Author’s Note: The three-part (and so marked below), non-fiction piece, in its entirety. Many people came to me throughout my life, telling me that they spent their youth at the race track at the Dunbar Fairgrounds, watching Owen Spradling, my grandfather, battle for victories. As you will read, that was before my time. The persona though that made him tough to beat continued to grow throughout his life. A few additional stories, quotes and photos have been added. Thanks, A.S.
The dirt race track lay to the west, visible from the interstate, nestled in front of the rolling West Virginia hills. Immediately I pictured Owen, my grandfather. “I’d rather wreck then lose,” he used to tell me, about his own racing days, matter-of-factly without a hint bravado. I smiled. That quote was the sum of his many parts.
The three boys in my car were chatting at such a rate that when we passed it, I chose not to break the momentum of their conversation. They noticed and mentioned the track, but immediately went back to what 15-year-old boys talk about after a baseball game: food, girls, and homework – in that order – with the modern additions of Instagram and SnapChat. We were over an hour from home, and they were starving.
After an outing that lacked highlights for my son, I felt it would be bragging for his benefit to tell the boys that his great-grandfather once owned the track. Or maybe I didn’t want to wade into the nostalgia of my own childhood with two boys who were less than close, who might trivialize my memories, or worse yet, disrespect them. I kept quiet and continued my high-speed search for fast food, but I made a mental note to mention it to my son later. Nearly a month went by before I did, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Memories that were in danger of fading to the gray abyss now seemed touchable. And each one spoken aloud, brought back another, and an emotion to go with it.
The world that I was brought into was dominated by a man who had been a local legend in the mid-to-late 1950s. At a time when entertainment had to be sought, not sat down for, the raceway at the Dunbar Fairgrounds at Institute was a Kanawha Valley staple. Crowds flocked there. My grandfather, Owen Spradling, was king, or at least co-king, with top-rival Tommy Ringstaff.
Those two dominated the field, and the battles were epic. Stock cars on a dirt track, the precursor to NASCAR. The stories and quotes remain sixty years later. Owen once banked his car on the rail to overtake the leader, sliding upside down across the finish line for the checkered flag. Of course, he would then spend his nights in the two-story garage he’d built with his own hands, readying his number 12, 1934 Ford with its ’56 Mercury V-8 engine for the next weekend’s race, sleep an afterthought.
Owen won 100 majors, and had the hardware to prove it, tucked away in the finished attic where we grandchildren and our cousins often played. There was always a camera around capturing the action, or the winner’s circle trophy ceremony. He was the series champion a number of years.
There was plenty of confrontation – and fighting. Owen grew up on the streets of the West Side of Charleston, and he boxed in the Army. He told us he was in MP lockup when his superiors were seeking him out to give him a good conduct metal. He never backed down from a fight. He and his brothers once fought their way out of Huntington after a win, my father, a young teen, in tow. Later, in the middle of the night, they were awakened by policemen surrounding their house, guns pulled. Charges had been filed.
Oh, the stories. He’d encouraged my grandmother, Betty, to drive in women’s races, a novelty event. “It’s not hard. You just have to keep turning left,” he’d say. She tried it once and won, but despite being more than physically able – she used to dive from the top of the cliff at Rock Lake Pool – at least 50 feet – it was not her cup of tea.
I was born in ’64, and being a young boy around a man’s man like Owen was no picnic. It certainly wasn’t for my father, who had to endure Owen as a young roughneck. Once, when I was a small boy, playing at his feet and annoying or irritating him, Owen blew cigar smoke in my face. I retaliated by spitting at him, and hitting him in the face. My Grandma Betty protected me, defending my defensive reaction. But I’m sure he wanted to light me up in a serious way. Our relationship cooled.
Progress had shut down the local racetrack before I was born, thus Owen’s racing career had ended, the land becoming part of a county-owned golf course. It was around ’67 that he quit his job and opened Owen Spradling’s Custom Welding. It was an instant success. Five and a half days of labor, closing at noon on Saturdays, an assorted cast of characters to help with the work and others – customers and friends alike – hanging about the office in the huge metal building. He even opened a school that certified young men for the pipefitter’s local, where my father had gone to work years before. Owen, as a jab at my father, outspokenly equated union welding to laziness. Dad only worked with Owen when he was “between” jobs, and I could tell it was the hardest work he endured.
Throughout my childhood, when I was around their home I was taught to hit the heavy bag, “Keep your left up to protect yourself.” Chin-ups and push-ups were highly regarded. Grandma showed us how to do the chin-ups. The only fat he would tolerate was his wallet stuffed with cash. Exhibitions of speed and daring were encouraged. I spent many hours on numerous visits attempting to ride a unicycle. I was tall and awkward for my age, my coordination not developing as fast as my as my skinny legs grew. It was about the time that I was given a Rupp mini-bike, around my seventh birthday – a gift I’m sure he had a hand in – that Owen bought the race track at Mineral Wells, just south of Parkersburg.
