Honoring Marty Robbins, the racer
The Voice of the Angels rides again.
On Saturday afternoon, a car once lost to weeds and rust will once again turn laps around the racetrack where it first roared to life more than four decades ago. Oh, by the way, the track itself was supposed to have already been bulldozed. But, miraculously, this weekend they will be reunited.
"I'm pretty sure the goal is to get me misty-eyed," says Ronny Robbins. "Well, I'm an ugly crier, so I'm not so sure that's such a great idea."
If so, that's the only part of all this that isn't. You see, Ronny is the son of country music legend Marty Robbins. What you might know about the elder Robbins is that he scored 16 No. 1 hits, including the iconic "El Paso," and released 11 albums, all of which went gold or platinum.
What you might not know is that the voice behind "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs" was also a racer. He's the only man with a firesuit on display at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., and a movie poster on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- 1967's "Hell on Wheels" ("The action is GO!").
Robbins fell in love with fast cars growing up in Arizona, rooting for Jimmy Bryan and the Bettenhausens at Indianapolis. Eventually, under the wing of Little Jimmy Dickens, he went to Nashville and became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. His new home was within earshot of racing at the nearby Nashville Fairgrounds.
"I was just a kid, and if the wind blew the right way, you'd hear those race cars over at the fairgrounds," Ronny said via telephone Thursday morning. "I'd be tugging at my dad's pants leg, begging to go. It didn't take much convincing."
The Robbins boys became regulars at all racetracks that dotted the hills around the Music City. Sometime in the summer of 1959, they were watching a micro-midget race north of town when the singer decided he was done being a spectator. So he bought a car and started racing.
Eventually he ended up at the Nashville Fairgrounds behind the wheel of a '34 Ford coupe, the Devil Woman Car, built by local legend Preacher Hamilton, father of NASCAR Winston Cup racer Bobby Hamilton.
Throughout the 1960s, Robbins spent his weekends either on the road performing to sold-out arenas or racing at Nashville to a sold-out grandstand. His contemporaries were familiar names, like Coo Coo and Sterling Marlin, Darrell Waltrip and the Alabama Gang of Red Farmer and the Allison brothers.
"He would give you all you wanted, I can tell you that," says NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, who had a Labor Day 1-2, door-to-door battle with Robbins that the locals still buzz over. "He had a real, raw talent. He had good equipment. And he really respected the guys who were trying to make a living in racing. He would ask questions and then actually listen when you answered them."
As a result of that respect, the word began to spread among the full-timers that the singer was no joke. He befriended all the stock car drivers who stopped by Nashville, including Richard Petty, who won the NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) event on July 30, 1966. Robbins made his big league debut in that race, finishing 25th out of 28 cars after being forced to the garage with an oil leak.
Over the next 13 years, Robbins made 35 starts in NASCAR's top division, many of which were prepared by another Hall of Famer, Cotton Owens, and most in his impossible-to-miss purple and gold Dodge. Those starts included a World 600 at Charlotte and a pair of turns in both the Daytona 500 and Southern 500. The two trips to Darlington resulted in two top-10 finishes, one-third of his career total. His lone top-5 came at Michigan in 1974, when he hung on to the lead lap and finished fifth, one spot behind a member of his favorite racing family, Gary Bettenhausen.
"You wonder how good he could have been had he started earlier and been able to concentrate on it full time," says Petty, who recalled that Robbins was already 40 years old before trying out the sport. Petty not only befriended Robbins but also helped keep his fellow Dodge driver in good gear. "I know this. No one had a better time at the racetrack than Marty Robbins. He was so happy to be at the racetrack. He wasn't a singing star when he was with us in the garage. He was just one of the guys. That's why people always liked him so much."
Back home in Nashville, they didn't just like him. They loved him. They still do. The locals recall the day of his death, on Dec. 8, 1982 of heart failure, as if they are talking about the death of a president. There is nary a dry eye when they recall the NASCAR Winston Cup race the following year, the Marty Robbins 420, which ended in a fitting 1-2 finish by old fairgrounds foes Waltrip and Bobby Allison.
There is likely to be the same kind of emotional reaction Saturday, when that old familiar purple and gold once again hits the half-mile oval on Marty Robbins Night at the Nashville Fairgrounds. The track itself was saved from the scrapheap in 2010 by a grassroots movement. So was the car that will electrify the century-old grandstand.
"This car was headed to the crusher," says Ray Evernham, NASCAR crew chief-turned-TV analyst-turned-car collector. "It was literally sitting out on a farm that was owned by Marty Robbins' bus driver. The family that bought it was crushing everything, and the guy's son saw this old purple and gold race car rusting apart and said, 'We might want to find this a home,' so he put it up for sale."
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The car -- or what was left of it -- was a '64 Plymouth Belvedere, run by Robbins at the Nashville Fairgrounds with his signature "777" emblazoned on the door. Nashville racing historian Al Jones bought it with plans to restore it and put a notice in an oval racing trade magazine that he was looking for parts. Evernham, who scours the trades looking for old racers to rebuild, gave Jones a call and bought the car with one promise: "I swore to Al and Ronny that when I was done I would bring it back and put it on the Nashville track."
For nearly two years, Evernham has meticulously rebuilt the Robbins machine piece by piece.
"Occasionally he'll send me photos," says Ronny. "But as it's gotten closer to being done, he won't let me see it." Even those photos have made Marty's son emotional. This was the first car that the Robbins family ever built from scratch, in-house. "Seeing it being built again just takes me back. Only difference now is that it's sitting in this immaculate shop in North Carolina, not our old corrugated metal shed in Nashville."
Evernham admits that he's holding everything at arm's length to elicit the most genuine reaction he can get from Robbins and Jones when the car is unveiled Saturday evening, then from the entire track when Robbins paces the field for the night of short-track racing. Yes, Evernham will have cameras rolling for his new show, "Americarna" on Velocity, but this is about much more than that. He says it's about his never-ending mission to save the race cars that made history and made memories for the race fans who watched them.
"It really is a great thing that Ray is doing," Ronny says. Then he starts to laugh. "But in the end, I'm pretty sure this all about making me cry."
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