As our crew of three navigated up Interstate 65, the echoes of Jake brakes and rumble strips were slowing overtaken by the sound of roaring V8 engines in the duct-taped Crown Victoria “bombers”. The grizzly bears producing the sound of a small town Saturday night were retired police cars in various color schemes, vintage models, and decorated with local small business logos. The common themes were the fender dents, Bondo band-aids, and racing glove covered thumbs up as they cruised passed their cheering family and friends in the crowd during practice laps. We pulled into a lot that was sparse with gravel; the main ingredient was crab grass and overgrown weeds. We were flagged into our proper parking alignment as the Bombers’ siren calls crashed our eardrums like ocean waves building momentum into turn one, then growling out of turn two into the back stretch. When our doors opened, we were welcomed with the smell of “America Pride”: overworked motor oil, the firing of tarnished engine valves, and bald tires burning off their final tread filled the noses of the 3 cities boys from across the creek. Our faces could barely contain our smiles. We walked inches off the ground up to the faded entrance that has been desperately in need of a paint job since the early 90’s. We each had our $15 cash fee in hand 20 yards ahead of the gate in anticipation for an awesome evening. The excitement in our bellies was no match for the butterflies in the stomach of the hero of this story….. Chad “HushPuppy” Deeley.
As we climbed the grandstand steps we were welcomed by a waving paw from Josh “Pelican” Endler. The Deeley fan base had setup 8 rows up just past the checker painted finish line prior to turn one. As our shoes clinked the metal general admission bleacher seating, our reception was filled with high fives, hugs, and offers of cooler cold Busch Lattes. Our protagonist, welcoming us with a grin, was doing his best to contain his emotion. His eyes quickly gave away his overflowing pride. Surrounded by his newborn baby girl, girlfriend Elle, mother, and seven goofballs from the gloom, he commented about the extremely technical specs of his chariot, “It’s Fast. Currently a little loose, but the sun dropping should cool the track and give me some more grip in the turns.” Puppy has the frame of the typical NASCAR driver, Dale Jr.-like: six foot one and a half, slender with identical auburn hair as his baby girl. As I found out later in the night, a slender frame makes it much easier to get in and out of the driver seat. I didn’t quite make it into the cockpit. But, unlike your author, driving is in Chad’s blood. The Deeley name carries weight in the racing community and rightfully so. Multiple generations of Deeleys earned the right to a picture in the winner’s circle. In fact, I learned from Chad’s young niece, daughter of his brother Tommy, “My Dad has some really tall trophies!”
Exiting the grandstands, HushPuppy told us he would give a wave from the car and thanked us all for attending. It meant to the world to have the loudest cheering section in an audience filling ~35% full capacity. The crowd did its best to cover the hot-to-the touch metal bleachers, but record inflation and unimaginable gas prices hits the racing demographic hard. Even with the few missing fanatics, when a bruised maroon bomber with the slogan “Buck Fiden” rolled down the front stretch, claps, cheers, and laughter followed in his exhaust. The place sounded packed to the gills. Politics aside, these were salt of the earth people- exactly what the coastal folk think of the “fly over states.” Hell, the men’s bathroom consisted of a 4” curbed concrete trench with flowing water and a common drain. It was at least painted. Stage-frightened turtles didn’t fare well. Outside of the restroom, Marlboro Reds filled the air like the surgeon general never existed. But, as my travel companion Brink “Tony Malito” Shin proclaimed, “These are good people. Just, damn good people.” I believe he is right. If a tree was down in your backyard after a storm, you would awake to their chainsaws before you could ask a favor.
Our main event didn’t kick off until later in the evening, so we were treated with numerous “heats”. These were 10 lap races to allowed drivers to fight for starting positions in the main event. No such thing as “time qualifiers” at the Clark County SportsDrome Speedway. Starting positions were earned with guys and glory – along with unintended spin outs, crashes, and middle fingers. The unwritten rules of stock car racing must be encyclopedia thick. Tempers rage on the track and pits were even hotter when the racers exited the track.
It wasn’t until sunset when the Puppy Sled made its appearance for the “F3 – 30”. With a Moby Dick mural on the front quarter panel, the #18 “Street Stock”, a variation of a late model stock car, roared onto the track. Swerving left to right to heat the feet, Chad was where he belonged. The white and blue painted body with red trim stripe hid the 1976 Chevy Malibu heart. It was years out of mint condition, but the experience gained from countless left turns around the semi oval is unquantifiable. Confidence was at an all-time high when we got the personal nod that was promised as the racers began their first of two practice laps. Our section erupted when a greasy glove extended out the driver’s window and gave us the signal that it was time to kick some ass. Chad’s better half looked back and mentioned, “He said it’s fast. He should be able to get from 6th to the front quickly.”
