Interview with 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Pat McElreath

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West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame 2012 Inductees

Founded in 2001, the West Cost Stock Car Hall of Fame recognizes significant contributors to Stock Car Racing development and history – including designers, engineers, mechanics, drivers, racetrack owners, promoters, publicists and members of the motorsports media. The 2012 class will be inducted during a gala event June 21 during the NASCAR weekend at Infineon Raceway.

PIR sat down recently with several of the honored members from the 2012 class to discuss some of their most cherished NASCAR and West Coast Racing memories are:

Pat McElreath:

“I thrive on challenge, and I have my whole life. Once you win the race, you just go to the next one. What’s fun of the whole thing is getting there.”

Pat McElreath, crew chief for Hall of Fame member Hershel McGriff, who won 12 races with McElreath in 1972. The two also paired for a fifth-place finish in the 1973 Daytona 500.

How did you get your start in racing?

I started in 1962 at Riverside driving myself with a Corvette, came back to the Northwest here in Portland. Won the Rose Cup race here in a Stingray. Won most of the Corvette road course races up here and actually beat a Cobra that showed up. Back then the Cobras’ were beating the Corvettes, but I beat the Cobra. So that was big news. Then the next year that got me into Bill Amick- he talked me into going into Stock Car racing. That was about 1965. If there had been points for Rookie of the Year, I would have been in top running for that.

Anyway, I have done my best racing getting the first loser, getting second place. I won every race in my Corvettes, just about. The 26 races I ran. I ran my 1961 Pontiac in my first stock car experience as a driver. I got a second place at Portland Speedway. That was the best race I had as a driver- on the little half-mile oval.

How did you get your start with Hershel?

The best thing that ever happened to me was when I went broke driving. And I went to help Hershel (McGriff). Bill said why don’t you go out and help Hershel? He’s back to driving. Why don’t you go see if he needs some help going to Riverside? And I went out there and helped him and Hershel and I clicked. I knew the track and he had a crew chief. We ended up fifth, I think. After Riverside, we came back and that was 1972. The crew chief quit. Hershel hired me as crew chief. We went to the Ontario race track with a car and we got fifth place at my first super speedway. That was Hershel’s drive too. Everyone was really helpful. Because of Hershel and to be able to be around a driver of that quality and to be around real drivers they were experienced and knew what they were doing. It was such a treat for me; I didn’t even realize what they were doing and how big of an effect that was going to have on my career. We ran about 50 races that year. We had the Electric Brewing late model car and Richard’s (Petty) old 1970 Plymouth. That is what is getting me into the Hall of Fame because that year we got second in points. Also, that year we had the record of winning 12 races on the West Coast- all with Hershel driving.  That’s the record that still stands today.

That year, I was also the only crew chief that got Mechanic of the Year for getting second place in points. Here we broke the record for winning the most races that year and everything, but the way the points were, the Elder’s, they won the championship like five years in a row. They just raced a little better than we did. Anyways, the next year they changed the points system. They gave bonus points for winning a little bit.

Hershel dragged me to that banquet. I said “Heck, we didn’t win anything! We didn’t win. I don’t want to go.” But, he made me go. They presented me with Mechanic of the Year for being second place. No body has ever done that. They also presented me with Crew Chief of the Year too. Usually the championship crew chief gets it. That was a good year. A lot of races, but really good.

What made that year so successful?

I had a lot of good kids with me. Me and my best buddy were the only ones that were professional, or paid you could say. People just don’t realize how much people love the sport and want to help.

What is it you enjoy most about NASCAR?

The challenge. It’s like NASCAR, it’s the people. As you look back on it, Hershel was so personable. Heck, I didn’t know anybody. Doing the work. I started out driving. Hell I started out putting a V8 engine in my 1954 Corvette. I didn’t even know how to build them.

One of my favorite races at Phoenix was Hershel and I and we had just won the Riverside 500. They had a great model Dodge that I named Raggedy Ann, the newer style short track car. Anyway, we took that car to Phoenix after the 500 and Hershel asked, ‘Pat, would you mind staying here?’ Bobby Allison is going to be there also.

We had just kicked Bobby’s rear end at Riverside in his late model. He brought that out to beat Hershel at Riverside, because he was winning all of the late model races. And it was quite exciting.

My crew was sitting at the Holiday Inn the day before the race and Allison’s crew was sitting there too. Allison’s crew was pretty loud about how they were brought out to Riverside to kick Hershel’s butt with Bobby’s late model car. I remember walking back from the Late Model to the Cup Garage because we had National’s running too. Bobby was walking with me and he said “Did you borrow those front drums off of your grand national car?” “No, I had a spare set that I put on there.” He said “hell, I can’t even get one set!”

Anyway, the story from that was that he knew I had better breaks also. We were about equal on power. But, that was one of my things is breaks. I was one of the first ones that engineered (and we tested for NASCAR) the disc breaks in the Stock Cars. The first year Donahue’s and Penske’s won with disc breaks, the first disc breaks at Riverside. That next year at Riverside they all had disc breaks. I put the kits together for most of the guys from back East. For all of the Dodges, I built the front brackets for mounting.

