Latt Upton
Photo courtesy of Wayne Guy

Lattney Earl Upton

Latt Upton was born October 21, 1913, in Richardsville, Kentucky. Latt’s great-great grandparents, Joseph and Frances Upton, led the family to the Green River country in 1801 just about the time of the inaugural of the United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson. Although many in the family have moved on, the Uptons remain deeply rooted in the Richardsville community.

Latt was a pleasant man to be around. He was quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming, with a sense of humor. He never tried to impose his beliefs or opinions on others. Anyone entering his home was always treated graciously. He never used profanity, somewhat unusual for a member of the racing community, and he was slow to anger. He was a man of integrity, and he insisted that you respect that. The only time I ever saw his temper was an occasion in which his honesty was questioned over a car repair he had done. He was on a creeper under a car at the time, and he came out cocked for action with a ball-peen hammer in his hand demanding an apology. He got it. I had the distinct feeling that he would have used the hammer. Otherwise, he was the epitome of the “southern gentleman.”

Lattney Earl Upton
October 21, 1913 - July 3, 1996

Latt had a lifetime love affair with automobiles. During his growing up years in the 1920’s the automobile was the technological equivalent of the computer at the dawn of the 21st century. Automobiles were changing the culture of America, and every farm boy like Latt was absorbed with cars.

His first car was a 1926 Star, which he purchased in 1934. A Star was one of those early day automobiles that were being built in machine shops and garages all over America. If a man built one car he was an inventor, if he built two he was a manufacturer. Latt, age 21, found his Star in a farmer’s barn, in pieces, covered with dust, parts missing; in a word, it was junk. He could hardly contain his enthusiasm as he negotiated the sales price with the owner. He most likely paid too much for it because it was so obvious that he wanted the car. The farmer was probably glad to get it out of his barn. But he could see that Latt needed that car like he had never needed anything before, so instead of saying, “Just get it out of my way,” the farmer said, “Hand over the money and it’s yours.”

Latt got a couple of his brothers to help him get the Star home. Next, he began to scour the neighborhood for replacement parts. It didn’t matter that most of the parts that he found were not designed for a Star, all that mattered was that they fit. In a short time, Latt had the old car running. He didn’t know how to drive a car, but he got it out on the narrow country roads around Richardsville and mastered the art of driving by trial and error. He later tried to teach his father, Eli, to drive the car, but only proved the truth of the old adage: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The first time Eli drove the Star he tried to stop it by yelling, “Whoa,” as he crashed into his own barn.

In rebuilding the Star Latt found a part of himself. He discovered a love for mechanics that never diminished. He made his living as an auto mechanic, and entertained himself by tinkering with cars in his spare time. His wife, Betty, said that he reminded her of the postman who took a walk on his day off. She said this during the days that postmen actually walked as they delivered the mail.

In the spring of 1951, Latt and Betty went to Owensboro, Kentucky with his cousin, Charles Upton, Jr. and his wife, Norene, to see their first stock car race. Stock car racing was just beginning to arouse public interest, but was pretty much confined to the South. Latt and Charles fell in love with racing that day. Both went on to build stock cars.

At the time there was no stock car racing in Bowling Green, Kentucky but that was about to change. In that same year of 1951 an enterprising trio consisting of Charles Garvin, owner of Beech Bend Park; Raymond McClard, owner of the local Harley-Davidson dealership and a local politician; and Hugh Porter Causey, a mechanic and garage owner provided the impetus that brought an exciting new sport to an enthusiastic following in Bowling Green. The first race on August 5, 1951, drew a crowd of 2,500. Within one year crowds reached an unbelievable 7,000 spectators drawn from a community with a population of about 18,000.

Latt became part of the racing scene by building one of the first stock cars in town. Larry Graham, who drove Latt’s car to unexpected success in the 1951 season, recently described the car as a “Rube Goldberg” type setup because of all the crazy things that Latt had to do to make the car work. It was a 1939 Dodge coupe powered by a 1936 Cadillac V8. As a matter of fact, Latt named the car Krazy Kat after the crazy comic strip cat of that era because everyone was laughing at him for breaking tradition and going with the big, heavy, powerful car.

Admittedly, the weight of the car and the power of the big Cadillac engine made the car difficult to drive. Another problem was that the weight and torque tended to break the right rear wheel as the car accelerated out of the turns. Latt solved this problem by beefing up the wheel with a 7/16” metal plate that fit over the lugs in the center of the wheel. According to Graham, he and Latt decided that the secret to winning with this car would be to use the brute power of the engine as opposed to winding it up too tight. In driving it one had to let off a little early going into a turn, drop low out of the groove and accelerate hard coming out of the turn. Graham found that he could almost always pick up a car length over the cars on the outside in the groove. They began to win races, culminating in a second place finish in the 1951 County Championship and winning outright the 1951 Regional Championship race that was open to all comers.

The 1952 racing season was a year of disappointment for Latt. First, he built a new, more traditional, racecar but it was not ready when the season opened. Latt told Larry Graham to find another ride, which was not a hard thing to do considering his talent and proven record. Larry was hired by Ray Fuller, owner of the Hudson dealership, who put him in a Hudson Hornet. Larry dominated Beech Bend until July, 1952, when he went into the U. S. Air Force. In the meantime, Latt’s new car without Larry Graham was never competitive. The season was consumed with crashes and breakdowns. At the end of the season, Latt was frustrated and finished.

In subsequent years, Latt built other cars, designed for the road, each more sporty than the last. In 1945 he designed and rebuilt an old Model-A Ford. He shortened the wheel base and cut the top off, resulting in a low-slung, canary yellow car that looked a little like the MG convertible of the 1950’s. In the late 1950’s he designed and rebuilt a 1937 Oldmobile into a fin-tailed Batmobile-like convertible. This candy-apple red car with white interior was built low to the ground with a shortened wheel base. This lightweight car was very quick with its supercharged Oldmobile V8 and automatic transmission.

In December, 1954, Latt and Betty moved their family to Arizona, settling in Pima, a small farming community 180 miles east of Phoenix. Although Latt’s enthusiasm for stock car racing returned after the disastrous 1952 season, there was no opportunity to race in the rural area in which he chose to live and raise his family. He passed away on July 3, 1996, in Pima, Arizona, but remained fascinated with automobiles until the end.

Betty Upton

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