Stock Car Racing Magazine
Working from a little one-bay backyard garage, little Lennie Pond decided to jump from Virginia state sportsman racing to Grand National competition.
It winds like a very hungry snake, it does, going 50 yards and then turning, twisting around a house, a factory, up a slight incline, until it finally sorts itself out and runs the length of the little town. Historically, it is the route of Robert E. Lee's retreat, running just a mile north of Petersburg, Virginia. Technically, if you can recall some of the radial tire ads of a few years ago, you'll recall an aerial shot of a country two-lane blacktop with a beautiful 90-degree left turn; well, take that left turn and turn it into a 90-degree right turn, give it a 50-yard straight, then a 90-degree left (just for fun throwing a railroad crossing in the middle of the straight), and then 50 yards later, add another 90-degree right, at the crest of the hill, just beyond the sign reading WTTRICK. Now, as the ad used to say, Dunlop It. Or, if you're in the mood to go hog wild, haul your Porsche 917-10K Can-Am racer off the trailer, and be prepared to drop it to first gear and travel at a consistent 30 mph.
Right over the crest of the hill, to make things especially interesting, take a radical left turn. The car will get light, it'll wobble its ass out on you as it gets onto the loose gravel, and then you'll have to brake at the first side street, taking another 90-degree right. Pull it over halfway up the block, and get out. The street is made up of very much lived-in homes, small village homes, modest, the kind kids grow up in and remember many years later with a tinge of regret because the days when you were allowed to play all over and around and in the house without worrying about dirty shoes is over. If you were brought suddenly to today from childhood you'd be appalled because you had to take off your shoes before you entered the house and walked on the deep, pile carpeting, all to no avail, because the lawn outside would be so well-barbered that you'd have to dig a hole in the middle of the yard and dump in water to find mud. But it isn't like that in Ettrick. Oh, they're building some very woodish, and modern apartments outside of town, but the town is made up of the kind of houses kids used to grow up in. It isn't Walton Mountain, but it's a townish version of it, and geographically is not all that far from the scene of The Waltons.
But you aren't on this side street of Ettrick, Virginia to think back to your own childhood. Get out of the car and wander around a bit. See anything interesting? Anything unusual? No? How about on the left side of the street?
Right. Over by that little house there, the one with the simple driveway to the right of it, and the weathered little garage out back. The tans and grays of the house and the garage are ripped apart by the bright, sunspot yellow rear corner panel of that car sticking out of it. The apparition is staggering. Hard to believe. You walk down the little driveway, noting absently a little kid's buggy parked on the side of the house, all little baby-carriage wheels and a 2X4 brake nailed crookedly onto the side of it. No time to more than note it in passing. That sunburst color has got your eye fixed on it. Can't believe it, but Good Gwad, Y'all, it is the same color you've seen plying the high banks of Daytona, stuck in the middle of a 19-car crash at Talladega, running in fifth place at Dover before losing an engine two-thirds of the way through the race, leading for three laps at Texas Motor Speedway.
But what's it doing here, stuck awkwardly in this little ole garage, with the doors off it, and tools lying inside it, as though casually abandoned. It is as though someone were hiding it out, putting it somewhere where no one could be expected to find it.
Walk around it a while. Taking it easy, of course. It's kind of hard to get around in this garage, what with a Grand National car stuck right in the middle of it and all. Watch your step. Gawd, look'a that. Lids of jars nailed to the rafters, and the jars themselves filled with nails and screws and such and screwed into the lids so they're out of the way. Sure, your Dad does the same thing in his workshop down in the cellar.
More time. Need more time. Get past the brightly brazen 54 painted in black on the side of the bright yellowish door, all the more bright a 54 because of the contrast. Mind still reeling. What's Lennie Pond doing keeping his car here? Where's his shop? Did it burn down? Tight squeeze getting around the right rear-it's awfully close to the right wall of the garage.
