With Harold Hillenburg and Ray Crawford doing their thing together, and given their long friendship, it is not surprising that their offspring would be thrown together as well. Andy Hillenburg was a few years younger than Donnie but, like their fathers, the two became best of friends. When Andy reminisces about this time in his life, his seeming desire to just turn back the clock is palpable.
When you talk to Donnie and Andy today, nearly the first thing mentioned is the fun they had riding motorcycles. “We rode the dog out of those motorcycles,” Hillenburg says with a hearty laugh. “Donnie lived 10 miles straight north of me. We had plenty of land here, so we would ride on our family property, and then we had an oval track at Donnie’s house. It would be us and two or three others and we would race all day long. It is crazy how much we did it. Ray had an old pickup and he threw our motorcycles in the back and brought them to my house and we would race them for two or three days.
Then my dad would get his El Camino, or someone else would help us, and we would load the bikes back up and head to Donnie’s. We did that all summer long, and it was so much fun. Sometimes my dad would take us to Kansas and we would ride up there for a week while he was working. It was crazy. Donnie was like the wheelie expert and one day he was following us through one of those itty-bitty towns, I think it was Peabody. So Donnie put it on the back wheel all the way down Main Street and all the way through town. It was so funny. We thought we were so cool.”
Crawford was the first to make the move to four-wheel competition but, much like his time in motorcycles, it started out as just a fun hobby. One of Donnie’s childhood friends was future Tulsa Speedway champion Jon Werthen. Jon’s father was also Crawford’s baseball coach, and when they weren’t fooling around with more traditional sports the boys began putting karts together.
When Donnie was 13 his dad purchased a welder, and he actually learned the art before his father. Werthen was also interested in fabrication, so together the pair had fun seeing what they could cobble together. Things got a bit more serious when he began competing at RuJo Raceway (now Port City) when he was 16 or 17 years old. Andy Hillenburg would take a more circuitous route to formal motorized competition and would join his pal a few years later.
For Hillenburg, the first attraction was actually rodeo. “When I was a kid, we always had horses,” Andy says. “And I got into racing because I was riding bareback and my dad had seen enough and finally said we were going to go a different way.”
Remembering those early days, Donnie says, “His dad and my dad gave us what we needed to go racing. I didn’t do that well, but we were doing it on our own and learning it as we went. We had a blast. We weren’t mature enough to be track savvy yet. We raced mainly at Port City, and Bartlesville also had a neat little track back then, it was a beautiful little place. Those were the two places where we usually raced.”
When you talk to Donnie Crawford about his racing career, you had best be prepared to probe a little deeper. Talking about himself is not something he is prone to do. In spite of his propensity to minimize his racing accomplishments, it is clear that Donnie had done enough in the micros to justify the decision to begin competing regularly at the Tulsa Fairgrounds.
Fortuitously, there had been some changes at the plant that ultimately played in his favor, namely the construction of a 3/8-mile track inside the larger oval. “The first year I raced they went to wings and to the small track,” Donnie says. “I don’t think my dad would have let me race on the big track. It seemed like they were killing about one person a year. It was dangerous, and the worst part of my racing career was watching my dad on the big track. I’ll bet Emmett’s kids felt the same way. I watched dad and just hoped he would get through nice and safe.”
Now it was his turn to shine, and at that time he was in a high pressure situation. He recalls that as a young man he was forbidden to hang out in the pits, so he generally joined his family in the grandstands. He rooted for his dad, but a young Shane Carson was also a favorite. His first car would be a classic 100-inch Stanton supermodified, with a four-barreled 312 engine under the hood. To illustrate just how different the sport looks today, Crawford remembers the reaction of some when he took his first laps in a supermodified. “I was 20 years old,” he says with a laugh. “And half the people thought my parents were throwing me to the wolves. Now if you aren’t racing by the time you are five or six years old you don’t have a chance.”
He made an early trip north to Dewey, Oklahoma, where he had the chance to match wits with two men who were legends at the time. “I ran against Harold Leep and Frankie Lies,” he says. “It was also the first time I had ever done time trials, and the first and only time I ran against those two guys. That was the end of their career and the very beginning of mine.”