The history of Upton Racing is really the history of stock car racing in Bowling Green, Kentucky and, in particular, the history of Beech Bend Raceway. It all began in the mid-1940’s with three hot-wired, fast-paced teenagers, a promoter willing to take a risk, and the growing enthusiasm of the public for the new phenomenon of stock car racing.
About 1941 a likable, enterprising young man named Charles Garvin purchased a gently rolling section of land covered with beech trees located about 2 ½ miles northeast of Bowling Green. The property, being used at the time as a dairy and farming operation, was situated in a big “U” shaped bend in the Barren River. Its proximity to Bowling Green, combined with the cool shade of the beech trees and the quiet solitude of the slow-moving river, had made the area a haven from the long, hot days of summer since the 1880’s. Locals have always called the place “beech bend,” and the name itself denotes peace and serenity.
Garvin saw the potential for more than just camping and picnicking. He soon renamed the area Beech Bend Park, charged 10 cents admission, and began the gradual development of an amusement park. The first addition to the camping and picnicking activities was a live pony ride. In 1946-47 Garvin added a swimming pool, pavilions for dancing, and a large ferris wheel that he purchased at the Chicago World’s Fair. Eventually, the park became the largest amusement center in southwestern Kentucky.
a summer day in the mid-1940’s, three teenage boys from Bowling Green,
Elmo and Wayne Guy, who were brothers, and Billy Hudson, a friend, headed
their motorcycles toward Beech Bend. At the gate, Garvin
collected his usual 10 cent fee, and the motorcycles roared through the
dirt roadways of the park. Entering a large meadow
near the river, the boys ripped through the grass and weeds, racing each
other in a large oval. As they left the meadow, they
had the beginnings of a plan.
Although Garvin didn’t know it yet, the real entertainment dollar in the years immediately after WWII was going to be in stock car racing. Bowling Green was not yet on the racing map, but stock car racing was popping up in towns all around the city. Hugh Porter Causey, a young local garage owner and car lover, decided to build a stock car that he could race in Russellville and other nearby towns. Going a step further, Raymond McClard, the local Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealer and city politician (he was the local jailer), tried, with limited success, to promote a track outside town on the Russellville road. Momentum was building.
the 1940’s drew to a close, Garvin and McClard, who were good friends,
believed that the time had come when the public was ready to support stock
car racing in Bowling Green. They promoted their first stock car
race at Beech Bend Park in 1948, the same year that saw the birth of NASCAR.
Charley was aware of Hugh Causey’s interest in racing and the fact that
he had built a car, so he called Hugh and asked him to help in putting
together a group of people who would be willing to build stock cars and
support racing at Beech Bend Park. Causey agreed inasmuch as Garvin
offered to reimburse him for his out of pocket expenses. Soon Causey
was running ads on radio and in the Daily News inviting interested parties
to contact him. He was also using his own extensive network of mechanics
and car lovers to help him, including the founder of Upton Racing, Lattney
Upton, who owned a garage just a block away from Causey’s garage.
According to Causey, “Pretty soon it seemed like everybody in Bowling
Green was building a race car.”
Safety and racing equipment was rudimentary at best. Shoulder harnesses were practically unknown. Car owners scavenged lap belts from airplanes or army surplus stores. Almost all cars had roll cages, but they were optional. The drivers scrounged up old football helmets and the lucky ones found goggles. Drivers wore a handkerchief over their nose and mouth to fight a losing battle against the dust. Wayne Guy said that he was still spitting up dirt on Wednesday after the Sunday races. Elmo Guy and Marshall Love, Jr. had the good fortune to find real racing helmets. Love still has his helmet. It fits on top of the head down to the ears with canvas earflaps that tied under the chin. The helmet is white with a short bill.
