INDIANAPOLIS — He had been everywhere and won everything, so upon hanging up his helmet he had a right to stop and smell the flowers. Or, in his case, to grow them.
But what none of us ever expected was that Merv Treichler, after 20 years in the spotlight, would vanish upon retirement.
But here’s the thing about heroes: You can search out the reluctant ones. Which is what sent me up U.S. 62 out of Buffalo, N.Y., toward rural Sanborn and one of the finest racers I’ve ever known.
He led me toward a small office in a huge greenhouse, one of many at H.A. Treichler & Sons. The family business has been around since 1854, first as a major supplier of potatoes and later as, well, a flower power. Merv and his brother, Gary, ran it for decades; now Gary’s son, Terry, is in charge.
“But I’m here 350 days a year,” said Merv.
We sat down, each of us older — he is 75 — and probably grayer than we’d guessed. For a moment, Treichler just grinned.
“What’s it been, 30 years?” he asked.
That was in the ballpark. We hadn’t spent time together since 1987, when he called time on one incredible career.
In 1970, at Pennsylvania’s Langhorne Speedway, Treichler won the Race of Champions, the premier event on the asphalt modified calendar. In 1981 and ’82, at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, he topped the Schaefer 200, America’s marquee race for big-block dirt modifieds.
That versatility was his hallmark. It went back to the two local half-miles where he’d honed his craft: Ransomville Speedway, dirt, and Lancaster Speedway, paved. Well into the ’70s, long after technology confined most modified teams to one surface or the other, Treichler had a dirt car and a blacktop car, and won track championships with both.
And anytime he hit the road — north to Canada, east to New England, south to wherever — a track’s composition never factored into his travel plans.
“Wherever they paid the most,” he said, “that’s where we went.”
On dirt, he squared off weekly against Will Cagle, Davey Moore and Alan Johnson; when he roamed, he’d tussle with Jack Johnson, Dick Tobias and Kenny Brightbill. His regular asphalt foes included Richie Evans, Maynard Troyer and his own fast cousin, Roger Treichler; at distant NASCAR gatherings, he faced Ray Hendrick, Bugs Stevens and Fred DeSarro. He beat them all.
Someone nicknamed him “Marvelous Merv,” and it fit.
In February 1975, he entered a road-course modified race at Daytona Int’l Speedway with a homebuilt Monza. He outran Bobby Allison and 38 others to grab the pole, then dominated the Permatex 200. That September, he and the Monza led every lap of Watkins Glen’s first modified race. Add road racing to the list of things that didn’t trouble Merv Treichler.
By the end of the ’70s, his focus shifted almost entirely to dirt. Actually, to DIRT, which sanctioned several tracks and, importantly, Super DIRT Week at the New York State Fairgrounds. Treichler loved the spooky mile, but its autumn classic eluded him until trucking executive John Jackson furnished a Troyer Mud Buss in 1981. For two straight Octobers, Treichler ruled the Schaefer 200.
He loved the big spring and fall specials, the revelry common to places like Syracuse and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. “We partied quite a bit,” he chuckled. But once the checkers fell, he’d be out the gate, bound for Sanborn.
“We were expanding. We went away from farming potatoes and got more into the greenhouses and we were just so busy,” Treichler explained
He and Jackson hit upon an idea: What about a limited schedule with the NASCAR Busch Series? It was a new challenge and with a set number of dates, this faraway fling might paradoxically allow Treichler more work time. Today, you get the sense that nine Busch Series races in 1985 and 11 in ’86 reminded Treichler that he’d won too much to be happy flirting with a top-10 finish.
Three races into 1987, on a flight home after breaking a crankshaft at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he had a clear thought: “I said, ‘That’s enough.’ The next day, I told John I was done.”
Any second thoughts? “No. None.”
He disappeared into his work and H.A. Treichler & Sons rolled on. The old potato fields, 227 acres, are rented to farmers who grow wheat, corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, the greenhouses annually yield 250,000 potted plants — a quarter of a million — in addition to 30,000 trays of flowers and 55,000 mums.
Most of that goes to wholesalers, but there’s a retail store on the property.
I asked if the return shoppers know about his racing life.
“Some do,” said Treichler, “and some don’t.”
And the employees?
“A lot of them know, but I don’t talk about it and they know not to bring it up.”
He paused. “Honestly, I don’t look back and I don’t have anything from those days.”
I said, “Not even the trophies?”
“I’ve only got a few,” Treichler said. “I kept the Langhorne trophy; it’s one of those nice silver cups. I’ve got the Daytona trophy and the one from Watkins Glen.”
Imagine that? If those three pieces are all that’s left, his trophy collection would still be the envy of just about anyone he ever raced against. Marvelous, right?
Outside the customers came and went and the greenhouse workers loaded flower trays. Merv Treichler sat there, smiling. Life goes on. His sure did.