MACON – Even now, 35 years after taking the checkered flag in the first-ever Herald & Review 100, Butch Garner can hear the roar of his car and feel the exhilaration flying hard into the final two turns.
He remembers thinking he’d need a tricky move taught to him by Central Illinois racing legend Johnny Meyers, because it would take something special to win on an historic night of stock car racing.
Even now, as a 71-year-old grandfather of 10, Garner wonders what would have happened had fate not smiled on him in the blink of an eye.
And although he is not a man who lives in the past, who doesn’t even like talking about his accomplishments as one of the all-time fan favorite drivers at Macon Speedway, he only has to look over his shoulder to see the trophy he won that night in 1981.
“Through all the years, that’s the only trophy I’ve kept,” Garner said this week.
Tonight the 35th anniversary of the Herald & Review 100 will unfold at Macon Speedway, which for years was Garner’s home track. The cars are faster and considerably more expensive. The drivers are just as competitive. But it’s debatable if there has ever been a night like the one on July 9, 1981.
Billed as a night when some of the best drivers in the Midwest would collide with the local favorites, a $2,000 winner’s purse stood as a great prize. The race was a collaboration between the Herald & Review newspaper and track owner/promoter Wayne Webb and the buildup was considerable.
When race night finally arrived, the crowd on a hot mid-summer evening was huge and Garner felt it would be important to post a fast qualifying lap. “We wanted to start the feature near the front,” he recalled.
Instead, things went sour in a hurry.
“We had a terrible time qualifying,” Garner said. “The car was one we bought that year, a factory car, which we’d never had. The car seemed to loosen up after we’d run a few laps and as a Saturday night 25-lapper, it was a great car.”
But a decision to switch springs on the right front of the chassis backfired, pushing the car up toward the wall and requiring Garner to qualify through the semi-feature.
“We were just heartbroke,” he said, believing he might have jeopardized his shot at the biggest race of the year.
“After that we changed the spring back and had to run through the semi-feature and the car came alive and we won that. We started 13th in the feature, I believe.”
With ace engine-builder Ollie Runion helping to call shots in the pits, a final adjustment was made before the green flag dropped on the 100-lap feature.
Expertly, Garner picked his way through the pack and he held the lead when on lap 94 he got tangled in five-car pileup, resulting on a flat left rear tire.
But already Garner knew another problem was looming. He’d failed to take on enough fuel for the 100-lapper.
During the five-minute red flag stoppage, he asked if it was OK to change the tire and refuel and was given the OK.
When the race resumed, Garner jumped through a handful of cars and was quickly on the tail of race leader Ray Godsey of Bedford, Ind.
For the final few laps Garner remained in second and it appeared he would need a slick passing maneuver through turns three and four on the final lap.
“Johnny Meyers was a good buddy of mine and he kind of showed me how to go into a corner high, turn the car real quick and come across the middle of the track and shoot in front of someone,” Garner said. “That’s what we were going to do through the fourth corner.”
But as fans stood screaming and pumping their fists, and as drivers pushed their cars to the breaking point, Godsey’s car roared into the third turn and broke.
Godsey would later say that three bolts from his frame popped free, causing his car to crash into the wall. And with that high-speed twist of fate, Garner crossed the finish line ahead of runnerup Roger Long of Fithan.
At the time, the $2,500 in prize money (he also won money from the semi-feature) seemed like a fortune. “The car we bought that year cost $5,000,” he said.
He and his crew went to a Decatur restaurant after the race and Garner promptly fell asleep. It was Runion who told people, “He’s not drunk. He’s exhausted.”
Garner would later have a chance to relive the race finish with Godsey, who knew he was an invader on Garner’s home turf.
“I remember him saying, ‘If I had won, I don’t know if I’d have gotten out of there alive.’ ”
Garner has since sold his Garner Auto Body business and now spends more than four months of each winter in Arizona, where he has found a new bunch of “gear head buddies.”
He is retired from racing but still finds his way to the track now and again, smiling when he talks about running into old driving buddies like Jim Leka.
Nowadays he roots for Shannon Babb, who also cut his teeth at Macon Speedway and who will be in the Herald & Review 100 field tonight.
But he’s no longer a regular at the track, even though racing will always hold a special place in his heart.
“There are nights when I intend to go to the track,” Garner said. “But then it feels real good sitting right here in this chair.
“Every once in a while someone will ask me about that first Herald & Review race, but I’m not a person who goes back in time. If they ask, though, I’ll tell them. I do remember.”
Thirty-five years later, it remains quite a memory.