Larry's Legend: Phillips a short-track superstar in his time
by Joe Posnanski | Oct 05 '03
The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed in a race car can't sleep at night.
Cough keeps him up. He takes pain killers for the cough, which sounds like an old vaudeville joke. But it's true. He coughs
so hard, so long, he sometimes feels like he's been through a heavyweight fight. Everything chokes him. Hairspray. Dust. Pollen.
Memories. He threw out all the old trophies.
The memories still churn at night.
"Crazy, ain't it?" Larry Phillips asks. He fights his way through a coughing fit. He starts again. "Used to be I'd only
lie awake occasionally, when I'd finished second."
" `Course," he adds after coughing more, "I slept OK most of the time."
There are those who say Larry Phillips was the best who ever lived, the best to ever get behind the wheel of an American
stock car. Hard to tell. Most of the evidence has blown away. Shoot, many of the old tracks are gone too. And you'd need a
whole team of archaeologists to dig up all the trophies and plaques and cups that Larry Phillips dumped in landfills across
Missouri. Pretty much all that's left from 391/2 years of racing on short tracks all over this country are the few yellowed
newspaper clips his wife, Judy, hid away, a few famous disciples who learned how to drive by watching Larry Phillips and enough
money to pay all the bills, buy a nice motor home and bid on motorcycles on eBay.
Well, there are a few stories too.
There was this one time over at I-70 Speedway in Odessa -- had to be 15 years ago, back when it was a dirt track -- and
one of the race promoters announced he would give $500 to anyone who could set the track record for a lap. Well, there was
a hole in the middle of the race track that day, and the turns were slick as ice on a fender. Wasn't much of a day for setting
records. But you have to understand: There wasn't a thing Larry Phillips would not do in a race car when someone put 500 bucks
on the line.
So, he shoved his left foot below the brake, jammed the gas to the floor and held on tight. He pushed his No. 75 Chevy
fast as it would go, soared over the hole, raced banzai through the turns, and he hit the finish line with his hand sticking
out the window. He was reaching for the 500 bucks. He got it too.
"When he got out of the car, he was shaking," Larry's crew chief at the time, James Ince, says. "Only time I ever saw Larry
Phillips scared. There wasn't anybody else on earth who could have made that run. Damndest thing I ever saw in a race car."
"Then," Ince says, "I'd say of the 10 most amazing things I've seen done in a race car, Larry Phillips did nine of them."
Turn 1 story: James Ince had just finished school when Larry Phillips pulled him aside and asked him to work on the crew.
The two had raced each other a few times, and Larry liked James' fight. James, meanwhile, knew exactly what kind of tyrant
Larry Phillips was. "Once you get to know Larry, you realize he has a heart of gold," James says. "The problem is, few people
get to know Larry."
James took the job. And the very first thing he had to do was clean out Larry's shop.
"What do you want me to do with all the trophies?" James asked.
"Dump them," Larry said.
So, Larry started unloading the trophies. And he unloaded. And he unloaded. By the time he was done, a tractor-trailer
was two-thirds filled with trophies. There were hundreds of them. There were dirt-track trophies and asphalt trophies, huge
championship trophies with eagles on them and little plaques shaped like race cars.
"What do you want me to do with them?" James asked again, just to be sure.
"Dump them," Larry said, this time with a little edge to his voice. He didn't like giving orders twice.
So, James dumped those trophies. Gave some to charity. Dumped the rest in a landfill.
"Larry didn't care much for trophies," James says now. "He wanted the checks."
The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed in a race car has no idea how many
races he won. Common feeling among short track folk is that his great rival, Dick Trickle up in Wisconsin -- a rough, tough,
mean, crazy and grouchy son of a gun himself -- has the record for most victories. Larry Phillips ain't much for arguing,
and he would sooner eat a carburetor whole than disparage an old-time racer like Dick Trickle ("Dick Trickle is Superman,"
Larry says.). So when Larry's asked how many races he won, he unfailingly will say, "Just a few less than Dick Trickle."
"No sir," says Ince, now the crew chief for NASCAR driver Johnny Benson. "People who say Dick Trickle has the all-time
record are not accurate."
Ince figures that Larry Phillips won more than 2,000 races in his time, which would be quite a few more than the 1,200
or so credited to Dick Trickle. But who knows for sure? Short track records (and track receipts, for that matter) are not
kept by the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Oh there are a few facts that can be found in the dust, a few glimpses at Larry's greatness. We know, for instance, that
Larry Phillips won five Winston Racing Series national championships. Nobody else has come even close. To win the Winston
national championship, you pretty much have to be the most invincible scoundrel driving little tracks anywhere in the U.S.
of A. One year, Larry Phillips won 38 of the 40 Winston Series races he entered. He was leading the other two when his tires
blew. It was like that.
