The Lebanon I-44 Speedway has set the pace for racing in Mid-Missouri in the
last 20 years.
The legendary Bill Willard began construction of the dirt track speedway in a
valley of pasture land in the winter of 1982. He had always loved the sport of
stock car racing. Bradley, Bill and wife Louise's oldest child, said his dad
would go to other area race tracks and point out the flaws and the good points
of the other tracks, such as parking lots, bathrooms and spectator viewing.
"He was looking at details like that 20 years before he even decided to
build one," Bradley said.
Bill had joked that he would build his daughters a race track one day. And he
did. The track opened in 1983 and was run by Bill's wife and four daughters,
Kim, Mary, Susan and Candice. Bradley and David, Bill's two sons, helped with
track maintenance after hours but were in the driver's seat most other times.
Bill paired with Randy Mooneyham, the owner of Monett Speedway.
Mooneyham began promoting the race track and was with Bill until a cordial break
In 1989, Bill turned I-44 Speedway and his other race track, Bolivar
Speedway, over to asphalt and became NASCAR sanctioned.
Taking the speedway in
the new direction proved to be successful. Bill could see talent in his drivers
and began backing Jamie McMurray, a young driver from Joplin, Mo. McMurray now
successfully drives the NASCAR circuits.
Other NASCAR drivers also got their
starts at Lebanon I-44 Speedway while it was asphalt. Mike Wallace won the
Mid-America NASCAR Region Championship held at the speedway in 1990. Tony
Stewart won his very first career race at the speedway, driving in the Sprint
car class. Carl Edwards raced Baby Grands at the speedway at the start of the
Bill died May 27, 2002 of heart complications. After a brief time under
another promoter, Randy Mooneyham gallantly came back and took both the tracks
at Bolivar and Lebanon back to dirt.
One of the greatest racing legends in
history spent many of his weekends at I-44 Speedway both during its early dirt
years and asphalt years. Larry Phillips, or "Mr. Fast" to some, raced
all over the Midwest and acquiring several championships, including five NASCAR
Weekly Racing Series titles, before his death on September 21, 2004.
racing legends include Darrell Mooneyham, Bill Street, Ken Essary, the "Flyin' Farmer"; Billy Moyer,
"Mr. Smooth"; Willy Craft; and Tony Roper. The Lebanon I-44
Speedway continues to breed legends. The open Late Model class at the speedway
constantly produces talent that is competitive with drivers all over the
On July 26, 2005, the World of Outlaws racing series made their first
appearance to the speedway for the race of a lifetime. Local drivers Brad Looney
of Republic, Brian Schutt of Lebanon and the young gun, Will Vaught of Crane
gave the professional dirt drivers a taste of speed before the race ended early
on account of rain. NASCAR driver Carl Edwards also made his second appearance
in two years at the speedway, driving a Late Model built especially for him for
the Outlaws race.
The Modified class has gained immense prestige and following
in the past several years, becoming one of the most popular classes at the
speedway. Veteran driver Rex Merritt, of Billings, who has raced Modifieds on
both surfaces of the speedway, can be expected to spend most of his Saturday
nights at I-44 Speedway. He is challenged by Jeff Cutshaw of Cross Timbers,
Brandon Maggard of Battlefield, Erik Maggard of Springfield, and Terry Beckham
Jr. of Webb City.
-DUSTY LUTHY LEBANON PR.
IF YOU HAVE ITEMS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED EMAIL THEM
NASCAR Remembers Five-Time Champion Larry
By: Paul Schaefer, NASCAR Magazine Senior Editor
September 23, 2004
Each September for more than 10 years now, my thoughts
always cross paths with memories of Larry Phillips. Phillips, of Springfield,
Mo., passed away September 21 after being in ill health for four years.
I always think of September as “Larry’s time of year.” In NASCAR Dodge
Weekly Series competition, September is when Phillips harvested the crops he
tended to all summer long, and then prepared for their rewards.
Larry was a man on a mission at a race track, and he was determined to win. His
office was the speedway of the day, and there was no time for anything but focus
on his job there. Anything else was nonsense, and he didn’t have time for it.
As one who covered all five of Larry’s NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series
championships, when he was on the race track, you were compelled to watch. Him.
