Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Barton cements legacy with 80th victory

The way Dick Barton became the all-time winningest Dirt Late Model driver at Stateline Speedway in Busti, N.Y., last Saturday night was so emotional, so downright unforgettable, the veteran driver almost thought he had lived a dream.“You couldn’t have scripted this any better,” Barton said two days later, his voice still dripping in amazement over the circumstances surrounding his record-setting victory in the 40-lap United Late Model Series Julien Buesink Memorial.

From the days leading into Saturday’s season-ender at Stateline to the dramatic final laps of the feature and the postrace celebration, the soon-to-be 60-year-old Barton enjoyed a magic-carpet ride that put a delicious cherry on top of his successful 42-year driving career.

“It all started three weeks ago,” said Barton, a resident of Ashville, N.Y., who has campaigned a Dirt Late Model for three decades. “We needed two wins to capture the most-wins record at the speedway and we only had two more races left this year, so time was running out. But we managed to win the feature (Aug. 30) and that gave us one more chance at the record.”

Deadlocked at 79 career Stateline wins with retired local legend “Busti” Bobby Schnars after the Labor Day weekend triumph, Barton chugged toward the Dirt Late Model portion of the half-mile oval’s LiteHouse Auto Fall Brawl weekend. Before hitting the track last Saturday, however, he had two totally unexpected moments light up his life.

“On Thursday (Sept. 18) we started the weekend with a surprise birthday party that my kids (son Aaron, 31, of Tampa, Fla., and daughter Andrea, 29, of Charlotte, N.C.) threw for my wife and I,” Barton said. “My wife (Joan) turned 60 (on Sept. 22) and I turn 60 in three weeks (Oct. 16), so our kids coordinated a surprise party for us by long-distance. There was probably 70-some people waiting for us at a local restaurant when we walked in — and I swear to you, I had no idea (about the party).”

Barton got another surprise last Friday night when he entered Stateline’s pit area for practice and King of the Hill match races to kick off the Fall Brawl weekend. His car owners, brothers John and Charlie Lacki of Sinclairville, N.Y., had clandestinely replaced the blue-and-white colors and No. 14b on his machine with a throwback wrap, turning the vehicle into the familiar black-and-orange Bolt Place No. 28b that Barton drove so successfully for Ron Nielson of Meadville, Pa., from 1993-2009.

“That caught me off guard,” Barton said of his reaction upon seeing a car from his racing prime come back alive. “The look on my face, it was like a deer in headlights. I had no idea. I just couldn’t believe they did that as a birthday present for me.

“We drove for Mr. Nielson for 17 years — that in itself is quite remarkable, to be with a car owner that long — so it was pretty exciting to see the car look like that.”

Making the moment even more special, Nielson, now retired and in his 80s, made a rare appearance at Stateline on Friday to witness the return of the Bolt Place machine.

“The track ownership allowed me to drive out on the track backwards (before hot laps) and stop right in front of Mr. Nielson so he could see (the car),” said Barton, who won a staggering 172 features during his stint with Nielson. “It brought a big smile to his face.”

The good vibes enveloping Barton just continued to build on Saturday night. He started the evening by donning the orange-and-black Bolt Place driver’s uniform he wore while teamed with Nielson — whomever was in possession of the suit “brought it to the track so I could wear it,” he said — and concluded it by posing for pictures in victory lane.

“Everything fell into place,” Barton said. “We had to qualify (through time trials) ... history has said that I’m just not a good qualifier for whatever reason, but in this particular instance we qualified second in our group to start on the outside pole in our heat and we won that. One thing led to another, and at the end of the evening I was kissing the trophy girl.”

The $4,000 triumph didn’t come easy. Barton worked as hard as he ever had to secure the milestone 80th win of his career at Stateline.

“When we started the feature I looked around and I had Chub (Frank) beside me and Max Blair in front of me and Robbie Blair behind me,” Barton commented. “There’s good cars everywhere, so I’m thinking, If I can maybe just finish in the top five, this will be a good night.”

But as the thick cushion faded away and the track became racier with every lap, Barton picked up speed as well. He found himself in a titanic three-car battle for the lead with Robbie Blair and Chris Hackett of Erie, Pa., that finally was resolved in Barton’s favor when he surged ahead of Hackett with the white flag flying.

“I went through (turns) one and two on the high side with Chris and I got a good run off the turn,” Barton said of his winning move. “He went to the high side in (turns) three and four and I just rolled the car through the middle and came out of turn four ahead of him.

“Believe me, I had been setting this up for a lot of laps. It wasn’t like it just magically happened. I knew the racing was coming to an end — you see the two flags (displayed signifying two laps remaining), so you know you’ve gotta try to make something happen and we did. It was very, very exciting.”

So were the postrace festivities, of course. After receiving a rousing ovation from his home track fans when he reached victory lane, Barton took the bash back to the pit area and celebrated with friends and family, including his wife, who only occasionally attends races, and his son, who stayed in the area after co-hosting his parents’ birthday party. (Barton’s daughter was attending a friend’s wedding in Buffalo.)

“Oh yeah, it was fun,” Barton said with a smile. “The cocktails were flowing quite freely.”

