As a full moon the color of melted butter jumps from the Georgia
pines, 14 race cars growl their way around a loop of crimson
soil. A smear of chalk dust marks the starting line; a
concussion of noise evokes war. When the green flag is out and
the pack goes by, you can feel the earth shake.
This is Cordele Motor Speedway on Oct. 27, the last day of the
1996 Sportsman division racing season. A few hundred women and
men are in the bare cement grandstand, sprawled on patio chairs,
watching the racers as they hurtle, shudder and career through
the packed-clay turns. The cotton field beyond the north rim of
the oval gleams ripe and white in the moonlight. It's harvest
time in Crisp County.
The vehicles on the track are so battered that the races ought
to be picketed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Automobiles. The tow truck turns more laps than the pole sitter;
the yellow (caution) light shines just about as often as the
Tomorrow, the men who steer these cars will once again be
small-town mechanics, laborers and farmers. In their off-hours
they will tinker and dream toward the new racing year that
begins in March '97. They will pass the winter in hamlets such
as Fitzgerald and Coolidge and Arabi, adding up the modest gains
and bank-breaking debits of another year on the dirt. None will
get rich driving one of these whining, wounded wrecks, yet the
emotional poverty caused by giving up racing would be too much
for any of them to endure.
Among this fraternity--yet simultaneously removed from it by the
distance of generations--is 73-year-old Harvey Jones. Once long
and lean and fiery, now thicker, quieter, deliberate in
movement, Jones may be the most remarkable active sportsman in
the U.S. Forty-seven years after he drove (and won) the first
heat he ever entered, 34 years after he pulled his dying brother
from a race car in Valdosta, Ga., Jones remains as competitive
and skilled as rivals one third his age. He will be back in
1997, God willing, and many years after that.
Asked about retirement, he says he will quit if and when he can
no longer win races. He says, "I ain't gonna sit there and watch
the races from a race car."
At Cordele (pronounced core-DEEL) in 1996, Harvey Jones finished
the season sixth in points in the Sportsman division--and might
have finished higher had he not missed four weeks while doctors
fitted his left eye with a lens implant. (Rubbing his eye, he
had torn a retinal blood vessel, flooding the vitreous cavity
with blood and making it seem, he says, "like I was lookin'
through a stained-glass window with water runnin' down it.")
This year his plans for the off-season include installing a new
engine in his blue Oldsmobile racer and having the cataract in
his left eye removed. Eight years ago he had heart bypass
surgery. An aspirin a day and undiluted pride keep him ticking.
Jones never attained the pinnacle of his profession--a rich man
recruited him to drive the Indianapolis 500 in 1960, but Jones
turned the offer down, fearful of abandoning his full-time job
with the telephone company in Tallahassee. He has reigned,
instead, at Lake City and Dothan, Ala., Wewahitchka, Fla., and
Valdosta, amassing countless trophies, regional celebrity and so
little prize money that, even after half a century, $50 plus or
minus at Cordele makes a measurable difference in his mood.
What matters to Jones is how his car performs and where he
finishes. (The biggest payday of his career was $2,500 for
second place in a 100-lap special.)
"Do you feel," I ask him, "as if the Lord must be on your side?"
"I don't know," he replies. "Sometimes I see all these wrecks on
the racetrack, and I think he must be off someplace else, and
he's let the devil take over round here."
In 1943, Jones tried to join the Army but he was told by the
enlistment officer that he was considered unfit to go to war. As
a toddler he had clambered up a rocking chair, trying to reach
some treat on the mantel, and had tumbled into a bed of hot
ashes, burning his left hand. The hand remains strong, but the
middle fingers are slightly misshapen.
He was born in 1923 on a Florida panhandle farm, the son of a
wanderer who had moved east from Alabama with only a mule and a
wagon. Harvey was born in a barn--the house his father was
building had burned to the ground. The Joneses had 33 acres of
nuts, corn and cotton. On the side, they made booze. Their
bucolic distillery, as described by a state treasury agent named
W. George McMullen in his self-published memoir, Twenty-Eight
Years a T-Man, maintained a production capacity of 400 gallons
of corn liquor. Moonshining, Harvey admits, brought in easy money.
