The Old Man and the Dirt

If you see Danny Dean in the rearview, you'd better get out of the way.

White Chicks
What many people don't know about Danny Dean is that he can switch from being the most sparkly-eyed, flirtatiously friendly man around to one tough sonofabitch in just under a second. His fans -- and he has a lot of them -- know him as the last gentleman dirt-track racer, the man in the pits who still greets everybody with a pat on the shoulder and an ironic smile that says, "Man, did we just have some fun." At 63, he can still fit his modest belly into the same skintight orange fire suit he's worn for four years, and he's been racing so long that he manages to look comfortable doing it. Women, young children, and old country coots find him particularly charming.

"Danny Dean? I love him," says Deb Delaney, a fan who named her first-born son Danny Dean Delaney. "He's very clean, very personable."

But when his thoughts switch to the next race, Dean's blue eyes turn hard. He'll be standing next to his car, talking with a fan in his smooth-as-pebbles voice about which driver just crashed or the weather or the price of high-octane gasoline, and he's laughing, but all the while his eyes dart back to the car. When the fan turns to go, Dean pulls on his super-serious face. He yells "Heyyyyy!", drawing out the word in a high-pitched whine, so the "Y's" slice the air. Jason Morey, 27, and his brother Justin, 23, serve as Dean's pit crew, and they know this is the time to stop whatever they're doing and look Dean in the eye. "What kinda shocks you got on there?" Dean asks. If he likes the answer, he will nod. If he doesn't, the shocks will be changed, not in five minutes but right now.

"Danny gets into a different world when he's at the racetrack," says LeAnn Eshelman, who's 43 and has dated Dean for 14 years. "He takes it real serious."

Dean has won thousands of races since he started competing 42 years ago -- so many that he gives new trophies away, rather than pitch another one onto the pile that consumes an entire room in his attic. He won the biggest dirt-track race in the country, the Hillbilly 100, twice, and he's won races everywhere, from Ontario to Florida. These days, he sticks mostly to Wayne County Speedway, a little three-eighths-of-a-mile track that rests in the curving elbow of a country road just south of Orrville. It is widely considered the smoothest, fastest dirt racetrack in Ohio, and among the fastest of its size in the country. And since Dean's car is usually either broken or running first, the big question most weeks is who will come in second.

"It is truly amazing that a man that old can go that fast," says Tom Ogle, 35, who races a Dodge Neon at Wayne County every Saturday.

Dean can get a little touchy about his age, but he really is the last of a dying breed. Long before NASCAR shook off the shadows of its bootlegging roots to become America's most popular sport -- before you could go to a performance shop and buy a $40,000 racing engine and a $200 automatic tire pump and a $269 titanium wheel -- before you could subscribe to a glossy magazine that would tell you how to put everything together, there were thousands of broke, hell-bent country boys like Danny Dean who just wanted to go fast. They scavenged the junkyards, pulling parts from Studebakers and Hudsons and Packards. They'd race just about anything with a V-8 and a roll cage.

And the thing was, back when Danny Dean started racing, you didn't need a whole lot of money to win. If a guy had a crazy eye and the guts, he could tow his junkyard car to the track, drive like a demon, and beat the pants off every driver there.

Those days are gone forever. Specialized racing parts have become so good, and so expensive, that a rich but mediocre driver could beat an impoverished pro in almost every race. "It used to be that you could win if you had money, or you could win if you were a good driver," Dean says. "Now, you could be the best driver in the world, and if you ain't got no money, you aren't gonna win."

These days he has all the money he needs. And he still can get that wild look. But it's just not natural for a 63-year-old man to win as often as Danny Dean does. His secret is that he knows all the old secrets, the most important being these:

Watch the dirt.

Only cheat when you have to.

Work all the time.

Seventeen laps down, three to go, and Danny Dean is a whole straightaway ahead of the second-place driver. He's playing nip and tuck with the rear spoilers of other cars, trying to lap them just to keep the race interesting. A few wives in the grandstands have turned to their husbands and said, "C'mon, hon, let's get a cheeseburger . . ."

