“He was a great guy and he sure loved racing,” said Eckert, who started every WoO LMS A-Main from 2004-2009 behind the wheel of Vest’s familiar orange No. 24 cars. “He went to most of the races and would give you whatever you needed to go race, which is something you miss a lot more when you don’t have it.
“But more than anything, he was fun to be around. We went on vacations together, hung out together. And he called the shop or I called him every day. I talked to him more than I ever did my own father. We had a lot of great times, that’s for sure.”
Eckert still often thinks back fondly on how he ended up becoming Vest’s driver in 1995 – a partnership that developed into one of the closest and longest-running owner/driver combinations in the history of dirt Late Model racing.
“I knew of him because he owned cars around home when I was starting out,” Eckert said of Vest. “I was friends with Nathan Durboraw and he drove for (Vest) and won a lot of races. They decided they were gonna go on the road and run the STARS deal. I was running it, and it just happened that we ended up running together (down the road) a lot. It got to the point where Kristal (Eckert’s wife) was scheduling our hotel rooms and theirs, and we just became friends.
“Then, at the end of that year, Nathan and Raye separated and then he hired (Rodney) Franklin. Franklin drove for him for about six months in 1995, and then Raye called me up just out of the blue one day and said, ‘Hey, do you wanna drive for me?’ I was like, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Drive down here tomorrow night and we’ll talk.’ I went down there and we talked, and it was funny – he was never the most patient guy, but he said, ‘Now, I don’t wanna race for about a month or two. Just come down and get everything and then in about a month we’ll break it out and race it.’
“I figured that would be good because he had a lot of different stuff that we had to go through, stuff that was different than I was running. I got his stuff on like a Wednesday, went racing that weekend with my own stuff and came home, and he called me on Monday and said, ‘Well, what do you think about us going to race this weekend?’ I was like, ‘Well, O.K., no problem.’ We rushed around and got everything ready to race that weekend and we were on our way.”
Nearly two decades later, Vest is gone but certainly not forgotten. His name remains prominently displayed on Eckert’s cars – both the hood and rear spoiler sport odes to Vest – and Eckert still can hear Vest’s distinctive voice every time he glances at the phone in his race shop.
And if Eckert were to pull off a victory in Saturday night’s Raye Vest Memorial, there’s no doubt that he’ll feel like Vest is standing right alongside him one more time in Victory Lane.