Larry Graham, the driver of Upton Racing’s first stock car entry in 1951, provided written commentary throughout the season on Justin Upton’s 2007 championship run at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, Arizona. Graham was the driver to beat at Beech Bend Park in 1951-52 until the U. S. Air Force changed his career path during Korean War days. Racing Upton’s Garage’s 1938 Dodge, Graham won the inaugural (1951) Kentucky Regional Championship. He was leading the points chase in 1952 when he entered military service as a 2nd Lieutenant.
Graham, now 78 years of age, has done much more than just provide Justin with written commentary. Unbeknownst to Graham, he became the model of what a champion should be based on the stories Justin heard when he was a young boy. Justin recreated the concept of Larry Graham, the hero, in his quest to become a champion. Actually, all of my children, none of whom has ever met Larry Graham, have benefited from the man who was my first role model.
On some level, Graham’s contribution is a purist’s concept of how racing should be conducted; he substituted thought and planning for the hell-bent aggressiveness generally displayed by stock car drivers. From Justin’s point of view, Graham took a “rubbin’ is racin’,” red-neck sport and converted it into a war game of strategies and tactics, which must be executed with a certain degree of fair play and sportsmanship.
Larry Graham’s pedigree is not what one expects based on the magnified myth of moonshiners and rumrunners associated with the early stock car drivers in the South. Larry is a descendent of one of the most distinguished families of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Arriving about 1807, the Grahams became a prominent part of the community and so they remain to this day. Education has been the family’s foundation, beginning with Judge Asher W. Graham, Larry’s great-great grandfather, who served on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, at the time the highest court in the state. Higher education is a family tradition for both the men and women; Larry and his four sisters all graduated from Western Kentucky University; his four children include two who are veterinarians, an attorney, and an electrician.
His attraction to stock car racing was the result of a natural bent toward mechanics and the fact that he endured polio during the sixth and seventh grades. As a result, he missed out on the traditional sports but was always looking for a way to compete on a level playing field, which turned out to be stock car racing. Obviously, he was extremely successful in his place and time.
Graham’s first ride was in “The Thing,” an underpowered 85 horsepower Ford, which was owned by the local Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealer. According to Graham, “It would never run with the big dogs.” Actually, “The Thing” was involved in Graham’s only serious racing accident. Running at Russellville, Kentucky, a town famous for the great bank robbery carried out by Jesse James and his gang in 1868, Graham found himself running near the front when, all of a sudden, the Ford hit a soft spot in turns one and two. The left rear wheel lost traction, the car abruptly slowed, and the car behind tapped Larry’s left rear and, BOOM! Graham was upside down in the middle of the track. The seat belts in those days did not have a quick-release catch, so Graham reached into his boot for his jack-knife and began to saw through the belt. Just as he reached his knife-wielding hand out to pull himself through the window, he stabbed the bent-over ambulance driver right in the derriere. Larry was unhurt but the ambulance driver required stitches!
The Russellville track was also the scene of one of the great tragedies in Kentucky racing in 1950. The track itself was a makeshift affair, as were most of the tracks in those early days. In turns three and four at the east end of the track was a low barn with a sloping roof supported by small posts set in the edge of the race track. There were no guard rails; drivers simply had to be very careful with that end of the track to keep from going wide and hitting the posts. To make matters worse, numerous boys would sneak into the track by coming over the roof of the barn, dangle their feet over the edge, and have a really good view of the race. The pit area was just outside turn four where all the cars waiting to race were stationed as well as the tractor used to prep the track. Graham continues with the story: “One night I had finished my driving in the second heat… I went to the infield to watch the mayhem of heats three and four. An old boy…was in a 1935 Ford sedan and was out in front and driving very hard and most of us were hoping he would finally win one as he was a decent sort. He went wide on the turn and mowed down the entire line of posts. The roof caved in as he went along, dumping kids and boys in a line along the edge of the track...We were hoping the trailing cars would be able to avoid the pile of people, but (the driver) couldn’t regain control. He went off the track into the pits and head-on into the end of the rear axle of the John Deere tractor which was used to grade the track. Fuel from the broken line hit the hot manifold, spewing gasoline all over the inside of the car. He seemed unconscious lying on the steering wheel, but within a couple of seconds there was a big explosion and car, driver, and right rear wheel and tire on the tractor were incinerated.” Therein lies the danger of pioneering in racing or any other perilous activity.
Graham’s genius was embodied in the methodical way he approached racing. Winning was the goal, but the problem to be solved was getting the necessary horsepower and equipment and then making them behave in such a way that winning was possible. When Larry Graham teamed up with Latt Upton horsepower was no longer a problem, but the race car was unruly, or in Larry’s words, “a Rube Goldberg setup.” It was a 1938 Dodge coupe with a 1936 Cadillac V8 engine. It was powerful and heavy, a strange combination for a race car. So the problem that Larry and Latt had to solve was how to make this heavy, lumbering car, with more power than anything on the track, outrun the popular light-weight modified Fords. They did it and won the 1951 Kentucky Regional Championship.
Justin Upton grew up on stories about Larry Graham that he heard from his grandfather and me. Little did we know that they were making a profound impact on his mind. Since stock car racing was not an option in his youth, he began racing motocross motorcycles at age 14 and, in his words, “After motocross, stock cars held no fear for me; the transition was easy.” If further evidence of Justin’s courage is required, he has competed in the only real sports as defined by Ernest Hemingway: boxing, bullfighting, and auto racing; Hemingway said that all the rest are merely games. In any case, Justin has proven to be quite adaptable to the stock car scene.