He had a dynamic personality… he could be icy to strangers, sarcastic about
those he perceived his foes, friendly and respectful to peers and fans after a
race, and a hard working guy in his shop. If his race car was nearby he was in
Larry was used to doing his racing his way, so when NASCAR came to town to
sanction the two paved speedways near his hometown of Springfield, the point
fund awards got his attention. To contend for the big bucks though, he had to
conform to NASCAR’s racing structure… which was quite an adjustment for a
longtime strong-arm “outlaw” dirt Late Model
I arrived at Phillip’s rudimentary Commercial Avenue race shop in September
1989 with a photographer. It was late in the day. Phillips was sweeping the
floor of the shop. He initially did not pause in the job at hand. He didn’t
know what to make of these guys with cameras and tape recorders. And he was
stuck with us. We were going to follow his every move all weekend, much to
Larry’s chagrin. It was a drill he eventually understood, and then became even
casual about. For later championships, I interviewed him as he drove his hauler
down the highway to a race; over dinner at a Springfield restaurant with his
wife, Judy; once in his living room; and once at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville
in November 1996. I remember because the waterfalls in the atrium made the tape
difficult to work with and the fact that Larry was so reflective and sincere in
appreciation of his accomplishments.
All the pomp and ceremony of the series awards banquet in Nashville was a little
much for the race car driver from Missouri who I am sure had raced a few times
earlier in his career where the promoter and the prize money had disappeared
before the race was over.
As a NASCAR champion, he had to get a tuxedo (once with pant legs of differing
lengths), make speeches, and play – and worse yet, act as if he enjoyed –
participating in the annual golf tournament. Some of it was a little outside
Larry’s comfort level, and I’m sure he might have rather just had his checks
sent to him in the mail.
The years went on and the championships continued until there were five.
Phillips also won championships racing at Kansas City-area tracks – Lakeside
Speedway in Kansas City., Kan., and a high banked half mile in Odessa, Mo. It
was a long tow to KC from Springfield. Once while chasing up the highway, a
piece of rubber from a tire jammed into his hauler’s wheel, and a fire
resulted. Phillips nearly lost a race car and his rig was seriously damaged. In
the days before cell phones, I believe he and crew chief James Ince, who was
towing a second car, somehow got in touch, and Phillips somehow made it to the
track in time for the feature event. That missed race would have eliminate his
championship chances that year.
I’m certain Larry didn’t plan on his career ending because of illness. He
was ready to ease the pace, though, and became a licensed aviator. He owned
vintage aircraft and at least one helicopter he gave me a ride in. We flew from
his rural Springfield farm house over to Fair Grove, Missouri, to visit a little
town locals refer to as “Charlotte West,” because the town turns out race
car drivers. We were able to “drop in” on the Roper household, and then
jumped over to the Icenhower family shop.
Larry’s son, Terry, keeps the family name out front in dirt Late Model
competition. Like his dad, he follows the big money dirt Late Model events, and
sometimes when I’d call the shop and check in on Terry’s racing. One year
Terry told me he had just gotten back from Ohio, where he had made the field for
the World 100. I gave him my congratulations for being among the two dozen out
of 200 entries to make it into the main event. Terry was pleased that I knew
what an accomplishment it is to make the World 100. But if Terry didn’t win
it, which he hasn’t yet, it’s no big deal to just make the show to the
Springfield Phillips followers.
I did a piece once on a crew of a dozen or more Phillips followers, senior
citizens from around Missouri, some of whom met at the tracks and became
longtime friends. They were “Thee Cowbell Brigade,” and you couldn’t miss
them. When their hero did as much as pass a car in hot laps, you could hear
those bells over the roar of the cars. After all, Phillips was 54 when he won
his fifth and final NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series national championship in 1996.
Larry sometimes had to be coaxed into doing some chores, but he never refused.
In fact, the only thing I ever saw him refuse was an autograph to a boisterous
intoxicated person as we were leaving a race track one night. “I don’t sign
for drunks” was all he said.
He wasn’t comfortable with playing golf as part of his champions’ banquet
weekend. He claimed shoulder injury and missed a couple of games a couple of
The last thing I ever had to coax Larry through was in 1998. I’m sure he and
his family were eventually pleased with the outcome, but at the time Larry was
pretty hard-line about not wanting the fuss. The fuss was always the aggravating
part of winning NASCAR championships for him. I knew the fuss I wanted him to
get into was easy, and, for Larry, a rightful place in a once-in-a-lifetime
photograph with his peers… other NASCAR champions. The whole notion aggravated
Larry and he just said “no.” I wanted him to get into this fuss, and he
promised a young driver – I swear it was local driver Jamie McMurray – that
he would help him set his car up at San Antonio Speedway, of all places for them
to end up. Larry gave his word, and when he gave his word, that was gold. So A)
he didn’t want to break his word; and B) he just didn’t want the fuss to go
through to fly to Charlotte to be in a picture. I think we worked out a flight
schedule to get Larry from Charlotte to Texas to honor his commitment. He
acquiesced, but he was aggravated about it and I mean aggravated with Darrell
Waltrip’s pronunciation of that word.
The result was a photograph for the ages that appeared as a spread in NASCAR’s
50th anniversary coffee table book, “NASCAR: The Thunder of America.”
This is where Larry Phillips belonged and will remain for all time. He is seated
on tire down front, along with Cale Yarborough. They are surrounded by Jack
Ingram, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty,
Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Jerry Cook, and Hershel McGriff.
