(For Father’s Day 2020, a two-decade flashback to a piece Dan McNiel of the Herald-Advocate graciously allowed me to pen for the Father’s Day edition as we were celebrating Marlboro’s “Greatest Athletes” back in 2000. And the passage of time has only strengthened my impression of my father, deepened my appreciation of the life he has lived – and still lives; I can only dream of being half the man he is. Thus, in honor of him on this Father’s Day, from twenty years past, from the pages of the Marlboro Herald-Advocate, “Tommy Bostick, Stock Car Racing”. Happy Father’s Day, Pop.)
You know, I’ve beard it said that when you really get down to the bone, there are only two American sports: Bull Riding and Auto Racing. Everything else, it was stated, was simply recreation.
Now, I don’ know any bull riders, but I do know a guy that enjoyed enough success in auto racing to be considered the century’s greatest athlete, at least to one set of eyes.
Tommy Bostick began his racing career inauspiciously in the early 1960’s when a couple of local men Kenny Bennett and Joe Adams were bitten by the racing bug and decided to build a race car of their own. Needing a driver, Bostick was recruited, and with other locals serving as his “crew”, he began competing in the Amateur Division at dirt tracks in Rockingham and Dillon.
Competing in what were normally 25-lap contests for little more than a trophy, he quickly displayed a natural talent for finding the fastest way around the finicky dirt tracks of the area, and just as quickly achieved a measure of success.
Eager to test himself against better, and much faster, competition, within a year or two, Bostick had advanced to the top-level, late-model sportsman division.
Driving for a succession of car owners, including Jimmy Wallace and B.K. Barrow, Bostick soon displayed the same ability to manhandle the heavier, faster late model cars, and quickly established himself as one of the men to beat any time the Green Flag flew.
Eventually acquiring the 1964 Ford that Ned Jarrett drove to that years Grand National driving championship, Bostick went on a tear. Driving that car, he proved to be nearly unbeatable , claiming so many victories and track championships that both he and the car were featured in an Associated Press article entitled, “Old Race Cars Never Die”.
Bostick was rewarded for his success with a couple of brief encounters with stock car racing’s big-time, driving cars for others at both the Rockingham and Charlotte Grand National races in October, 1966, his first ventures on a paved speedway.
Falling out of competition early due to mechanical failures, Bostick returned to the short tracks of his roots with a vengeance.
However, with factory involvement in auto racing, particularly in the NASCAR’s Grand National (soon to be Winston Cup) Series, growing thanks to the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” attitude prevalent at the time, and some unique opportunities, Bostick, a staunch Ford Motor Company man, leapt at the chance.
Associating himself with Holman-Moody of Charlotte, considered by many to be the preeminent Motorsports enterprise of the time, he was able to access parts and technical assistance that enabled him to build upon his earlier successes. Jack Sullivan, who served as crew chief for Fred Lorenzen on the Grand National circuit, for example, was a frequent source of hands-on guidance, even joining Bostick at the track on occasion.
Usually one of the few Fords entered in a field of the more-common Chevys of the era, Bostick was often lured to new tracks through the posting of “bounties” on particular cars and/or drivers. When that, more often than not became a moot point, promoters would sometimes reverse the tables and award a cash bounty to anyone able to beat him.
Ever the competitor, Bostick would, on occasion, even compete in match races against cars that, in more than one case, were declared illegal to race.
Word is he won most of them, too.
But in light of the “gunslinger” mentality of short-track racers, being successful only makes you look for someone faster on the draw, and Bostick was soon racing three or four times a week, at tracks across the Southeast, from Myrtle Beach to Columbia to Fayetteville, North Carolina to Martinsville, Virginia to Pensacola, Florida, Thursday through Sunday one could usually him at a race track, competing against racing legends such as Sam Ard, and Ray Hendricks and Lennie Pond coming down from Virginia.
Eventually running a three-car stable – a Modified Mercury, a Late Model dirt car and a Late Model asphalt car, he also focused on the business end of racing, establishing Tommy Bostick Racing Enterprises.
Dealing in specialty racing equipment, the business was also an authorized vendor of Firestone Racing Tires through the Gene White organization, sending two self-contained tire mounting and balancing machines – and tires, of course, to various tracks throughout the region.
Convinced that he owed himself a real shot at the Big-Time in equipment that was up to the task, Bostick prepared a 1968 Mercury for entry in NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman (now Xfinity) series race being held at the Daytona International in February, a preliminary to the Daytona 500.
Qualifying 28th – three spots behind a hot young driver named Darrell Waltrip and right along side an established Bobby Allison. Bostick was doing well when the race began, progressing slowly though the field, when a broken left-front spindle necessitated a pit stop.
Ironically, another problem on the track led to a car spinning and striking Bostick as he entered the pits, effectively ending his race.
And quite possibly a dream.
Never one to complain, Bostick simply returned to his first love: the short tracks of the Southeast.
Fate, however, had one card left to play as, two years after his Daytona experience, the death of long-time friend and fellow racer James Sears in a crash, in addition to the 400% rise in fuel prices as the OPEC cartel cut production in protest of the US’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war, and a reduction in Ford’s manufacturer support, led Bostick to hang up his helmet one last time.
But I don’t think the guy has ever looked back and wondered, “What if?” Moreover, I don’t think he has it in him. He has little need to look backwards in his world; his legacy is secure, and the really important stuff to him is always today and tomorrow anyway. That’s pretty neat.
Happy Father’s Day, Pop. If character, dedication, and humble ambition have anything at all to do with it, then Muhammad Ali was wrong: YOU’RE the Greatest.