. . . when every head spins. What in the hell? Jay Howe is coming in fast off the back straightaway, he doesn't even brake, something must be wrong, why isn't he braking?? CRUNCH ScrrrEEECH!! Howe rams the guardrail! He must have been going 80 miles an hour! The car rebounds, flips, and slides down the hill on its hood. When it finally comes to a stop, Howe is hanging limp from his seatbelt. The car's cheap aluminum skin is crumpled and shiny, like an empty potato-chip bag turned inside out. A pink trickle of alcohol fuel spills from his gas tank onto the dirt.

The fans don't know what to think. Is Howe dead? Will his car explode? Danny Dean worries the same things when he comes around slowly on the yellow caution flag. Then he thinks: "I might actually lose this race."

The race director with the blond mustache and the sunburned face commands the remaining drivers to park their cars single-file on the front straightaway while track employees clear the wreck. The fire crew approaches Howe's car slowly, and in a few minutes they've cut him free. He crawls out of the window, then stands slowly and limps away from his demolished car. The crowd lets out an audible sigh, then one loud "Woooo!"

Meanwhile, Danny Dean waits at the foot of the grandstand, his thoughts grinding together. Every second he sits there, a little more of his advantage slips away. Every other racer here tonight is driving on soft dirt tires. Which is only logical, since they're racing on a dirt track. But when Dean arrived at the track this afternoon, the first thing he did was scout the dirt. It was pale and dusty, and he could tell it had been a dry week in Wayne County. "This track is slicker than shit," he thought. In conditions like that, he knew dirt tires would run fast at the beginning of the race, but after a few laps they'd start to melt.

So Dean switched his car to asphalt tires. It was a risk, since asphalt tires take longer to get hot, and no tire goes fast when it's cold. But as the races progressed, every other driver would have to choose -- either let off the gas, or risk burning the tires right off the wheels. Dean's plan was to be the only man tonight who could drive faster at the end of the race than he could at the start. "Racing is a chess game," Dean says. "Everybody's got the same cars, same shocks, same frames. But am I smarter than the other guy? Can I move all my pieces into the right places through the night and outsmart him before the race even starts? This is what racing is to me. This is what makes me go."

And then Jay Howe went and had himself the biggest wreck of the season, blowing Dean's entire strategy. Now Dean sits in front of a line of parked race cars. And since it looks like nothing's happening, the fans have no idea that this could be the deciding moment of the race. Neither do the other drivers. Only Dean knows that every second his tires sit idle, their heat evaporating into the night air, the more slowly his car will go, and the faster his competitors become. "I'm sitting here about to eat my steering wheel," Dean thinks.

Two tow trucks roll onto the track and drag Howe's car away, one at the front and one at the back, like wartime medics carrying a stretcher. Then the fire crew throws matches at the puddles of spilled fuel, and the crowd witnesses the eerie sight of dirt on fire.

Finally the race director waves the yellow flag, and the remaining seven cars slowly begin to circle the track. They dart back and forth, which makes them look like sharks. Most cars here tonight have 800-horsepower engines, more than any car on the NASCAR circuit. And each one weighs 2,400 pounds, 1,400 less than a NASCAR car. So when the green flag drops and the drivers accelerate out of turn four, each car puts so much power to the ground that it almost pulls a wheelie. And the sound of them! It's a beautiful, frightening, multilayered thing, a high-pitched metallic whine matched to a subterranean growl, which plows the air like a swinging fist.

Then the drivers hit the corner, and they all do this crazy thing. Instead of going into the turn in an orderly way, one after another, they stomp on their gas pedals and cock their steering wheels to the right. This causes their rear ends to fishtail around, so they're actually sliding sideways though the corner. There are five, six cars, all pulling these massive power slides, skidding and bouncing sideways, within inches of each other! The power slide is old-time racing. The practice comes straight out of the early days of stock cars, in the 1940s and '50s, when drivers encountered a new problem -- their cars were too fast for the little dirt tracks. So, the story goes, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, two of the first stars of NASCAR, invented the power slide. It enabled them to come into the turn with more speed, then leave the corner with the whole car pointed straight down the stretch. All they had to do was punch the gas and go. For years everybody else copied them, before the world of big-money racers abandoned the sliding altogether to race exclusively on asphalt tracks.

But the power slide lives at Wayne County Speedway, and Larry Kugel is using it to try to root Danny Dean out of first place. Kugel sticks the nose of his car deep into the bottom of the turn. His gas pedal is down and his tail is just on the edge of spinning out, and his car bounces over and nicks Dean's on the rear quarter panel.

