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Aumann: The life and times of HOF nominee Ray Fox

April 12, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Smokey Yunick may have had the self-proclaimed "Best Damn Garage in Town," but there was another racing operation in Daytona Beach that was pretty darn good in its own right.

Ray Fox Engineering built and entered cars for the likes of Junior Johnson, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough -- three of the first 15 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And on Wednesday, Fox's name was added to the list of nominees for possible induction as a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2013.

Fox's shop was located in the Fish Carburetor building on Bullough Road -- directly south of the Intercoastal Bridge at Mason Avenue. Yunick's shop was one block north, so Yunick easily could have heard Fox testing his engines. And the two definitely were rivals throughout the '50s and '60s.

A native of New Hampshire, Fox came to work for Robert Fish's innovative carburetor company after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He raced a bit in the modified division but realized early on that building engines for the likes of Fireball Roberts and Marshall Teague was preferable to being lapped by them.

Fish's race cars carried the model numbers of his carburetors, with Roberts driving the M-1. On the eve of the 1955 race on the Daytona beach and road course, Fox stayed up all night, building a new motor for Roberts' car, which dominated the race, leading all 60 laps.

But in post-race inspection, NASCAR officials ruled the engine's pushrods were a fraction of an inch too short, the car was disqualified and the win was given to runner-up Tim Flock. Since that time, NASCAR never has disqualified the winning car for an inspection violation.

Fox was hired by Carl Kiekhaefer in 1956 and was named mechanic of the year after his cars won 22 of the first 26 races. After Kiekhaefer shut down his operation, Fox decided to strike out on his own, starting his own engine shop in 1958.

A little over a week before the 1960 Daytona 500, Daytona Beach Kennel Club owner John Masoni came to Fox's shop with an unusual request. He wanted to enter a car in the race with the dog track as sponsor. The only problem: Fox didn't have a car prepared.

So in eight days, Fox and a handful of employees scrambled to slap together a year-old Chevrolet. Johnson, who lost his ride when the team for whom he was racing folded at the end of the 1959 season, was named driver. But as soon as the car hit the track for practice, Johnson and Fox realized they were way down on speed, giving up as much as 20 mph compared to the sleek new Pontiacs and Fords.

But in his qualifying race, Johnson figured out that if he stayed right behind a faster car, the trailing car would be pulled along in what he termed "drafting." He certainly wasn't the first to notice it -- European drivers had used "slipstreaming" in Formula 1 for decades -- but Johnson was the first NASCAR driver to take full advantage of it.

In the 500-miler, Johnson shadowed the faster Pontiacs all race long, even pitting when they did. By the end, he and Bobby Johns were the only cars on the lead lap. It appeared Johns would win, but with less than 10 laps to go, the rear window of Johns' car popped out, sending him into a spin on the backstretch.

By the time Johns regained control and returned to the race, Johnson had built a comfortable 23-second lead and cruised the final nine laps to the upset win. Johnson won twice more for Masoni that season -- at South Boston and Hickory -- helping him land a factory ride with Pontiac in 1961.

Now armed with a new Pontiac of his own, Fox put Jim Paschal behind the wheel at Daytona, but the car had engine seal issues. Marvin Panch drove it at Atlanta and Darlington, and Johnson returned to finish second in the World 600 qualifying race -- but he was committed to running his own car in the 600-miler.

So Fox asked Bud Moore and Joe Littlejohn for a recommendation, and they suggested a kid out of Spartanburg named David Pearson. Pearson had never driven on a superspeedway at that point, and when Fox called, he couldn't refuse the opportunity.

Be a part of history

Learn more about the 25 nominees for the 2013 class, including newcomers (clockwise, from left) Wendel Scott, Ray Fox, Anne France, Rusty Wallace and Ralph Seagraves. Fans can then vote for five nominees.

"That was a crackerjack car," Pearson said in a 2009 interview. "That just tickled me to death. I just put everything down and said I'd go to Charlotte. I went up and talked to him and tried the car out. I never will forget. I came back in and he asked me how the car handled. I said, 'To tell you the truth, I don't know how it's supposed to handle. I've never run this fast before in my life.' "

Pearson started the race third, but was in the lead by the time the field completed the second lap. He eventually built a huge advantage -- thanks in part to heavy attrition -- but suddenly found himself in trouble just as he prepared for the final lap.

"I had a flat tire when I came around for the white flag," Pearson said. "At the time, we didn't have posi-traction rear ends, and it was the right rear [that had blown]. I was just creeping along, because the car would spin with the tire still on the rim. I would have been better had the tire just come off the rim instead of the tire flopping around in there.

"I was four or five laps ahead at the time and I know Fireball Roberts kept lapping me then, because I was just poking along. When I come off the fourth turn, I couldn't believe we were going to make it all the way around on that flat tire."

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, Pearson then drove Fox's car to wins at Daytona in July and Atlanta in September, sweeping all of the high-banked superspeedways on the circuit at the time.

Fox began entering cars under his own name starting in 1962, visiting Victory Lane 14 times in the next six seasons, including seven wins by Johnson in '63.

Fox's last win -- with Buddy Baker in the 1968 World 600 -- was perhaps his finest as a race strategist.

Baker started 12th but had worked his way into a three-way battle with Donnie Allison and LeeRoy Yarbrough for the lead just as the race reached the midway point. But weather was on the way, and when it began sprinkling about Lap 225, the leaders took advantage of the caution to make pit stops.

That is, except the No. 3 Dodge. Fox kept Baker on the track, and when the skies eventually opened up and the race was called 30 laps later, Fox had outfoxed the competition again.

Fox moved his operation to Charlotte later in the decade, taking over the old Holman-Moody shop. He retired in 1972, handing over the reins to his son Ray Jr. But Fox couldn't deal with retirement, returning to the sport as a NASCAR engine inspector in 1990. After six seasons, Fox retired again -- at age 80.

Ray Fox (right) shakes hands with Olin Hopes, who built a replica of the '61 No. 3 Catalina driven by David Pearson, during Fox's 90th birthday celebration in 2006. Pearson drove the Ray Fox Engineering-built machine to three wins that year. (NASCAR Media)

Fox was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2003 and lives in Daytona Beach.