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Aumann: Tiny Calif. town produced rare glut of talent

February 04, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com



Aumann: Tiny Calif. town produced rare glut of talent
Brooks, Acton, Meyer all went from Porterville to Cup Series

Even though California natives have won nine Sprint Cup championships since 1995, drivers from the Golden State have traditionally been a fairly rare commodity in NASCAR's premier division.

But one small town located in the southern San Joaquin Valley -- Porterville -- has produced at least three drivers with NASCAR pedigrees: 1973 Talladega winner Dick Brooks, Marv Acton (who turned 68 Friday) and Dick Meyer.

Panch and Meyer were friends and competitors. (Marvette Panch)

Of the three, Meyer's story is the most poignant. Nine days after finishing fourth in the 1953 Southern 500, the 27-year-old Meyer died in a street racing accident -- in his race car -- while driving back to California.

Meyer's death hit 1961 Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch especially hard, since they had been friends and rivals soon after Panch began racing after being discharged from the Army.

"When I started racing on the West Coast, Dick was the hot shoe," Panch said in a phone interview from his Daytona Beach home. "The first race I ever won was in his car [at Hanford]. I had a '50 Mercury -- a street job basically converted into a race car -- and he had a '50 Mercury that he reworked pretty good for racing.

"After a few races, I cooked the engine pretty good in my car, and Dick got a ride in somebody's Oldsmobile. So I called Dick and asked if I could borrow the engine out of his car. He says, 'Better than that -- you just show up and the car will be there, you drive it.' "

Panch was a little nervous about being too aggressive with Meyer's equipment -- until Meyer gave him some unexpected advice in the middle of the race.

"During the race, he broke an axle and got upside down," Panch said. "He was standing between Turns 1 and 2 [while his car was being towed]. He hollered at me, 'Stand on that damn thing!' So after the restart, the next corner I got in a little bit over my head and crossed it up. But I got on the throttle and man, it worked like a dream."

Panch and Meyer began dominating stock car racing the West Coast in the early 1950s -- and that caught the attention of the folks at Chrysler. At the time, Panch said Meyer was considered the equal of other Chrysler factory drivers like three-time champ Lee Petty.

"All we had was dealer sponsors at that time," Panch said. "Between Dick and I, we won our share of the races, or pretty much all of them. Naturally, the Dodge people got interested in us, and when it came time to come back to Darlington, which was the biggie back then, they made arrangements for us to go to Hamtramck where the cars were built."

Given the way today's cars are specially manufactured and carefully placed in haulers so they arrive at the track in pristine condition, it's almost impossible to imagine an era when drivers like Panch and Meyer could go to the factory and drive away with two cars fresh off the assembly line -- without any additional safety features.

"We picked up two new Dodges, drove them to Darlington to get some miles on the motor, and we ran them at Darlington," Panch said.

Panch retired with overheating issues and finished 28th, but Meyer ran solidly in the top five for most of the race, finishing fourth to Buck Baker. Braced with a $1,000 payday, Meyer decided to drive the Dodge back to Porterville -- a decision that would have tragic consequences once he arrived in Henderson, Nev.

"Evidently he was out at the cocktail lounge or something," Panch said. "There was a guy there -- the police chief's son -- who had an Oldsmobile and said, 'No Dodge will ever outrun my Oldsmobile.'

"Naturally the race was on. Dick was leading it and a lady pulled out in front of him. Dick took to the shoulder, dropped the car in a culvert, did an end-over-end and it wiped him out. That's the story I heard."

Meyer's death devastated Panch.

"He was real active and believed in having a good time," Panch said. "That's what got him in trouble when the guy said, 'No Dodge is gonna outrun my Oldsmobile.' Dick jumped right at that -- he was a scraper. He was a good guy, flat-out all the time."

Meyer's son, Dick Jr., became a well-respected NASCAR builder -- and grandsons Adam (Richard Childress Racing) and Rich (Stewart-Haas) continue to carry on the family tradition.

Just like Meyer and Panch, Brooks and Acton raced against each other in California before making the leap to NASCAR.

"[Brooks] was a year ahead of me in school," Acton said from his race shop in Denver, N.C. "We lived maybe a couple of miles apart. He drove a logging truck for his dad and then him and some buddies built a new modified and got Dick to drive it -- at Fresno, Clovis and Atascadero. I built a car and we raced against each other at Bakersfield."

Acton said Brooks was able to obtain a $50,000 sponsorship, bought a Plymouth from Mario Rossi and campaigned it for much of the 1969 and 1970 seasons -- and then came back to Porterville with an intriguing offer.

"That Christmas -- I was home visiting family, and he said, 'Come back to Daytona and drive my car for me,' " Acton said.

After finishing 19th in the 1971 Daytona 500, Acton ran another nine races for Brooks -- including all of the superspeedways.

"I ran 12th at Michigan and went straight from Michigan to Talladega," Acton said. "We were running fifth at Talladega when I dropped a valve with 30 miles to go. That would have been my best finish."

The two parted ways after Darlington because "we ran out of money," Acton said. He made two final Cup starts in 1977 for Rod Osterlund's start-up operation -- two years before Dale Earnhardt took over the ride.

"I got into race car fabrication, mostly show cars and simulators," Acton said. "You know the video games where you're at the mall that have those TV screens? We would take the insides out of one of those boxes and put it in a car. The last one I did for a guy in Washington, we did two flat screens with a Daytona game."

Brooks ran a total of 358 races in 17 seasons. In addition to a stint as a race reporter for MRN Radio, Brooks also owned a chain of car dealerships in North and South Carolina. He died in 2006, the result of complications from injuries he had suffered two years earlier when the plane he was piloting flipped upside down while taxiing.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.