Gary Balough had the perfect nickname, “Hot Shoe,” and unlike many other racers, he more than lived up to his catchy moniker.
He won big in the asphalt late models while learning his trade in his native South Florida, then moved north for the lucrative Northeastern dirt modified purses and, in a type of car and on a surface totally unfamiliar to him, dominated.
“I grew up on flat tracks like Hialeah and if you could win there, you could win anywhere,” recalled Balough. “Look at the talent that came out of there — Rags Carter, Bobby Brack, Jackie Evans, the Allison brothers, Gil Hearne, Dick Anderson, Bobby Allen — the list goes on forever.
“I could drive most tracks straight, especially Syracuse. In the 30-lappers on short tracks, all the guys running sideways were impressive at first, but by halfway they were coming back at me like bugs on a windshield and I’d drive right by them.”
Balough whipped dirt modified racing’s best in 1976, ’77 and ‘78 at Super DIRT Week while also claiming a handful of July 4 and Labor Day specials on the Syracuse mile. Balough then returned to asphalt with plans to move up to NASCAR’s premier series, where drivers he had blown away at races around the country — think Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki — were the stars of the era. But instead of the Cup Series garage, Balough ended up in prison for smuggling drugs to pay for his racing. And while he made a comeback, things were never the same again.
“My problem was that NASCAR was where I wanted and needed to be and I took some shortcuts to make enough money to impress people by winning,” Balough said. “I should have waited. I could have raced for George Smith in New Jersey for a while, then he would have gotten me there. He did it with Jimmy Horton. But I was in a hurry.”
Now, all these years later, Balough has written a book, “Hot Shoe — A Checkered Past: My Story” with ace biographer Bones Bourcier that chronicles his successes and downfalls while giving readers insight into a golden age of racing.
“I’d been thinking about doing a book for five or six years but could never find someone to sponsor it,” explained Balough. “Then I went to work for Chris Larsen at Halmar Int’l and he was more than willing to help. Besides the book, he helped me get back on my feet after some bad times and health problems.
“Part of the deal with the publisher was that I had to be up front with my legal problems, but that didn’t bother me at all,” Balough said. “I can’t run from what happened and this gave me a chance to explain my side of it — the pain, the agony, the shackles and chains and being treated like a dog. People have no idea. That deal cost me my family and my career, but I’ve paid my debt and people need to accept that.
“I’m sorry it happened but I can’t say sorry for the rest of my life,” he added. “I lost everything, but I went by myself and told on nobody. They even re-indicted me, trying to get me to talk, but I did my years and got out. My first time in (prison) was brutal but the second time wasn’t so bad.
“Am I proud of all that,” Balough added. “No! Am I sorry? Absolutely! But now I’m done with that. It’s over.”
But in actuality, he’s not. As the conversation progresses from learning to race at Hialeah to winning big on dirt in the Ferriauolo No. 73 modified, Kenny Weld’s infamous Batmobile and going to NASCAR, Balough returned to the subject.
“I’d always wanted to race Cup,” he said. “Dirt paid well but I wanted Cup. Grant King, who had built the No. 73 Gremlin, tried to get me into open cockpit and Indy cars. He lined up some good opportunities but I wanted Cup. Then I got a call from Banjo Matthews, but Donnie Allison got the deal, so I went with Billy Harvey, then Rahmoc, where we did well. I was up for an opportunity with Harry Ranier, then I got indicted again. It was jail or cooperation. That’s how they build cases, threats and sentences.
“But where I grew up, around Miami, there was a lot going on in those days and you learned to keep your mouth shut,” Balough noted. “You had to be smart to survive around those old-school guys. Nobody made me do what I did and I did my time and kept my mouth shut. I guess the best way to describe it is to say I was ‘old-school loyal.’ But it cost me a Cup career.”