Unfortunately, she was right. When racing with only inches between the next vessel, speed can be an enemy under your own hood. As the green flag waved, all 9 right side pedals went through the floorboards. Chad’s stubborn right foot carried him into the rear bumper of the #2 competitor, leaving the White Whale loose out of turn two. A quick correction saved his position and he barreled in the backstretch. To avoid another slippage into the much slower 4th position vehicle in the same outside lane, Chad let off the accelerator into turn three. As he was about to gun it out of the bank heading into turn four, smoke filled the area. The Fish-mobile found itself facing the wrong direction paused in the turf. Checking up to avoid tagging the rear bumper for the second time and leading a chain reaction, the 8th placed driver with a head of steam tipped Chad’s driver side buttocks. A balloon popped among the Deeley faithful as our eyes stared at the Beached Whale. Our gaze quickly went straight down searching for a swig of a $5 domestic light to calm our nerves. Luckily it was a clean spin with minimal damage to the 4-wheeled tartar sauce dispenser. As Chad righted the ship and caught the pack, he was squarely sitting last place.
In auto racing, disappointing starts rarely lead to stories worth sharing. As Chad stared at every driver’s rear bumper through his windshield, the feeling of letting down his adoring fans carried more weight than a few points in the league standings. The White Filet made its way into turn one of the first warmup lap, it was met with an onslaught of encouragement. We exhausted our lungs and injured our hands to let #18 know we had his bumper. With no way of knowing if our message got to its recipient, we decided to give it another go has he screamed by us as the green flags flew and gave signal to the restart. We received confirmation. Over the next few laps Chad’s aquatic speed demon danced threw the pack like Sharika. From last to fourth with 8 laps to go and with a little luck, Chad had a puncher’s chance. That’s all that man from the south end of Louisville needs.
The physical bickering of the front runners got the best of them. The leader and second place cars tangled mid-way through the first turn. Puppy was able to navigate the carnage like the scene from Days of Thunder when Cruise comes blasting through the black smoke. The Blow Hole was untouched as the high line was clear. He cruised down the far stretch as the caution flag waved. Unlike the 300 lap races on Sundays, replay video and official reviews are non-existent. The field relies on the keen eye of officials positioned along the track. As the cars shuffled for assumed position around for the next 6 caution laps they finally got the restart position. According to the lead marker, the front bumper of the White Pearl had the lead when the caution flag dropped. This meant that Chad was in the front inside position of the pack, leading the race with 5 laps to go.
Usually the suspense of a tale comes at the end of an event, but not in this short story. As soon as Chad broke from the pack with clean Southern Indiana air, there was no looking back. He made the final laps look effortless; hitting his line into the banks and blasting down the straightaways. When the white flag dropped, Gabe “Dauber” Byrne screamed “It’s got it, man! He’s got it! Hold on Puppy!” Our favorite driver did just that. He cruised into the finish line a 3/4 car length in front of the first loser. Every head in the crowd swung in our direction as we lost our damn minds. Our already depleted, raspy vocal cords ripped into the night. Were ready to drink milk and kiss bricks. We charged the fence to celebrate with our champion. He crept by us with the checkered flag in hand. The remainder of the night consisted of our mob getting pictures in the winner’s circle with the Two-Axel Beluga. This was a common practice for the Deeleys. On top of the family tradition, this was Chad’s third win of the year. To Justin “Diablo” Clark and myself it was a unique moment. We were reminded of a time in our past when going to the races with close friends and family was a highlight of the summer. We had forgotten the fun of sitting in the humid cake-thick air, cheering for strangers behind a wheel.
I joked with Ellee during the race, “How much would Chad charge me to sit in the passenger seat? I’m a great DJ!” She laughed, “No way, sorry, but there’s not much room.” She gave me the logical answer. I feel there is another, much deeper, reason. That passenger spot now belongs to Chad’s late father, “Big Tom” Deeley. Though I never shook the man’s hand, I assume he would’ve engulfed my knuckles. A larger than life figure that passed way unexpectedly December 6th, 2021. Tom was a legend in the Kentuckiana racing community. So much so, there will be a memorial race in his honor on July 9th. Tom spent hours in the same winner’s circle we landed in that night. Photos from the past show him surrounded by his boys positioned on the hood of the winning beast with their fingers in the air signifying their pops was the champ. Undoubtedly, there is a shadow cast by Chad’s hero. Being “Tom’s Boy” adds weight to the “The Whale of Sandwich” Chevy when the green flag drops. But, I’d assume when Chad views the photo from the winner’s circle, he will be happy to bask in the shade of the Deeley family tradition.
-Daniel “Worm” Knapp