Kevin Huntley, to coin an ancient racing phrase, was as brave as Dick Tracy. But here’s the thing about bravery in a sprint car: it can produce widely-varying results.
In discussing those moments when things went awry, Huntley said, “Every time I turned over it took two wreckers and three pickups to carry all the parts off.”
His first trip to Eldora was going to be one of those times.
“When I went to Eldora at the end of 1986, I had never been on anything bigger than a quarter-mile. But we were fast. I actually broke the track record that day, until Bobby Allen went out and re-broke it,” Huntley noted. “Then I busted my ass coming out of turn four. I flipped all the way down the front straightaway. It tore the seat out of the car and I was upside down or on my side, and I took the seat belt off and I fell out with the seat.
“I destroyed my race car, and it was all I had. It hurt.”
It could have been a devastating blow. It wasn’t. Terry Winterbotham had been involved in racing for years. His father fielded a car in USAC for Johnny Rutherford, and Terry would land some of the all-time greats to race for him as well.
He felt he had a good eye for talent, and he liked what he saw.
“I used to race at Bloomington,” Winterbotham said, “and I saw him winning with his own stuff. I just approached him about driving for me.”
The 1986 season was almost in the books but, nearly on a whim, the team decided to load up their Competition Welding car and head to Riverside Int’l Speedway in West Memphis, Ark.
It is tough enough for an outsider to come to the track known as “The Ditch” and hope for success, but this showed a little extra chutzpa.
Here was a driver still learning the ropes, with a new team, and a long, long way from home. It proved to be a signature moment in a young man’s career.
A tough task awaited by any measure but, to add to the challenge, when Kevin and Terry arrived for the Mid-October tilt, Winterbotham reported there were 60 cars on hand.
Now, nearly 33 years later, when some of the key players of that time are asked to reflect on the career of Kevin Huntley, this event is vividly recalled.
Huntley sat a new track record, won the heat, and captured the dash. That was all well and good, but now the money and glory were on the line. Huntley was on the pole, but to his right was the son of a West Memphis legend, Sammy Swindell.
Recalling that moment, Huntley said, “I knew nothing about West Memphis, and it was the craziest place I had ever seen, but Jerry Rone knew about it. I went down to his place and
talked, and he told me what to do.”
There is a difference between being boastful and factual, and Huntley isn’t the type to beat his own chest. It is that quality that makes his frank statement “I drove away from him” so powerful.
“He may have broken late,” he added. “But he wasn’t going to catch me.”
When Winterbotham, who calls it one of the greatest moments of his career, simply utters the phrase “and he led every lap,” it’s almost like he’s reliving a dream.
The 1987 season was very satisfying for all concerned. With many local tracks in Indiana featuring winged sprint car racing, and even USAC offering select winged dates, it afforded Winterbotham and Huntley a chance to run a diverse schedule.
With his owner invested in competing with USAC, both men were delighted when Huntley held off Rich Vogler and Steve Butler at Oregon, Wis., to nab his first series win.
The fact that he did so without the wing caught some off-guard.
It was a race Winterbotham remembers well.
“My wife and I picked him up in Indianapolis,” he said. “And on the way home he was driving the rig and he was so excited he was driving off the road. I had to make him pull over, and take over driving. I learned you just didn’t let him drive after a race.”
On the USAC ledger, the team finished fourth in both the driver and entrant point standings. Perhaps they could have jumped at least one spot, save for an error that haunts Winterbotham to this day.
“We were running a USAC race at Eldora, and he had the thing won. He was walking away. Early he had complained that the injectors weren’t balanced. So, I adjusted them and, for some reason, I didn’t get the set screw tight. During the feature it got to where it wouldn’t back off in the corners, and Kevin couldn’t drive it like that. I was so upset that night.
He didn’t get upset at all. He was even-tempered. Always up.”
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