With his hot dirt tires, Kugel has the faster car. He could flat outrun Dean down the straightaway. But Dean uses his car like a wall, slowing everybody behind him until he gets the right angle to spring out of the turn. He gets it, and he's gone. A swirl of dust coils behind him.

Kugel catches up and challenges again on turn three, but he can't get close enough to rattle Dean out of the way. Two more laps and it's all over. "Danny Dean, the Flying Fossil, takes the checkered flag yet again!" the track announcer booms.

"A lot of these guys come into the corners with their hair on fire, all jerking back and forth," says driver Tom Ogle. "Danny Dean just eases right in there and eases right out."

Smooth driving is important, Dean says. Even more important is what you do before you drive onto the track. "The kids who haven't been racing a long time, they don't understand. The secret of winning on dirt is you gotta be able to read the dirt."

Danny Dean was born on a 500-acre farm outside Utica, Ohio, in 1941. He never had much interest in farming, but he started tinkering with tractor motors at age eight. When he was 11, he was driving a truckload of grain to Columbus when a state trooper pulled him over. The trooper took one look at the wooden Pepsi crate Dean was using as a booster seat and started reading him the riot act. Dean's father leaned over and said, "Mister, this kid is probably a better driver than you are."

When he was 14, before he had a license, Dean started drag racing a big Harley Davidson motorcycle on the road. He was still too small to pick it up by himself, so if it ever fell over, he'd have to ask for help. "I don't know where it comes from," he says. "My twin brother Donny never was mechanical. I just had the knack."

After a tour as an electrician on a Navy aircraft carrier, Dean returned home in 1962 and immediately got back to raising hell. He bought a '63 Chevy that was "just about the baddest car in the state of Ohio," he says, and he'd drag-race it through the middle of downtown Mt. Vernon. None of the police cars was fast enough to catch him. So the cops just circled back to his street and arrested Dean when he came home. "I used to go out and try to get myself killed every week," he says. "I'd be going down the interstate at 150 miles an hour. Hell. If you wanna race, we'll race."

The first stock car he bought was a 1955 Plymouth. It cost $150, roll cage included. "It was a piece of shit," he says. To get it to Mount Vernon Speedway every week, Dean pulled the race car behind his Chevy on a nylon rope. Nobody thought to bring any tools to the races back then, and no one brought spare tires. Whatever gas he had in the tank when he left home was the gas he raced with, and if he ran out, that was just too damn bad. "We didn't bring nothing," Dean says. "We didn't have nothing."

Dean took chances and drove hard, and sometimes he got lucky and won. Then, in 1967, he scraped together some money and bought his dream car, a 1957 Chevy. It had a great motor. But like most cars back then, the suspension was so loose it was nearly impossible to steer.

Today, a new racer with a loose suspension can just click on and read last month's 3,500-word article on that very subject. And if the young man is feeling flush, he can click over to the website for Dave Poske's Performance Parts in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and buy an Appleton suspension cylinder for $599.

In 1967, Danny Dean went back to the junkyard. He tore two heavy shocks from an old station wagon and bolted them onto the left front corner of his car. "I was dumber than a box of rocks," Dean says. "There was nobody out there to help you then."

Dean's '57 Chevy was a revolution in Ohio stock-car racing. Every racer had a hopped-up engine, but nobody had the steering to keep it under control. Dean won the first race he entered with the car and took home $27. It was about time he started winning. He was trying to support a wife, a young daughter, and a heavy racing habit on the salary of a repair-shop parts manager, and money was thin. "I had to win," Dean says. "If I didn't win, I couldn't come back and race the next week. I couldn't feed my daughter and feed my wife."

For three years straight, nobody beat Danny Dean. "They hated me," he says. "I mean big-time. People would spit on my wife and daughter in the grandstand. I had to start going to different racetracks."

Some men choose numbers for their cars that coincide with the birthday of their first son, their lucky number, or the year they met their wives. To this day, Dean drives with a red number 67 on his car, because that was the first year he raced a really fast car.

