Let’s hear it for the little guy

Who doesn’t like to cheer for the underdog?

If the answer to that question wasn’t “just about everybody,” why would we have had super-popular movies like “Hoosiers,” “Remember the Titans,” “Cool Running” and “Rocky?” When has there ever been a movie called “We Were the Richest and Best and We Won?” 

That’s one of the elements missing in NASCAR’s Cup Series racing today. In my formative fan years, it was hard not to cheer for Roy Tyner or the ultimate underdog, Wendell Scott. Today, the driver-du-jour for Rick Ware might be an incredible underdog, but he/she just doesn’t attract the emotions that J.D. McDuffie did.

And every now and then, an underdog gave you something to really cheer about. Watching Lennie Pond charge ahead of David Pearson and take the lead for the first seven laps of the 1975 World 600 remains one of my greatest racing memories, and the screaming crowd echoed the human tendency to love an underdog. Sonny Hutchins did the same thing in 1974 at Martinsville – and even better, in a one-off deal in a car prepared by non-Cup regular Emanuel Zervakis – was a highlight for those at that race (unfortunately, that crowd didn’t include me).

The person/personality factor wasn’t as strong, but the same emotions held to some degree for sponsors, because back in the day, local companies occasionally showed up on the sides of cars not fortunate enough to have a factory or major corporate deal. Usually, the cars were destined to remain near the back of the pack – it was hard to have enough car to challenge for the lead if you didn’t have enough money – but it happened.

I was reminded of that the other day when somebody posted a photo on Facebook of James Hylton on his way to winning the 1970 Richmond 500 (and racing with Richard Petty) in a Ford sponsored by Richmond’s own Mallory’s Speed Shop.

The Richmond win was the first for Hylton, perhaps the most successful of all the “independent” drivers of his day (Dave Marcis being the strongest competition), and he didn’t have a regular sponsor most years. (Photo is from one of those Facebook pages where fans share old photos. I have no idea of its origin, although it might be from one of the Richmond newspapers.)

I don’t know what Sonny Mallory paid Hylton for that quarter-panel mention, but my guess it was a lot less than what Plymouth paid the Pettys. Mallory, famously called “the round man with the square deal” around Richmond, was reasonably successful with his small business, but he wouldn’t have been able to truly support a team (still “Grand National” in 1970) for a full season.

There may well have been other one-time local sponsors who lucked out and picked the winning driver in a GN race in those days, but I don’t know anything about them, except . . . Ned Jarrett and Bondy Long and Richmond Ford.

Ned Jarrett in the Bondy Long factory Ford with Richmond Ford sponsorship, at Darlington, where he won the 1965 Southern 500 by 14 laps. (I got this photo from the Mac’s Motor City Garage website, but it looks like a Darlington publicity photo.)

This was a different situation from that of James Hylton and Sonny Mallory. Factory Fords in those days generally carried the names of Ford dealerships on their primary sponsorship quarter panel – LaFayette Ford of Fayetteville, N.C., adorned the side of Fred Lorenzen’s #28 – but those dealerships were by no means the main financial supporters of the cars. I’ll leave it to someone else to explain that arrangement.

In any case, Jarrett won 13 races on his way to the 1965 NASCAR Grand National Championship with Richmond Ford on his car. (By the way, their crew chief was none other than James Hylton.) That was it. In 1964, the #11 had been sponsored by Courtesy Ford of Charlotte. In 1966, Richmond Ford was still around, but Jarrett was gone before midseason, and the magic was gone. By the next year, Dick Hutcherson was driving, and East Tennessee Motor Co. of Kingsport was sponsoring.

So, there you have a couple of “little guy” approaches: slap your name on the car for a single race (maybe a couple) for an affordable sum or get the credit for being the main sponsor when in fact the big bucks are coming from the manufacturer. Mallory’s Speed Shop was the more heartwarming story, but if you were from Richmond, you still liked a local Ford dealer on a top car. Rarely has there been a case where the little guy carried the big load.

Let’s talk about one such case. Let’s talk about Dave Marcis, Mike Miller, and Big Apple Market.

Here’s Dave Marcis, left, and sponsor Mike Miller with the Big Apple Market team. (Photo from NASCAR’s Racing Champions blog.)

Mike Miller inherited a farm/orchard worth a decent amount of money and decided to use it to be a NASCAR Winston Cup sponsor. For two full seasons and a handful of races during a third, he sponsored Marcis’ #71, and few people who saw Big Apple Markets on the side of the car had any idea that Miller’s business was a small farm market-turned NASCAR memorabilia store on the outskirts of Waynesboro, Pa. (population 10,000+), just north of the Mason-Dixon Line and Hagerstown, Md. (There’s a bank branch in the building today.)

This, of course, was toward the end of Marcis’ career, and while he still had sponsorships from Olive Garden and RealTree Camo ahead of him, he was clearly in the period where his backers were clearly secondary, even in the heady days when everybody seemed to be able to sport a national product or company on the quarter panel: At Richmond’s spring race, only two of the 35 starters lacked national names on board, Marcis and self-sponsored part-timer Bill Meacham (three starts and nine DNQs over a four-year career).

