There once was a time when attending the stock car races at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds was the place to be and the place to be seen on Friday nights in Springfield.
This was an era when stock car racing was our major spring and summer sports entertainment. Thousands showed up each week to pack the grandstands and fans came to cheer their personal favorites like Bud McKee, Lester Friebe, Willie Crane or David Goldsberry.
But one driver always stood above the rest.
Half the fans came to cheer for Larry Phillips. Half came to boo him. Love him or hate him, you didn’t take your eyes off the No. 75 car when Phillips steered it around the half-mile track.
Phillips was fast. He was determined. He was skilled. He wasn’t bashful about moving slower cars out of the way, if need be. Moreover, Phillips usually won. A loud chorus of cheers and jeers were mixed together each time he visited victory lane, a cigarette in one hand a trophy in the other.
He once told me during an interview in the early 1990s that he appreciated the cheers and wasn’t bothered by the boos. Later on, his legion of fans started bringing cowbells to the track. That just annoyed the Philips haters even more.
Either way, Phillips said, people were paying attention.
It seemed fitting on Thursday when news came that No. 75 was announced as the latest addition to NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers List. Drivers are being announced in no particular order in this, NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.
Phillips, who died in 2004 at the age of 62 after battling lung cancer, won five national championships in what is now called the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Racing Series. NASCAR sanctioned the series to recognize short-track racers and Phillips became a national force to be reckoned with.
Those came after the Fairgrounds closed the popular track in the late 1980s and Phillips raced primarily at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, Bolivar Speedway and I-70 Speedway in Odessa.
The Springfield native won 220 of 289 NASCAR-sanctioned races from 1989-96, a winning percentage of 76.1. That meant he won races at a higher rate than most pro basketball players make free throws. There’s no official total of how many races Phillips won during his 40-year career, but it’s believed to be somewhere north of 1,000.
Recognition from NASCAR is long overdue
The recognition from NASCAR is long overdue. So would be inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which could be coming when the Class of 2024 is unveiled later this month. Phillips has been a Hall of Fame finalist for several years, but so many of the voters are based in NASCAR’s original geographic footprint of the southeast that they either don’t understand Phillps’ career or haven’t done their homework.
Terry Phillips, Larry’s son and himself an accomplished race driver in his own right on America’s dirt tracks, said his phone was blowing up Thursday after he got the news about the NASCAR 75 Greatest.
“It’s a really cool deal,” Terry Phillips said from his race shop north of Springfield. “It’s funny with his car number and the 75 years and all that. Hell, we all knew he was not just top 75. I don’t know where he would place or how you would even figure that, but I damn sure know he needs to be in I would say the top five. I’m biased. But at least he’s in the top 75.
“When you’re not on TV, I suppose, you don’t get the recognition of some of these guys. We all knew it was true. It’s about time they all start recognizing that.”
‘Today, he would be a national superstar’
To lend some perspective, the NASCAR 75 Greatest list includes all the names you would expect, like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. There are others like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, who Phillips helped get there. Phillips was more than a championship driver. He also was a racing professor, of sorts.
Wallace and Martin came to race at the Springfield Fairgrounds as teenagers in the 1970s. Phillips put them to work at his shop on Commercial Street a couple of those summers. Both have praised Phillips over the years for the racing education he gave them, both in the race shop and on the racetrack.
Martin, from Batesville, Arkansas, called Phillips “my racing hero” during his induction into the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation Hall of Fame in 2019. On Thursday, in an audio interview with NASCAR on Twitter, he explained further why Phillips deserved the national acclaim.
“In his genre of racing, in my eyes, he was Dale Earnhardt,” Martin said. “I mean, he won races with junk. He’d build racecars and his racecars got more sophisticated as he went, but he damn sure didn’t win his races by out-doing people via equipment.
“He made what he had, work. He made it handle and he drove it. He was aggressive and on the racetrack, he was hard to out-think and hard to be ahead of him. He was incredible in traffic.”
Martin said not only is Phillips deserving of a NASCAR 75 Greatest honor, he should be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“People who follow racing now — or who followed racing at the time — they didn’t have a chance to know what Larry was doing,” Martin said. “There wasn’t an internet and there was such limited coverage.
“Today, he would be a national superstar.”
Intensity a key to his success
Phillips was easily among the most-intense people I’ve covered over the years in sports. I grew up watching him race at the Fairgrounds and was in the camp cheering him. Later, as I covered local racing, interviewing him was intimidating.
When he was focused on work, at his shop or at the track, you didn’t dare bother him. There was a fear of asking him a dumb question. Somehow, Larry always was patient and gave me all the time I needed. His answers were thoughtful and interesting.
Terry Phillips, who along with his dad is in the Springfield Area Sports Hall of Fame and National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame, said Larry’s intensity was the biggest key to his success.
“If you knew him you would understand that. It’s kind of hard to explain,” Terry Phillips said. “He had an uncanny desire to succeed. He did everything himself. He was hard-headed and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“The main thing? He had a hell of a work ethic. He was self-driven like a lot of greats are.”
As Martin referenced, Phillips didn’t appear to have the greatest-looking or most-expensive cars at times. But he was a self-made engineer in some of the innovations he used to make his cars faster.
“He was way smarter than people know,” Terry Phillips said. “When he got something on his mind, he could do anything. I’m biased, but I’d say he was close to being a genius. He had to be close to one.
“He and an old man built this race shop from the ground up. He built a helicopter from a kit. He wouldn’t sleep because he was so motivated. He’d be in a terrible mood. I asked him one time, ‘Isn’t this supposed to be fun?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I can’t sleep until I figure this thing out.’
“It was just his drive. That’s just the way he was.”
‘He probably wouldn’t care about any of this’
Larry never was much for accolades, but Terry Phillips said it’s gratifying for the Phillips family to see his dad get his due as one of the best. The NASCAR Hall of Fame honor, if and when it comes, would be icing on the cake.
“He damn sure deserves it as a racecar driver,” Terry Phillips said. “I don’t know what a NASCAR Hall of Famer, or a Missouri Hall of Famer looks like, but if he ain’t it, I don’t know who would be.”
What would Larry think of the NASCAR 75 honor?
“He probably wouldn’t care about any of this,” Terry Phillips said. “All he was worried about was winning that next race. He once told me, ‘Winning’s not the only thing, but I hate to lose.’ That pretty well summed his life up.”