Dean started towing his hot car to races all over, picking up sponsorships and racking up trophies. He used some of the prize money to open his own mechanic's shop in Mt. Vernon. Customers started rolling in because he seemed like a straight shooter, and they figured a good race-car driver couldn't be a half-bad mechanic. But Dean was gone racing five days a week. The two days he was home, he had to make so many repairs on his car that he barely slept. For years it went this way. His daughter and wife saw very little of him, and he had to leave his shop in the care of his service manager.

Dean did have fun on the road, though. He developed an entourage of people who liked to stand next to him in the pits all day and party all night after he won. "If you're a winner, people will hang around you all the time," he says. "They want to be with Danny, they want their picture in the paper."

The entourage included plenty of cute women who were single enough. They would find out where he was driving next week, and it didn't matter if it was Pennsylvania, Kentucky, or Virginia. They'd be there. He always thought of himself as an honest man, but his quick rise to dirt-track fame made him question. "Women like race-car drivers, know what I'm saying?" Dean says. "I'm 20, 30 years old, I'm traveling, the women are after me. I had some affairs. Nothing serious."

Then his wife ran off with his service manager. His marriage was wrecked, and so was his business. "It wasn't her fault," Dean says. "If I'd been home paying attention, instead of being on the road five nights a week, and raising my daughter like I should have been, it wouldn't have happened."

His racing suffered too; he'd gotten cocky. "I was thinking, 'I know this and I know that.' Then somebody comes along and cleans your clock."

Finally Dean decided to back off a tad. He cut his races from five days a week to four. "I got tired," he says. "I wasn't getting no sleep, I was out drinking. Racing's a hard life."

And gradually he developed a stronger relationship with the truth. He patched things up with his ex-wife and his daughter, whom he now considers his best friends. And he never married again. That way, he didn't feel any pangs of guilt if a young woman happened to fancy his racing skills. "I'm not the kind of man you want to be married to," he says.

In business and on the track, his reputation as an honest man never really faltered. "A lot of drivers get reputations over the years for selling parts they say are good when actually they're not," Deb Delaney says. "I don't know of anyone who has a bad thing to say about Danny."

"I only get my car fixed at Danny's," says Diana Hugg of Mt. Vernon. "You may pay a little more, but you know he's gonna tell you the truth."

The only place where Dean brooks cheating now is in the pits. In this, too, he is a traditionalist. The saying goes that Bill France Sr., the father of NASCAR, wrote the first official rules for stock-car racing on December 18, 1947. On December 19, drivers started to cheat. Putting the muffler on backwards is an easy way to make a car go faster. Clamping a nice hunk of metal to the frame will help you pass the weight test, and removing it as you drive from the scale to the track will help you win.

Dirt-track drivers want their weight as far back as possible. A few seasons ago, Dean moved his engine three inches to the rear. To keep the inspectors from noticing, he drilled a hole in the front of the motor and stuck in a fake spark plug. Another driver saw Dean's gamble and raised it. The man mounted his entire engine on a greased skid. He kept it forward to pass inspection, then he'd flip a switch, engaging a winch that dropped the engine back about a foot. "He did that for half a season before they caught him," Dean says with admiration.

Dean is particularly well known for his trickery with body panels. Track inspectors ride his ass constantly about the nose of his car, which he prefers to keep lower to the ground than the rules allow. "I'll do anything to keep air from getting under my car," Dean says. "It's our job to cheat, it's their job to catch us."

Danny Dean has the track all to himself, and he decides to show what his car can do. He comes out of turn four for the first of two qualifying laps, and he's using so much power that the rear end fishtails all the way down the stretch. He's going over a hundred miles an hour, and his tires are still spinning out! Jason Morey stands near the guardrail with a stopwatch. Dean turns a lap in just over 20 seconds. "Shit!" Morey says. "He is flying!"

Dean leaves the track, and Morey jogs back to Dean's trailer. Dean is already shimmying out the window by the time Morey gets there. Morey and his brother Justin start working on the car, checking the tires and topping off the fuel. When Dean pulls off his helmet, sweat plasters his thin gray hair to his forehead.

"Hey!" Dean shouts. "Don't worry about that car! I gotta get this other one ready for hot laps!"

Wrestling one 900-horsepower car around a dirt track all night long is a physical challenge, even for young drivers. Racing two is exhausting. The car Dean just drove is working great. But the other one came from the factory with a squirrelly suspension that's difficult to control. So Dean hauled it here tonight to drive around the track and figure out what's wrong. And he brought the good car, because he hates to go a whole night without winning something. "I could be out partying, or I could be going to the movies," Dean says. "But if I have to work all night to win, I'll do it. I have to win."

