The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past: Lake Speed by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday May 10, 2007

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Driven To The Past: Lake Speed

Vito Pugliese · Thursday May 10, 2007


Name: Lake Chambers Speed
Birthdate: January 17th, 1948
Hometown: Jackson, Mississippi
Starts: 402
Wins: 1
Top 5's: 16
Top 10's: 75
Poles: 0
Career Earnings: $5,455,728

The established trend over the past several years in NASCAR has been to recruit new talent through the open-wheel ranks of racing. Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and JJ Yeley, all have their roots firmly planted in cars without fenders. The most recent convert to taxicab racing is former CART champion and Formula 1 winner Juan Pablo Montoya. Years spent dicing with guys named Rubens, Ralf, and Mika have prepared him quite well to battle against drivers named Dale, Sterling, and Carl. Looking back, there was one open-wheeler in the early 80's who came into fendered racing after defeating possibly the greatest driver in the history of autoracing. With a name that sounded straight out of a Hollywood racing screenplay, he came into the sport at just the right time, during what is now regarded as the "Golden Age" of the 1980's. With NASCAR making its now annual trip to Darlington this weekend, we profile one driver who established his legacy with a win at the Lady in Black, driver Lake Speed.

Lake Chambers Speed was born in Jacksonville, Mississippi on January 17th, 1948. Named for his father's best friend, Lake took a quite a different route to NASCAR's highest series than the usual path. Most drivers who ventured into NASCAR racing at that time started racing on dirt, moved up to a sportsman or modified class, made many Busch or ASA starts, then got into Cup. Speed began racing go-karts, a series more apt to prepare drivers to compete at Silverstone and Interlagos than North Wilkesboro or Rockingham. He would win six International Federation of Karting championships, as well as capturing the World Karting Title in 1978, in LeMans, France, before setting his sights on stock cars. To win the title, he had to beat a man who would come to be regarded as one of the most talented drivers ever to put on a helmet, regardless of the era, Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian would win three Formula 1 titles before his tragic death in 1994. It was said that Senna could make a car "dance with his hands", and his domination of F1 in the late 80's and early 90's was evidence of this. And Lake Speed once beat him.

It was President of Lowe's Motor Speedway, Humpy Wheeler, that first suggested Lake try his hand at full-bodied cars. Driving a stock car is a much different discipline than driving a go-kart or any other open wheeled machine, short of a NASCAR modified. You have a car that weighs two-and-a-half times as much, has half the down force, and 15" wheels with a 10.5" slick tire. Pizza cutters, comparatively, to an open wheeled car with its huge tires. Speed figured things out pretty quick however, notching his first Top 10 at Darlington in 1980 with a sixth place run in the Rebel 500. Not too shabby for a rookie, driving his own car, on a limited schedule. He would go on to rack up four more Top 10's that year, and six the following year, again on a limited schedule. It would be little more than coincidence that his first taste of success would come at the 1.336 mile egg-shaped oval. Speaking of egg-shaped things, Lake would notch zero wins his first seven years in the sport. He came tantalizingly close in 1983, only to lose out to Richard Petty in the final laps of the Winston 500 in 1983. Speed was passed by both The King and Benny Parsons in the final laps of that fateful race. I guess if you're going to get beat, getting beat by eight Championships, eight Daytona 500s, and over 200 combined wins isn't such a bad way to go out.

It would be a significant defeat however, in that it reshaped and changed Lake Speed's career and his life. Success changes many people. One spectacular event, one defining moment, catapults them to greatness and gives them the confidence to achieve. For others, it can also take a humbling defeat or catastrophic occurrence to alter the course of their life. Lake Speed's defining moment was somewhere in between those two. Speed was at a crossroads of sorts. He was on the cusp of doing great things, butit must have felt like something was holding him back. He could continue to struggle, doing things "his way", and beat his head against the wall to keep coming up short, or stay at it, keep the faith and persevere. It was at this junction that he made the decision to enlist the services of the only person who could truly help him. No, not Suitcase Jake Elder or Tim Brewer; Jesus Christ. Lake became a devout born again Christian, and decided that he would not give up; he would stick it out, having faith to believe that brighter days lay ahead.

Those days were not far behind. In 1985 at The Daytona 500, Bill Elliott wasn't driving his No. 9 Coors Thunderbird so much as he was flying it, dominating the event. About the only driver who could clearly read the back of his tail panel that day was Lake Speed. He found himself less than a second behind Awesome Bill at the end, when everyone else in the field was at least a lap down. Lake Speed and the No. 75 Pontiacs owned by Butch Moch and Bob Rahilly would tally 14 Top10 finishes that year enroute to a tenth place finish in the final point standings. An abbreviated 1986 season would pave the way for his entry into the ranks of Owner/Driver. Alan Kulwicki was going to do it, and so was Lake Speed. Back then it wasn't as the impossible feat it is today. His 10,000 square foot shop was the biggest of the day, and all that was needed was an infusion of cash to get things rolling along. With a guy whose last name was "Speed", things were sure to quickly follow suit.