Two days later — after the rush of emotion at the track and the seemingly endless congratulatory phone calls and text messages — the magnitude of becoming Stateline’s most prolific winner had fully hit Barton.

“What it does is just cement your legacy,” said Barton, whose post-Nielson career has included two years driving for John Kennedy (2010-11) and the last three with the Lacki team. “If we had been a few (wins) short or tied or something, your legacy is still intact, yes, but now, with being the all-time winner, your legacy is cemented. You’re at the top.

“It’s a real special accomplishment. Bobby Schnars retired from racing before I even got involved in

Late Models (in 1985) and his record held up until Saturday night — that was a long time.”

Barton paused. He considered his record-setting night alongside the distinguished racing career he’s authored and then added, “I don’t know for sure, but if I did decide to retire, what a way to go out. I mean, all I can say is, ‘What a weekend! ... ”

Make no mistake — Barton has no specific plans to hang up his helmet. In fact, after heading off this weekend on an extended motorcycle road trip through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and other scenic areas with his wife and fellow racer Dutch Davies of Warren, Pa., and his spouse, Barton will enter the Oct. 10-11 Fall Classic at McKean County Raceway in East Smethport, Pa.

Nevertheless, Barton is at least contemplating when he might retire.

“The juices don’t flow exactly as much as they used to,” Barton conceded. “I still get revved up for racing, and it’s still fun, but you take a look at 40-plus years of racing and there’s just a lot of things throughout the years that you’ve missed that maybe you might want to do now.”

Battling drivers not even half his age is a challenge as well, though Barton has managed to remain competitive through a combination of his well-known devotion to fitness (he hits up a gym to exercise at least four days a week until pulling back during the summer months to “barbecue and drink a lot of beer”) and his vast amount of experience.

“These youngsters are as hungry and as eager as I once was,” Barton said. “I look at them and I see the fire in their eyes, and I remember all the emotions I used to have. When you’re 20, 25, 30 years old, if a hole opens up on the racetrack you stick your car in there and you say to yourself, ‘Well, if this doesn’t work I’ll just figure something else.’ Well, me, I’ve been racing 40-plus years, and if that same hole opens up I’m like, ‘Oh, no you don’t. I’m not going there. I’ve been there before and that just don’t work.’

“I feel like I can continue racing, but most of the decision lies in the hands of my team,” he added. “We’ll see what John and Charlie Lacki want to do and if my crew wants to keep going or not.”

Barton knows he doesn’t have anything left to prove. His stats — 229 career Super Late Model victories at 14 speedways in four states (highlighted by a World of Outlaws Late Model Series triumph in 2006 at Stateline), 46 track and series championships (including a record 10 at Stateline) — stamp him as a star regional racer.

“It’s been a neat career,” said Barton, whose all-time win record at Stateline might never be broken (the highest-ranked active driver on the win list is David Scott of Garland, Pa., with 23 victories). “If it is over — and let’s be perfectly honest, if it isn’t over, it’s doggone close to being over — I’ve got no regrets. It’s all been good.”

And to think Barton’s Dirt Late Model career almost never started. After spending nearly a decade racing alongside his uncle, Rod Burton, in the sportsman division at Stateline and Eriez Speedway in Hammett, Pa., he pushed aside his racing chips after the 1980 season and bought two cottages on New York’s Chautauqua Lake (one to live in and one to rent) and a boat. He thought his racing days were behind him.

“We lived on the lake and went water-skiing and carried on, just had fun,” Barton said. “Then three fellas (Race Team 14 owners Delbert Seeking, Gary Zepka and John Lillie) came up to my garage (halfway through the 1981 season). Their driver was going on vacation for two weeks, so they said, ‘Dick, how’d you like to fill in for a couple weeks?’ I said, ‘Well, I suppose I can. That’s sounds like fun.’ I drove their sportsman car, they liked what they saw and the rest is just history. I never stopped racing.”

Barton’s history-making night at Stateline prompted him to think of those men who brought him back to the sport in ’81 and many others who came along to make his long career possible.

“Honestly,” Barton said, “the only regret I have about Saturday night is that all of the guys that have been with me throughout the years couldn’t be there for the (victory lane) pictures.”

A few of Barton’s long-time supporters were at Stateline on Saturday night, including his trusty 64- year-old crew chief John Lamb, Greg Farrar (tire specialist) and Seekings. Some are deceased, including his parents, Clarence and Oleta; Zepka; former car owners Terry Studd and Jay Classon; and sponsor Bill Freiwald. Several others were not in attendance, including Lillie, Nielson, Melody Nielson (Ron’s daughter), Randy Anderson (crew member and statkeeper), Warren McDonald (crew), Jim Seely (chassis expert) and Jim Greenawalt (co-owner of Barton’s first Late Model).

“There’s a reason why we’ve had success throughout the years,” said Barton, who today is semi-retired after cutting back his long-time job as an outside sales rep for NAPA Auto Parts to three days a week. “I’ve surrounded myself with very, very capable mechanics and smart individuals. The commitment, the devotion, that all these guys have put into this thing is the key to everything we’ve done.

“I genuinely would like to someday get a picture with all the guys who have helped me throughout the years. They are the reason we’ve accomplished everything we have over the years.”

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