In an interview with the local newspaper, the Park City Daily News, Raymond McClard identified the car owners and drivers expected to participate in the inaugural event: Causey & Reynolds Garage, Tommy Smith, driver; Mayhugh Motor Company, A. W. Nolan, driver; Wingfield Auto Service, Marshall Love, Jr., driver; Wright’s Welding and Machine Shop, Elmo Guy, driver. Several other businesses that had committed to participating that first Sunday included Wallace Motor Company, Cohron Motor Company, Upton’s Garage, Tunk’s Garage, Burch Golden Tip Service, and Dixie Garage.
Initially, Lattney Upton, owner of Upton’s Garage, thought he might become involved in the local racing effort by sponsoring someone else’s car; but the more he thought about it, the more he wanted his own car. Somehow he came up with a 1939 Dodge coupe body and a 1936 Cadillac V8 engine. Latt worked all day to support hisfamily, then he and his friends worked half the night to build the race car. Finally, when it was finished, his wife, Betty, put her foot down and informed him that he had too much family responsibility to drive a race car. Latt relented and made a deal with Ralph Martin to drive the car.
That first race at Beech Bend Park was a resounding success! An overflow crowd of 2,500 people watched a field of 19 cars put on an exciting show including five crack-ups, two of which were spectacular rollovers, but no injuries. Out of towners dominated the events beginning with Elmer Tapp of Owensboro, Kentucky setting the first time trial record at 25.3 seconds around the one-third oval, an average speed of 47.43 mph. Bowling Green drivers Billy Hudson, driving for Mayhugh & McReynolds Motor Company and Elmo Guy in the Wright Machine Shop 7-11, were the only local winners, winning a heat race and the pursuit race respectively. The Upton’s Garage car, No. 22, Krazy Kat, driven by Ralph Martin, finished out of the money. The unexpectedly high turnout prompted the Bowling Green Sporting Association to announce that racing would continue each Sunday afternoon until the onset of bad weather. The promoters also announced that they would construct an addition to the grandstands to accommodate larger crowds.
As the season wore on, and the crowds became more enthusiastic, the racing brothers, Wayne and Elmo Guy, became the local drivers to beat. Elmo became the local favorite by finishing near the top each week to the more experienced out of town drivers. Finally, on September 30, 1951, Wayne Guy surprised Elmo by becoming the first local man to win the feature race; he made it a clean sweep by also winning his heat race and the Australian pursuit race that same day. In a recent interview, when asked what he liked about stock car racing, Wayne replied, “I just liked being there! And I always wanted to beat Elmo!”
Latt Upton’s Krazy Kat, No. 22, raced only a couple of times under the hand of Ralph Martin before he resigned. Betty Upton thought that he didn’t like the way the car handled. Early the next Sunday morning, Betty answered a knock on the door to see a tall, slender, soft-spoken man present himself by saying, “Mrs. Upton, my name’s Larry Graham. I understand that Mr. Upton needs a stock car driver.”
Graham was 22 years old in 1951. Although soft-spoken, he was extremely competitive; he wanted to win. But as a result of childhood polio, he was unable to compete in the traditional sports, so he was looking for something that would give him a level playing field. Stock car racing offered that possibility. His first ride was in a Ford Coupe called “The Thing,” owned by Raymond McClard. According to Larry the car had no chance to win as it was a strictly stock flat head Ford V8 with 85 hp. McClard refused to spend any money to make it competitive, not even locking the rear-end. Larry drove the car for a few races, then told Raymond they would never “run with the big dogs,” and they parted company amicably.
Graham had seen Upton’s No. 22 race without success, but he felt that the driver was trying to drive it like a Ford, which it was obviously not. Frankly, Graham considered the car somewhat of a Rube Goldberg setup with its 1939 Dodge body and a 1936 Cadillac V8 engine. It was definitely out of the mainstream in that it was so heavy and powerful. As a matter of fact, Upton named it Krazy Kat after the comic strip character because most of the racing people thought he was crazy for building such a race car. What they didn’t know was that he was building the car out of the materials at hand; he had no money.