"Everybody's kind of racing for second when he's here," a good driver named Gene Claxton said at Lakeside Speedway back
in 1993. Larry Phillips was 51 at the time.
How good was he? He was so good in the 1970s, that promoters in his hometown of Springfield brought in ringers to beat
him. They brought in Donnie Allison once, and Phillips routed the man so completely that a somewhat shattered Allison reportedly
said in exasperation, "The devil could not beat that man on this track."
How good was he? Good enough that Mark Martin, who has started in 500 consecutive Winston Cup races, says Larry Phillips
is the only guy he'd pay to watch race. Good enough that Rusty Wallace, winner of 54 NASCAR races, calls Larry his hero. Good
enough that Jamie McMurray, who is only 27 and one of the hot young drivers in NASCAR, says that he learned more about driving
by watching Larry Phillips run than just about anything else.
"Larry was what you would call a `racer,"' NASCAR driver Michael Wallace says. "That's really the only way I can describe
him. ... I can remember shows where they would have four classes of racing. Well, he would purposely qualify badly, so he
could drive in all of them. Then he would win the D-Class, then the C, then the B, then the A, all on the same night."
He's won more National Championship Racing Association races than anyone else. He's won track championships in Springfield,
Bolivar, Lebanon, Kansas City, Odessa -- and that's just Missouri, that doesn't include all the winning he did in Colorado,
Michigan, Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, California, oh man, Larry Phillips loved racing in California. Then, more than the
championships, more than the uncountable victories, what people remember about Larry Phillips was the feeling, the irrepressible
feeling, that he simply could not lose.
"I actually stopped going out to Lakeside for a while," says Marc Olson, now owner of Lakeside Speedway. "You knew he was
going to win every week. I mean, after a while, what's the point?"
Turn 2 story. Larry Phillips did love to race in California. Oh yeah, he loved going against those tanned, blonde-headed
drivers with their trophy wives and their pretty cars, so pretty you wanted to carry pictures of them in your wallet (the
cars, not the wives). Those California cars all had sweet stripes and fresh paint jobs and every doo-hickey you could imagine.
The chrome was so polished you could shave in front of it.
So, one year, had to be in the early 1970s, Larry brought his junkyard-looking Chevelle, which was still caked in dirt
from a race in Muskogee, Okla., a race Larry, naturally, won. "Way I remember it," Michael Wallace says, "the mirrors were
taped to the side of the car."
This was in Stockton, Calif., home track of Ivan Baldwin, who was alternately nicknamed Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the
Great depending on who was doing the nicknaming. Ivan Baldwin was the fastest driver in Stockton. He walked up to that Chevelle
and grimaced. Larry, at the time, was underneath, trying to fix something with a blowtorch and a wire hanger.
"Don't they ever chip the dirt off these cars where you come from?" Ivan asked.
Larry Phillips looked up. He did not say a word. He never did. But over the next few days, he and his dirt-covered Chevelle
took $5,500 of Ivan Baldwin's money.
"Those folks in California had never seen a real fast car," Larry says. "They never did understand: Who cares what a car
The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed in a race car studied A.J. Foyt.
Of course, that's not saying anything. Every young race car driver studied Foyt, just like every young actor studied James
Dean and every young football player studied John Unitas.
Thing is, Larry Phillips felt a connection. He and an old buddy from Bolivar, Joe Nagler, went to see Foyt race at the
fairgrounds. They were both 17. And from the first instant when Larry saw A.J. Foyt drive, he knew exactly what he was going
to do with his life. A.J. Foyt had that kind of impact on people.
Larry and Joe went home and built a race car. They entered their first race. And they lost. So they rebuilt that car, and
they lost, and they rebuilt the car again, and they lost again. And again. And again. And here's where you could tell that
Joe and Larry had different feelings about racing.
Joe did not care for the losing.
But Larry? Well, the losses about killed him. It didn't matter that he had no money, no sponsors, no experience and really
no idea what he was doing. He was convinced, utterly convinced, that no mother's son could drive a car better than him. And
those first couple years of losing just about made him crazy with rage. He built and rebuilt that engine, banged away on the
chassis and made life pretty miserable for Joe and anyone else who wanted to help him.
"Larry is the only person I've ever met," Ince says, "who would truly rather die in the race car than finish second."