From the beginning of Justin’s quest, he has taken the long view, working out a five year plan for a championship. The plan included the type of equipment he needed to win, financial support, driving skill development, and his own emotional make-up and behavior. All of this comes in some fashion from Larry Graham.
Justin is so careful with his equipment that he never does “hot laps,” which are those few laps before the first race when the flagman lets everybody go all out. Justin believes that his engine only has so much good time on it, and it is a waste to burn it up “showing off.” Graham can’t stand the burnouts at NASCAR races. “I submit that if these drivers ever had to dismantle a drive train, put it back together, and buy the broken/worn parts needed to rebuild it, there would be a lot less of this sort of abuse going on.”
Graham advised that one needs to find the groove on the track that is working. “…but always remember that the shortest distance around the track is low and inside, simple arithmetic. Also that regardless of the comfort level, the car behind you has much more of a problem getting under your left rear in that position than if you are cruising at a higher speed up high. Also, momentum and the laws of physics enter in here and dictate that if you have enough power to dig out, you can stay low, but 99 percent of the time the election to start a little high and come out low and wide open from the top of the ellipse will win out over staying up.” As the year progressed, Justin became much more certain of his groove and was always cognizant of Larry’s advice.
It seems that most race car drivers think that patience has no place on a race track; after all, the object is to go as fast as possible and get to the front. Not so! Graham counsels patience, not only to save the equipment, but to win. Here is his advice to Justin early in the season: “I know of some others who have become a little bit over-anxious in the distant past…simply stay out of trouble and let things sort themselves out. If you are in the first 4-5 cars with a couple of laps to go you can always win unless there is a half track lead with #1, in which case you simply keep your car intact and go for #2 or 3. There is always tomorrow!” Justin followed that philosophy all season, resulting in a remarkable consistency with 16 top fives out of 17 races.
Larry constantly counseled patience as a guiding principle. Patience will keep you out of trouble so that you are always in a position to capitalize on other factors that will always occur during a race. Graham also believed that racing is 50 percent luck but the driver with skill and patience will be the one to take advantage of the opportunities that luck provides.
Anyone who has ever watched Justin race knows that he is a clean, respectful driver. He never forces his way around the track when there is no room to move. Graham’s advice to Justin was to “drive nice.” He liked to race against people he could trust; others he watched “like one would a rattlesnake under the bed sheets.”
As the 2007 season progressed and Justin found himself in one of the closest championship runs in Manzanita Speedway history, Graham wrote and said, “Hope Justin continues and suspect he realizes now that it ain’t real comfortable running in first with even-speed cars behind you…it will get personal; it always does.”
About midway through the season, Justin heard a pop near the end of the race, which turned out to be a radiator problem. He corrected it and saved his car. Larry Graham warned that only “idiots fail to notice the unusual. This applies to racing, farming, cattle raising, or business practices. There is always tomorrow and as long as one stays in range of the goal, one gives “luck” a chance to enter the picture…I recall one nice kid (my trainee) who tried so hard, but often blew it and could not figure out why…so I told him ‘if you are at your desk and everything looks in order and a train runs across the desk, you should at least realize that something unusual is happening and pause in your thought processes to find out what it is.’ That prevents courtroom surprises, avoids getting egg on your face, and gives you an edge. True in racing, calving a cow, operating machinery and/or everyday living.” Over the years, Larry trained a lot of young people in his business and on his farm.
Larry had little respect for the drivers that he considered door-slammers or bangers. Usually these were the drivers who could not keep up with the crowd but, nevertheless, stayed in the main groove on the track thereby creating havoc as the faster cars caught up with them. “The mismatch in speeds is so great and the slower vehicle can make a lateral move with relative speed and quickness, while the faster vehicle simply cannot change course that fast.” His strong opinions also apply to highway driving where he sees that an untold number of “terrible accidents could be avoided if drivers would simply use good sense, not to mention courtesy.”
As the season wore on with Justin still out front, Larry continued to counsel patience. At the end of August he said, “…nothing works better than patience and letting the field get strung out and/or wrecked in the first half of the race so long as you can stay within striking distance of the lead car. Justin, you are still OK…At this point, just try and stay in front or in second or third. No point in gambling just to increase the lead, which could easily dissolve with just one accident.”
As the last race approached, Graham wrote, “I made no comment last week. I was afraid I would jinx Justin, who certainly doesn’t need my advice at this point. Congratulations are in order; however, I can’t help but put in a couple of words of caution. At this point, Justin can afford to be cautious. Probably, the top drivers have enough respect for the sport that they could be trusted (to a point) to not do anything obviously stupid to cause a wreck. Justin knows them, of course. The same thing cannot be said for some of their admirers or hangers-on who just might try a dirty trick…Also, there are usually those who are also-rans who like to cause problems when being lapped, etc. ad infinitum…it would appear that Justin does not have to win any single race next week to come out on top. Will keep my fingers crossed and count on Justin not to have a wreck, which will involve a good deal of defensive driving.”
Larry’s last e-mail of the season began simply with, “CONGRATULATIONS!”