"STEADY EDDIE" FLEMKE
"King Of The "Over-The-Hill Gang"
By Mark John
From a 1973 Issue of Racing Times
Calling Ed Flemke uncomplicated is an understatement. It is
also, one has to believe, a compliment.
If Flemke had to write about himself and his accomplishments he would "use simple words so that young guys would understand. If I had to use just one word I would choose dedication. I think I have been dedicated in my sport."
The sport, modified auto racing, has also been Flemke's profession for most of the past 30 years. He is the first to admit that it Is the very fiber of his existence.
After three decades and maybe 600 features, Ed Flemke still gets turned on.
"You shut off the whole world in a racer," he says. "Your nose may be running and you may have the sniffles when you get in the car but they are no longer problems. They all disappear because you shut off the world. If you have something else on your mind other than driving the racer, you shouldn't be in the car."
Flemke, who started driving race cars in 1948 at West Springfield, Mass., ended his 29th season by winning New England's two biggest modified events, the 200 at Stafford and the Thompson 300.
Without question he is both as good as ever and the sport's elder statesman. If somebody is going to battle giants like NASCAR or Firestone or throw a verbal jab at Geoff Bodine, well, who better than Flemke?
"As long as it is true," Flemke offers, "I am not afraid to say It. It is still a free country and you are suppose to be able to speak your mind. That's what it's all about."
Like most people who seldom talk, when Flemke speaks he gets a lot of listeners.
Bodine allegedly put himself, Maynard Troyer and Richie Evans in a special class among modified drivers. "The remark by Bodine bothered me and it bothered a lot of others," said Flemke. "I know it bothered Bugsy Stevens. I think his remark was the greatest thing that could have happened to us New Englanders."
Flemke claims not to be an emotional man. "I think I am a hard man," he says, "but I am not concrete. I have some feelings."
Just before the 200 Flemke showed some. He let everybody know "the over-the-hill gang" was among the top threats. "I guess," he said, "I'm the president of the gang. It was up to me."
Sure, there was emotion before The 200 and maybe a little of it got in there with the tiffs with NASCAR and Firestone, but it is simple logic and reason - he calls it mathematics - that motivates Flemke.
"I learned a long time ago from my father," he said, "it is a matter of mathematics. What you put into something is what you are going to get out. Foyt, Petty or Yarborough, it is all the same. They all have to do their homework. It is just plain mathematics."
The big, season-ending wins are classic testimony. "Before The 200," said Flemke, "we raced Friday at Stafford and went to Oswego Saturday but we stayed home Sunday. We stayed in the garage and went over the car. On Monday, that car was just perfect. There wasn't a thing wrong with it."
Flemke is the first to admit he was lucky at Thompson He won the race because he was leading when the event was called because of rain just after the halfway point.
I can't deny we were lucky," he says, "but I think we would have won the race anyway. We were as quick if not quicker than anybody there. We had to pit early with power steering problems and when I came back out, Ronnie Bouchard was right behind me. He had won the pole and I had to get away from him or get lapped. Well, I got away from him."
Then we had to pit for a flat tire," Flemke insisted. "In all, we pitted twice and never lost a lap. My pit crew had to work as hard as I did and I take a lot of satisfaction in that. We really didn't expect the rain to end the race. It wasn't planned that way."
But it ended that way.
The entire season, Flemke's third with Bill Thornton's Manchester Sand & Gravel team as driver and second as overall boss, is also a credit to simple logic prevailing.
"Early in the season" said Flemke, 'we were running an older car and building a new one. We were not paying as much attention to the new car as we could have. When we finished the new car we tried to do too much with it. We were trying too many combinations. It was just impossible to sort them out."
"Finally," Flemke continued, "I said to myself "Flemke, this isn't like you." We went back to standard formats and we started to go pretty good."
Ed Flemke drove a 1961 Dodge out of Long Island. He was the fastest non-Grand National qualifier, earning ninth starting spot. He finished 12th going 231 laps before breaking an axle.
