TRACKSIDE with RICK MINTER - June 1, 2016

TRACKSIDE with RICK MINTER – June 1, 2016

Senoia Raceway fans, drivers, crew members and family can look forward to this new weekly blog from journalist Rick Minter.  Rick has been reporting on motorsports at Senoia Raceway and elsewhere since 1976.

Minter

 

 

Leon Archer, the legendary dirt racer from Griffin, died Tuesday after an extended illness. I hope he realized before he died that he achieved a level of fame that few in this world ever do.

 

In many ways, Archer was far ahead of his time, both in chassis set-ups and in work ethic.

 

He was intensely focused on his race car.  In his heyday, he was a full-time racer and worked as hard during the week on his race cars as he drove them on the weekends.

 

His car number, 222, was one of the more unique ones in the sport, and that contributed to his legend as well.

 

As best other historians and I can figure, he’s Senoia’s all-time leader in Late Model victories with 81, a number that was calculated by a hard-working historian, Jeff Smith.

 

Leon was the first champion of the National Dirt Racing Association back in 1979, but his real legacy is that people from all forms of auto racing held him in high regard.

 

NASCAR vice-chairman Mike Helton is known throughout the sport as a no-nonsense kind of fellow, not prone to exaggeration.

 

His long career in NASCAR has seen him hold many positions, including track manager at Atlanta Motor Speedway.  During his time in Hampton, where he still maintains a residence, he spent many a night in the pits at Senoia Raceway, where Archer and his burgundy Chevrolets often left the track with the fattest pay envelope.

 

A couple of years ago, when Archer was voted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, earning more votes than any other candidate in his first appearance on the ballot, Helton was asked for his thoughts on Archer.

“He was a legend, I thought,” Helton said. “He was one of those guys that convinced you to be a fan of the sport. He brought people into the community.”

 

Helton said that drivers like Archer played as important a role in the growth of NASCAR as some of the Cup circuit’s star drivers. “They brought fans into the sport, and those fans became part of the NASCAR fan base,” he said.

 

Helton remembers Archer as a tough competitor who got no pleasure in settling for second place.

 

“He was a winner-take-all kind of guy,” he said. “He was a lot like some of the guys on the Cup level today. To them, winning is everything, and that’s good. That’s what makes racing entertaining.”

 

Archer’s racing career had rather humble beginnings. He started in 1968, mostly as a hobby, racing a 1955 Chevrolet at Zebulon Speedway.

 

“It was just something to do on Sunday,” he said in an interview several years ago. “Me and a boy that worked for me bent some pipe, stuck it in there and went racing.”

 

It wasn’t long before Archer was venturing out, running at tracks in Newnan and Cumming, among other places.  As he did throughout his career, Archer often chose to take on the toughest competitors he could find instead of settling for the sure money around home.

 

By the mid-1970s, he had been winning big for years at local tracks like Senoia, West Atlanta Raceway (later known as Seven Flags), Dixie Speedway, East Alabama Motor Speedway and Rome Speedway.

 

Still, there were questions about how Archer and his peers in the South stacked up against other top dirt drivers from other parts of the United States.

 

The formation of the National Dirt Racing Association answered those questions. Robert Smawley’s trail-blazing circuit, with its big purses and even bigger promotions, drew the best dirt racers in the country, and its first championship went to Archer, putting Griffin, GA, on the map, so to speak, for many a dirt racing fan.

 

“I never had run for $10,000 to win,” Archer said. “After I ran with them a time or two I felt like I was right there with them, as good as they were.”

 

It was on the NDRA circuit that Archer scored what he considers the biggest win of his career. It came at Myrtle Beach , S.C. , in 1979.

 

In the latter stages of Archer’s career, he drove a car owned by Bill Plemons and Charles Prater and won nearly every time out. Those who were around at the time figure he won more than 30 races in less than 40 starts in that car.

 

He also won races for South Carolina ’s Barry Wright and other car owners. In his last race, in the mid-1980s, he started on the pole and finished second at Seven Flags Speedway.

 

Although there is no exact record of his win total, he has more than 250 confirmed victories and countless more that have been lost to time.

 

After his retirement, Archer was voted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame, the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, and just last month into the Griffin Sports Hall of Fame.

 

On a personal note, Archer indirectly helped me in my early years covering races on the NASCAR circuit.

 

Before I took up sportswriting on a full-time basis, I was fortunate enough to travel with Leon, his wife Sandra and son Mickey, to a lot of races, especially Sunday nights at Rome or East Alabama later in the season.

 

I cherish those days and nights I spent traveling with the Archers in their four-door ramp truck.

 

Once I joined the NASCAR circuit, the first order of business was to try to gain the respect of the people I was writing about.

 

That can be tough, as many NASCAR writers come into the job knowing very little about real racing and real racers.

 

Having a few Leon Archer stories to tell made that job a lot easier, as the No. 222 was well-known and respected by the top NASCAR stars at that time.

 

For that, and for all the good times with the Archers back in the day, I’m forever grateful.

 

Rest in peace my good friend.

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