TERRE HAUTE — Nowhere in motorsports can fame and fortune be as fleeing as that for short track racers.
While stock cars will always have their Richard Petty, champ cars their A.J. Foyt, and drag racing their Don Garlits, those who compete on the nation’s short tracks just seem to fade away once their days behind the wheel come to an end.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in sprint car racing. A case in point played out at the recent Action Track sprint car show.
Lost in the crowd at the Club All-Star sprint card were two of the most prolific winners in open wheel racing, legendary drivers Rick Ferkel and Jack Hewitt.
The pair went virtually unnoticed by most in attendance including many racers that owe the pair a big thanks for “paving” the way for the many opportunities they have in racing today.
When fans were asked if they knew the name Ferkel, few if any could identify the man who was a dominant force on the winged sprint car scene back in the 1970s and 1980s.
While Hewitt’s name was more familiar, like Ferkel, it was obvious neither driver was being recognized or accorded the status that goes with one with such lofty credentials.
Ferkel was there as a car owner, Hewitt as a driver consultant. Ferkel looked as if he could still manhandle a sprint car, Hewitt showing the visible signs of what a physical toll sprint car racing can take on a man.
The well-spoken Ferkel has always been a strong ambassador for the sport, both on and off the track. He took time before the local All-Star show to speak on a variety of subjects regarding his form of racing.
Like the never-ending battle to keep up with the rising cost to go racing, he says the drivers of his day faced the same economic woes that challenge today’s racers.
“In racing there are no silver bullets. Racing has never been cheap and never will be cheap,” voiced Ferkel.
“It’s all relative,” he said of the costs to go racing in the 1970s and 1980s compared to those of today. “We used to pay 50 to 60 cents for a gallon of gas and maybe ran for a $1,000-to-win. We complained back then that everything was too expensive. It’s the same today.”
He says there is no simple solution to cutting back costs.
“You look around here today. You’ve got $100,000 to $200,000 rigs. Racers live to race. How do you stop that? Do you pull out a tape measure and say your rig can’t be any bigger than this? You can’t do that. Racing is a rich man’s sport and a poor man’s game. That’s just the way it is.”
On how soon people seem to forget, the 69-year-old Ferkel added, “The thing we forget is we get older but we don’t realize other people get older. You’ll have a day when a fan will come and ask if you remember something that happened 20 years ago. When you’ve run several hundred races of course you forget. But you don’t tell them that. It’s neat that some still remember.”
As one of the original World of Outlaws drivers, Ferkel notched more than 20 feature wins. He still follows the circuit closely.
The talk that the series will fold once Steve Kinser hangs up his helmet draws a sharp response from Ferkel.
“I’ve heard statements before that when Steve Kinser is done the Outlaws are done. That’s not true. You learn late in life that there’s always someone out there to take your place,” he said.
Speaking on the current movement where many young drivers are landing lucrative contracts with established NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, he says that trend also sends out false hope for many who think are going to be the next super star in racing.
“They all think they are going to be the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. That’s not going to happen,” warned Ferkel. “There’s a lot of diversity programs like that at Roush Racing. To get in one of those you have to be awful lucky.”
“You can promote your kid. Take him to all those programs but all the talent and money doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. You have to be in the right place at the right time. Like so many other things in life timing is so important.”
Although he never won a feature at the Action Track, Ferkel always enjoyed competing here. One of his fondest moments came in the early 1980s when he ran in a special four-lap match race.
“I remember winning the race. Bubby Jones ran second. It paid $300 to win. Nothing on back. I felt so bad that I split the money up with the other guys. I’m not sure if you find that happening today,” voiced the driver fondly remembered as the “Ohio Traveler”.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org