Racing innovator C.J. Rayburn remembered


By James Essex

C.J. Rayburn, the inaugural National Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer and titan of the sport, who revolutionized the construction of the modern-day late model chassis and whose colorful aphorisms were well known around dirt tracks everywhere, died on Jan. 1.

The legendary Kentucky native and Whiteland resident was 81.

Rayburn Race Cars set the standard as the sport’s first major chassis builder with racecars that won thousands of races throughout the United States as well as Canada and Australia, including 13 World 100s at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.

Rayburn as a driver won 13 career feature events at the Brownstown Speedway and was the 1995 late model track champion at Brownstown. At Brownstown, he won the 1990 Dairy Queen Classic, and in 1997, won both the Hoosier Dirt Classic and Kenny Simpson Memorial Race.

In 1976, Rayburn opened a machine shop, and in 1979, started manufacturing dirt late models. Don Hobbs was the original Rayburn House Car driver. In 1979 and 1980 Hobbs won over 50 feature events in one of Rayburn’s creations.

In midseason 1980, Charlie Swartz replaced Hobbs as the house car driver.

The same year, Swartz won the Inaugural Jackson 100 at Brownstown and the World 100 at Eldora Speedway.

Rayburn Race Cars won four of the first five Jackson 100 races at Brownstown with Swartz, Russ Petro (twice) and Kenny Simpson. In 1982 and 1983 Petro won over 60 feature events in a Rayburn car.

The lumbering Rayburn, whose racing interests began in drag racing and continued into Dirt Late Model racing as a successful if uneven competitor along with his chassis building, was no doubt proud of the Rayburn Race Cars biggest victories but relished checkered flags earned by unheralded drivers at the most modest of bullrings.

“I’ve had some really good people drive our cars, and they’ve all worked hard to win,” Rayburn said in a 2004 interview. “But I’ve also got my guys who fall into the Joe Average racer category who win races, and I enjoy that because those guys are the ones who have to spend their money smart and want to learn about a race car to make the bigger races and get better.”

He always looked out for the little guys, those who raced simply for the love of the sport. Everyone who knew him had a story. He was often described as eccentric and known for his racing innovations. He always had a bed to spare and a meal to share. He gave opportunities to many, a home, jobs, sponsorship, the use of his car, truck, bed, meal, motorhome, house, or shop.

His accomplishments were recognized by many. He was a Kentucky Colonel, Indiana Sagamore of the Wabash, Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame, an inaugural member of the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Brownstown Speedway Hall-of-Fame in 2006. He had many lifetime achievement awards presented by numerous racing and engineering organizations.

Former racers pass away

Johnny Baker passed away on Dec. 28 in Magnolia, Texas, at the age of 87. He was born and raised in Columbus and began his racing career in 1958 after serving as a Sergeant in the United States Army in the Korean War from 1953-57.

Upon returning to Columbus, Baker started racing jalopies at “The Hole” or “The Hill” Columbus Speedway and the 25 th Street Fairgrounds Raceway in Columbus. Baker then raced for Charlie Johnson of Columbus in 1964 and 1965 on the ARCA Racing circuit. Baker then returned to dirt track racing until 1967. Besides jalopies and ARCA and USAC asphalt racing Baker also drove modifieds, sprints, and late model stock cars.

Scott Taskey of Columbus passed away on Jan. 1. He was 64. Taskey began his racing career in 1976 in the hobby stock division at Brownstown Speedway. In his first year of racing Taskey scored three feature wins and finished third in the track point standings that year. His first career feature win was recorded on May 1, 1976.

He also won three Brownstown hobby stock features in 1977 and placed fourth in the final points for that season. He also raced dirt late models. He retired from racing in 1980.

Taskey served our country as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves and the Indiana Army National Guard from 1975-82.

Chili Bowl starts Monday

Since the first entry list was revealed in November, a large contingent of former Chili Bowl winners, dirt racing stars, NASCAR stars and IndyCar stars have thrown their hat into the ring as the 36 th Annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals kicks off on Monday.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion and two-time defending Chili Bowl Nationals winner, Kyle Larson, has officially filed an entry for the event with hopes of scoring his third straight win. Larson is coming off one of the best seasons in motorsports history, with success on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit and in some of the biggest dirt track races of the year.

This year, Larson will be piloting his own Kyle Larson Racing car and will bring along 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott along for the ride. Elliott made his Chili Bowl Nationals debut one year ago and saw his bid come to an end in the F-Main. This year, after gaining more experience on dirt throughout the year, he’ll be looking to improve on his performance.

Three-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner Christopher Bell will once again return to his home state for his favorite race of the year. This time, he’ll reunite with Keith Kunz Motorsports in search of his fourth Golden Driller trophy.

Other former champions entered include the event’s all-time winningest driver, Sammy Swindell, two-time winner Rico Abreu, 2006 winner and 2021 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series National Champion, Tim McCreadie, 1990 winner John Heydenreich and the 2021 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Rookie of the Year Ricky Thornton Jr.

In addition to Larson, Elliott and Bell, fellow NASCAR Cup Series drivers Alex Bowman and Chase Briscoe will be having their own Chili Bowl fun. Former NASCAR driver turned Sprint Car team owner Kasey Kahne will also return to the event.

Indianapolis 500 starter Conor Daly and part-time IndyCar driver Santino Ferrucci will represent the IndyCar ranks.

The 2021 USAC National Midget Series champion, Buddy Kofoid, returns to the event with Keith Kunz Motorsports, while 2021 USAC National Sprint Car Series champion Brady Bacon is slated to attempt the race for the 18th straight year.

The top two drivers in the 2021 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series point standings will also be competing in this year’s event. Series champion Brad Sweet and championship runner-up David Gravel have both filed entries.

Open-wheel standout Tanner Thorson, who is always strong at the Tulsa Expo Center, has also been added to the entry list. Gateway Dirt Nationals Midget winner Jonathan Beason and KKM Giveback Classic winner Steven Snyder Jr. have also officially entered the event.

Former NASCAR Cup Series driver and open-wheel standout J.J. Yeley will also return to the Chili Bowl hoping to add to his three top-five finishes.

The Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals begin Monday with the first of five nights of preliminary action. Those five nights will set the stage for the infamous run through the alphabet soup on Jan. 15 leading into the A-Main event.

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