At 60-Something, Farmer Is Last Driver of Original Alabama Gang
Posted January 29, 1999 6:00 a.m. EST
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — When Red Farmer was a boy, his mother used to say he wouldn't live to see the age of 16. And when he made it to 16, she said he wouldn't see 18.
She wasn't making threats, she was just trying to warn her son.
``I did some crazy things,'' Farmer said. ``She just wanted me to stop being so crazy. For instance, we used to go jumping into an old quarry and catch alligators.''
The craziness never really stopped, and neither has Farmer.
At 60-plus years, he is the last member of the legendary Alabama Gang still racing, and one of the oldest race-car drivers anywhere.
Last weekend, he was out there trading paint, starting his 51st straight season of auto racing. These days, he mostly drives on dirt short tracks, where top speeds are only about 100 mph, cars are lighter and crashes are less damaging.
Farmer has lived well beyond his mother's prediction, but he had to cheat death more than once to do it. Most notably, Farmer survived the helicopter crash that killed his close friend, Winston Cup star Davey Allison, in 1993.
Farmer suffered a broken collarbone and some internal injuries in that crash, but the loss of the bright young man he'd watched grow up was by far the worst part of that accident, he said.
Physically, his worst wrecks and injuries were in race cars - so many ``I couldn't possibly remember them all.''
In 1968, a wreck in Mississippi broke a half-dozen ribs and three vertebrae and gave him a concussion. In Daytona in 1974, his race car flipped over 18 times.
His left kneecap has been removed, he was once burned over 40 percent of his body, and just about every major bone in his body has been broken at least once.
If that's not enough, Farmer lost the top knuckles of the index, ring and middle fingers on his left hand when he accidentally stuck that hand in the huge propeller of his airboat while hunting in 1961.
With blood spurting and bones sticking out, he had to pilot his boat through 15 miles of Everglades to his car, then drive about 20 miles to the hospital.
``I guess that's why I keep moving,'' Farmer said. ``I've got just about every 'itis' you can think of. I'm afraid that if I sit still, my body will just lock right up on me.''
Farmer has never been much help when it comes to determining his exact age.
``How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?'' he asked. ``Age is just a number on a piece of paper.''
According to NASCAR and other sources of official pieces of paper, he's 66.
Farmer was a driver on the prestigious Winston Cup circuit in 1953, '56, '60, '62, '65, '67-'69 and '71-'75, although he didn't break into the top ranks. His best finishes were fourth, once in Georgia and once in Daytona.
But on other circuits, such as Busch - where he won three consecutive Grand National Division Championships - and ARCA, Farmer found tremendous success. Last year, he won his 734th race in Pensacola, on the pickup-truck circuit, no less.
Also last year, as part of its 50th anniversary, NASCAR named its 50 top drivers of all time. Along with the big Winston Cup names, the Richard Pettys and the Jeff Gordons, Farmer was named to the list.
Nowadays, he races only ``for fun''; he estimated he probably will have fun 25 or 30 times this season.
He was born Charles Lawrence Farmer in Nashville, where he lived until his parents split up when he was 15. He then moved with his mother to Hialeah, Fla.
Farmer's father died of cancer at age 41. ``He never got to see me race,'' Farmer said.
In 1948, an interesting chance came along. His friend's father, Earl Davis of Earl's Glass Shop, owned a race car, but he lost his driver in the latter part of the season.
``I said, 'I'll drive it,' and that was it,'' Farmer said. ``I became a race-car driver.''
He drove at the track in Opa-Locka, Fla., and won his first race in 1949.
There's a small room in Farmer's house that he calls his trophy room. All four walls are packed three or four trophies deep. Pictures of Farmer standing in front of various incarnations of F-97 fill the remaining spots.
More trophies reside at Long-Lewis Ford, Farmer's main sponsor since 1962. Still more have been contributed to the Alabama Gang museum, which is in the planning stages.
Farmer has always been proud of his variety of interests and his prowess at them. He loves hunting with bow and arrow, as well as fishing. He has more than 20 rods and reels ready to head down to his cabin on the Warrior River at the drop of a checkered flag.
``I'm having a good time,'' Farmer said. ``You know, I'm getting at the age when I'm starting to lose my friends. I just want to make sure that I take the time to do the things I really want to do.''
How long will he keep racing?
``When it's no longer fun, and I'm just in the way, I'll quit,'' he said.