INDIANAPOLIS — The death this past November of legendary sprint car mechanic Kenny Woodruff reduced by one the ranks of American racing’s Knights of the Road, a generation for whom the highway was just one more obstacle the sport threw at a man.
In an era before semi-trucks with sleeper cabs and — egad! — cushy toterhomes, Woodruff towed all over the map with pickup trucks and, only later, crew-cab duallies.
In 1978, Woodruff’s car, with Californian Jimmy Boyd in the seat, came out on top in the first event held by a new organization called the World of Outlaws. That was at Devil’s Bowl Speedway, outside of Dallas. In time, Woodruff’s string of victories literally crisscrossed the nation, from Skagit Speedway in Washington to Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park, and from Lebanon Valley Speedway in eastern New York to Ascot Park in southern California.
Smack in the middle of the heartland, at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway, came two of Woodruff’s best days: In 1997, when he won the Knoxville Nationals with Dave Blaney, and in 2005, when he was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
He demanded as much from his drivers as he did from himself. Once, when his rookie shoe was struggling to find speed at a speedway he’d never been to, I asked Kenny, “How many times coming back to a track do you figure it should take a driver to learn the place?”
Woodruff was cranky. “How many times coming back? How about hot laps?”
The old mechanic looked ready to put his tools down for good. Yeah, right. He finished out that season, and at least 10 more.
I never saw Woodruff look anything but weary. Even his smile had weight to it. The road-dog racing life will age a man. It calluses the hands and carves lines into faces, lines that start looking like the maps that put them there.
There was a night in the late ’60s at the old Norwood Arena, a paved bullring outside Boston, when Bugs Stevens — in the middle of a three-year run as NASCAR national modified champion — walked to a dressing room to put on his uniform. Gene Bergin, one of New England’s best, was sitting there. Stevens looked bad enough that Bergin asked if he was sick.
Stevens shook his head. He explained that on Thursday night he’d raced in Vermont, just 30 miles from the Canadian border, and on Friday night he’d been in North Carolina, running a 200-lapper for the bonus points on offer. He had hurried back to Massachusetts for this Saturday-night race and his Sunday plan was to run at Thompson, Conn., in the afternoon and, after a 250-mile interstate blast, Vernon, N.Y., in the evening.
Bergin, who was telling me this story some 35 years later, said of Stevens, “I’ll never forget how tired he looked. But he had made it to Norwood and he was there to race.”
That season still had several months and dozens of races left to run. What was the old poet’s line? “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
But the ultimate road-dog racers were the sprint car hardcases of the old International Motor Contest Ass’n. Across the 1950s and early ’60s, IMCA seemed intent on racing at every Midwest fairgrounds with a rundown horse track. Typically, they produced so much dust that Parnelli Jones divided the IMCA venues into two categories: “Those where you could barely see, and those where you absolutely could not see.”
If the tracks didn’t kill you, the schedule might. It was not unusual for IMCA to sanction Saturday and Sunday races 500 miles apart.
So why mess with the fair circuit at all? Well, because it toughened its best drivers to the point where they were ready for anything. Jones, A.J. Foyt, Jim Hurtubise, Bobby Unser, Johnny White and Bobby Grim climbed from IMCA to the Indy 500.
Hoping to follow that same path, a promising sprint car gladiator named Johnny Rutherford found himself on a moonlit two-lane, halfway through an all-night solo drive between fair dates. Sapped by the racing and the travel, his eyelids heavy, he was thrilled to happen upon a greasy-spoon diner in the middle of nowhere.
Inside were a counterman and, over in the corner, a trucker who had obviously followed his slice of pie with a handful of “bennies,” the Benzedrine tablets that, in those looser times, were a freight hauler’s best friend.
Rutherford said, “He was standing at the jukebox, plugging in nickels, just a-jiggin’ and be-boppin’. The waiter said to me, ‘Boy, you look tired.’ I explained that I was because I’d been racing somewhere a few hours earlier, but now I still had to get down the road and make it to another race.
“Well,” laughed Johnny, “that truck driver spun around and said, ‘Man, I’ve got a pill that’ll keep you awake the rest of your life!”
That offer declined, Rutherford gobbled down a quick breakfast, swallowed the last of his coffee and drove off into the night.
He was bound for the next fairgrounds track, bound for Indianapolis and bound for glory.