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Retro Racing: Western short-track racer overcame disability to race at Riverside

March 25, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Western short-track racer Cheek overcame disability to race at Riverside

Barring some unforeseen circumstance, all of the cars that made the trip west will make the field for Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. But that wasn't the case in March of 1972 at the track that existed only a few miles up the road.

With a purse larger than the previous month's Daytona 500 -- and cars from the Winston West division being allowed to enter -- when NASCAR officials opened the garage at Ontario Motor Speedway for the 1972 Miller High Life 500, there were 113 cars waiting in line.

There were three qualifying sessions to fill the 51-car grid, which sent 62 teams home unhappy. Several of those, including Richard Childress, Charlie Glotzbach and Wendell Scott, were Cup regulars. Ivan Baldwin also failed to qualify, as did Emiliano Zapata (not the Mexican revolutionary).

That list also included Sylmar's Tru Cheek.

Born in 1937 in Nebraska, Cheek moved to California when he was 1. Growing up in South San Gabriel, Cheek's life suddenly changed in 1954.

"We were going for a little moonlight hike after a church dance," Cheek said. "They had turned our hiking area into a water district. And they had a guard up there and he started shooting at us, so we took off running and I ran off a cliff."

At 17, Cheek found himself lying in a hospital bed with a broken back. He eventually regained enough movement to use crutches, but to this day he has no feeling below the knees.

"I was paralyzed for seven or eight years, and was kind of a lost soul," Cheek said. "My friend took me to the races one Saturday night and I found my life."

That was in 1962. Smitten with the racing bug, Cheek bought a wrecked car, worked on it and painted No. 62 on the side with the intention of racing at nearby Saugus Speedway. By then, he could stand upright with the help of specially designed shoes and leg braces.

For Cheek, the idea of driving his own car was truly the best medicine.

"Mainly, I used it for therapy in the beginning," he said. "I was up on crutches by that time. Then, it was very difficult to rehab, but if you find something like racing, you can push yourself a lot farther."

When Saugus track officials decided to bar him from competing because of his physical condition, Cheek entered under a different name. When they realized he was as good as, or better than, most of the regulars, Cheek was fully accepted.

What's perhaps most amazing about Cheek's story is that he never used any kind of hand controls. Instead, he worked his feet in the car very much like a circus performer uses stilts, by shifting his weight and using his hips to press his legs down on the pedals.

"My feet are dead," Cheek said. "So when I put my car together, I would put the gas pedal so it would align with the [transmission hump] so I could keep my foot against the tunnel and operate the gas pedal, and keep my brake pedal aligned with the steering column so I wouldn't miss the brake pedal.

"Even in the oval cars, I'd use a bungee cord to tie my leg to the roll cage to keep the centrifugal force from pushing it to the outside."

Cheek's ability to control the accelerator, brake and clutch without feeling in his legs was never more evident than when he took on the challenge of Riverside International Raceway, one of the toughest road courses in the country. He made the field in 1971 and '72, although mechanical woes sidelined him in both races. But he remembers impressing one driver in particular during practice.

"The experience that sticks with me the most is Richard Petty," Cheek said. "I drag-raced him down the back chute -- the backstraight -- and stayed with him all through the gears. And he came over after we finished hot-lapping and he asked if he could see my apparatus. I didn't know what he was talking about. He thought I had hand controls. He said, 'How do you shift that thing?' Same way. I just happen to use my legs instead of my feet."

So Cheek didn't expect much trouble when he sent in the entry form for Ontario that spring. But NASCAR competition director Bill Gazaway had other ideas, according to Cheek.

"First, Gazaway told me I couldn't race," Cheek said. "There was a big blowup there. All the local officials and guys like Parnelli Jones, Marvin Porter, they came over and rescued me.

Tru Cheek stands upright with the help of specially designed shoes and leg braces. (Courtesy Tru Cheek Racing)

"They took me up to Bill France and they said, 'This guy beats more than his share of everybody on the entire West Coast. You can't tell him he can't race.' So Mr. France let me race."

Cheek still believes he had a car that would have made the race, had he not decided to make some last-minute modifications before qualifications.

"My friend lowered my car, and I wound up cutting a tire coming out of Turn 4 and hit the wall," Cheek said. "So that's why I didn't make the race. I was plenty fast."

Not only did Cheek win multiple championships at Saugus, but he competed in races up and down the Pacific Coast. He even won the Barstow 400 off-road race, beating Ivan Stewart, Jones and Walker Evans. The only thing that held him back, he said, was sponsorship.

"Unfortunately, I never had new tires," Cheek said. "I was always qualifying back eighth or ninth on old junk tires. I didn't realize what a new set of tires could do.

"I only had one set of new tires, and that was in Yakima, Wash. I lapped everybody on the track four times, but four laps from the end, my transmission fell apart. I fell off the track and still finished fourth."

Cheek raced until the mid-80s, then retired to work as an automotive electrician. Now 73, Cheek stays busy helping a nephew who races at Irwindale Speedway.

"I had to quit racing at 48 because I had no retirement," Cheek said. "I only had 20 years to make myself a retirement."

Tru Cheek may have had a physical handicap, but he's of the firm belief that the only thing in life that can hold you back is you.

"I raced with all the Cup guys when they'd come to Riverside and Ontario, when I was able to come up with some money," Cheek said. "I built that car myself, from scratch. I beat the best in the whole United States at one time or another, all the greatest short-trackers there was.

"I feel like I was the luckiest guy I know, to be able to do what I did do."