On July 12, 1950, McMullen and his men raided the still. They
chased, tackled and arrested Harvey's younger brother Hulon and
reached the house where the rest of the family was holed up,
intending to impound the Jones family auto.
"I thought I was about to win out," McMullen wrote, "when
suddenly Harvey Jones stepped to the driver's side of the car (a
late-model Mercury), reached in, pulled the keys from the
switch, ran behind the car to a side gate, through the gate and
began to call for someone to bring him a shotgun.
"He went into the house by a back door, still calling for a
shotgun....I figured if Harvey came out with a shotgun, he would
never live to use it." As it turned out, Harvey came out
unarmed. McMullen holstered the .45 he had drawn. A few months
later Harvey, who never was much of a drinker even of his own
products, gave up on the distilling industry and concentrated on
his full-time job. On the weekends he drove a souped-up 1940
Ford for prize money.
At Cordele, the final Sportsman division feature race of the '96
season is to be 25 laps, three eighths of a mile to the circuit.
Jones has qualified fifth of the 14 entrants, claiming the
inside position on the third row. It takes about 18 seconds to
go around once.
The racers here start two abreast, although Turn 1 is wide
enough for only 1 1/2 vehicles. Jones's strategy is simple: Stay
back, stay cool, let no one pass you and wait for the
front-runners to get silly and crash. Jones hates accidents: He
fumes that his blue number-6 Oldsmobile Cutlass suffered $1,200
worth of damage a couple of weeks earlier when, as he cruised
along in the fifth or sixth spot, he came around Turn 3 and ran
smack into a pileup caused when everybody else was blinded by
the setting sun.
"To win the race," Jones reasons, "you got to be there at the
end of the race. These guys who tear up their cars at the start
of a race--well, it's a lot of hooey."
Most men his age couldn't climb into a race car through the
glassless window, let alone drive one. But Jones is in his crash
helmet and his royal-blue racing suit for the feature. Asked if
his suit is fireproof, he replies, "I had me one that they said
was fireproof, and they told me it was custom-made, but it was
so big, a whole family must've moved out of it before I climbed
in. When I put my hands in the pockets, I never did touch bottom."
He has driven 2 1/2 hours from Tallahassee, towing number 6
behind a 1981 Chevy Silverado with 146,000 miles on the
odometer. When the racing is finished tonight, he'll drive the 2
1/2 hours home.
When he was still living on the farm, Harvey attended high
school in Tallahassee, and when he was 26 he began racing. In
1951, after two divorces, he met his current wife, Hazel. Her
father drove the wrecker at the Tallahassee track, so he was
acquainted with Jones and she was acquainted with stock car
Harvey and Hazel were married on Christmas Eve 1952 and have
lived on the same street in Tallahassee since 1953. Theirs is a
circumscribed world: Harvey has never been to New York City or
anywhere west of Texas. He has never flown in a commercial
airplane. Hazel has worked for the Florida state government
since 1949. Harvey's '34 Chevy two-door sedan is still in the
garage. He and Hazel have four children, his complete pit crew
at Cordele. He also has a daughter by his first wife.
"Those other two wives are dead," Harvey says. "But I had
nothin' to do with none of it."
Hazel doesn't work in the pit crew with her two sons and two
daughters. This evening she sits in a lawn chair in the top row
of Cordele's grandstand, absorbed in a Harlequin romance titled
Lady of the Upper Kingdom. The moon is up higher now, helping to
illuminate the back straightaway, where darker-colored cars such
as Harvey's tend to disappear.
The first few laps are uneventful--one caution flag, no serious
wrecks. Jones slips back to sixth position. The leaders,
including Randy Ellenberg in red number 28, pull steadily away.
Number 6 doesn't seem to have the engine power to catch them. Or
Jones might just be playing his waiting game.
Ellenberg, 34, a jocular giant from Valdosta, takes pride in
having outpaced a 73-year-old man. "I beat him twice," he says.
"I wanted to do that before he died."
