Auto racing’s elder statesman

Roz Howard has blazed a few trails.

Some have been dirt. Some have been asphalt. Others have been sand, dust, rocks, oil and true grit.

In the old days, when he raced at Daytona, the track was a closed-off section of A1A that looped back along the beach.

When he was cutting his teeth and steeling his nerves on dirt tracks in south Georgia, farmers would plow circles in cotton and cornfields and invite leadfoots to chase each other in flathead Fords.

The younger gearheads -- a term of endearment among automobile racing fans -- may have never heard of Roz Howard. After all, he turned 90 on New Year’s Day.

But the old-timers remember him with reverence. In the 1950s, he raced the likes of Junior Johnson and Rex White. He competed against legends Lee Petty and Ralph Lee Earnhardt, whose sons and grandsons became some of the biggest draws in NASCAR.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton will be the site of the Advocare 500 Sunday night. It is the track where Roz blazed another trail. He was in the lineup for the first-ever NASCAR race there in July 1960. He finished seventh, behind Fireball Roberts.

Eight years ago, he was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. People still recognize him in restaurants in Milledge­ville, where he now lives, and Macon, where he was a mechanic for 18 years.

They want to hear his racing stories. He has plenty to go around.

He grew up on his family farm in Peach County. The boll weevil destroyed half the land and the economic hardships of the Great Depression wiped out what was left. The family moved to Macon, where Roz -- short for Ros­well -- learned the ABC’s of crankshafts and fuel pumps from his father, Livingston Howard.

When he was 12, he got a job working afternoons and weekends for 50 cents a week at an automobile dealership. He would watch his dad take apart old trucks, Model Ts and iron-wheeled tractors. He took his over-the-shoulder apprenticeship to the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he learned to assemble and reassemble motors and transmissions from dump trucks.

He was drafted into the Army, and spent World War II stationed in Miami, where he helped patrol the beaches. When an officer could not start his vehicle one day, Roz raised the hood, got it cranked and was promptly promoted to the motor pool.

After the war, he came home and worked at a couple of downtown garages. On the outskirts of town, he would pull over to admire a service station for sale on Columbus Road. Roz dreamed of owning it. He knew he would have to borrow the money, but he had never darkened the doors of a bank. He kept his $1,500 in savings buried in a fruit jar in the yard.

When he bought the place, he eventually had to sell his vehicle to purchase some tools and equipment. He rode the city bus downtown to buy parts. When he saved enough money to buy a truck, he painted Howard’s Garage on the side, “Here Comes Roz” across the front bumper and “There Goes Roz” across the back. He later had a garage on Montpelier Avenue.

He stumbled into his racing career after borrowing a friend’s car and entering a race at a dirt track in a cornfield near Macon (He flipped the car three times). One Sunday afternoon, he attended a dirt track race in Tifton. A driver failed to show, and the car owner asked him to drive.

He gave him a football helmet and nudged him toward the starting line. Roz finished either second or third -- he can’t remember which. What he does remember is the man gave him $50, which was more than he often made in a week as a grease monkey.

He found the winner’s circle at tracks like Central City Park in Macon, Hawkinsville, Montezuma and Warner Robins, until he learned there were larger purses in north Georgia. So he would hook his race car to the back of his truck and race in Anderson, S.C., on Friday nights, Toccoa on Saturday night and Gainesville on Sunday afternoon.

He would drive home in the wee hours Monday and wash three days of red dirt from his tired body.

Roz raced Fords in the beginning, then switched when Yearwood Chevrolet in Warner Robins began sponsoring his cars. In 1957, he captured the Southern Late-Model points championship for MARC Midwest Association of Race Cars (later known as ARCA), including the Labor Day race at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway.

In the spring of 1958, he fell asleep while driving home from a weekend of races in the Carolinas. He hit a bridge abutment and was in a body cast for almost a year, refusing to let doctors remove his leg.

He rode the NASCAR circuit through the late 1950s, once reaching as high as third in the points standings. In 1960, he was working on pit row at the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., sharing duties with master mechanic Paul McDuffie. He was injured during the famous crash of Roy Tyner and Bobby Johns. McDuffie and two others were killed by the flying debris.

Roz still kept working on cars, though. He moved to Milledgeville and opened three garages with his sons. He still loves to tinker and, even if he doesn’t always pick up a wrench, he will at least let others pick his brain.

Two years ago, he was honored at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, along with other drivers on the 50th anniversary of that first race. It included a lap around the track in a replica car.

It has been a tough year. His wife of 60 years, Treeasian, died in June. He was hospitalized last month with respiratory problems, and a friend would later say: “We almost lost him.’’

But something special has kept him going. For Christmas, his family surprised him with an old black, ’57 Chevy. A group of men, including longtime friend Otis Hester, have been helping him restore it.

It will be placed in the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame Museum in Dawsonville in October.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or