At any rate, Upton liked Larry Graham so they put their heads together to come up with a strategy for driving the car. Larry insisted that he had to learn to drive the car before anything was final. He did not want to be pressured to win until he understood his machine. Latt agreed as he didn’t want the car wrecked without anything to show for it. So initially Larry tagged the field, gradually gaining confidence in the car. Their ultimate strategy was based on Larry’s experience driving the car. They decided to offset the weight of the car with the power of the Cadillac V8 motor. The key was to find a groove on the track that would accommodate them. Larry learned that he had to let off the gas a little early going into a turn, drop down out of the high groove and go low in the turn, accelerating hard coming out of the turn. Most drivers tended to stick in the high groove through the turns. Graham noticed that with the power of the big Cadillac engine he could gain a car length on every turn. He began to win races, but he did not win a feature race, so he refused the local tradition of carrying the checkered flag around the track on a parade lap after a win. That made him different, and people began to notice him.
Finally, the county championship race was scheduled for October 14, 1951. This race would be open only to local drivers. According to the local newspaper, Wayne Guy was the designated ‘marked man’ due to his surprising triple win two weeks before. Elmo Guy was also mentioned as a top choice to win. As it turned out, Elmo Guy was the Warren County champion with Larry Graham a close second.
On October 21, 1951, Beech Bend held the last race of the season, which was billed as the Regional Championship with all comers welcome. The championship race was extended to 25 laps and limited to the top 12 qualifiers. The Bowling Green Sporting Association announced that for the first time trophies would be presented by a special guest of honor, Miss Kentucky of 1951, Dottye Nuckols. Again, Elmo and Wayne Guy were considered the local favorites to cop the championship.
The race was broadcast over local radio station WLBJ by Les Williams. In spite of all the out of town competition, the race was dominated by Elmo Guy, followed by Wayne Guy and Larry Graham. These three held off the field as the race approached 20 laps, when suddenly, Elmo Guy had a flat tire. He continued to race but was losing ground as Wayne Guy took over first place with Larry Graham in second. Unfortunately, with two laps to go Wayne had a flat and Larry Graham passed him to vault to victory. Beech Bend’s inaugural season was over.
The 1952 season at Beech Bend saw a weekly battle between Elmo Guy and Larry Graham. The bad news for Latt Upton, however, was that Graham was now driving a Hudson Hornet for Ray Fuller and Clarence Murray, as Upton’s new car was not ready at the beginning of the season. At times during the year it seemed that Graham and Guy were the only drivers on the track due to their dominance over the field. During mid-season, however, Larry Graham joined the U.S. Air Force, leaving the championship to Guy. Other strong competitors during the year were Wayne Guy, A. W. Nolan, Paul Stradtner, Billy Hudson, and Tommy Smith.
The fan excitement and support was so great that stock car racing became a fixture until drag racing surged to the fore 10 years later. During the early 1950’s crowds of six to seven thousand became common as Garvin continued to expand the facilities.
The year 1952 was a disappointment for Latt Upton. He built a new race car but lost his driver simply because the new car was not ready for the beginning of the year. Rather than trying to hold on to Larry Graham, Latt told him to find a ride if he could. Obviously, with his performance in 1951, Graham was in demand. Upton built a much better car than the old No. 22, but his drivers were inexperienced and had bad luck. The car was involved in numerous crashes. He once remarked that if his driver saw a crash happening in front of him, he would speed up so that he could get in the middle of it. Discouraged and broke, the 1952 season was the end of the dream.
I still thought about racing; I wanted to race. So Jerry Boren, my high school buddy, and I bought an old 1941 Ford pickup for $25. We put a 1948 Mercury flat head V8 motor in it and removed the pickup bed. We called our car the “Borton.” You can figure out why.Jerry borrowed a John Deere tractor and scraper from Lawrence Hancock, a Pima farmer, and father of his girlfriend, with which to build our own race track. We were probably the impetus for the formation of the Sierra Club as we scraped our very own secret track in the pristine desert south of Pima. The fun must have been in the work because it was very difficult to run on our track. No seatbelts, no rollbars, and no helmets deterred us from driving the hell out of our pickup cab and frame. The problem was that after about three laps the swirl of dust was so thick that we could no longer see the track, and we would have to stop until the air cleared. Then I got married.