Tweaking a race car is no big hassle for a guy who prefers to work whenever he's not sleeping. Dean started out in business with Danny's Auto Care, and now he also owns a body shop, a used-car lot, a sign-rental business and a 24-hour towing service. When he's not busy running one of those, he's working on the family farm, hammering nails to renovate the old farmhouse.

To relax, Dean works some more. "I enjoy getting on my tractor and doing a little bush-hoggin'" -- country-speak for mowing the grass -- he says. "That's how I get away from it all."

Dean fits right into the culture of stock-car racing, which values hard work above most other things. It starts with Tim Myers, the man responsible for Wayne County's smooth-as-glass track. Myers works 40 to 60 hours a week on the track, cutting it with a farm plow, watering it, packing it back down. He has a part-time job as a maintenance man and another as a welder. Myers races his own car, a '55 Chevy, and he races another car for the Buck Smitley Towing company. He and his wife are raising two sons, ages 9 and 13. He sleeps four hours a night. "It takes a lot of work, a lot of energy, a lot of love," says Myers, 40.

Fans work as hard as the drivers. Rhonda Thomas says she reinjures her back almost every week, lifting senior citizens as a home health aide in New Philadelphia. When she's home from her job, she watches her fiancé's niece and nephew, as well as his son from a previous marriage. "All the drivers here are our neighbors," says Thomas, 28. "They're hard-working people, people who don't have nothing, and it's nice to come out here and watch them win something."

On a night like tonight, when Dean is racing two cars back-to-back, his work never stops. The pink sun sinks into the cornfield just west of the track, so Dean throws a switch on his car hauler. Four sets of fluorescent lights blink on, throwing light into the big bellies of his race cars. Unlike NASCAR drivers, who pull their cars around the country in giant semis, most drivers at Wayne County haul theirs on rickety metal trailers, behind dually pickups and conversion vans and old stubby school buses. It took Dean four decades of hard work, but last season he rewarded himself with the biggest, whitest dreamboat of a car-hauler Wayne County Speedway has ever seen. Pulled by a Freightliner semi, it's a two-story rolling mechanic shop, with room for three race cars, 20 plastic jugs of fuel, and 44 tires. It's equipped with gas and electric heat, a refrigerator, an ice maker, a four-burner stove, a TV, Playstation 2, a DVD player, and a skylight above the shower. It sleeps eight people comfortably. It cost $300,000 and weighs 40 tons empty. Even in the dust and mud of a dirt racetrack, Dean keeps his rig immaculate. Dean drove to a race in Canada last season, and the truck drew so many gawkers that he couldn't get to his car. "This thing'll do 90 on the freeway, fully loaded, without even trying," Dean says.

The trailer rumbles all night with the hum of the air compressor. Dean thinks he's got the suspension problem on his big car figured out, but now there's only ten minutes to prepare the other car for the feature race. A line of other cars is already forming on the concrete ramp from the pits to the track. Jason Morey runs into the trailer. He stops at precisely the right drawer, pulls out precisely the right socket wrench, then jogs back to the car. His brother Justin uses a metal grinder to rub dirt and melted rubber off a used tire. Sweat rolls down his forearms and stains his red work gloves black.

"Not everybody does that," Dean says. Then he winks. "But anybody who's fast does."

Shocks tightened, tires changed, Justin Morey releases the jack and lowers the car to the dirt. To speed things up, Dean yanks off the air filter and pours gasoline straight onto the carburetor. He walks to the driver's seat, presses the start button. The car jolts alive with a noise like cracking thunder. Dean reaches into the guts of the roaring machine and tugs on the throttle.

Then he climbs into the seat. He has no orders left to give, no jokes to crack, so he sits there and worries about David Bodkins. The driver of the black double-zero car managed a challenge for first place in the last race, riding Dean's gas tank for a few laps. So Dean made some adjustments. He pumped the tires. He tightened the brakes.

"Hey!" he calls. "Can anybody beat me?"

Jason Morey looks Dean in the eye. "No."

Dean nods, throws the car into reverse, and takes his place in front of the waiting race cars.

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