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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.

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 decade. 

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. 

Other dirt 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 country. 

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 TO  DUSTINMOONEYHAM@HOTMAIL.COM

NASCAR Remembers Five-Time Champion Larry Phillips
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 business mode.

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
owner/driver.

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 years.

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 with them.

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 many things.

“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.