"After the race," remembers Flemke, "the car owners were excited about running the rest of the circuit. I declined. I ran well because it was my own backyard. It would not have been a competitive situation anywhere else. The late model stuff belonged to them."
Flemke has always "like my feet on the ground. I want to know where I stand." It was true then and it is true today.
Flemke took time off from the travels of the Eastern Bandits to drive in the Yankee 500. When and if anybody ever gets down to writing the history of New England stock car racing, the Eastern Bandits will be a pivotal chapter.
It was Norwood Arena going NASCAR in 1960 that started it all moving. Flemke was one of many drivers who left the various New England racing associations to join with the Daytona Beach organization.
Flemke brought an impressive career as a United Stock Car Club performer with him: two Riverside titles, two Riverside 500 victories and successes at Plainville, Waterford, Seekonk and West Haven.
But in the early 1960s those successes were coming at Richmond, South Boston, Manassas, Fredricksburg, and Martinsville in Virginia; at New Egypt and Wall Stadium in New Jersey; at Moyok and Winston-Salem in North Carolina; at Bristol, Tenn.; at Utica-Rome Speedway in New York and, of course, Norwood.
"It started," Flemke said, "when we
went to Islip to race and then to Old Bridge. We got a deal to go down
to Richmond and I found I could beat those guys down there.
He would probably still be basically shy. "I found out just how shy I was when I raced down south," he said. "I don't think I push myself sometimes because I am afraid of the answer I might get. I have to know people really well.''
He would still be a loner, an "alone in the crowd" kind of guy. "Sometimes the way I act around people may appear rude," he says, "but I can't help it. Sometimes something just dominates my mind."
Jacob Flemke, an immigrant from Germany and a former motorcycle racer, instilled in his son not only logic, but the patience to seek out right from wrong and the tenacity to pursue the former.
"My father believed in rules," said Flemke. "And he believed in fairness."
That, no doubt, enabled Flemke to battle NASCAR over the frame in the new racer (he lost a battle but still expects to win the war) and Firestone. He smacked Firestone on a radio show.
"I don't want to say a lot about the Firestone situation," he said. "I don't believe everybody is getting the same Firestone tires. That is What I said on the radio and I'm not saying anymore. I do believe everybody is getting the same Goodyear tire I am running.
But Jacob left his son with a lot more. It has, of course, been tempered by 30 years in the business.
"You have to be willing to see things," said Flemke, "To test your own intelligence. There are people who have been in racing for 20 years that haven't learned that yet."
He pointed to an upper A frame on the racer under construction. "These things go for $50 apiece. You are looking at $9 and change right there. We did it ourselves.
Flemke is not exactly cheap. He is, let's say, practical and he believes he owes that to his car owner.
"Nobody wants to use their own intelligence to fabricate things any more. Everybody would rather buy. Until I took over here, this team just went out and bought things. The people want to be competitive so they buy. It is spending foolishly."
"Guys see somebody going good and they immediately credit it to a particular chassis or tire. They don't look past the obvious.~~
And there is one simple piece of philosophy that overrides all others. "You are going to win sometimes and you are going to lose sometimes," Flemke said. "I believe you should go out to win every time but it doesn't run that way. There are a lot of top modified racers who have yet to learn that."
"Winning," Flemke continued, "starts with bringing the car home in one piece.~~
Flemke can and does reduce even heroic moments to common denominators. At Albany-Saratoga Speedway he pulled a much heavier Rene Charland from a burning racer in an incident that has gone down, rather crudely, as the French Barbecue.
"What would you have done if you saw somebody about to burn to death in front of you?" is the explanation.
If Flemke was allowed to dwell on ideal situations, fairness would be the major factor. He would 'enly the hell' out of a race with Bugs Stevens and Gene Bergin, all three in identical racers.
"you can run wheel-to-wheel with Bergin and Stevens and never worry about either taking unfair advantage," he says. "I'm not saying they are the best. I am saying I have complete faith in racing with them. They are fair and clean racers."
If that is a poke at anybody, well, so be it.