All of it's here, you see. The trailer is in the yard, between the back of the house and the garage; the truck is parked next to the garage, under the trees. Racing tires, dozens of them, are piled next to the trailer, water from the morning rain beaded on their sides, the inner liners peeping out from the dark hollows in them. Moving between the truck and the left side of the garage, there's the Pond junkyard behind the garage, where damaged portions of the car are periodically stripped off to make way for new parts that will get a weekly fresh coat of paint. The next yard is separated from the garage by what kids used to call sticker bushes: thorny shrubbery that was customarily planted and watered by neighbors to keep the kids out of the yard. The neighbor's yard has chickens in it, and a cat lazing luxuriously as only cats can on an old bench; the cat's a dark reddish brown and black, and looks all of six months old. The chickens give it plenty of room.
Later, when one of the chickens wanders into the yard that houses Lennie Pond's equipment, big Junior Schrum will say that the chicken, a big black one that Colonel Sanders might be mighty happy to see, "is our mascot." Even though a Virginia cardinal is painted on the side of Lennie pond's car, painted there in brilliant red, perched on a dogwood spray, up there on the pillar between the Chevelle's side windows and the little triangular windows that are so reminiscent of the old Shelby GT-350 windows.
Still making your reacquaintance with the Pond Chevelle, perhaps the most beautifully painted Grand National car that has ever taken to the track, you find it's time to make the acquaintance of Junior Schrum, who-with his Pappy-lives in the house here.
If you've seen Hee Haw, you've already met Junior. Not that they are one and the same, but they certainly could be related. Junior is a big fellow, rotund, strong, with corn-colored hair hanging in natural and very casual curls. Today he's wearing cutoff shorts, a white T-shirt, a pair of muchly-broken-in brown shoes. He's been around Lennie Pond's car for quite some time. Since before it was a Grand National car. Since the days of last year when Lennie ran the LMS (late-model stocker) route with a Chevelle that carried a similar paint job and the number 1VA. Junior take a broom down from a nail on the wall, begins sweeping up the little garage with a thoroughness that makes the cluttered little place almost perk up. He wields the broom and moves adroitly around the car, a big fellow in a very confined space, as though he's done it many times before.
"Lennie'll be here soon," Junior says. "He was expecting you but he has a headache. Was working pretty late last night here. Inside the car, there," he says, pointing toward the place where the back seat would have been in a showroom model of the Chevette. "He's got to change the metal in there before Nashville."
Junior pulls up the broom, leans on the handle shovel-wielders really know how to do, and explains: "He'd been runnin' with the metal comin' together there"-he reaches over and touches the spot where the door's upper edge ends-"where it met with some sheet metal that was put inside. Been runnin' like that for eight, nine races. Now, down at Talladega they told 'im to put a couple inches of aluminum in there, makin' a shelf thing. Told him to do it before Nashville. Maybe they're just pickin' on him a little 'cause he's a rookie. It took 'em long enough to tell 'im. But Lennie don't let things like that bother 'im. But he does most of the work on the car himself. And he got a really bad headache last night from it."
The speech was obviously a long one for Junior, who usually makes his comments in two or three sentences of no more than four words to a sentence. While helping with the car, Junior also indulges in photography, having massed about a thousand dollars worth of photos of Lennie's rising career in auto racing. Junior's photo album is reputedly as immaculate as Lennie's car the day they unload it at a track for a race.
At that moment, though, a car pulls up from the rear of the garage, pulling in against the front of the truck, a two-way radio operator's voice sounding above the engine noise. Fro the gleaming new car hops a blonde-haired nattily dressed fellow with a scrubbed and clean appearance that indicates a lot of time in the sun and a lot of enterprises going on. Ronnie Elder, Lennies car owner, introduces himself in a straight forward, no-nonsense way, a really likeable fellow from the handshake on. Ronnie and Junior banter back and forth a few minutes. Ronnie's spotless attire and Lennie's car's paint job contrast starkly to the setting.
Ronnie, who keeps abreast of the Grand National circuit by way of newspaper and radio and television reports, since he's kept close to home with one enterprise stacked upon another, makes only about four races during the year. On a day that Lennie races, Ronnie calls the track periodically during the race to get the report on Lennie's progress. His phone bills are astronomical. So is his enthusiasm for the sport and for Lennie's attitude about the whole Grand National effort.
