Still driven by a love of cars and racing

Speed: After a half-century of competing, `Dizzy' Dean Renfro remains fascinated by the thrill of the sport.

October 25, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

The crowd stands, clapping, yelling, urging on two dozen cars that are held together with junkyard parts and household odds and ends. No. 36, a '34 Chevy coupe, clocks 158 mph on the dirt track before pulling into the pit.

The driver struggles to breathe. Maybe he is choking on his helmet strap, because the air keeps catching under his face shield and lifting it up.

Maybe he is just scared. He has never driven so fast.

Dean Renfro says all this excitement happened on a hot August afternoon in 1969, but it might as well have been yesterday. At 72, the Carroll County man is still up to his greasy elbows in the sport of auto racing. And the decades have gone by in a blur -- the sort you see when you're behind the wheel of a fast car and you're speeding toward a checkered flag.

Along the way, "Dizzy" Dean Renfro, as he is known, has brushed up against some of the sport's legendary names. He raced against Lee Petty. He also competed against Junior Johnson -- at Daytona Beach, Fla., stock car racing's holy land.

And he never put his fascination with engines in neutral.

Memorabilia

The shelves at his Manchester home sag under the weight of model cars, trophies and souvenir soda bottles and other racing memorabilia. The walls are covered with pictures, awards and life-size cutouts of professional drivers.

He volunteers at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in Mechanicsburg, Pa., promoting an annual, three-day celebration of racing and wheels in Harrisburg, Pa. That event includes displays and racing for stock cars, sprint cars, motorcycles and even lawn mowers.

Its name: Motorama.

A couple of times a year, Renfro climbs into restored versions of the cars he raced years ago to run them mostly in Pennsylvania. He promotes races at the Trail-Way Speedway in Hanover, Pa. He is always ready with advice for turning a car into a racing machine -- all you need, he says, is $400 to add a roll cage and reinforce the wheels.

He says it's a small price to pay for a thrill that's unlike any other.

"I love the challenge of it," Renfro says. "It's so much fun. Just me and the car. I had no coordination in other sports, but this I could do."

Perhaps more than anything else, Renfro is a living link to the sport's rollicking past.

"He really is the epitome of the Saturday night hero," says Joe Heisler, a historian at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing who has seen Renfro race. "He was always interested in putting on a good show, he always put the fans first. He preferred to pass where the fans would see him doing it."

Love of wheels

Renfro has been crazy about wheels since he was a young boy. "I was hooked when I was 9 years old, driving tractors and cars," he says.

He first saw concrete as a youngster riding the train from his native North Carolina to Baltimore, on his way to the new family home in Carroll County. His father was a mechanic. By the time young Renfro was 10, he knew the insides of a car as well as a doctor knows anatomy.

He said he ran away from home when he was 16 and was recruited into the Air Force, ending up in San Antonio.

His first race

Renfro ran his first race there when he was 19, in 1949. It was a big race -- 100 cars and people streamed in. He raced a Hudson Hornet, which he'd later whirl around a track at Daytona.

About that time, he was tagged with the nickname that he shares with baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean.

Renfro was part of an era before big, brand-name sponsors started slapping their logos on cars, before NASCAR went mainstream, before you needed big money to race. He was a consistent racer who finished in the top five most of the time and won more than 350 trophies, but he never had enough wins to catch the headlines.

He competed at 18 tracks around Baltimore, including the former Taneytown Speedway, Westport Stadium and Dorsey Speedway. But most of the action was over the border in Pennsylvania, a hotbed of motorheads. Renfro was a regular at places like Reading Fairgrounds and Lincoln Speedway.

"Cars back then had their own personality," he recalls. "You could take a little bit of money and ingenuity and win."

He said he and his crew would make shoulder harnesses and seat belts from Army surplus ammunition belts, gas tanks from empty beer kegs and door seals from leather belts. In 1953, he traded in a car for a '37 Ford sedan and with the help of another friend, made it into a race car -- "12 hours and $12," he says. That car won $26 in its first race.

At the Nazareth Speedway in Lehigh Valley, Pa., on that hot August day more than three decades ago, he had to think quickly. Choking on his helmet strap, he told his pit crew to take off the face shield that was catching the air. He roared off wearing leather goggles to shield his eyes from the mud.

His aggressive style caught on with fans, who loved to see him duke it out with the competition.

"I drive just the way I'm driven against. When drivers run clean, you run clean. But when drivers are pushing and shoving, you do the same, give and take," he says.

Another memory, another race -- this one at Reading Fairgrounds.

"It was 1967, a 30-lap race with four qualifying heats. I remember this hotdog. ... He just laid it on me," Renfro said. "Next time I turned left, and he went right into the infield."

These days, his body is a little worn (torn kneecaps, broken elbows, neck injuries) from a half-century of racing. He needs both hands to get into a car, pulling his legs slowly in one at a time.

But nothing can stop him from being an ambassador for the sport he loves. Brad Hostetter, manager of the Trail-Way Speedway, has seen Renfro drive cars around the clay track and tell the owners what they need to do to make them competition-ready.

"He's one of these guys who could be mayor of a town," Hostetter says. "He knows everybody, and everybody knows he loves racing."

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