Flemke, in turn, has passed much of that down to his son, Eddie Jr. (actually, he isn't a junior but shows no aversion to the method which separates him from his father). He saved the best for just before young Eddie went out for his first race.
"He went out to warm up the car and I watched him," said Flemke. "Then things got busy and I had my own car to worry about. I asked him if he was ready. Then I took him aside and told him not to think about what his old man had done. I told him the only person he had to impress and satisfy was himself."
Pete Hamilton had just won stock car racing's most coveted event, the Daytona 500. He was in the press box talking to the writers when somebody told him Flemke was waiting outside.
"He came outside and brought me in the press box," said Flemke. "He put his arm around me and told all the press about how important I was in his career. I think that was the greatest thrill of my career."
There is an old adage that goes, "those that can do, do and those that can't, teach." Ed Flemke blasts that all to hell.
Hamilton is just one of Flemke's 'students'. Denny Zimmerman, the 1971 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, and modified great Richie Evans are both quick to credit Flemke as instrumental in their careers.
"I take a lot of pride in all three of them " Flemke said. "They have that something special."
And you need something special to be Flemke's friend. "I pick my friends carefully," Flemke said. "I don't want to be around people who are going to make me look bad by making themselves look bad."
To be Flemke's friend you "just have to be yourself; just be a regular guy. Don't be a put-on. Nobody is better than everybody else."
Zimmerman was a Flemke protégé before and during the Eastern Bandit days, leaving for the open cockpits in 1965. Hamilton was very close to Flemke in the years prior to his moving south after winning the national sportsman title in 1967.
In both cases, Flemke was just passing on favors bestowed on him by two of the East's greatest open-cockpit racers.
"I was always following my brother George around in the late 1940s," said Flemke. "Of course, I got a lot of help from George. But it was the late Mike Nazaruk and the late Burt Brooks too. It is a lot easier for a kid to talk to somebody other than his family. It was just a matter of those guys, both of them great racers, taking the time to talk to a kid like me that made so much difference."
Indeed, Flemke's first taste of racing came warming up George's midget. But he took up with the coupes, then called jalopies.
"There was not that much talent in the jalopies. It was the place to go.''
To this day, Flemke has a soft spot for midgets. "I would love to drive them," he said, "but there just isn't any money in them."
Logic wouldn't permit that.
Flemke's contribution to his sport includes its very language. He is credited with the "dirt is for potatoes" statement that rallies asphalt fans and angers dirt fans.
It's really not important if he did say it. He doesn't like dirt. "I think it is just natural for somebody to do what he is best at and stay with it," he said. "I feel the same way about super speedways. I am comfortable on short, paved tracks."
It was the paving of Stafford Springs in 1967 by Mal Barlow that brought Flemke back to New England. Stafford joined with Thompson and Norwood, all NASCAR sanctioned, to make the"CIRCUIT OF CHAMPIONS"
It was poetic justice that Flemke won the second Spring Sizzler. A broken water pump while leading with less than 10 laps to go ended his bid to win the first one.
But a win in the first one would have gone so well with Flemke's affair with Stafford.
He did, in fact, win the first race ever held on the Stafford asphalt in 1967. It was one of almost 40 races the combination of Flemke and car builder Bob Judkins won in the years 1967 and 1968.
The team split to write more history independently of each other. Flemke, driving the G &A car, won the first race Jack Arute ever promoted at Stafford while Judkins turned the sport around with the first-ever NASCAR Pinto modified.
Flemke was driving that revolutionary Pinto when the water pump went in the first Sizzler. Although it carried a different number and different colors, it was the same car that Gene Bergin drove to victory in the first 200 at Stafford. Flemke won the second Sizzler in a Judkins car.
"I think winning the Sizzler again this year would be a great thing for the crew because they work so hard," said Flemke, "and I want it for Bill Thornton. Today, the car owner is so important and I have a great one. I admire the man a great deal because he can handle so many situations. I get a great thrill out of the crew and Bill being in victory lane with me."
It doesn't take a lot to make Flemke happy. It's really very uncomplicated!