All I remember about the first time I saw it was dry, cracked earth on a hot, summer day – a high-walled, dirt bowl. I sat with my dad on the top and rolled flat rocks down the embankment on their uneven edges, their dull thuds the only sound I heard. But when the race track became operational, it took on a life of its own. The details I hadn’t noticed or couldn’t imagine the first day became significant: the lush grass of the infield, the grandstand, the protective netting, the lights, the speakers crackling with race talk, the appeal of the cool of the evening, drivers and their precious cars destined for dents and dings, enthusiastic fans to cheer for them, the banked turns of the track, all watered to beat down the dust.
Mutual family friends were recruited along with my parents to work the concession stand, and for a while – maybe the first hour – the children helped as well. The place had the best batter-dipped, deep-fried corn dogs in Wood County, crisp and golden-brown. A couple of lines of mustard made it memorable, just like the percussion of the machine that spewed buttered popcorn, or the belch of the CO2 soda fountain. Some 45 years later, I can still see the hurt on the face of a boy about my age because we didn’t have something he wanted, maybe a hamburger. He walked away disappointed without ordering anything. It’s odd how certain memories stick with you, a flash image in the recall loop. When the work became too tedious for pre-ten-year-olds, or because we were no longer wanted underfoot, we candied-up boys were set free to roam the place. The field at the far end became a battleground for war, and the gruffly-breathing cars lining up to race became German Panzer tanks. Sweetarts became hurled grenades, and all our victim could do – trapped behind his steering wheel – was shake his fist and curse the victorious Americans. We would duck, laugh, and run for cover.
The races were powerful, noisy events, but the victories and defeats were lost on my sensibilities. Despite what I’m sure was a long list of pre-race prep items, the Rupp would usually be transported “up the road” with the rest of us. And though it didn’t always work out that way, I was allowed to take an unsteady lap around the track at the end, the surface now uneven and muddy from the cars churning their way through. It was more difficult than it was fun, and a reminder to me that my attempts at anything usually ended as awkward disappointments.
Whether it was logistics, the success of his business, or just the failure to recapture the magic of the Institute raceway, Owen managed to get out from under the racetrack after a season. Within a year or so, Owen, with my father’s blessing, offered me a Yamaha Mini Enduro, the hottest ride going, and a lot of bike for even a teenager. I hesitated. It sat a foot higher than the Rupp, and I knew it could fly. I had seen the signature orange tank with gold trim many times. I knew a couple of older boys that had them. I thought of the long line of kids that waited turns to ride the Rupp, and I knew the new bike would be off limits to them. And, where would I ride it? Would it be a burden to my parents? I looked up at Owen, the heavy bag hanging behind him. The bike was as daunting as he was. I was flat-out intimidated, so I turned it down. I didn’t try to explain, nor did either man consider it from my perspective. I was as tall as boys three years older than me, but not even close to their maturity. Maybe that rejection was a slight to Owen, disrespectful, an act of cowardice, certainly a lack of toughness. Our relationship again cooled.
I took it upon myself, by myself, to overcome my physical awkwardness by playing basketball, nearly every waking hour. Owen thought that was a waste of time. He had demanded my father quit a baseball team he’d made at a pivotal time in an athletic career he wasn’t allowed to have. He couldn’t stop me though, Dad was my elementary-school coach, and though I was an oversized humiliation to begin with, through my hard work, I came to excel. My goal at 10 and 11-years-old was to be allowed to play in the Sunday afternoon games my father and his friends met for. I worked non-stop on my fundamentals, my weak hand, my shot, my rebounding, my passing, challenging anyone I could through the week to be better-equipped for Sundays. By the time I was 12 and 13, not only was I a part of the Sunday games – and not quarantined from the rough, physical play – the men began taking me with them to play in corporate challenges. I started playing AAU ball in the spring and summer with the best of my regional peers. I was one of the standouts of my age group as I advanced through school. Owen never saw me play one game, or for all I knew, approve or even feel one ounce of pride when he read my name – his name – or saw my picture in the local newspapers. When I entered his home, we barely spoke. We did our best to ignore each other.
Owen found ways to remain bigger than life. He had been commissioned to create some iron gates for the Governor’s Mansion. The sitting West Virginia governor was none other than millionaire Jay Rockefeller. In March of ’78, after numerous attempts to collect payment, Owen repossessed the gates. After being splashed on the front page of the Charleston Daily Mail, the story made national news. Walter Cronkite re-told the story, as did colorful Paul Harvey on his daily radio show. It didn’t hurt that Rockefeller was a Democrat and Owen a staunch Republican. Later, Owen twice ran for the office of Kanawha County Sherriff, falling short each time. But the gate story would always resurface, and Rockefeller opponents would encourage Owen to run for that reason. He hung one of the gates high on the wall at the welding shop, with a Rockefeller poster behind it, making Jay appear jailed.