The Petty’s bought the brackets from me when they could have built them. I had the Woods Brother’s car and Allison and the Petty’s and a couple of others. I had a half-dozen or so. I furnished them with the breaks and everything. They all came up and bought wheels from me at Riverside. So I brought down a semi truck of wheels because all of the wheels were different. So that was big deal for me – the first disc breaks. And working really close with those guys.

Hershel would buy his Richard’s used cars. That next year we took delivery of Richard’s 1971 Plymouth in Texas. We had a 1970 the year before. That was the last Plymouth that Richard raced. The next after that he went to Dodge. We got 5th place at the Texas Speedway 500 with that car. We come back and with that car at Riverside that next year, we out – qualified Richard with his own car. This was really cool. It was the closest to the pole of a 500 mile race that we ever came to. We were second as far as qualifying. So, it was really strange weather that year in LA. It was really cold, we lost a valve spring in that race and we didn’t win. But, we were running right up at the front. We felt really good about being up in that one.

After that and about two weeks before the Daytona 500®, Hershel asked me what I thought about going to the Daytona 500®. Mind you we are up in Oregon with a beat up old car. He said that the Petty’s had an engine for us, but you have to be there in three days. We made it to North Carolina with that old 1971 Plymouth. That was the start of a good relationship with Dale Edmonds, Richard’s crew chief. He got mad at me once, he caught me underneath Richard’s car once measuring the torsion bars.

Anyway, we got fifth at the Daytona 500 that year in Richard’s old Plymouth. I got a lot of fifth places in 500 mile races.

What happened to that car?

I restored that 1971 Plymouth. A good customer of mine found it. Hershel was a little disappointed because Chuck was rebuilding that car. He found it in Idaho in a barn with a Dodge body on it and it was dirt track racing. I knew the car and I could document. That’s why he hired me as a consultant. He bought the car back. Over the phone I told him what to look for- things that none of the other Plymouths’ had. He spent about $50,000 restoring it. He also found out that was the Plymouth at Riverside that was the last year that Richard ran in a Plymouth. STP and Richard signed a lifetime sponsorship. They painted that car the Petty blue, when they got to the race track it was Petty Blue. They hadn’t closed that deal yet. At the track they painted on STP in white on the rear fenders and that was the only STP sponsored car that didn’t have the STP red. When we found that car, we documented it, and confirmed that it was Richard’s car. We made it Richard’s car- blue with white and STP, because that was a real part of history for the Petty’s. A guy out of Florida bought it from us, no questions asked for $225,000. That car runs around Daytona at the 500, still today. That’s some of the stuff I have done in my later years, is restoring old stock cars. The vintage racing and things like that, because I’m just old and I know about them.

What is your best memory in racing?

We’ve done so much on the West Coast, but honestly the Daytona 500® is my best memory. Being able to run that and get 5th place with Richard’s (Petty) car and it being a Plymouth that is not supposed to be able to do that. In that race, it was just me and Hershel. I didn’t have a pit crew. My one pit crew, a buddy from grade school and he’s the reason that I was able to do even do some of this stuff; I accidentally left him in Nashville, Tennessee. I left him at a shop there.

We had been driving all night, because we had to get to the Petty’s in time to get to the race. We cut through Wyoming during a snow storm – freezing and stuff. We were in this little flat bed Ford kind of a thing and with the car in the back. In the back of the cab, there was a spot where you could sleep. Anyway, it was early in the morning. Bill had been driving and he woke me up to switch places. He got in the back and went to sleep. I started driving. There was construction on the freeway in Nashville, so you had to go through town, I pulled off and went into the Super Station. I come back out and jump in the truck and go on my way. I go through downtown Nashville and don’t even think about it. It was about two hours later and I reach back there and realize that he wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe it. His boots were gone, his coat was gone. Oh man, I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the clock and realized that I couldn’t turn around. I figured, hell, he was already on an airplane. I figured that he would meet me there. I knew he had about $500 in his pocket. Once I got to the race I called him and figured out that he had hopped on a plane back to Portland. He couldn’t do it anymore.

What are you doing now?

Now in my business of training, I get a lot of consulting. That comes from road course drivers going to ovals. I have more trouble training road course drivers how to drive an oval than I do oval drivers how to go to a road course. All the little sports cars guys say you just turn left. Well, just come try it. And when they come try it, I have to un-train everything they ever learned on a road course.

It’s about 2,000 laps later, you are finally going to get where you belong. There are a lot of road course drives that have come through, but most of those are your top drivers and stuff. But, they also go and do some ovals and do some testing. They have some trouble. It’s just a whole different way of driving. You go in so hard. You are in a corner for so long, compared to a road course. A road course is actually pretty easy compared to an oval. As far as stress. And the car and the chassis have to be perfect. Now with a road course if you have good breaks and horsepower, then you will be ok.