"Couldn't have a better driver than Lennie," Ronnie says. "He does everything on the car' he knows the car, he works hard, and he is really doin's well this year for the circumstances he has to work under." He smiles, looks around. "We certainly aren't Petty Enterprises," he says, "but this will change a little as things pick up. It's hard to get going the first year. A lot of expenses changing over to Grand National from Late Model Sportsman. We're not covering our expenses, but it's a first year effort, and you can't expect miracles. We're really happy with Lennie's professionalism and his running this year. He's always in there plugging and he's done pretty well this year."
Eventually two more of the crew arrive and putter around. The day, which had started rainy, is beginning to see some sun shining through the clouds. Lennie arrives, walks into the yard, dressed nattily himself, with blue pants, a modish white belt, and a print shirt, looking more like a branch bank v.p., an accountant, someone who does his work in an office with file cabinets and desks and water coolers instead of in an office on wheels with toggle switches, wide tires and oil coolers. His resemblance to Parnelli Jones is a natural. He looks like a slightly younger version of P.J., his eyes crinkled the same, the same hairline, the same physical stature.
"Sorry I'm late," Lennie apologizes unnecessarily. "Got a headache last night and it just wouldn't leave. I had my wife wake me at 7:30 this morning, but when the time came I just had to get a few more hours. Too much noise cutting inside the car last night," he says. "Funny, too, because I seldom get headaches. In fact, I'm about as healthy as they come. My wife can't figure hos I can keep the same weight and be as fresh as I am with the strange hours and schedules and eating racing forces on me. But no matter how many hours I work on the car or what the race schedule is, I always feel great when I wake up...and I never gain or lose a pound." He smiles, leaning on the trunk of the car. "The secret," he says, "is that I'm doing what I enjoy and when you do what you enjoy it's all fun-no matter what the hours are."
The conversation turns from Lennie's move from sportsman competition to Grand Nationals. "It's a whole new game," he says. "With the LMS I was doing really well, racing every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and doing very well. We were pretty much on the top of the heap with LMS. But moving into Grand National is a real challenge, because there's a big psychological shift. You've got to begin thinking differently, learning everything all over. You're in a whole new league, and you have to get used to losing all the time instead of winning constantly. It isn't easy, because everyone who goes out onto the track wants very much to win. I love racing, though, because there's so much on the line each time you go out."
He reflects on that a moment. "Racing teaches you to accept disappointments as nothing else I can think of does," he adds. "Look at it this way: The average guy, working nine to five, runs into disappointments, but they certainly aren't as severe. He puts in his time, collects his paycheck, and that's it. In racing, you go out there to win. You don't, and there's a disappointment that can really get you. Something in the car breaks while it's running good and you know disappointments like other people never experience. And sometimes it happens several weekends in a row. It puts a new edge on living."
Pond, like many a Grand National driver in 1973, picked the Chevelle as the car to run. Although a bunch of potential was there for the car, it seldom manages to hold up for the distance. "The Chevy was the car to go with," Lennie says. "Everybody knew it. And now that the new restrictors are out, and they make it more evenly matched with the others, it's been showing itself with the way it's been qualifying. The problem is with the car holding together for 500 miles. Something always seems to break. There was one period there where they must have come up with a defective batch of value springs, because everybody in a Chevy was having trouble with them. It can be really frustrating to be going good for 400 or 450 miles of a 500-mile race and then have something go bad. I doubt that there is anything more disappointing than that.
"It'll take us quite a while to get things sorted out," he admits. "We went into Grand National racing as essentially an LMS crew. We've been learning a lot each race, but there's always something new to learn, and we've got a long way to go. Especially with aerodynamics and with getting more power out of the engine. We're probably one of the only independents that hasn't got access to a dyno, so we're basically trying things by trial and error. But that's how it is on a budget approach."
"How about budget, Lennie?"