I had accepted a full basketball scholarship to the University of Charleston at the end of high school, which placed me just eight or 10 miles upriver from my grandparent’s home. In early fall, my father ask if I could come down one evening to Owen’s to help split firewood for the winter. Owen had traded labor for a huge load of cut tree trunks, and had a hydraulic splitter there to do the most difficult of the work… almost. Upon my arrival, jobs were quickly assigned. Owen worked the lever of the splitter, my father picked up the cut pieces, loaded, and stacked them, while I manhandled the full slices, or big rounds, of the tree. All Owen said to me was “lift with your legs,” and he handed me a pair of gloves. Because of our cool relationship, my blood boiled with resentment. I attacked the job like I would my hoops opponents. It took only a few of his cuts for me to realize what size he wanted and where natural seams were, helping the splitter do its job, as the wood groaned and popped as if in pain. I placed the large chunks under the splitter’s blade with precision. His doubts and my anger dissipated.
A shrewd trader, Owen had become an appreciator and collector of diamonds. He wore on his right hand a ring he’d had made for himself that appraised for twenty-thousand dollars. As I loaded, then turned the wood for each cut, I watched my sweat drops hit those sparkling diamonds over and over as his hand rested on the splitter’s lever handle. Inside I laughed. I hoped it irritated him. When we finished, exhausted, my jeans and T-shirt completely soaked with sweat, I said my goodbyes and drove back to UC’s Cobb Hall in my roommate’s orange Ford Pinto.
Not long after, my basketball season shot to hell by a dislocated knee cap, surgery, and cast – my second-such injury in three years – I ran into a family friend and co-worker of both my father and Owen, Duck Smith. Duck mentioned to me that Owen had told him what a hard worker I was, and that he’d gone on and on about it. The very idea of it struck me as odd. I was no stranger to hard work. I’d made my spending money cutting lawns since before I was a teen. I don’t know if he even knew that. But my basketball work wasn’t labor that he could quantify, thus, it made no sense to him.
A few weeks later at Christmas, Owen, who was never one to get involved in traditional gift-giving since the minibike days, presented me with a full set of golf clubs and bag. They weren’t new, but they were nice. He and my father were both excellent golfers, and though he was a member and had helped build Kanawha Country Club, he only allowed himself to play early Sunday mornings, never slipping off for a round on a weekday, though it was less than a five-minute drive from his shop.
The spots on those Sunday morning outings were coveted by people wanting to be close to Owen, but I was asked to come along a few times though I couldn’t – and never will – come close to matching the level of their games. He walked the hilly course though motorized carts – carts that he kept operational – were available. He used a homemade pull-cart instead. He barely stopped to line up a shot before he hit it. His club would be returned to his bag and he’d be off again, in what seemed to be one, singularly-smooth motion. Their golf mantra to me was “It’s ok to play bad if you play fast.” He knew the greens so well. I saw him make the most incredible putt, from at least 40 feet, the ball traveling around the hole on the high, curved edge of the green, then slowly dropping down and in from the other side. Owen shot a 70 there when he was 70, and that was no small feat. But it wasn’t surprising. He could still do one-handed pushups as well.
Later in life he decided he wanted to play the banjo. He picked up a nice one and took lessons from Joe Dobbs at Fret-n-Fiddle. He would get up before work and practice his rolls, my grandma finding solace in his 5 a.m. noise. He hardly slept anyway, suffering wild, kicking dreams. He’d played the guitar some earlier in life, but the banjo never completely opened up for him, though he wasn’t bad.
He’d also purchased a prized guitar along the way: a 1976 Gibson Hummingbird. He bought it from a man dying of cancer, whose lone bucket-list item was to own and drive a Corvette before he passed. Owen gave him 400 dollars for the Gibson. There is no telling how many times he bought and sold such items, but he helped so many people, and loaned out thousands of dollars-worth of tools that were never returned. The original owner of John’s Cyclery wrote him a letter when he heard that Owen had sold his business – optimistically owner-financing it at 80-years-old – thanking Owen for the many times he’d gone out of his way to complete his unique requests for him. The man, John Turner, was confined to a wheel-chair, and the list of Owen’s contributions was detailed and extensive. Owen was a problem-solver, and irreplaceable to his customers. I later read the letter at his funeral.
Before that though, I would get the Gibson out and play some for him when he was resigned mostly to his chair. He wanted me to learn “Wildwood Flower.” Owen later insisted I take that guitar home with me. It will stay in the family. He’d finally mellowed in his old age, doting on my small children, and initiating playful, familiar banter with my wife. He came to appreciate the train graffiti that he could see from his front porch and window as it rushed by the house they’d lived in for some sixty years. “Those kids are really great artists,” he told me.
The Gibson was the last item Owen personally gave me, but it was not his parting gift. Nobody is perfect. Successful men – entrepreneurs – walk hard and step deliberately, and sometimes leave the less-aggressive drowning in their wake. He had failures, but he took risks. Risks like Mineral Wells or attempting to raise a sunken barge in the Kanawha River. He told me, “When you see a barge on the river, there’s a millionaire somewhere who owns it.” He bought tracts of land in Alaska and Florida that did nothing, but he bought up much commercial property locally and made it profitable. His business was worth much more than he sold it for, though he taught me that items are only actually worth what someone is willing to pay. “Everything I own is for sale,” he’d say, “except for Betty.” He helped people and he was generous. If the opposite, there was likely a reason. He helped me get into business with a signature, and he helped me in other ways. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but we respected each other. And in the end, he found the Lord. That lesson might be his greatest gift of all.