FireAde Pro Stock driver Larry Morgan will make history this weekend at the Toyota NHRA Summernationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park by becoming the third driver to reach 600 starts in NHRA drag racing.
His start in drag racing, not surprisingly, was not so historic. As a pre-teenager in his hometown in Ohio, Morgan would spend his afternoons sweeping the floor of a local gas station. Racer Thurman Treadway would come to the station, and young Morgan asked to go to the races with him.
“He said, ‘If you come Saturday and wash all these cars, I’ll take you to the races,’ ” Morgan said. “That’s how it started.”
One of the tracks Treadway took Morgan to was famed Pacemakers Dragway Park in Mount Vernon, Ohio, one of the longest-running tracks in the United States. Later, Morgan got his first race car, and in typical Morgan fashion, it happened in an unusual way.
“One of the places I worked at was across the street from Treadway’s place,” Morgan said. “I cleaned the floor there, too, and the guy was building a car to race. He ended up going out of business, and he owed me $20. I said, ‘What about my $20?’
“He told me, ‘I don’t have the $20, but I’m going to pay you — unless you don’t want that car out there.’ ”
The car was a ’60 Ford Falcon with a 392 Hemi engine that wasn’t quite finished, but of course Morgan wanted it, even if he was only 12 years old.
“I could weld, so I went to the junkyard and got two driveshafts and welded them together so I could do burnouts with that car,” Morgan said. “I remember tearing that thing apart.”
When he turned 16, Morgan began racing at Pacemakers, starting a career that has reached its fifth decade.
Morgan was racing Competition Eliminator in the early 1990s, and he became friends with Arlen Fadley, who ran Oldsmobile’s motorsports program.
“We were always joking around at the races,” Morgan said. “I’d say, ‘Hey, when are you going to get me an Olds deal?’ He’d say, ‘You want one?’ I’d say, ‘Hell, yeah.’ ”
One weekend while racing in Denver in 1986, Fadley took Morgan to dinner to meet California businessman Bob Panella. There, Panella made Morgan an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He said, ‘I want you to drive my Pro Stock? You want to do it?’ ” Morgan said. “I said, ‘How the hell can I turn down something like that?’ ”
Morgan made his debut in Pomona, Calif., in 1987 and scored his first career victory with Panella at the U.S. Nationals in 1989, beating the legendary Bob Glidden in the final round. He raced for Panella’s team for several years.
“I had a good time racing with (Panella),” Morgan said. “Him and his wife Dorothy were good people, very good people.”