The 1987 season was also noteworthy for work the team did with the All Star Circuit of Champions. He scored for the first time at Millstream Speedway in Findlay, Ohio in August, and less than a month later he won one of the two features that comprised the Hoosier Fall Nationals at Lawrenceburg.
For Winterbotham, the win at Millstream also is firmly etched in memory, and gave him further indication that his driver was special.
“He lost all of his brakes in that race,” he said. “And I was just amazed that he could win a race like that.”
After what had been a rewarding year, it seemed impossible that anything would come between driver and owner. Yet, it did.
For Kevin’s part, he admits that he “was up in the air, and hemmed and hawed. Then there were a gazillion car owners; you could be out of one car and be in another before the night was over. Now that’s not possible. If you don’t have really deep pockets, you’re not going to be a race driver. It sucks.”
While Huntley pondered, Winterbotham was asked to consider another driver.
“They came to me with a deal that made racing so much more economical for me to be able to do it,” he said with a sigh. “I couldn’t turn it down.”
Winterbotham’s new driver was Jeff Gordon.
At this point in his career, Huntley was not far removed from those days where he called his own shots. Looking back, he said, “Jerry Rone pounded it in me pretty good that I needed to learn to work on the car.”
Rarely is that seen as a problem in racing. However, Huntley admitted that this “may have caused some problems, because with some of my mechanics I thought I knew more than they did. And we would bump heads. I don’t know, with some of them I probably did know more than they did, others I probably didn’t.”
With hindsight being 20/20, it may be obvious that his next move might not have worked as well as he had planned. When he joined the Hoffman Dynamics team for 1988, there was another goal in mind.
The Hoffmans had fielded cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, like a lot of his peers in the Hoosier state, the attraction of the Brickyard was strong.
It simply wasn’t in the cards.
Beyond that, like so many, Huntley liked the patriarch of the family. Gus Hoffman was known for years simply as “Old-Timer.” He was the patriarch of a family of strong personalities and opinions.
Huntley ran enough with USAC to finish in the top 10, and there were more wins over the course of the summer.
Still, it was a disappointing year, and Huntley knew he would be moving on.
But his fortunes were about to change. It involved a range of moves by other players, but he was about to enter one of the most productive phases of his career.
Mechanic Marshall Campbell is a large personality, both then and now. He remains exuberant about sprint car racing and, in a John Force-like manner, he is one of the consummate storytellers of the sport.
At the time he hooked up with Huntley his feelings were a little raw. He was working for noted constructor and car owner LaVern Nance. Similar to the famed west coast post-World War II builders who changed the racing landscape, Nance benefited from his involvement in the rich aircraft industry … in his case, centered in Wichita, Kan.
He was already deeply involved in supermodified and sprint car racing in the heartland, but gained increased notoriety when Sammy Swindell drove his house car to the World of Outlaws championship in 1981 and 1982.
Campbell had recently lost the services of two Hall of Fame drivers: Jimmy Sills and Rickey Hood.
Hood, in particular, left for Bob Weikert at an extremely inopportune time. According to Campbell, Hood later called and admitted he deserved to be fired from the ride, but in the midst of the conversation suggested that Marshall consider Huntley.
As a second-generation driver from Tennessee, he surely knew about Huntley’s performance at West Memphis. And as one with a bit of wanderlust, they had undoubtedly crossed paths.
Campbell was ready to branch out as well, when he had an unexpected visitor. Already laughing, Marshall recalled the moment well.
“Ray Skinner came to my machine shop and sat down in my office and said, I want to do this and I want to do that. I want to buy this motor and I want to buy this. I thought this guy was out of his mind. So, he sat there a little bit, and he says, ‘I don’t think you’re taking me seriously.’ He had like an ice cream cone box, and he stood up and dumped it out on my desk. He said, ‘Count it if you want, there’s 10-thousand dollars there. When I’m talking you had better be writing.’
“My girlfriend hated it when I told this story, because she said it made me look dumb. Later we went down to his place and she hears the story again. She just didn’t believe me. So, he went and got that same box and dumped a bunch of cash on his kitchen table. My girlfriend’s eyes may still be laying down there.”
With Skinner’s backing, Campbell, and Huntley were able to get back on the road. That part of the story is positive.
Forced to remember days gone by, Campbell said, “This is the kind of thing the guy would do. He bought cars and bought motors, and about the time he would tell you a story you thought was wrong, guess what?
“That guy would talk a line, but there was never a time when he didn’t have five- to 10-thousand dollars on him. You never knew when he was lying or telling the truth. He would say, I own this, I own that, and he would lie about so much stuff.”
Huntley’s recollections deviate very little from his chief mechanic.
“Now most of the time Ray was saying something, he was lying,” Huntley said. “But once in a while he said something truthful, but it was hard to cipher that out. He was one of the most interesting people I ever drove for. That first year we didn’t have that much success, I think we won a couple of races.
“But the next year we started picking up the pace a little bit.”
This story will be continued in More Tales Of The Pup: Kevin Huntley.