(One of that race’s non-qualifiers was J.D. McDuffie, who was driving for a long-time little guy, Rumple Furniture. No longer active then, unfortunately, was Virginian Jabe Thomas, who long carried the colors of Roanoke’s Star City Body Shop.)

The neat thing about the Big Apple deal was that the community embraced it. A larger local business (trucking and other services) held an annual Dave Marcis Day, which enjoyed a healthy fan turnout, and the Marcis/Big Apple Matchbox-sized car enjoyed brisk sales.

A lot of current sponsors get good public relations mileage out of their NASCAR sponsorships, but the Waynesboro locals turning out for Dave Marcis and his local sponsor was something quite different.

I miss that.

Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts

There were a few stories that, while related to the above, just didn’t quite fit into the main narrative, but I can’t give ‘em up, so here, if you’re got a few more minutes . . . Lennie Pond’s initial Cup ride was another little guy story, really for both owner Ronnie Elder (no relation to Suitcase Jake) and sponsor Master Chevrolet Sales of Petersburg, Va. I saw a Google excerpt from a book about Richmond’s famous Jefferson Hotel and learned that Albert Suttle Sr., one of the owners of the Jefferson starting in the late 1940s, also owned Master Chevy. The book said that the initial sponsorship was worth a one-ton truck and $10,000 in auto parts. I would be surprised if that’s what each of Rick Hendrick’s dealers pays to share sponsorship of Kyle Larson today.

The Lennie Pond/Ronnie Elder/Master Chevrolet Sales #54 was one of the nicest-looking cars of its era. (Photo from Randy Ayers NASCAR Modeling Forum.)

Ned Jarrett’s car owner Bondy Long was one of a number of wealthy individuals who dabbled in racing back in the days when the amount of money needed to dabble was a bit more reasonable. His mother had married into the DuPont family, and that brought access to the money that helped him start a Grand National team while still in his early 20s. The DuPont connection – or at least the money – probably helped Ford decide to make him part of the Ford factory team, and things certainly went well for a while, with Jarrett winning 27 races in 1964 and ’65, plus – surprisingly to me – Ford’s first championship. (To clarify, Ford had won four manufacturer’s championships before ’65, but Jarrett and Long were the first team to win the driver’s championship in a Ford.)

The team wasn’t able to keep up the pace without Jarrett, though, and after 1968, Long hung up his owner’s checkbook at the ripe old age of 28. He still lives in South Carolina, I believe.

Dave Fulton reminded me that Jarrett’s owner before Long was Charles “Red” Robinson of Burton & Robinson Concrete Construction Co. in Fairfax, Va. That certainly counts as another “little guy” both as owner and sponsor. Also, long-time independent driver Cecil Gordon at one point was based out of South Hill, Va., and his Chevy was sponsored by South Hill Texaco and Midlothian Texaco (the latter in Richmond).

As much as I hate to counter my usual “those-were-the-good-old-days” line, a look at 1970 results casts some doubt. Of the 48 races run that year, 28 were on tracks shorter than a mile, and 24 of those were won by either Richard Petty or Bobby Isaac. (Besides Hylton’s Richmond win, the Allison brothers split Bristol, and Bobbly also won the season-closer at Langley Field in Hampton, Va. If Petty or Isaac was running at the finish, most of the time nobody else had a legitimate shot. At Richmond, Petty and Isaac lead the first 340 laps but both had problems, and Hylton led the rest of the way. Petty did finish second, on the lead lap; Isaac was fourth, 15 laps down. Elmo Langley was nine laps behind in third.

Richmond winner James Hylton with local “little guy” sponsor Sonny Mallory.

Sonny Mallory was one of the most recognizable guys in Richmond area racing back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dave Fulton and I had gone to a race at South Boston one Saturday night and stopped for gas and a pit stop on the way home. The Mallory’s Speed Shop truck pulled in right after us, and Sonny got out, the rear of his pants covered with duct tape. He didn’t know us from Adam, but that didn’t stop us from being familiar in our greeting.

“Hey Sonny,” one of us called out. “What’s with the pants?”

“Had a blowout,” was the reply.

Yeah, I’ve bent over and heard that ripping sound before. Thank God for duct tape.

(Photo Notes: The cover photos of Lennie Pond and Dave Marcis are both widely copied images. The Pond shot is a typical pre-500 publicity photo, and the Marcis photo is from a trading card. Original credit is unknown for both.)

(Credit to old buddy Dave Fulton, by the way, for having reprinted several years ago in Racers Reunion a Mike Hembree story about Bondy Long. Nobody loves this sports history more than Mr. Fulton.)

Ned Jarrett climbs into the Burton & Robinson Ford.

Frank Buhrman


  1. Wonderful memories came flooding back as I read your piece, Frank. I think you and I hollared ourselves hoarse at Charlotte the afternoon Lennie Pond in the Master Chevrolet #54 snatched the lead from Pearson. Special time in our lives.

  2. I love reading these. When I moved to CA, I became interested in open wheel racing, but still kept up with NASCAR. Went back to Daytona many times because I visited family, but never got to visit any tracks in VA, W Va, Kentucky, TN, N or S Carolina so I just love reading articles from You, Dave, David and Tim. It just takes me back to all the years I was involved in racing of all kinds. I definitely remember the “Little Guys”. Thank you for shedding more info on some of the ones that were in that category. Keep it up!

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