The Eckerd 200, the crown jewel of Super DIRT Week, has experienced a number of name changes during its 29-year existence. Besides the national drugstore chain, both Schaefer and Miller Beer, Wheels Auto Parts, and Fay’s Drugs have sponsored the Modified classic, contested each fall on the often treacherous Syracuse mile.

The list of winners is even longer, with such talent as Buzzie Reutimann, Billy Osmun, Brett Hearn, Bob McCreadie, Merv Treichler, Jack Johnson, brothers Alan and Danny Johnson, Dick and Richie Tobias, Jimmy Horton, Kenny Brightbill, Doug Hoffman, Billy Decker, and Kenny Tremont Jr. all visiting Victory Lane.

But only Hearn, with five victories, has been there more often than Florida’s Gary Balough, who wore the flower garland in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980, the last time after decimating the Schaefer 200 field in the legendary “Batmobile” designed by Kenny Weld.

Thus it was that the DIRT faithful eagerly awaited Balough’s return in October 2000 in a Jim Beachy–owned, Mitsubishi-sponsored Bicknell chassis billed as a collaboration between aerodynamic specialist Balough and master fabricator/driver Bicknell.

While many saw Balough’s return as an attempt by promoter Glenn Donnelly to hype a sagging gate, others awaited the unveiling of another mechanical masterpiece akin to the revolutionary Batmobile. The car’s performance caused several competitors to graft aluminum sheets and plywood onto existing cars in a last-gasp effort to keep up. It didn’t work, but they did blow off those who elected to stand pat, triggering a sea of change in the look of DIRT Modifieds for 1981.

“I don’t believe that could ever happen again,” said Balough, as he sat out yet another rain delay in the muddy Syracuse infield. “You can’t be that much more competitive because of the rule structure now. We caught them in 1980 with a lax rule book. Kenny Weld went through the book, and he was brilliant. I’d like to win this thing again for him, Mario Rossi, Whip Mulligan, Grant King, and all the other people who made my career what it was. God be with them!

“That car was so superior that it was almost not fun to drive. Any idiot could have driven it. We had the whole package, aero and motor. We had Don Brown’s chassis and Ray Stonkus, Pete Hamilton, and Ron Hutter working on it. It was like O.J. Simpson’s ‘dream team’ of lawyers.”

Looking for Help

Balough could have used a little of the old-time magic. While his #112 disappointed many by looking like the Teo Pro, Olsen, Troyer, and standard Bicknell cars on hand, it didn’t perform like them. It was as much slower as the Batmobile had been superior. Balough made a qualifying lap of just below 109 mph, nearly 4 mph slower than Brett Hearn’s pole-winning speed, and only good enough to be 71st fastest overall. Some blamed the car, which many figured incorporated 20-year-old ideas. Others pointed to Balough’s age, with yet another faction saying he’d lost his touch during a highly publicized four-year incarceration.

“It’s basically our standard BRP chassis,” Bicknell said. “We took a lot of Gary’s ideas and some things from our fab-shop guys for the sheetmetal. Some of the ideas Gary had did come from 20 years ago, but the track was a lot harder and drier then, so we had to downplay some of that. Also, the rules are more restrictive, so we couldn’t use all his ideas. But the big problem is that Gary isn’t used to all the weather changes. We’ve seen his potential when he’s on the track with other cars, but he’s having trouble timing because he’s not used to the track changing all the time and the slippery, wet surface. When he’s with other cars, he knows he has to go in faster than they do, but in time trials, he’s not sure how to pace himself.”

As for the age issue, “I just turned 53, but I tell everybody I’m 39 because I feel like I’m 25,” Balough said. “And I haven’t been away from racing for 20 years. I’ve been racing a lot in the South. In 1996 I drove Pee Wee Griffin’s Late Model, and our goal was to win 50 races. The most I’d ever won before was 39, and we won 67 out of 79 that year. Since then, I’ve done R&D and crew chief work. I run B.J. McCloud or Pete Orr’s spare cars, and I teach young drivers aerodynamics, chassis setup, and how to drive.

“When it rains there, we get inside and wait for it to dry up, then we race again. The rain might wash the rubber off the asphalt and make the track tighter, but it won’t make it three seconds slower like at Syracuse. Here, it goes from hard and black to wet and slippery. Every time I change the car, the track changes again, and it’s frustrating. We need sun!”

As Balough and crew thrashed on their unstable steed in their heated tent, Hearn’s front-row companion, Steve Paine, stood in the rain installing radio gear. He and other drivers said they weren’t worried about Balough.

