‘THE TEXAN’ GARY WRIGHT
by Bruce Koen
After relocating to Texarkana, Texas at the end of November, 2010, I knew I would be living near a racing legend. I had a short talk with myself and said “I’m living just a few minutes from Hooks, Texas.” I also knew it would be worth the time to drive the short distance West to visit a champion of champions. On a cold December morning, with many parts of the nation being shut down because of lake effect snow, and extreme frigged temperatures, which dropped all the way into the deep south, I had the opportunity to sit with Gary Wright to do this feature article. Just after 10 a.m. the clouds broke to warm things up to the point we could sit a few minutes in the sunshine to become a little better acquainted. I asked Gary to tell me a little of his racing career, and I was astonished to hear what this man had accomplished. I was also able to spend a few minutes with Gary’s Dad, Grady, who was also a racer. I will do my best to recount what they shared with me.
Grady (standing) & Gary getting ready for the day
Going to the racetrack goes way back with the Wright family. Gary started going to the racetrack at the age of being only 4 months old. Grady would take little Gary and his mom to the various racetracks he was competing at in the ARK-LA-TEX area. Racing for the Wright family dates back into the 1950’s and young Gary was right there learning from season to season. As a young lad growing up, Gary got his hands on a go-kart, and would race it against older boys in the Wright’s back yard. Grady took the time one day to notice Gary leading the race on the home built course, and then falling back to allow his competitors the chance to think they were winning. Then to prove them all wrong, Gary would re-pass them all, slicing and dicing for the lead. After this little demonstration, Grady told his wife that afternoon, “Honey we’ve got us a real race car driver out there.” Of course momma said, “You’d better hope not!” Luckily, such was not the case for young Gary. He continued to develop a God-given talent that only few racers will ever experience.
Gary’s winter project
Early in the budding 1975 racing season at the age of fifteen, Gary and a friend asked Grady if it would be OK to take his racecar to the track in Ashdown, Arkansas. Grady was working the swing shift at the Army Depot at the time, and agreed that as long as Gary would take his mom along with him, it would be all right. That particular Arkansas speedway did not have an age restriction on racers that Gary’s native state of Texas had at the time. So it was that Gary entered his first race. Back then, there was only one class of racecars. It was “run-whatcha-brung” racing, with the cars being positioned by qualifying times. In agreement with his dad, Gary made sure to time the old Chevy in the slower half of the field. At race time, Gary won the heat and came in second in the semi-main (which paid almost as much as the A main).
The following Friday night was the same scenario with Gary winning the heat and the semi-main. On his third weekend outing, Gary once again captured the heat and the semi.
On week four, the promoter noticed the talent, and told Gary if he won the heat and the semi again, he would have a place to run in the main event. Yes, you guessed it, starting from the rear of the field. As you might suspect, Gary not only won the heat and the semi again, but posted a second place finish in the A-main starting from the back of the field. With a chuckle, Gary said, “That sure ended timing the car in the slow heats.”
By July of 1975, Gary had turned 16 and was now legal to race in the state of Texas. With his own racecar, a Chevy II body on a 1955 Chevy chassis, he was able to compete against his dad among others at the now non-operational Texarkana Speed Bowl. The races often would draw over fifty cars on race night. And as you might expect, Gary kept honing his driving skills by posting a few additional wins in his inaugural season.
By 1979, Gary had graduated into driving Open Wheel Modifieds. There was some limited success that first year, but by the end of the ‘79 season, things were about to change. Gary bought a “Smileys” production modified chassis and began to win races. The 1980 season saw Gary truly get started on a career in racing. With many feature wins at various tracks in 1980, the entire racing community in this part of the world started to notice that Gary had talent.
Gary with the Nance Sprinter
The 1981winter racing season held at East Bay Florida, saw Gary get his first ride in a sprint car. It was the 410 powered famous #71 Pennzoil sponsored Nance sprinter, now owned by Junior Hefflin, had previously been driven by racing legend Al Unser. The car was bought with the intentions of racing 12 or maybe 15 times that year. Gary made it happen by placing the car in every single A-main event entered that year. “Coming from East Texas, there was hardly such a thing as a sprint car circuit or a sprint car race.” Gary said, “There wasn’t even a sprint car within 150 miles of us.” That certainly did not stop Gary from learning to pilot his way to championship titles.
