November 15, 2009
ERNIE’S EXCELLENT CHASE
Ernie Gahan called from Berwick, Maine, the other day and got to
reminiscing about the final weeks of his NASCAR championship. That
was the modified chase back in 1966. Ernie, a full-time racer, was
in it for the purse money. He raced all the time and everywhere,
sanctioned events and outlaw alike. It was another kind of smoke.
By mid-season he had raced nearly 50 times, towing back and forth
among the East Coast tracks like a hockey puck. He was often alone,
working on a shoestring budget, redefining what it meant to be
tired. “I never even thought about points until one night someone
out at Fonda, New York, said, ‘Hey, Ernie, do you know you are
leading the nation?’ Well, I figured I should go for it.
“One Wednesday night they had an open competition show down at
Middletown, New York. Larry Grainger (the promoter) called and urged
me to come, so down I went. And, wouldn’t you know, down that
backstretch I flew – and right out of the ball park. What a mess.
Broke my neck in three places and my car in quite a few more than
that. There were no points, but Grainger was all heart. He gave me
“The doctor at the hospital wasn’t too cooperative, either. He told
me, ‘If you ever race again, you’re a dead man.'
A lot was fractured at
Middletown, but it was hammer down
again a couple of days later.
“Well, I raced at Albany-Saratoga
in someone else’s car the next Friday night wearing a neck brace.
Got in a little jingle, and it straightened me right out. The next
night, Vic Kangas and Marty Harty showed up at Fonda with a coupe
they’d built for me in a couple of days, and we were off and running
“By October I thought I had the championship in the bag. Then NASCAR
scheduled some big modified race in Atlanta on November 6. Crap. I
sure didn’t have a superspeedway car, but I went down there with my
hat and picked up a ride. It was kind of a sled, but I drove my butt
off. I couldn’t believe it when Ray Hendrick, my closest competitor
in the points, driving Junie Donlavey’s real hot ride, drove plum
into the wall. I always teased him afterwards that he shouldn’t have
been concentrating so much on giving me the finger on the way by.
“So, I got tenth and the championship. And doesn’t Bill France come
right up to me and say, ‘Now, Ernie, we’re gonna have to send you
off to that Dale Carnegie School of Speech.’ I said, ‘Bill, I am a
damn race driver. Not a speaker. I’m not gonna get up in front of
the whole country like some kind of hypocrite. My thing is winning
“I had a helluva time back in those days, but look what’s happened
to the sport since. I should probably regret some of the things I
said back then. But I don’t.”
© 2009 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181