video), posted by Lenny Swider