"Well, we're not making any money. Everything gets eaten up by expenses. And, since it's our first year in GN, we've had a lot of initial outlays. Like the truck, and the car and equipment that you really need to go superspeedway racing. We sold our sportsman to Bud Moore and used that money to get going. We'll be well into the red by the end of the season, though," he admits. "But we're in it to stay, for as long as we can. We all love it and NASCAR;s got the best organization for racing that I know of.
"There are a lot of tricks to superspeedway racing that we have to learn, but we'll pick up a little more knowledge each time we go back to a superspeedway. You have to realize that in the early part of this season, our trips to each of the superspeedways was a first. We went in cold. We had to learn as we went. We found, though, that by taking the car out for a few laps on the first day of practice we could get some feel for the track and some feel of how the car was handling. I don't know if it is all subconscious, but I've found that by sleeping on the cars performance, I can always bring the time down a few seconds the following day. Probably my mind and body adjusting to the track and the car and evaluating the whole thing.
"It's all a long, slow process, though. For the fellows who've been around it for years, they find it necessary to form their driving habits for a particular track according to how the weather and track conditions are for that day. For us, it's a process of forming habits for the track itself, without worrying about weather and little changes in the track. We get some help on the little things, though, from people like Benny Parsons"-whom Pond rates as one of the greatest all-around people in racing-"and Richard Petty and the Allisons. They're all helpful and they're all interested in seeing that the new drivers get some help. As a rookie in the GN ranks, I can't really say enough about the people like Parsons."
And how about the rookie situation?
"Well," Pond says, "any of us could have picked an easier year to make a run for it." He smiles wryly "It probably is one of the most competitive years for a rookie of the year in NASCAR," he concedes, with a heads-on race down to the wire developed between Pond and Darrell Waltrip.
What's the big allure about being NASCAR rookie of the year?
"Well, there are several very important things," Lennie says. "There's the honor itself, which s considerable, NASCAR being the very competitive and well-run organization that it is. Then Air Lift presents the rookie of the year with a truck-and that certainly helps. And then there's the fact that it can make the racing next year a lot easier because it opens a few extra doors as far as getting a sponsor goes. Then, too, as far as I'm concerned, it is something I would like very much to win because it's the only chance I'll ever have to win it. It's a very special prize that no one-least of all the contenders-takes lightly."
Pond's campaign for the rookie of the year honors is low key, however, where Waltrip's got a head start by his competition in GN racing in the latter part of the 1972 season, and more recently by his being tapped to fill Bobby Isaac's seat in the Bud Moore-prepared Sta-Power Torino.
"Darrell's a darn hard runner," Lennie says. "But as far as competition goes, I think we're pretty even. When we're both running, we're pretty close. Pretty often, though, it seems to work out that one of us is running well while the other is having troubles. Some people, too, say that Darrell isn't really trying for it in the spirit that he should, because he doesn't run every GN race like I do. But while we're on the track, I can tell you we're both running for it."
What would Pond's winning of rookie of the year do to plans for 1974?
"Well, it would probably make it a little more possible to move out of here"-he pointed a thumb at the aged garage-"and into a place where we have room to work. It might also mean getting an extra car for next year, if a sponsor materializes, so that we have one for short tracks and one for long.
"We've been very fortunate to have some great people involved with our effort this year, especially people like Ronnie here and our sponsor, Master Chevy in Petersburg. Without people like Albert Suttle Jr., at Master, we wouldn't have even attempted to try Grand National this year. All of us are just hoping that things will roll along well enough so that next year we can line up some sponsorship that'll allow us to have the facilities we need."
You wonder what kind of car Pond would engineer out of a fully-equipped shot, considering what he's been doing out of a backyard garage. His objectives immediately, though, call for competition in the remainder of the schedule, attempts at good showings to prove himself for the rookie of the year honors, and then selling himself and his program to a sponsor, which, for someone as even tempered and articulate as Pond, should not take all that long.
Note: Lennie Pond went on to win the rookie of the year honors in 1973, which led to a career of 17 years in the top circuit of NASCAR, where he competed in 234 races; he won one race (the 1978 Talladega 500), placed in the top 10 88 times, and won five poles. Born on August 11, 1940, he died of cancer on February 10, 2016.