Did you know that Larry Phillips of Springfield, Mo., won the inaugural NASCAR Winston Racing Series National Championship in 1989 then repeated in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996?
Larry Phillips is a hero to racers everywhere - including those in the Winston Cup garage. The Southeast has Richard Petty, the King. But those of us who moved here from the Midwest have our own hero: Larry Phillips. Larry Phillips was the guy we all looked up to, the guy we all wanted to be. Whether it was me as a kid, watching from the grandstands on Friday night at the Fairgrounds in Springfield, Missouri, or Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace out there racing against him, Larry was the legend.
This was the guy to beat; no matter who came to the races that weekend whether it was a local show; an ASA race, or whatever. He was the scale against which we all measured ourselves. If you could run with Larry Phillips on a consistent basis; then you had the potential and the talent to move on with your career and move up to Winston Cup someday.
Larry continues to fill grandstands wherever he goes and he continues to be a promoter's nightmare, stinking up the show. Larry has always been an intense, hard-nosed racer with more determination than you are likely to see anywhere else.
That is why Larry Phillips was able to go out and win a Friday-night feature just days after beginning chemotherapy. Larry was diagnosed with cancer in May. But there is no doubt in my mind that if there is a cure for cancer, Larry Phillips just might find it. He is hardheaded enough, with enough determination and focus, that I believe he can overcome anything. In 1975 he was in a wreck in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He ran up underneath another car, both cars caught on fire, and Larry wound up with third-degree burns on 70% of his body, something that most people don't ever come back from. He was supposed to be out of racing for two years.
That just wasn't acceptable to Larry. He went into physical therapy and worked twice as hard as most people would to get back to work. Racing was his livelihood. He was back at the track, Winning races in one year. That is the work ethic Larry instills in everyone who has the opportunity to be near him.
Myself, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Ken Schrader - you could play the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game with Larry here in the Winston Cup garage. "Don't give me 100%," Larry always told me. "Give me what I need. Sometimes that's 200%, some days that's just 100%." If you could step up and give him what he needed, be always promised he would give you exactly what you needed in return, and you'd go win a bunch of races together.
I spent the first 12 years of my life with my family following Larry around the country. It didn't matter if the race was in Oklahoma, Kansas, or California, we went to see him. It was unbelievable to me what this guy could do with a race car. Watching him, I knew without a doubt that I was going to be a race car driver. Larry Phillips was my hero - he won all the races, and that was the goal.
As I got older and began racing against Larry, we developed a relationship that turned into a great friendship. Eventually I was offered an opportunity to go to work with him. So, fresh out of high school I had to make a decision: Keep driving race cars, or go racing with Larry Phillips. That may have been the easiest decision I have ever made.
That was like college for me. But you have to understand that this was the guy I spent my entire life in awe of. Whenever he was in the room, I was nervous. To this day, I am more nervous working in Larry's shop than I am on top of the toolbox calling a Winston Cup race. It took a long time for me to find a comfort level because this was the guy I had patterned my life after. This was the guy I wanted to be, and here he was taking time out of his life to teach me the things he thought I needed to know.
Mark, Rusty, Kenny - we all had the opportunity to work for Larry. We admired him so much that we worked very hard for him, and he certainly didn't make it easy. I think any of those guys will tell you that probably the hardest - and the best - person they ever worked for was Larry. He's hard-nosed and pretty tough to get along with, but when you look back and see the things that he taught you, you understand why he was as hard on you as he was.
It was almost like a father-son thing for all of us who went through 'the neighborhood' as Larry calls it. Throughout his career Larry Phillips has won more than 2,500 races. One of my first duties for him was to remove some of the trophies from his race shop. Those trophies filled half of a 40-foot trailer floor-to-ceiling.
And I remember in 1992, we won the first of our Winston Racing Series national titles together, winning 38 of 40 races. We had just won a race and wrapped up the title early. On the drive home Larry looked over at me and in his hard-nosed, intense way said, "I don't want you to take this as a compliment, but you did a really drivers job tonight. I was proud of you." Well, Larry, I don't want you to take this as a compliment, but there is no person that I am prouder to have worked with than you.