Speed’s career as an owner/driver got off to a rocky start. The car, when it would finish, would finish well. Crashes and parts failures would stymie promising runs. His best finish of the year would be a third-place finish in the World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte (now Lowe's). 1988 though, would be the year that things would turn around in a big way. Speed started the year off putting the car at the point in the Daytona 500, only to be slowed down by engine failure well before halfway. A sixth place run in the next race at Richmond, then a runner up finish at Rockingham served notice that the #83 Wynn's Oldsmobiles were for real. A cracked head at Atlanta next week would not slow the momentum the team was building. The next week at Darlington would be his crowning achievement.

As things continue to change in NASCAR, there are still some constants, one of which is Darlington. The track dubbed "Too Tough To Tame" is just that; where else do teams actually install 4×4 blocks of lumber in the quarter panels so they can run up against the wall? Back then the Spring race at Darlington was 500 miles, not the 400 miler that we have become accustomed to. All those extra 100 miles did was give Lake Speed a chance to lap every car up to third place, and outrun fellow owner/driver Alan Kulwicki by 19 seconds. In victory lane, Lake was visibly moved. He gave credit to his team, but also thanked his main "spotter", for giving him the faith to continue. "Had it not been for my faith in the Lord…..after 1986, I'd have sold everything and moved back to Jackson, Mississippi." He was gracious, contrite, and thankful for what he was able to accomplish. He was also looking forward to this win jumpstarting his career and his new operation. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you hear Lake speak of it today) that would not be the case.

In the late 80's and early 90's, you didn't need a multi-car team and a $20 million annual sponsorship to run competitively. Back then a top-flight team cost less than a mid-pack Busch team gets in today's dollars. With GM funding no less than FOUR manufacturer makes, along with Ford's re-commitment to circle track racing, one would have thought that after strong start the No. 83 team was off to, that the money and support would follow. For whatever reason, it did not.

In 1989, on a shoestring budget courtesy of Bullseye Barbecue Sauce, things just weren't materializing. It went from a situation, of when the car would finish, it would run well, to if it finished, well, at least it was running. Ever the roadracer from his karting days, Speed still managed a fifth place finish at Sears Point, the highlight of an otherwise somber season. NASCAR was about to take the next step at the turn of the decade. More technology was being introduced into the sport, radial tires were replacing bias-ply tires, and NASCAR was about to hit the big screen with the popular, if wildly inaccurate motion picture, "Days of Thunder". While Lake Speed and his organization were positioned to help be part of this burgeoning explosion of popularity, he was more or less an also-ran than a contender.

It wouldn't be until 1993, following the tragic death of Davey Allison that Speed would get a shot a driving a competitive car. He ran a few races in the No. 28 Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing, running well at Watkins Glen, and putting the car on the front row the following week at Michigan. However, his tenure in the No. 28 was to be short-lived, as he was merely keeping the seat warm until Ernie Irvan could get out of his contract with Morgan-McClure to come to Yates. Speed would close out the year in Bud Moore's No. 15 that driver Geoff Bodine had abdicated to acquire the assets of Speed's owner/driver counterpart, the late Alan Kulwicki, who had also tragically died months earlier in an airplane crash.

In 1995, Speed would drive the No. 9 Fords for Harry Melling. Ironic, as the previous best view of the No. 9 that Lake Speed had was ten years earlier, placing runner up to it in the Daytona 500. The SPAM car was never really a threat to win, posting a pair of Top 10s that year. His most notable moment was at Michigan, following the race on pit road. Still strapped into his car, he was approached by Michael Waltrip, who after some incidental contact with Speed on the track, was none too happy with him. Waltrip punched Speed while he still sat strapped into his car, helmet intact. Waltrip was still helmeted as well, making the incident that much more memorable.

1998 would be the last year that Lake Speed would drive in NASCAR. At Sears Point in that year, the former karting ace was putting his skills to good use, posting the second fastest lap time on the newly configured "Chute" course. However, Speed wrecked hard during practice, and unbeknownst to him, had a broken sternum. It didn't help matters much that in the next race at Loudon, NH, when he crashed again. This time the injury was discovered, along with four broken ribs.

Today, Lake Speed has no feelings of bitterness or regret regarding his career. He would have every right to and be justified, after things looked so promising following that win at Darlington in 1988. However, Speed realized that the Lord had a different plan for him than what he himself had in mind, and he is at peace with that, growing to embrace and celebrate the path that lead him to a much closer relationship with his wife Rice and his three children. Speed and Rice, former driver Bobby Hillin and his wife, as well as Darrell and Stevie Waltrip, helped to form Motor Racing Outreach, now an established and important part of NASCAR’s top touring series. The focus of MRO was to bring church services to the track, as most races are run on Sunday, and people figured it doesn't hurt to have some help from above when you're hurtling around at over 200mph.

Speed has recently started racing go-karts again as a hobby. He also occasionally competes in vintage auto racing, with one of his former No. 83 Purex Thunderbirds winning four times between 2002 and 2003 at Daytona's infield roadcourse. With many of today's drivers putting undue pressure on themselves to perform and preserve their legacy, it is refreshing and inspiring to see Lake Speed as a counterpoint to the obsession of performance. While he most certainly would welcome the opportunity to get behind the wheel again in Nextel Cup competition, Lake Speed learned a valuable lesson these last few years away from the track. The best times of a driver's life are often when he puts it in park.

Need to know what the next step is from here for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Want all the inside info on how this story played out? Check out Athlon Sports’ Inside Racing Podcast with Frontstretch’s Tom Bowles and Matt Taliaferro to find out all the answers.

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