1982 through 1984 Gary drove both his modified and the sprinter, with equal success. Considering both racecars had the disadvantage of heavy iron blocks, the negative aspect of carrying more weight didn’t stop him. Long after just about everybody in the racing community changed over to the lighter all aluminum engine, Gary posted 44 feature wins in the1984 season using the older iron block cars.
Gary continued to race the modified and occasionally the sprint cars with some success until fellow racer Craig Keel won a World of Outlaws race. Jim Wingfield of Minden, LA had always wanted to own a sprint car. A deal was made for Keel’s winning sprinter by trading a diesel truck for the racecar. Wingfield put Gary behind the wheel of the ’88 Shaver powered Challenger, and Gary admitted, that this was the first ‘good’ car he had ever driven. The first three weeks out, they raced everywhere they could and won in both the modified as well as the sprint car, and by the end of the year had captured track championships in both cars.
1989 and 1990 saw Gary begin to race at special events, primarily now in the sprint car. Both years he placed in the “top five” in the World of Outlaws series events, and also posted three feature wins.
1991 became a pivotal year for Gary. While racing at the Tulsa Speedway, famous racer Doug Wolfgang entered Gary’s trailer and said, I’ve been watching you for a while. I want to let you know you’re good enough to go traveling with us.” Those words coming from the legendary Doug Wolfgang were all that Gary needed to hear. “If Wolfgang says I’m good enough to do this, then that’s all I needed to hear,” said Gary. Up to that point, Gary had never gone over 300 miles away from home to race. So along with his top wrench, Ron “Scooby” Berkett, Gary started traveling the country racing sprint cars.
By 1992 Gary said, “We raced with everybody, and got our first World of Outlaws win at Tri-State Speedway in Hobstod, Indiana on May 10. We also won 7 other main events including the Winter Nationals at Devils Bowl that year.” Gary had good equipment, and he was showing the racing world he knew what he was doing.
Gary in the #9 Pannell Motorsports car in the 1990’s
1993 saw the beginnings of a very good year with four wins and 24 top five finishes. Since that time, Gary was going to no less than 100 races per year, and the wins kept adding up. Whether it was with the N.C.R.A., Allstars, or World of Outlaws, Gary Wright was there for the win. Always ready for the next challenge, Gary would run until he had risen to the top.
1994 was the nickname year. While on his first racing tour in Australia during the winter season of 1994, Gary arrived at the track with “The Texan” on the top wing of his car, so he could be easily identified. Of course, the Aussie’s were fond of this, and more Texas symbolism was eventually added to the wing. While doing an interview there, Gary was asked if it’s true that Texan’s still rode horses and carried six-shooters. With a good laugh, this sealed the deal for ‘The Texan.’ The nickname stuck when the American press caught wind of the new nickname from “The Land Down-Under,” and it continues today.
Gary makes the cover of two National magazines.
I did a little research when I returned home to write this article. With special thanks to Kevin Eckert at openwheeltimes.com and his tireless work, I discovered that Gary wasn’t trying to impress anyone, yet compiled an averaged 12.2 win percentage for the 20 years counted, with 24 National wins coming in one year topping the list. Gary had a banner year in 1998 by winning a whopping 50% of the races he entered. With 33 wins out of 66 races, even Steve Kinser in his greatest days cannot boast a 50% win ratio. Of course everyone knows you can’t win ‘em all, but Gary tried to with an average of 30.05 percent in top-five finishes. That’s finishing a lot of laps with a paycheck. What this stat said to me, is that over 40% of races entered, Gary was in the money. Want more stats? November 2010 saw Gary start his 400th career main event with the ASCS at the Southern New Mexico Speedway in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Yet the story continues.
Wins are important to Gary, so I asked him if there were any particular trophies or career races that seemed to really stand out to him. “I liked to go for the wins,” said Gary. “But I did win nine consecutive championships with the NCRA from 1993 through 2001. In 2001, I won the East Bay Allstars championship that paid $25, 000 to win, and that was nice. I’ve also won the Short Track Nationals four times, and I’ve won the ASCS National Championship four years consecutive.”
And as for as trophies won, Gary said, “Trophies are OK, but I’d rather have the check.”
Gary at Lone Star Speedway
A news-worthy note: Gary will no longer be driving the familiar white 9 car (a number he has carried for many years). You’ll be able to see him in the 01 car owned by Donnie Cooper at East Bay in 2011.
Thanks Grady Wright for encouraging Gary to race.
Thanks uncle Bill Wright for pictures from the past.
Special thanks to Gary, for putting on a winning show for us sprint car racing fans around the world.