The Legend Behind the Legend
by Bobby Markos
What constitutes a legend? It can be a story handed down from generation to generation as tradition, popularly regarded as having historical significance. Or, it can be a famous or notorious person, especially in one particular field. Well, in Charles “Red” Farmer’s case, both are true. You see, in 1948, the same year that Bill France took a rag-tag bunch of moonshining stock car racers and formed NASCAR, a 16-year-old Red Farmer was running his first race. Not at an established speedway, mind you, but an abandoned airfield, where daredevils were running at full-speed down one runway, powersliding through dirt and gravel to make a turn and then returning down another runway. Red had already established himself as an adventurer, if you will, on the city streets, and a family friend wanted to see what he could do in racing combat. At one point, Red hooked a rut and rolled the car twice. As it landed on all four wheels, the motor was still purring, and Red fired off back into action. The battle royale at the airfield was the most fun Farmer had ever had, and in the 74 years since that day, he has woven his name into the fabric of auto racing history.
As the Dirty Mo Media crew flipped the lights on in the Bojangles Studio to commence the tenth season of the Dale Jr Download, a recently NASCAR Hall of Fame-inducted Dale Jr saw no better guest to kick things off than his fellow class inductee Red Farmer. After discussing the Hall of Fame festivities that took place back in January with co-host Mike Davis, the two invited Red into the hot seat, and the conversation immediately transported back to that fateful first race in 1948. Red filled Dale in on what race cars were like in those days, as they were primitive, crude machines far removed from the streamlined, aerodynamic masterpieces that racers chauffeur today. Modified-stock car racing was in its formative years, and Red explained that drivers knew nothing about setting up race cars and how to make them handle better. He credited eventual co-owner of the famed Holman-Moody Racing team Ralph Moody with bringing early engineering to the table when he turned heads by sweeping a string of races in Florida during his first trip down from the Carolina area in the early 1950s. Moody made quite an impression on Red, not only teaching him the ins and outs of preparing his race cars, but inspiring him to lend a helping hand to the next generations of drivers.
Farmer has long been known for being a founding member of the Alabama Gang, along with fellow NASCAR legends Bobby and Donnie Allison. But, Red’s life journey began in Nashville, and he opened up to Dale and Mike about his early turbulent family life, where divorce sent he, his mother and sister to live with his grandparents at a family-owned apartment building in Miami, Florida. During his time there, Red helped the family out by working as a paperboy and in a grocery store, and eventually became a union electrician. More importantly though, Red cut his teeth in racing, frequenting the Florida bullrings like Hialeah, Hollywood and West Palm Beach Speedways. It was there that he connected with the Allison brothers, and as racing folklore would have it, it was Bobby who first tipped Red off to the blossoming racing scene in Alabama.
Bobby had returned from competition in Birmingham, and alerted Red that the pay for dirt racing up north was much better than what they were used to in South Florida. Red, who was unemployed as an electrician due to the rising US-Cuban tensions, hitched his 36-Chevy racer to the back of a station wagon and made the 27-hour tow up to the Yellowhammer State. That first trip Red won two features and brought home $600, which allowed his household of a wife, three children and grandmother to pay off the bills and buy a refrigerator full of groceries. The seed had been planted.
In 1961, Red moved his family up to Alabama, along with the Allisons, and the crew set up shop in Hueytown. The three flourishing throttle jockeys began traveling together in a pack to NASCAR Modified events all over the country, finding much success along the way. They often finished first, second and third in races and the modified landscape took notice. In fact, Red attributes fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram with branding the trio as he once muttered “here comes that damn Alabama gang again” when he saw the pack emerge over a hill approaching a speedway. Red explained that learning to race on flat tracks such as Hialeah, Hollywood and Birmingham made competition on the high-banked haunts like Greenville-Pickens, Bristol, Nashville Fairgrounds, Jacksonville and Pensacola much easier because he knew how to navigate around traffic. The success was evidence of that theory, as the trio were fixtures in the top-10 of the NASCAR National Modified standings for over a decade, with Red taking home first place honors in 1956.
Red shared a couple stories with Dale about crossing paths with his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt. In 1956, Red competed against Ralph at Concord Speedway in the National Modified Championship race. Red would go on to lock-up the Modified Championship, and Ralph would be declared the Sportsman Champion, and Red recalled sharing a table with Ralph at the NASCAR Awards banquet in Daytona Beach later that year. Red also recalled his time racing on the Daytona Beach and Road Course, illustrating to listeners what it was like to try and heave one of the boorish machines of the 1950s around the tricky configuration.
While Red has seen racing in seven decades and visited victory lane some 750 times, he has been no stranger to tragedy. A remarkable quality of the Download and Dale as a host is his ability to make guests feel comfortable enough to open up about great personal tragedy, perhaps because he has suffered such significant loss in his own life. The conversation dove into the dark years of the Alabama Gang’s tenure, which began in 1988 when a horrific accident at Pocono Raceway nearly claimed Bobby’s life. Red described the anxiety he felt as he watched Bobby’s crash on television, and then waited for any updates, which wouldn’t come until the following morning. He also depicted the scene at Michigan International Speedway in August 1992 when Bobby’s son Clifford would be killed in a practice session for the Busch Series Detroit Gasket 200. Red tearfully recalled seeing Bobby return from the crash scene, sit down and rest his head in his hands. The following year, Red was riding in a helicopter with Bobby’s oldest son Davey when a malfunction caused a crash while attempting to land at Talladega Speedway. Red would escape with critical injuries, but Davey would perish in the accident. He revealed what that time was like for the close knit crew and what it took to be there for the Allison family through the insurmountable tragedies.
The chat also touches on Red’s foray into the Grand National Cup racing scene, where he decided to forgo racing in less than competitive rides to concentrate on his late model sportsman program, where he won three straight NASCAR National Championships in 1969-71. He also filled Dale in on his dirt late model racing program, where he still runs the Talladega Short Track on a regular basis. Red plans to go racing in 2022, at the ripe age of 89. Listeners of this episode will be treated to a candid look into one of racing’s unsung heroes.
Also in this episode, Dale and Mike talk about the Clash at the Coliseum, Dale and Amy’s new vodka brand High Rock and all other happenings at Dirty Mo Media. During Ask Jr, listeners ask Dale about gray areas with the Next Gen car, his opinions on the parts failures during the Clash race and what surprised him most about his Hall of Fame induction night. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.