Jones estimates that dirt-track racing is "60-percent
dishonest." He says, "I try to build a car that's legal." Among
drivers, accusations of cheating--for building too powerful an
engine for the class or using an aluminum flywheel or some such
novelty--are common, if costly. Jones boasts that no protest
against him has been successful. "Down in Valdosta," he says, "I
won the feature six or seven weeks in a row. Well, we were
pushin' the car backwards onto the track all the time, instead
of driving it in reverse. After one race, these guys come over
and they say they're protesting that I'm not carrying a full
gear box. It cost them $125 to do that, you know.
"They say, 'We want to see you drive it in reverse.' So I put it
in gear and backed it up. I told 'em, 'It'll go forwards and
it'll go backwards. It'll go anywhere but straight up.' They
were so mad! They said, 'Then how come you've been pushin' it
backwards all the time?' And I said, 'To give damn fools like
you somethin' to be angry about.'"
On June 2, 1962, Hulon Jones was in the center of a pack of
three cars heading into Turn 1 at Valdosta. Harvey Jones, four
years older, was a few hundred feet behind his brother as the
cars all went down the front straightaway. Then Hulon's car got
sandwiched, and he rode up the side of one of the other cars.
Harvey saw it happen. It was all right in front of him. "He
bounced three times, every time right on the top of the car,"
Harvey says of Hulon. "It caved the roll-bar system in. It was
just a black iron pipe back then--that's all we had. It couldn't
stand punishment like the stuff we use now." Hulon was
unconscious when his brother and others pulled him from his car.
The ambulance arrived quickly. Within 10 minutes the race was
Harvey won, as he almost always did back then. Then he was told
that his brother was dead.
The next week Harvey went back to Valdosta and won again. Two
weeks after that there was a special memorial race, and Harvey
won that one too.
"Why didn't you quit?" I ask him. "Had you and Hulon ever talked
about what you'd do if this happened?"
"Nothin' never really was said," Harvey answers. We're alone in
the cab of the Silverado. "I liked racing. What happened to him
didn't mean it couldn't happen to me. I don't think he would
have wanted me to quit."
He is quiet for a while and then says, "I don't want to die
before my time. The good Lord's got a place for you, and I hope
mine's 20 years off. I don't want to die like my daddy died. My
father died in 1947 in a barracks they were makin' into a
hospital, but they didn't have anything in there yet. He had a
heart attack. I was in the room when he had another one. They
didn't have no sedatives. He just lay there and hurt. That was a
bad death to have to watch somebody die, particularly when it's
"Was Hulon's a good death?" I ask, as respectfully as I can.
"He had a good life to that time," Harvey replies. "He didn't
never know it happened. He was unconscious when we pulled him
out. He never woke up."
Eight laps into the Sportsman feature, a white car, number 51,
head-butts Jones's number 6 from behind as they are going down
the front straightaway at 100 mph. There's no consequence to the
collision--the racers hold their positions, and the race
resembles bumper cars at Coney Island.
Hazel is shouting, "Come on, Harvey! Come on, Harvey!" But he
has slipped back to eighth place.
A couple of caution flags allow the field to bunch up at the
restarts. Jones is sixth at Turn 3 on the final lap when two of
the front-runners spin out and vanish into the darkness.
Checkered flag. Fifth place.
Twenty minutes later, down in the infield, Jones is still in his
blue racing suit (he'll drive home to Tallahassee without
changing). Number 6, a little scraped up but undamaged, is back
on its trailer. The season is over. Forty-seven years.
Hazel comes down from the pay window, where she collected
Harvey's prize. It is suddenly quiet; the roaring of the engines
has been stilled.
"How much is the purse?" I ask her. Her reply is barely
whispered. For five hours on the highway and 25 laps on
blood-red Georgia clay--for half a century of roar and risk and
ardor--the bonanza is $200.
Harvey Jones is the youngest man that Allan Abel has written
about for Sports Illustrated this year.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER As rivals have been doing for 47 years, drivers at Cordele keep an eye peeled for Jones and his Olds. [Harvey Jones and race car]
B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF HARVEY JONES During the '50s, Jones was a regular in Victory Lane at the old Rocket Speedway, in Columbus, Ga. [Harvey Jones waving checkered flag from race car]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER Jones's racer will get a new engine in the off-season; he'll make a pit stop for cataract surgery. [Harvey Jones in race car]