Racing, like other sports, is built on heroes. Most of NASCAR’s heroes are the men and women who, over the years, pulled on their colorful, if not dashing firesuits, climbed into a snarling beast of a machine, and drove straight into the sunset (and back out, as they came off the next turn). They court danger and flirt with mayhem, run with the stuff of dreams. Yes, racecar drivers are the stuff of legend.
But not all heroes drive the cars. Some make the cars go fast instead.
There are two heroes in NASCAR who never reached the status of some of today’s top drivers, and yet each has carved a niche so deep and so intricate that no others will ever fill those spots, though both are now vacant, made so by the years that slip by. One passed on this week, and the other is ill and living in an assisted living facility not far from the race shops where today’s generation is building their own dreams.
The first of these two heroes worked during the week in a modest repair shop on the banks of a quiet New England river. He influenced some who would go on to perhaps greater fame, and built the team of a champion. Stanley “Stub” Fadden was a terror on New England’s short tracks, from Thunder Road in Barre, Vt., a tough little bullring where misjudging a corner means finding yourself in the parking lot, to the series that is now the NASCAR Camping World East Series, where he won four times and was one half of a grandfather-grandson duo before his retirement from full-time racing in 1998. He retired with some 260 victories and the status of racing legend.
Fadden heavily influenced a young mechanic from his hometown of North Haverhill, N.H., who followed his dream south and found success as a Sprint Cup crew chief. That mechanic, Frank Stoddard, was one of the finest head wrenches in the series in the late ’90s, calling the shots for Jeff Burton. The duo found some of their greatest success at Stoddard’s home track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, winning with regularity at the Magic Mile.
Fadden’s grandson, Mike Olsen, racing for the family team, won Camping World East titles in 2001 and 2006. He had the chance to race alongside his grandfather in the 1990s, and, after retiring from competition himself, worked with Stub to bring along other local drivers. Should he choose to continue, it would be a fitting tribute to Fadden, a racer whose career helped others shape careers of their own. He will be greatly missed, especially when the engines roar to life after a long New England winter.
Another of NASCAR’s heroes, “Suitcase” Jake Elder, was a star before crew chiefs were celebrities. Elder came along before NASCAR was really “cool,” and came from the same roots as so many of the sport’s early heroes-roots that carved their way through the North Carolina red clay at the sport’s epicenter. Elder earned his nickname because he never could settle down with one team, instead moving often, and always making the next teams’ cars faster. He was a three-time Cup champion crew chief, twice with David Pearson and once with Dale Earnhardt (though Doug Richert was the crew chief by the time Earnhardt’s first title season came to an end because Elder had once again moved on, living up to his nickname).
Elder is a legend because he could make any car a contender on any given Sunday. His instinct for finding what a temperamental racecar needed was second to none. It was an era where there were none of the specialists found on today’s teams, and the crew chief and a handful of employees had to rely on those instincts to get the car right. Somehow, Elder always did. He was what is known in racing as a “shade tree” mechanic-that is, one who has not had a formal education, but who just knows cars. Elder had only a third-grade education, but that didn’t matter in NASCAR, where drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty had ringing endorsements for the man who worked magic on racecars.
There are so many “Suitcase Jake stories” in the NASCAR garage that they could fill volumes.
Elder is in a nursing home these days, following a debilitating stroke. He has difficulty recognizing people and doing things for himself. But the racing community remembers Elder. Several racers and crewmen have anonymously helped out with the bills, and the racing community is taking part in a benefit in Mooresville, N.C. on Saturday, March 14 at the Memory Lane Museum. The third annual “Legends Helping Legends” fundraiser will help pay Elder’s medical bills. Bobby Allison is scheduled to appear, as are Ned Jarrett and Harry Gant, among several others. No doubt there will be plenty of Suitcase Jake stories to go around.
NASCAR is a sport shaped of heroes. Not all of them drove for glory in NASCAR’s top series, but the impact felt by legends like Stub and Suitcase Jake has helped mold the sport. These two heroes, and others like them, will always be remembered by the racing community for their immeasurable contributions to the sport we love. May they never be forgotten.