At the end of the 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup Points Series much of the world's motorsports eyes were fixed on the points battle between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Their duel may have overshadowed the Regional Championships in Joe Public's eyes but true followers were keeping tabs on the NASCAR Winston Racing Series. In 1995 Larry Phillips took home the Pacific Coast Region Champion honors for the sixth time marking a new record for regional wins.
The NASCAR Winston Racing Series takes place in different regions across the country with around 1,000 competitors. Even with his 32 wins out of 40 races the points chase ended in a tie with Greg Biffle of Washington. The Championship was decided by the racer with more feature wins. The competition is fierce and the 1996 season illustrated just how close the series is. As his five National Championships show, Phillips is no stranger to winning. One season, Larry finished all 44 races that he entered while chalking up 40 checkered flags.
In 1989 Larry Phillips of Springfield, Missouri, a mentor of Rusty, Kenny and Mike Wallace and several other NASCAR Winston Cup drivers, won the NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship. In 1991 Larry became the first driver to win two NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championships.
Prior to 1991, there had been nine different national champs in nine years. In 1992 Phillips won his second consecutive NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship and third overall. He became the first back-to-back winner of the coveted crown and was the only repeat winner of the award in the series' 11 year history.
In 1996 Larry emerged from his toughest season ever with a fifth NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship. During Phillips' era he has built a race winning dynasty......although he insists that word should not be used when describing his career in racing.
Phillips said, "The only dynasty I know about is that it's the name of an old TV show. We go in to each season not trying to do anything more than win the next race. We're not counting points or trying to win titles......we just want to win races. We might take a look at the points about halfway through the season, and if we're in decent shape, then the pressure might begin. After the last race of the year, I know I've done all I can do......and that's do the best I can, one race at a time."
Parity and large feature fields have fueled competition in the Heartland Region. "Things were tougher this year. I didn't win as much at Lebanon and we had five rain-outs at Bolivar." At Phillips' home tracks, a feature win automatically gained him a 16th-starting position in the following week's feature. On weeks following a non-win, track point standings dictated a 12th-place feature starting position for his Sportsman Pickup Covers Chevrolet.
The rules here have drawn the field closer together than ever as far as competition goes. "In 1992, I won 38 races in 40 starts, and the competition was drivers then. When you're starting races 12th and 16th each week, sure it's tough. I got involved in two incidents on the first race night of the year at each track. I had to re-evaluate my driving abilities. After that, things settled down, though. I actually spent the first half of the year rooting for Carl Trimmer to win the national championship this year. Carl's a drivers friend. I've talked to one of his crewman, Frank Buckner, often during the season. I'd say we got lucky to win the national championship this year."
Weather was rainy on the final points weekend of the season, and double features representing Phillips' 19th and 20th I-44 Speedway starts of the season were scheduled. The NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship Competition Performance Index (CPI) requires a minimum of 20 starts in the equation. The weather held, and Larry won both events. Larry maintained one car for the entire season, and it was used at both tracks.
In previous years, he had two cars available and they were often built for a specific track. He competed in 1996 without a race-ready backup. If it came home in bad shape, only weekend crewman Stanley Shobe and his son Terry were regularly scheduled to help......both on a limited basis. There is no hired help, frequent visitors and friends pitch in.
Larry went on, "I'm just thankful for the opportunities we've had since the NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship came to our tracks. Sure, everyone likes to win, but the NASCAR Winston Racing Series offers so many other opportunities and rewards that you don't find anywhere at this level of racing. (Larry Phillips Autosports offers the same racing equipment he uses to his fellow competitors.) I certainly am grateful to the people at NASCAR and Winston......and all the series sponsors that make this type of program possible. My sponsors at Sportsman have been with us for five years and they've been great to work with. Bill Willard and his family have a couple of great race tracks that we're proud to call home. And the best part might be for my wife, Judy. She enjoys being at the Opryland Hotel for the series banquet. She was hoping we'd get to go again."
