There was a time when watching stock car races at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds was the place to be and the place to be seen on Friday nights in Springfield.
It was a time when stock car racing was our main sporting entertainment in the spring and summer. Thousands of people showed up each week to fill the stands and fans came out to cheer on their personal favorites like Bud McKee, Lester Friebe, Willie Crane or David Goldsberry.
But one pilot has always stood above the others.
Half the fans came out to cheer on Larry Phillips. Half came to boo him. Love it or hate it, you didn’t take your eyes off the #75 car when Phillips steered it around the half-mile track.
Phillips was quick. He was determined. He was gifted. He didn’t hesitate to push the slower cars aside, if need be. Plus, Phillips usually won. A chorus of cheers and mockery mingled each time he walked down victory lane, a cigarette in one hand and a trophy in the other.
He once told me in an interview in the early 1990s that he appreciated cheers and didn’t mind boos. Later, his legion of fans began bringing cowbells to the track. This annoyed Philips haters even more.
Either way, Phillips said, people were paying attention.
It seemed fitting Thursday when news broke that the No. 75 was announced as the latest addition to NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers list. Drivers are announced in no particular order in this NASCAR 75th anniversary season.
Phillips, who died in 2004 at age 62 after battling lung cancer, won five national championships in what is now called the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Racing Series. NASCAR sanctioned the series to recognize short track racers and Phillips has become a national force to be reckoned with.
These came after the fairground closed the popular track in the late 1980s and Phillips raced primarily at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, Bolivar Speedway and I-70 Speedway in Odessa.
The Springfield native won 220 of 289 NASCAR-sanctioned races from 1989 to 1996, a winning percentage of 76.1. That means he won runs at a higher rate than most professional basketball players make free throws. There is no official total for the number of races won by Phillips over his 40-year career, but it is thought to be somewhere north of 1,000.
NASCAR recognition is long overdue
NASCAR recognition is long overdue. So would inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which could arrive when the Class of 2024 is unveiled later this month. Phillips has been a Hall of Fame runner-up for several years, but so many voters are based in NASCAR’s original Southeast geographic footprint that they don’t understand Phillps’ career or didn’t. their duties.
Terry Phillips, Larry’s son and himself an accomplished race car driver in his own right on American dirt tracks, said his phone exploded on Thursday after hearing the news of the NASCAR 75 Greatest.
“It’s a really good deal,” said Terry Phillips from his running shop north of Springfield. “It’s funny with his car number and the 75 years and all that. Damn we all knew he wasn’t just in the top 75. I don’t know where he would rank or how you would figure him but I know damn well he has to be in the top five I would say . I am biased. But at least he’s in the top 75.
“When you’re not on TV I guess you don’t get recognition from some of these guys. We all knew that was true. It’s about time they all started acknowledging it.
“Today he would be a national superstar”
To give some perspective, the NASCAR 75 Greatest list includes all the names you’d expect, like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. There are others like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, who Phillips helped get there. Phillips was more than a championship driver. He was also a racing teacher, of sorts.
Wallace and Martin came racing at the Springfield Fairgrounds as teenagers in the 1970s. Phillips put them to work at his Commercial Street store a few of those summers. Both have praised Phillips over the years for the racing education he gave them, both in the race shop and on the circuit.
Martin, of Batesville, Arkansas, called Phillips “my racing hero” during his induction into the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation Hall of Fame in 2019. In an audio interview with NASCAR on Twitter Thursday, he went into more detail about why Phillips deserved national acclaim.
“In his kind of racing, in my eyes he was Dale Earnhardt,” Martin said. “I mean, he won races with junk. He was building race cars and his race cars got more sophisticated as he went along, but he certainly didn’t win his races by outdoing people with equipment.
“He did what he had, work. He made it handle and he drove it. He was aggressive and on the circuit it was difficult to pass him and difficult to be in front of him. He was amazing in traffic.
Martin said Phillips not only deserved the top NASCAR 75 honor, but he should also be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“People who follow the races now — or who followed the races back then — weren’t lucky enough to know what Larry was up to,” Martin said. “There was no internet and coverage was so limited.
“Today he would be a national superstar.”
Intensity, the key to its success
Phillips was easily among the most intense people I’ve covered over the years in sports. I grew up watching him race at the fairgrounds and was in camp cheering him on. Later, when I was covering local races, the interviewer was intimidating.
When he was focused on work, at his workshop or at the track, you didn’t dare disturb him. We were afraid to ask him a silly question. Somehow Larry was always patient and gave me all the time I needed. His answers were thoughtful and interesting.
Terry Phillips, who along with his father is in the Springfield Area Sports Hall of Fame and the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame, said Larry’s intensity was the main key to his success .
“If you knew him, you would understand that. It’s kind of hard to explain,” said Terry Phillips. “He had a strange desire to succeed. He did everything himself. He was hard-headed and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“The main thing? He had a hell of a work ethic. He was on his own like a lot of greats.
As Martin mentioned, Phillips didn’t seem to have the prettiest or most expensive cars at times. But he was a self-taught engineer in some of the innovations he used to make his cars faster.
“He was a lot smarter than people think,” said Terry Phillips. “When he had something in mind, he could do anything. I’m biased, but I would say he was close to being a genius. He had to be close.
“He and an old man built this racing shop from scratch. He built a helicopter from a kit. He wouldn’t sleep so motivated he was. He would be in a very bad mood. I asked him once, ‘Isn’t this supposed to be fun?’ He said, “Yes, but I can’t sleep until I understand this thing.”
“It was just his driving. It’s just the way he was.
“He probably wouldn’t care about any of this”
Larry never liked accolades, but Terry Phillips said it was rewarding for the Phillips family to see his father receive his due as one of the best. The NASCAR Hall of Fame honor, if it happens, would be the icing on the cake.
“He really deserves it as a racing driver,” said Terry Phillips. “I don’t know what a NASCAR Hall of Famer or a Missouri Hall of Famer looks like, but if he isn’t, I don’t know who would be.”
What would Larry think of the NASCAR 75 honor?
“He probably wouldn’t care about any of this,” Terry Phillips said. “All he was worried about was winning the next race. He once told me, “Winning isn’t the only thing, but I hate losing.” That pretty much sums up his life.