Larry Phillips had to be in that picture. It is one of the greatest photographs
of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.
The tough old man eventually warmed to all the fuss. A million dollars in prize
money and points fund awards helped. But that wasn’t the only reason. He
finally understood that people really cared about him. Respected him. Admired
him. And his wife, Judy was a five-time belle of the ball at Larry’s national
championship banquets. She became more beautiful with each championship, and
Larry seemed to notice, and admire her even more.
Being Mrs. Larry Phillips wasn’t always easy, but Judy was God’s gift to
Larry. She was his ambassador, especially at those banquets. My mom liked her,
and asked about the both of them often. We always had to have a picture taken
I have one more story to tell, then I’m going to let Larry tell a few,
courtesy of that November 1996 interview at the Opryland Hotel;
After a year or two, Larry Phiilips always greeted me by saying ‘My friend,
Paul Schaefer’ always accompanied with a handshake and a smile. After a couple
of more years, I told him I was honored that he called me “friend,” and I
asked him if there was a particular reason why. He said sure there was a reason.
I, his friend, was a NASCAR “representative,” not an “official.” I like
telling that story, and I always laugh. Even (NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Director)
John Darby would get that joke.
Let’s let Larry tell a few stories:
On his interest in aviation: “I fly because I love to, and that’s the only
reason I fly. There’s nothing like leaving the ground. I’ve flown airplanes
for 23 or 24 years. Each time you leave the ground it’s a new sensation – a
different story each time. The same with a helicopter. A helicopter is the
neatest thing they ever built as far as a flying machine, because they can do so
“Everyone has an ego and likes to stand out in something, and flying is
actually one of my ways. I never wanted a common life. I always required a lot
of attention, it seems like. That’s one of the reasons I like flying. I like
to have neat airplanes like you would have a neat automobile.”
You’ve said your wife, Judy, is special. “Absolutely. I’m not going to say
special in the sense that she’s put up with what she’s had to put up with,
because she likes that. She enjoys racing. She loves flying. To put up with some
of my actions and my moods, I’d say she’s real special, I’m a big admirer
of her as my wife, and as a person, too. She’s great with the grandkids and so
forth, but you’d just have to be there to understand. She’s just one of the
best people I’ve ever met.”
As a driver, do you have to exert self-control as well as controlling the race
car? “A lot of people go to the race track to accomplish and win the race. I
go with the fear of losing. It’s an altogether different perspective. Because
if you lose, it’s not just that race. You lose the championship, and you lose
the respect of your fellow competitors.
“We always look at the starting lineup of a feature and see who’s where. I
can tell you exactly how they all race and what line they like. It’s my job to
know that. When they throw the green flag, I’m not wondering what somebody’s
going to do. Ninety-nine times out of 100, you can count on it.”
It has been said that you’re a tough person to work for and race with. Is that
true? “I guess it’s my personality. I’m pretty focused when I’m at the
race track. You’ve got to have enough people to do the job, but if you get too
many you have an unorganized situation. You’ve lost the handle on it… In the
past, we’ve had crew chiefs… but with my charming personality they don’t
stay around too long or they go on to something better.”
Is there a time approaching when you’ll start thinking about retirement from
driving a race car? “I haven’t lost the desire. There’s nothing better –
not even flying airplanes or helicopters – than driving a good handling race
car. My favorite charge out off life is is pulling to the outside and getting by
competitors or getting through traffic. Actually, it’s harder, but I would
rather do my passing on the outside. That might bee hard to understand, and I do
a lot of low side passing. You feel more of an accomplishment when you get up on
the outside where nobody else runs and pull it off. It’s a mental thing.”
Larry Phillips was a class guy off the track, and a classic driver when on it.
He might have been an acquired taste as a personality, and as a driver fans were
passionate about him, one way or the other. There was no middle ground.
He took Mark Martin, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace to school, and they seem to
have enjoyed success. Ditto for Jamie McMurray and James Ince. If you really
knew Larry, he made an impact on you, and in his role of teacher you were going
to learn and eventually benefit.
NASCAR frustrated Larry Phillips in the most enjoyable way. We aggravated him so
much for so many years. And I can’t say I’ve ever seen the glimpses of the
human side of a truly “great one” as often as I saw it in Larry. But we
aggravated him to no end. Because we fussed over him winning some races and
fussed even more when he won championships. The more we fussed, the more he was
aggravated. But because he was so smart, he finally understood the sincerity of
the fussing. The NASCAR rewards he won were for him and about him.
Larry Phillips rightfully set the standards in American short track racing. He
got the attention he thought he required, the respect he deserved, and the
admiration of generations of short track drivers and fans.
He was always a champion, and always looking ahead to the next race. Just
don’t make to big a fuss about it.