Sunday, January 25, 2015

19 Shades of (Henley) Gray Part 1

From the time I was introduced to racing, I was a Petty fan. I get it though. Some could have labeled me as a front-runner. Petty was already a multi-time champion and the all time leader in wins by the time I learned about him. Petty Enterprises was a 'money' shop. The team worked hard to keep their edge, but no question the Level Cross bunch benefited from cash flowing from Chrysler Corporation and STP. Truthfully though, I became a King fan primarily because he was a class act and because I thought his STP Dodge Charger looked cool.

Even being a committed Petty fan, I also pulled for the underdogs. Before NASCAR exploded in the 1990s, independent drivers could eke out a reasonable living towing from race to race. The teams had limited financial backing, a thin crew, an ability to make the most from cars and parts discarded by others, and an unmatched work ethic. I always wanted the best for guys such as Buddy Arrington, James Hylton, Jimmy Means, Coo Coo Marlin, etc. Henley Gray from Rome, GA was another of that long-tenured independent group of drivers.

The beginnings

After cutting his teeth in racing on some local short tracks plus a couple of Grand National starts, Henley committed to becoming a full-time GN driver in 1965. He built his own car - a practice he continued throughout his career.

Source: Rome News-Tribune via Google News Archive
He also started providing cars for others pretty early in his professional racing career. For example, Henley provided the car in which Coo Coo Marlin made his first Grand National start at Nashville in 1966. As a driver, Henley finished 4th in that race which turned out to be a career best for him.

Henley was a regular fixture on the GN / Cup tour from the mid 1960s through the mid 1970s. His driving career, however, was permanently altered during qualifying for the Champion Spark Plug at Michigan. When a suspension part broke at speed, Gray's Chevrolet hooked left off turn four and slammed into the end of a pit road wall. The wreck sounds similar to one Mark Martin had at Michigan in 2012 - the big difference being Henley hit the end of the wall head-on.

Source: Spartanburg Herald Journal via Google News Archive
Henley's Michigan injuries and long recovery resulted in his hanging up his helmet as a driver. Instead, he continued his involvement in racing as a car owner and fielded cars for a number of drivers until the early 1990s.

Driving turns to full-time owning

Gray drove #97 early in his career (or fielded it for others as he did for Marlin). By 1970, however, he began running #19 regularly. The number became closely associated with him until his days in NASCAR were completed. After he was done, #19 then became associated with drivers/teams such as Loy Allen Jr., Evernham / Gillett / Richard Petty Motorsports (Casey Atwood, Jeremy Mayfield, Elliott Sadler), and now Carl Edwards in his 2015 ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.

One driver hired to drive the #19 at the 1977 National 500 at Charlotte was raw rookie Dale Earnhardt. He piloted Gray's Chevy as he made only his 4th career Cup start. John Evanich, Mark Agee and others did a nice job at Randy Ayers Modeling Forum researching and chronicling the history of the car borrowed and fielded by Gray and driven by Earnhardt.

Leading up to his Michigan accident, Henley was apparently becoming a bit jaded with life and perhaps with racing. The wreck changed him though - and more than just physically. It gave him a new perspective on life and an appreciation for those around him who cared deeply. As he recovered, he composed a letter to his friends in racing and requested newspapers to print it to spread his feelings of gratitude.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
In 1978, Gray seemed to be on the verge of a bigger deal financially. Ohio beer distributor Woody Fisher wanted to race at the Cup level. Fisher (profiled a couple of times here previously) had raced off-and-on the past few years, primarily in USAC and ARCA events. His biggest win was at Daytona in the 1977 ARCA 200 in a yellow and Petty blue Dodge Charger purchased from, built by and maintained by Petty Enterprises.

Woody hired on with Gray in 1978. After skipping the season opener at Riverside, the team focused its efforts on Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. The preparation simply didn't translate to the track. Fisher completed just one lap in his qualifying race - a race won by A.J. Foyt in a Buick - and the #19 missed the Big Show.

Fisher and Gray regrouped and made the next race at Richmond. The results were unfortunately about the same. Fisher lost a rear-end in the 19, and he finished 28th in the 30-car field after completing only 74 of 400 laps.

As racers do, the team loaded up and headed to the next event: Rockingham. Sadly, the race was a case of SSDD for the 19. Fisher spun, wrecked the red 19 on the first lap and finished dead last.

Courtesy of John Evanich
FINALLY, the team got on track with a 'moral victory' finish the next race in the Atlanta 500. After starting 34th, Fisher took care of the car, lost a few laps, but still finished 20th in the 40-car field.

Gray's long-time sponsor, Belden Asphalt, was on the side of those first few races with Fisher. But Woody apparently had a plan to bring his own money to the table to help Gray. Whether he planned to partially fund the costs from his own pocket or arrange some beer sponsorship is unknown. Either way the car had a new look when the team arrived the next week at Bristol for the Southeastern 500. The red paint and Belden Asphalt lettering were gone. In their place was the yellow and Petty blue paint Woody had sported on his Petty-built Dodges.

Credit: Woody Delbridge from
Something apparently happened, however, between Fisher and Gray in the week before Bristol. Woody's colors and name were on the Chevy, but he wasn't behind the wheel. Dick May, who raced frequently for Gray, was brought in to qualify and race the car.

Fisher didn't return for the next few races, and May continued to race the 19 for Gray. I'm uncertain if Fisher's absence was by design based on his schedule, a call by Gray to park Woody because of limited experience and poor results, undelivered sponsorship dollars, or some other reason.

Gray wasn't finished with Fisher though. The Cup series arrived in Dover for the Mason-Dixon 500 in mid-May. Instead of the Chevy Malibu used frequently earlier in the season, the team brought a Monte Carlo - painted in yellow and Petty Blue with Woody's name on the door. This time the car bore #10 (Dick May was again behind the wheel of the #19).

Credit: Richard Stockman of RIS Photography
As happened at Bristol, Fisher didn't get on track with the car. Fellow independent driver (and future NASCAR pace car driver) Elmo Langley was put in the car for qualifying and the race. Fisher didn't return to Gray's team nor to Cup.

Though Fisher's days in Cup were over, his paint scheme continued. Henley replaced the 10 with #19, and continued running the yellow and blue combo for the next several years.

About two months after Dover, James Hylton borrowed the Monte Carlo from Gray for the 1978 Nashville 420. He modified the 19 to make his traditional #48 and had Walter Ballard qualify the car. Hylton's Olds had been wrecked by Al Holbert at Charlotte and Michigan preceding the Nashville race, and Hylton may have simply needed a car to get through the race and preserve some owner points. Race results show; however, Ballard didn't start the race and was credited with a last place finish.

Credit: Jeff Droke of
To be continued...


1 comment:

  1. I particularly noticed Henly driving the #19 because the guy I had cheered for in GN racing, independent Chevy driver, JT Putney had mostly run that number (and #11 a few times) - a holdover from when Herman "The Turtle Beam" had fielded JT's car after Cale stepped out of the ride.