“If Gary Balough comes in here and beats us, then the guys who’ve been here the last few years haven’t been doing their jobs,” Decker said. “He’s a great driver, he’s seen and done a lot, but he’s been alienated from DIRT racing for so long that I don’t expect him to whip us. Look at Jimmy Horton. He was really great, but he left for a while. Things didn’t happen for him down South, and he’s been fighting a battle here ever since.”

A Major Setback

Like Horton, Balough showed flashes of brilliance on the Winston Cup circuit. But just as he was about to move to a big-time ride, his world fell apart. He was convicted of drug charges and sent to prison. Balough tells the story calmly, but his eyes still show his pain.

“When it (the arrest) happened, I’d been signed to drive the #28 car for Harry Ranier. Waddell Wilson was the crew chief, and Robert Yates built the motors. It was a killer ride that Benny Parsons ended up in, and he really ran well. I was definitely at the top of my game. I won a national championship with NASCAR’s All-Pro circuit, winning 14 out of 22 races, leading the most laps, and winning the most poles. We were in a great mode, but that was after the conviction, and I was on bond.

“We were fixing to sign Domino’s in 1986 for three quarters of a million dollars for 25 All-Pro races, but then I had to go do what I had to do. We had our banquet on Saturday night, and I had to report (to prison) Monday morning. That was the end for four years. I’d gotten into situations in the late ’70s that I shouldn’t have been around. To get enough funding, because there weren’t any major corporations around then, we made some mistakes.

“But I’ve talked all I want to about it. I’m sick of talking about it. I did my four years, and I’m tired of being beat down. I did the deal, and it’s cost me greatly: my marriage, my career in Winston Cup, everything. I’m surviving, I still have my kids, I love to fish, I have my health and my ability, and I’m going on. That’s all behind me. I paid a dear price, 45½ months, but it’s over.

“When I came back out, I got my 7-year-old car and went to Summerville, South Carolina, for a 200-lap All-Pro race. I sat on the pole, and we won the race. I can still do this.”

A Washout

By the end of the story, the rain had finally quit, so Balough saddled up and attempted to put the #112 into the Eckerd 200 field via Friday’s Triple 20 qualifying program. Hearn, Paine, and Decker would share wins, with Balough starting 20th and finishing 18th on a still-slimy surface.

Balough was now down to one chance, Sunday’s Sterling Dash for non-qualifiers. His legion of fans began praying for sun and dry weather for the rest of the weekend.

A sunny Saturday saw Lance Yonge claim the ESS/URC Sprint Challenge, Matt Sheppard the Sportsman race, and Jipp Ortiz the Pro Stock feature. Bicknell then won the 150-mile, 358 Modified race, and by day’s end the track was black as coal and rock hard. Maybe Balough’s luck was finally changing.

Unfortunately for those waiting to see if the Gary Balough they remembered would finally emerge after the track came around, race day brought a steady drizzle at the New York State Fairgrounds. Even Glenn Donnelly, known for getting events in at all costs, often in bits and spurts between showers, was discouraged.

“Tomorrow looks worse,” said Donnelly as he watched wave after wave of rain roll off Lake Ontario on the weather radar.

Balough could have rebooked an earlier flight back to Florida right then. The wide, black groove of his dreams would remain just that, a dream. For the DIRT regulars, however, it was business as usual. They go to Syracuse each year expecting the worse and usually get it.

Balough, as expected, was far off the pace after an early skirmish and dropped out of the Dash. But when Hearn led the feature field onto the ancient fairgrounds oval, the #112 circled slowly behind the three Dash qualifiers courtesy of a seldom-used promoter’s option.

Balough persevered through lap nine, exiting just before Hearn’s car first let out a puff of smoke, then slowed with a flat left rear, putting Paine on the point as the snow and rain returned. The #112 would be scored third from last in the 47-car field.

This day belonged to Billy Decker, who dodged accidents and the fuel problems that pestered others in the field. He collected a $50,000 prize and a mountain of contingencies.

As Decker’s team celebrated and the fans ran for cover from a brief but brisk hailstorm, Beachy’s crewmen slid the #112 into its trailer amidst a steady stream of curious fans. Was this the end of Gary Balough’s Syracuse career? “If the opportunity is right and I had a chance to work with people like this again, I’d come back in a heartbeat,” Balough said. “But next time I’ll test somewhere for three or four days, and when I come back here, we’ll be ready.”