Editor’s note: This is part one of our interview with former NASCAR driver Dave Marcis. Part two, which deals with Marcis’ friendship with Dale Earnhardt, will appear Tuesday.
When 26-year-old Dave Marcis went south to pursue fame and fortune in NASCAR, he received a true royal welcome when he pulled into the Daytona International Speedway garage for the first time in February 1968.
None other than The King, Richard Petty, was the first to greet Marcis, the wing-tipped short track wonder from Wausau, Wisconsin.
“He come over by my car in the garage, walked all around it, looked all over it, introduced himself and said ‘Welcome to the sport of NASCAR,’ ” Marcis told NBC Sports.
“He asked me a bunch of questions about my car, where it came from and that sort of stuff. He was always my idol when I first started racing. I used to follow him back home by reading Hot Rod Magazine. After meeting him for the first time in Daytona, we became and have remained good friends.”
But Petty wasn’t merely being friendly, welcoming the newest kid to NASCAR. While Marcis had read about Petty, the latter had heard plenty of Marcis’ racing exploits and success back in the Badger State.
Petty won a NASCAR Grand National record 27 races – including 10 in a row – in 1967. But two years earlier, Marcis won 52 races in the Central Wisconsin Racing Association, a confluence of 1/3- and 1/4-mile asphalt paved tracks.
“They put an ad in the newspaper and formed (the CWRA) at Ed’s Bowling Alley on 6th Street in Wausau in 1958,” said Marcis, who still has a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from his nearly five-decade racing career.
Because the CRWA season lasted just three months. Marcis raced seven times per week, including numerous Sunday day/night doubleheaders, where he’d race at one track in the afternoon and then drive to another track for an evening sequel.
After meeting Petty for the first time, just days later Marcis would make his first of a record 33 starts in the Daytona 500 – including 32 in a row from 1968-99 – and then end his NASCAR career where it began in the 2002 edition of The Great American Race.
At the age of 61, no less.
“That was my first big race track,” Marcis said when asked what it was about Daytona that kept him coming back. “I liked the track, it’s a nice track. I enjoyed it there, the fans and everything.
“I worked on my own car and on the chassis and we always seemed to get the car handling good and be able to get qualified. In those days, everybody had to qualify and sometimes you had 62 cars trying to qualify for 40 or so places.”
Between his 33 starts in the 500, Marcis became one of NASCAR’s most prolific drivers, making 883 career starts, behind only Petty (1,185), Ricky Rudd (906) and Terry Labonte (890).
Even though his best finish in the 500 was sixth (in 1975 and 1976), Marcis didn’t consider Daytona his toughest track.
“Trenton, New Jersey (Trenton Speedway) used to be a real tough race track when they put the dog leg in the back straightaway, and Dover, Delaware (Dover International Speedway) was a real tough race track because you’d spend 5 ½ hours in that heat, at 130 degrees in that race car,” he said. “It got pretty warm up there. And Bristol was really, really tough on your neck and the heat was pretty bad there, too.”
When it came to the toughest foes he faced on the track, Marcis said the late Dick Trickle, a fellow Wisconsin native, was the toughest on Midwest short tracks, while Petty was among the hardest on NASCAR’s bigger tracks.
Marcis didn’t have the winning success in NASCAR that he enjoyed in short track racing in his home state. He earned five Grand National/Cup wins, but as one of the sport’s last independent team owner/operators, he earned 94 top five and 222 top-10 finishes.
“You couldn’t keep up with the schedule as an independent owner/operator,” Marcis said. “I’d work night and day so half the time I’d be worn out by race day. It wasn’t easy but it’s what I wanted to do.”
Marcis’ best seasons in NASCAR were 1975, when he finished a distant second in the points to Petty, and in 1978, when he finished fifth, driving for team owner Rod Osterlund.
Marcis’ replacement for the 1979 season was Dale Earnhardt. They would become close friends.
Earnhardt won his first of seven Cup championships in 1980 in his second season of driving for Osterlund before the team imploded two-thirds of the way through the 1981 season.
After the 2002 Daytona 500, Marcis made one more race start in his career, finishing seventh in the 2010 Scotts EZ Seed Shootout, an exhibition race for retired drivers 50 years and older at Bristol Motor Speedway, at the age of 69.
Now 79, racing and life has been good to Marcis.
“I’m doing fine, I have no health problems and am on zero medications of any kind. I’m probably ready to hop back into a race car,” he said with a laugh. “Of course, my wife doesn’t want me to, but yeah, I still would like to.”
Marcis and wife Helen have spent the last 51 years living outside Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s far from retired, owning Street Rods by Dave Marcis. He often returns to Wisconsin, where he owns a few businesses and property. He’s also an avid hunter and fisherman.
“We went bear hunting in Canada last year and we’re going to go moose hunting next year, I think,” he said. “I stay busy, I don’t sit around.”
Marcis also still keeps up with NASCAR.
“Oh sure, I still follow it,” he said. “(NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton sent me a (hard card) so I can go. I was going to go to Atlanta last week to watch Johnny Sauter, who I know pretty well, in the pick-up truck race, but obviously that race didn’t take place (due to the coronavirus outbreak).”
Even with the lengthy NASCAR career he enjoyed, Marcis has never forgotten his short track roots.
The Badger State not only sent Marcis but also several other notables to NASCAR, including Trickle, Sauter, Alan Kulwicki, Matt Kenseth and longtime crew chief Jimmy Fennig.
Last July, Marcis returned to his hometown, along with Sauter and others to take in a CWRA Stars to Legends Tour race and share many memories in and around his old stomping grounds of State Park Speedway.
“There’s a lot of memories when you race the number of years I did, moving from the ranks of a short-track guy who really had nothing and no big sponsorships and running the 1/3- and 1/4-mile tracks,” Marcis said. “We didn’t even have a 1/2-mile track we ran on weekly.
“There were nights where I’d win $142 for winning a race, and others where I was the top qualifier, finished third in the heat race and second in the feature and won only $60.
“But gas was only 27 cents a gallon. And unless we cut them or blew them out, we could run the same set of tires for a whole year. I think that’s another thing that made us better racers because we learned how to set those cars up with those old, hard tires. They were really hard, they didn’t wear. You had to work hard to get those cars handling good. It wasn’t because of a good, soft tire, because we didn’t have them.
“Being able to come to NASCAR and try it, it was just hard to believe that we could even do it. We didn’t have no money or big sponsorships when we did it. I tell people I didn’t know what I was really getting into when I came down there to NASCAR.
“Thankfully, I had a lot of help when I first came here. Way up in northern Wisconsin, I didn’t know that much. I got Hot Rod Magazine and whatever articles they had, that was all I knew about NASCAR.
“If you wanted to race for a living, I decided I needed to go to NASCAR and do it because we started in February and would go through October in those days.”
There was one other incentive, Marcis said with a laugh from his North Carolina home:
“One thing I’ll always remember is around Easter time, they were running at Hickory (Motor Speedway), while we were still shoveling snow back up in Wisconsin. That’s one of the reasons why I moved down here in 1969 and have been here ever since.”