Forty years later on a Friday night on June 4, 2002, for some unexplainable reason, I suggested to my wife, Judy McDonald, that we go to a stock car race at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. She had absolutely no interest, but said if I wanted to go, go. And I did. As soon as I parked my car I heard the rumble of the engines as the drivers did their mud-packing laps. My heart raced as I hurried to the gate. I was alone in the crowd, but I was so excited. I was back in 1951, 10 years old, at Beech Bend Park. All the old feelings came rushing back.
One of the classes of cars that raced that night was an entry-level division called “bombers.” These were old cars almost ready for the junkyard. I decided then and there that I could race in the bomber division. When I got home I told Judy that I wanted to race with the bombers. She said OK, but I don’t think she was taking me seriously. So the next week I went back to Manzanita Speedway and bought a pit pass. Up close I felt a little intimidated by the noise, power and action in the pits. But I barged ahead and introduced myself to a lot of the drivers and owners. One of the introductions was to Larry Price, one of the old pros and a man who could help me find a car. I made an appointment to meet with him the next week. He had a blue 1976 Olds Cutlass Supreme that met the requirements of the bomber division so I bought it.
I went into this enterprise with my eyes open, but I had created a lot of problems for myself. First, although my father was a life-long auto mechanic and racing enthusiast, I had spent my life distancing myself from his. I did not want to spend my life working on cars night and day as he had. So I went to college on the poor man’s plan; I worked and it took me a long time to graduate. I had a long career in banking and finance. But I never touched a wrench in all those years. How was I going to keep a race car running week after week? Second, I had no tools or equipment of any kind, not the least of which would be a pickup and trailer to haul the car. Furthermore, I belong to a homeowners association; I knew they would not tolerate a race car in my driveway.I solved the second problem when Larry Price introduced me to Mike Lilly who had a lot next to Manzanita in which he stored race cars for a monthly rental fee. To solve the first problem of maintaining a car, I turned to my son, Justin, who has some knowledge of mechanics. Furthermore, he has always been a fierce competitor so I thought he might like the idea of partnering a race car with me. But when I first approached him with my idea, he was very reluctant. He did agree to go to a race with me, but I think he was humoring me, thinking that this was a phase I would grow out of in a short period of time. Fortunately for me, he was hooked almost instantly.
We became partners with the bomber, No. 59. I would drive one week and Justin would drive the next week. We blew the engine in about the third week. I was ready to give it up, but Judy told me to go buy another car. So Larry Price came through with another 1976 Olds Cutlass Supreme. It turned out to be a great bomber.
We had so much fun during the 2002 season that we decided to resurrect the first bomber with the blown engine. We had Jeremy Goetschius rebuild the motor while we rebuilt the car during the off season. We built the new car, No. C22, to comply with Claimer Division rules. It also turned out to be a great car. We took turns driving it during the 2003 season, finishing fourth in the point standings.
During the winter of 2003, Justin and I decided to move up to the Factory Stock Division, split our partnership, and compete against each other. Justin built a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro, No. 66, and I have a 1982 Olds Cutlass Supreme with a Chevrolet engine, No. 67. I can say this about the Factory Stock Division: it is a tough division! It is full of good, experienced drivers with good cars, and everything moves at a must faster pace. Needless to say, Justin and I are currently performing like the rookies we are.Why did I do this to myself? I was 61 years of age when I began this enterprise, just a little past the prime of most race car drivers. I’m a card-carrying member of AARP, a member of the Geritol set, the Social Security club, and a little out of my league among Manzanita Speedway race car drivers. The fact is I was never in the right place at the right time to pursue my dream of stock car racing. In June, 2002, I realized that if I didn’t act right now, I really would be too old. I just wish my father was still alive to see it. I know he would be shocked! So what if my body aches all over after the Friday night races. So what if I am totally fatigued and foggy-headed throughout the weekend. The thrill of the 2½ minutes of the heat race and the 5 minutes of the feature race make it all worthwhile. For that period of time I am really alive.