The breakthrough came sliding backward. Two years after he started, Larry spun out on the final turn at the Fifth-Mile
Track in Springfield, and he crossed the finish line going backward. He had finished third. He made something like 12 bucks.
It was the first money he ever made racing -- he was finally a professional. And that was the day he decided that he never
wanted to have another job except racing a car.
Turn 3 story: Larry was running in Fort Smith, Ark., which was another one of the short tracks where he was king. This
had to be 1978. Larry used to take a kid named Rusty Wallace with him, and together they would drive U.S. 71 from Fayetteville
to Fort Smith, which was about the scariest stretch of road in America, especially when you were going too fast. They were
always going too fast.
"We had good times," Larry says. He emphasizes the words "Good times."
"All I can tell you is this," he adds. "Rusty Wallace was 21. And nobody's daughter was safe."
Larry was at his best then. People would come out to short tracks in the Midwest for only two reasons. One was to root
for Larry Phillips. The other was to root against him. He had a cigarette lighter installed in his car, and during races he
would smoke with one hand, steer with the other, and drink coffee with the third hand, if there was coffee available. And
if anyone cut him off, especially someone he had already lapped, he somehow found a fourth hand so he could offer a memorable
"I never met the man," says Jim Penney, a former racer, a big collector of racing memorabilia and a man Larry Phillips
once lapped twice in Bolivar. "But I watched him drive an awful lot. He was one of the best. And when you're like that, being
a racer, you can't always be a nice guy. Know what I mean?"
Anyway, this day in Fort Smith, Larry was in traffic -- he was a genius at maneuvering through traffic -- when suddenly
the car in front just stopped, and he smashed into the back so hard that something blew, and fuel dumped on him. He was burning.
It was a major accident; several other cars were involved. Rescue workers went every which way.
By the time, Rusty Wallace made it through, Larry Phillips' goggles had melted.
"Rusty," Larry said. "Can you give me a cigarette?"
The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed in a race car fired a whole lot
of people in his life. The man went through crew members the way California goes through gubernatorial candidates. If Larry
thought someone was loafing, he would tear into that guy something fierce.
And here's the thing: Larry ALWAYS thought someone was loafing.
"To me there are only two things that can ruin a race car," he says. "Light and lazy. That's it. Either your equipment
is too light or you were too lazy to get the car right. Sometimes, you can't help but be too light. But I sure as heck wasn't
going to be too lazy. And I wasn't going to let anyone else be lazy around me."
Even now, Larry Phillips has an office at Midwest Arrow, an airplane painting company he is involved with. But he never
goes in. He says there's a big window in the office overlooking the employees, and any time he sits there he gets so mad watching
those guys that he just about wants to hit somebody.
"Larry was not exactly an easy guy to work for," says Ince, one of the few guys Larry says wanted to win as badly as he
did. "He used to say, `I don't want 100 percent. I want what it takes to win. Sometimes that's 200 percent.' Well, there aren't
many people who can give 200 percent. Larry could not accept that."
"There's nothing better on this earth than a good-handling race car," Larry explains. "And there's nothing worse than a
No, he could not accept loafers, and he could not deal with inferior cars getting in his way. He was the best there was
at weaving through traffic, finding small holes and dashing through, but he was also pretty good at pushing stubborn cars
out of the way. "Some of my ethics weren't too good at times, I suppose," he says. "Let's just say that James and I, neither
one, had any sympathy for cars not on the lead lap. They get out of the way or they're gone."
So to sum up: He could not accept loafers and he could not deal with inferior cars getting in his way, and also he would
not do anything that did not help him win. Racing consumed him entirely. He never got another job. He never spent much time
promoting races. He says, without pride, that his three children mostly grew up without him. "A lot of years, I don't know
how they were raised," he says. "I was racing. They all turned out pretty good, though. I don't understand it. Their mothers
did a great job. It's a gift."
"The best way to describe Larry," Rusty Wallace says, "is he never did what he didn't want to do."
Larry's fans say he could have been one of the great ones in NASCAR. But he never did race at the top level. He ran in
one Winston Cup race in 1976 -- the Los Angeles Times 500 in Ontario, Calif. -- and he made it 188 laps, fighting engine trouble
all the way. He did finish ahead of Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. But that was it for Larry Phillips.
"He certainly could have raced in the big time," Jim Penney says. "It was obvious to anyone who watched him drive."
"He could have been `The Guy,' " Ince says . "No doubt about it. He could have been someone people talked about like Richard
Petty and Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt and those guys."