A little drivers racing luck......avoiding accidents, a Wegner-built engine, a break from the weather......was key in Larry's one-race-at-a-time strategy. In 1994 and 1995 Larry swept the titles at both Lebanon and Bolivar tracks. In 1996 he won one at Lebanon. Larry's been racing for about 35 years, winning with him on the track means a lot.
He's as tough as they come (some would say dirty), smart and does everything at 100%. He knows just about everything there is to know about short track racing and still keeps learning. An excellent fabricator, he can make small adjustments resulting in a huge difference. He stays out of trouble and is consistent on every lap around the track. He's a natural-born racer and usually is the class of the field. His 1996 overall feature win total dipped below previous levels to 26 wins in 36 starts. But a winning percentage of .722 is still the stuff of which championships are made.
Larry tried to make the step up to Winston Cup or Busch a couple of times, but found out that by the time he got around to it, he just wasn't able to handle the speeds required then on some of the tracks to make a success of the move. This year is Larry's 38th racing season.
Over the years he has raced and "tutored" many drivers such as Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. Both of these top NASCAR Winston Cup drivers have referred to Larry as a hero and note how much they learned from the National Champ. Early in their racing careers at the Friday and Saturday night races, Larry was the man to beat.
Plans for the 1998 race season are no different than the previous 37 years; to race and to win. His outlook on racing is simple yet extremely effective; first place is the only place to be. But I think the quote that describes Larry the best is when asked if he had to pay to watch someone race, who would it be? Mark Martin said, Larry Phillips.
In 2001 Larry was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall Of Fame...Larry Phillips has been involved with auto racing for more than 40 years. A Southwest Missouri native, Phillips has driven his Number 75 race car to more than 2,500 wins at the Bolivar Speedway USA, Fairgrounds Speedway in Springfield, Lebanon 1-44 Speedway, and at asphalt race tracks all over the United States.
He has won five Winston Racing Series Short Track National Championships and seven Regional NASCAR Championships. He has served as a mentor for a number of successful racers including Rusty Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Mark Martin, Kenny Schrader, and countless others.
Phillips owns wins in a variety of divisions including NCRA Late Models, ARTGO, ASA, All-Star, Pros, Stars, USAC, World of Outlaws, and NASCAR Winston Series stock cars, among others. Phillips, an airplane and flying enthusiast, is co-owner of Midwest Aero, an aircraft refinishing and collision repair shop. He and his wife Judy reside in Bolivar.
The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed in a race car has no idea how many races he won. Common feeling among short track folk is that his great rival, Dick Trickle up in Wisconsin â€" a rough, tough, mean, crazy and grouchy son of a gun himself â€" has the record for most victories.
Larry Phillips ain't much for arguing, and he would sooner eat a carburetor whole than disparage an old-time racer like Dick Trickle ("Dick Trickle is Superman," Larry says.). So when Larry was asked how many races he won, he unfailingly would say, "Just a few less than Dick Trickle."
Phillips was born in Springfield, Missouri, son of Jim and Margie Phillips. He attended Bois D'Arc grade school in a suburb of Springfield, Missouri and Parkview High School in Springfield, Missouri. Phillips competed in one NASCAR touring series race in 1976. The race was a combined Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup Series) / Winston West Series (now NASCAR K&N Pro Series West) event at Ontario Motor Speedway. He started 24th and finished 13th overall. Since he was the highest finisher in a Winston West car, he was credited with a win in the class.
Phillips polarized fans wherever he went. Fans either cheered wildly for him, or they cheered equally hard against him. There was no middle ground. Phillips had another side that he never showed at the track. Many will be surprised to learn that he also played the violin and could be gruff as a polar bear one minute only to bend down to playfully tease a child a moment later. Larry Phillips, died September 21, 2004, at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield. He was 62. Phillips died after a four-year battle with lung cancer, said his longtime crew chief, Stanley Shobe. Phillips entered the NASCAR circuit as a teenager and didn't stop racing until cancer forced him to retire.
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