Car owner Jim Beachy (left)...
Car owner Jim Beachy (left) hired Gary Balough to drive for him at Syracuse in October 2000.
Balough ponders his next move...
Balough ponders his next move at Syracuse during Super DIRT Week.
Balough hoped for dry conditions,...
Balough hoped for dry conditions, but Mother Nature thought otherwise. Here, an infield swamp reflects other competitors.
In the end, Billy Decker outlasted...
In the end, Billy Decker outlasted the field and took a champagne bath.
Balough once dominated the...
Balough once dominated the competition with machines that often pushed the rules, including this awesome one dubbed the Batmobile.
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 Fays 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 Floridas 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 Baloughs return in October 2000 in a Jim Beachyowned, Mitsubishi-sponsored Bicknell chassis billed as a collaboration between aerodynamic specialist Balough and master fabricator/driver Bicknell.
While many saw Baloughs 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 cars performance caused several competitors to graft aluminum sheets and plywood onto existing cars in a last-gasp effort to keep up. It didnt 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 dont believe that could ever happen again, said Balough, as he sat out yet another rain delay in the muddy Syracuse infield. You cant 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. Id 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 Browns chassis and Ray Stonkus, Pete Hamilton, and Ron Hutter working on it. It was like O.J. Simpsons dream team of lawyers.
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 didnt 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 Hearns 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 Baloughs age, with yet another faction saying hed lost his touch during a highly publicized four-year incarceration.
Its basically our standard BRP chassis, Bicknell said. We took a lot of Garys 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 couldnt use all his ideas. But the big problem is that Gary isnt used to all the weather changes. Weve seen his potential when hes on the track with other cars, but hes having trouble timing because hes not used to the track changing all the time and the slippery, wet surface. When hes with other cars, he knows he has to go in faster than they do, but in time trials, hes not sure how to pace himself.
As for the age issue, I just turned 53, but I tell everybody Im 39 because I feel like Im 25, Balough said. And I havent been away from racing for 20 years. Ive been racing a lot in the South. In 1996 I drove Pee Wee Griffins Late Model, and our goal was to win 50 races. The most Id ever won before was 39, and we won 67 out of 79 that year. Since then, Ive done R&D and crew chief work. I run B.J. McCloud or Pete Orrs 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 wont 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 its frustrating. We need sun!
As Balough and crew thrashed on their unstable steed in their heated tent, Hearns front-row companion, Steve Paine, stood in the rain installing radio gear. He and other drivers said they werent worried about Balough.
If Gary Balough comes in here and beats us, then the guys whove been here the last few years havent been doing their jobs, Decker said. Hes a great driver, hes seen and done a lot, but hes been alienated from DIRT racing for so long that I dont expect him to whip us. Look at Jimmy Horton. He was really great, but he left for a while. Things didnt happen for him down South, and hes been fighting a battle here ever since.
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, Id 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 NASCARs 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 Dominos 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. Id gotten into situations in the late 70s that I shouldnt have been around. To get enough funding, because there werent any major corporations around then, we made some mistakes.
But Ive talked all I want to about it. Im sick of talking about it. I did my four years, and Im tired of being beat down. I did the deal, and its cost me greatly: my marriage, my career in Winston Cup, everything. Im surviving, I still have my kids, I love to fish, I have my health and my ability, and Im going on. Thats all behind me. I paid a dear price, 45½ months, but its 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.
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 Fridays 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, Sundays 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 days end the track was black as coal and rock hard. Maybe Baloughs 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 promoters option.
Balough persevered through lap nine, exiting just before Hearns 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 Deckers team celebrated and the fans ran for cover from a brief but brisk hailstorm, Beachys crewmen slid the #112 into its trailer amidst a steady stream of curious fans. Was this the end of Gary Baloughs Syracuse career? If the opportunity is right and I had a chance to work with people like this again, Id come back in a heartbeat, Balough said. But next time Ill test somewhere for three or four days, and when I come back here, well be ready.