"No," Rusty Wallace says. "He could never have put up with all the commitments we have in NASCAR. Larry Phillips wasn't
the kind of guy who could have spoken at a luncheon on Tuesday and appeared at a store opening on a Wednesday and worked with
sponsors and all that. He didn't want all that. He just wanted to race."
Larry agrees with Rusty Wallace on this one.
"I liked being a big duck in a small puddle," he says. "I heard once that everybody is a character in his own story. Well,
I guess this was my story. That was my little spot in life."
Turn 4 story: In June 2000, Larry Phillips won his race in Lebanon, Mo. In other words, it seemed no different than any
other night. He won another race, and he got out of another car, and another pretty woman gave him another trophy to throw
away while photographers snapped pictures. The cheers sounded about the same.
Only this time, he had something to say. He took the microphone.
"I'm going to fight this cancer like I race -- wide open," he announced to the crowd. His right lung had been eaten up
by cancer. He could barely breathe. He did not say that doctors were giving him six to eight weeks to live, but that's because
Larry Phillips didn't put much stock in doctors. That time in Fort Smith when he caught fire, doctors said he would not race
again for at least two years and probably forever. He was back in a car racing four months later.
"I want to tell all you kids out there to leave cigarettes alone," he said. Everybody stood. Everybody cheered. And with
that, Larry left and spent months wrestling chemotherapy and awful coughing fits. He came back to Lebanon once, in January,
to race. He was leading the whole way because that's how Larry Phillips drove, wide open, every lap a race in itself. A few
laps from the finish line, he could not breathe. He wore out. He got passed. He finished second. And Larry Phillips never
"After all that, (NASCAR driver) Kenny Schrader asked me to join his crew," Larry says. Schrader, yet another one of those
Larry Phillips disciples, was going through a rough stretch and he was hoping that Larry could bring some of his magic.
"Told him no," Larry says. "Shoot, I raced 391/2 years to keep from having a job. I'm not about to start working now."
The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed in a race car cries sometimes now.
That throws his friends a bit. "Sometimes," one old friend says, "I ask him `Where's the (jerk) you used to be? I miss that
"Larry's mellowed," James Ince says. "Sometimes, he's on the other side of mellow."
He spends most of his time these days getting inducted into Halls of Fame. He's already been inducted into the Springfield
Hall of Fame, the Ozarks Racing Hall of Fame, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the Late Model Dirt Track Hall of Fame.
He's had a race named for him at Midway Speedway in Lebanon. He gets invited to a lot of dinners.
"I'm so thankful the extra time the Good Lord gave me," he says. "But I just don't have the strength."
He has good days and bad days. He figures most people do. His wife, Judy, was in an awful motorcycle accident, but she's
doing better. His son Terry drives short tracks. Friends call. He still does some work for the plane-painting company.
And Larry says he thinks about the old days sometimes. He thinks about Dick Trickle, who would stay up all night, go into
his room, shower, and then beat everybody in the place. "I've seen him do it," he says. "Man wasn't human."
He thinks a lot about racing against Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin and Ed Howe and Ivan the Terrible and all those guys.
One time, he raced in what they called an International Driver Challenge. Half the races were in Canada. He won five out of
the six races, of course, took home $10,500 (half in Canadian money) and had all his bills paid. Good days.
"I don't watch too much racing now," he says. "There's more talent out there than there ever was before. And some of the
kids are good. Some of them, I don't like their attitude much."
James Ince wanted Larry to come out to the race in Kansas City today. But Larry just doesn't feel quite up to all that.
The dust would be too much. Doctors went back into the right lung this week to see if there was anything more they could do.
And the pain killers he takes, well, they make him feel a bit dreamy sometimes. "I tell people not to count on me," he says.
Anyway, going to races these days makes him miss it all just that much more.
"He was a short-track pioneer," Rusty Wallace says.
"A legend," Michael Wallace says.
"The best who ever lived," James Ince says.
These days, when the roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever stepped in a race car can't
sleep, he pops on the computer and bids for motorcycle stuff on eBay. He's 61 years old, but he can still pop a wheelie. Larry
says, on those good days, he can still drag race with anybody who wants to take him on. It's just that he doesn't have as
many good days as he used to.
"You know," he says, "I never saved anything. Gave away all those trophies to kids or just threw them out. I never saved
anything. I figured I already lived yesterday."
Larry Phillips goes into another coughing turn. When he pulls out of it, his voice barely whispers.
"It might be nice to have some of those old articles and trophies," he says. "You know. Just to remember.