This summer is the 50th anniversary of Franklin County Speedway, and the speedway is periodically releasing commemorative stories. In this story Bruce Sweeney, a car owner for five decades and talks about his special friendship with Richard Childress and Mike Dillon, father of Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon.
FLOYD, VA – Among the hundreds of friendships made as a stock car racing car owner for five decades, Bruce Sweeney counts the one with NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Childress near the very top. It was particularly satisfying when Sweeney got to watch the Richard Childress Racing founder and CEO celebrate his grandson Austin Dillon’s victory in the 60th Anniversary edition of the Daytona 500.
“Richard Childress paid his dues and came up the hard way,” said Sweeney. “He struggled as an independent driver in Grand American and Grand National for many years before he teamed up with Dale Earnhardt. Then he endured more than anyone can imagine when he lost his driver and best friend, Earnhardt at Daytona. I’m really tickled to see the number 3 team win the 500 again.”
Sweeney said a special bond with Childress was cemented when Sweeney was chosen to work with Childress’ son-in-law, Mike Dillon, early in his driving career. “I was really honored when Richard sent him (Dillon) up here for us to help him,” said Sweeney. “Mike was driving Late Models for us when his son Austin was born.”
With Sweeney’s guidance, Mike Dillon graduated from Late Model racing to what is now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Dillon’s driving career ended in 2001 after a series of hard crashes. He eventually stepped into the role as General Manager of RCR, where he now oversees more than 150 employees – including his eldest son Austin.
“It’s really special for me to see the next generation (Austin and Ty Dillon) doing well at the highest level,” said Sweeney. “I’m really happy for Mike and Richard and I know they are proud of those young men.”
Sweeney, 81, is no longer active in racing, but he does plan on attending the 50th Anniversary Reunion of Franklin County Speedway for all former FCS car owners, drivers, team members and track workers prior to the first race on April 8.
“It’s a really good track, right in the middle of racing country,” said Sweeney of the high-banked FCS asphalt oval. “Turning 50 is a big deal, especially with the way things are going.”
Much of the credit for the staying power, Sweeney said, goes to FCS promoter Donald “Whitey” Taylor. “He (Taylor) is a heck of a lot smarter than some of these people high up in NASCAR,” said Sweeney. “I don’t always agree with him, but I will say that Whitey has done a good job of giving the fans a show.”
With dozens of “really great drivers” who piloted his race cars over the years, Sweeney will have plenty of reasons to reminisce at the 50th Anniversary Reunion.
“I lost count how many races my cars won.” said Sweeney, pausing to reflect. “I do remember one year when Toby Nolan won 25 feature races and Ray Hatcher won 26. And a young Jeff Agnew won nine of his first 11 races at Radford (Motor Mile). We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of e success over the years.”
“Tim Richmond was one of several big league drivers who rented my cars when they came into the area,” Sweeney explained. “He was the best. The first time he drove my car at Franklin County Speedway, he dropped all the way down to the concrete apron and passed three cars in one turn. He was something special.”
Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd and Dave Marcis were some other major league drivers who spent time at the wheel of a Sweeney machine. A host of local drivers also included Joe Thurman and Satch Worley.
As the cost of racing escalated, Sweeney went to the sidelines at the pinnacle of his team’s success. It was the “arms race to have the latest and greatest,” Sweeney believes, that was a huge factor in the closing of Motor Mile Speedway, Lonesome Pine Raceway and other tracks in the region.
“I’d just pull out my 1990 rule book and get back to the basics,” said Sweeney. “The promoters let the technology get out of hand to where the average working person can’t afford to race. A Late Model team can spend thousands of dollars on shocks and springs alone. Then you need an expensive machine to set the car up. You better have a quarter-million dollars if you want to run up front at some places.”
It was no surprise to anyone in the community that Sweeney has had a career of more than 60 years dealing with cars. He sold street vehicles by day at his Autoville used car dealership in his hometown, then raced stock cars at night.
Sweeney and his brother Barry literally grew up in the family’s garage, where their father, Major Sweeney, gained notoriety for his ability to build “moonshine cars” capable of evading local law enforcement.
“My dad had us in the garage helping as soon as we were old enough,” recalled Bruce Sweeney, now 81. “He did general repairs, but the real money was working on the liquor cars. And eventually, he started keeping up race cars.”
Major Sweeney and Curtis Turner’s father Martin were good friends for many years. “Curtis hung out at the garage, even when he was a star,” said Sweeney. “A lot of people don’t know that Curtis Turner was scheduled to drive one of our cars at Franklin County Speedway on the very day he got killed.”
Turner and professional golfer Clarence King died in an airplane crash near Punxsutawney, PA on October 4, 1970. Turner was piloting the plane and it crashed shortly after taking off the Dubois-Jefferson Airport en route to Roanoke.
“That was just a terrible day for our family and the entire sport,” said Sweeney. “Curtis was a Hall of Fame race car driver to most people. But to us, he was still Martin Turner’s boy. We lost a good friend that day.”