THIRD IS A SERIES CELEBERATING THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FRANKLIN COUNTY SPEEDWAY
FERRUM, VA – If there was such a thing as a Mount Rushmore for Virginia stock car drivers, a strong case could be made that Paul Radford and his iconic black-framed glasses would be carved on the side of that mountain.
“You always knew it was Paul Radford coming up behind you because of those glasses with the thick black frames he wore so many years,” recalled NASCAR Hall of Famer Jerry Cook, a New York native and six-time national Modified champion. “Whenever the northern drivers came down south, Paul was one of the guys you knew you had to beat.”
Radford’s racing career spanned five decades as he racked up more than 200 victories in everything from pre-war Modified Coupes to Late Model Sportsman machines that later developed into what is now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Nicknamed the “Ferrum Flash,” Radford is among numerous former drivers, car owners, crew members and track workers who will be honored at a 50th Anniversary Reunion of Franklin County Speedway on April 8.
“Oh I love that little track over there,” said Radford, who lives about 10 miles from the high-banked FCS asphalt oval. “It’s right in the middle of an area full of great race fans. The track always has good, close racing. I sure hope the fans will come out this year and really support it for their 50th year.”
Radford sat at the kitchen table of his home in Ferrum and shared the story of how family friend and NASCAR Hall of Famer Curtis Turner almost ended Radford’s racing career before it ever began.
“I was a teenager and Curtis took me for a ride in this old race car on a dirt track and liked to scared me to death,” said Radford, pausing to chuckle between sentences. “He just pitched that car sideways and let her rip. I am hollering for him to stop. Every time I’d holler, he would go that much faster.”
About a year later, Radford mustered the courage to get behind the wheel himself, beginning his journey of racing everywhere from obscure dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere to the World Center of Racing itself, Daytona.
With a lifetime of memories, Radford said there are some days that stand out. He immediately recalled a 1974 event at Martinsville Speedway in the Grand National ranks (now Monster Energy Cup Series). He started a promising ninth in a Ford owned by NASCAR lifer Junie Donlavey of Richmond.
“I had just passed Richard Petty, who was always really good at Martinsville,” said Radford. “Petty blew an engine a little later. As soon as I started feeling a little good about how we was running, my engine blew up too.”
Despite finishing 30th, Radford knew he belonged at the sport’s highest level.
“Junie Donlavey was a fine man, but he never had the money to run up front at that level,” Radford conceded, “But as a driver, I always felt like I could run right with them when I had the equipment to do it.”
That belief was further vindicated on a cool late March afternoon at Martinsville Speedway in 1977’s Dogwood 500 double-header. Radford strapped into the number 5 Chevy Nova owned by Lawrence Poff and proceeded to outlast runner-up Jack Ingram in a 250-lap race for the Late Model Sportsman class. He finished half a lap ahead in an all-star field that included future big league stars Dale Earnhardt Sr., Harry Gant, Geoff Bodine and Morgan Shepherd.
With just a 15-minute break, Radford hopped into the number 07 Modified Pinto of Fieldale’s Wayne “Speedy” Thompson and won the 250-lap Modified portion of the double-header by three laps over his biggest rival, runner-up Ray Hendrick.
What made the pair of triumphs even more incredible was the fact that Radford had been confined to bed with the flu the prior 10 days. “I’m almost too tired to celebrate,” Radford was quoted in victory ceremonies. “I am used to running all these 25, 50 and 100-lap races. Running 500 laps just wore me out. I think I am ready to go sleep a few days.”
The largest payday of his career, $18,100 total, was only part of what made the sweep was such a defining moment of Radford’s illustrious career. Despite numerous attempts by the sport’s finest, Radford and Hendrick (1970) remain the only winners of both portions of the 250-lap double-headers at Martinsville on the same day.
“I raced against a ton of great drivers during my career,” Radford explained. “Ray Hendrick was the toughest driver from the south in my opinion. I only beat Ray a few times. And I would say Richie Evans was the best from up north. I beat Richie twice that I can recall. He took a 200-lapper at Bowman Gray away from me on the last lap or it would be three.”
Recalling a compliment from a racing movie star lit up Radford’s face with a big smile. “I qualified third for this race on the road course at Daytona,” said Radford. “There were a lot of big name drivers in it, including David Pearson and Bobby Allison. Paul Newman came up to me and congratulated me.”
Radford laughed and added: “Paul Newman asked me which road courses I ran. I told him I had Shooting Creek back home (a reference to Virginia State Road 860, a twisting narrow mountain road used prominently by moonshiners).”
Franklin County Speedway promoter Donald “Whitey” Taylor said he’ll never forget how Radford “called his shots like Babe Ruth” toward the end of his career.
“Paul told me he was going to run with us all season and win the Late Model championship,” explained Taylor. “And he did it. Then he said he was going to run New River Valley Speedway (Motor Mile) and win their championship. And that’s exactly what he did. He went out on top.”
Radford said he was “sad to hear about” the recent closing of Motor Mile Speedway, where he topped Christiansburg’s Ronnie Thomas for the 1993 track title at the age of 63. “I am really rooting for Franklin County to do well this year,” he said. “The fans are running out of tracks around here.”
Although he had tried to walk away from the sport several times prior to his last title run, Radford said he finally knew when it was time to quit for good.
“When I was younger, race nights couldn’t get here fast enough,” he reflected. “There at the end, it seemed that Saturday nights came way too quick. But I suppose I don’t have any regrets. I gave more than half of my life to racing. With all of the great friendships I made, racing gave me back so much more.”