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Where Are They Now: Lake Speed still racing and ‘still bad to the bone’

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He may not have been born a Petty or Earnhardt, but there is one former NASCAR driver whose surname practically predestined his career path.

That person with the colorful moniker is Lake Speed.

“God’s got a sense of humor, that’s the first thing,” Speed laughed when asked about his unique surname in a recent call with NBC Sports. “Every time I make a new acquaintance, I have to explain that the name is real and that God gave it to me.

Lake Speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997. Credit: Darrell Ingham /Allsport

“My dad was one of seven Speed boys. There’s a lot of Speeds back from where we’re from. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse. Sometimes you get ridiculed if you’re not running good because you’ve got the last name of Speed, but on the other side it’s looked at as unique, and I think it’s kind of helped make me stand out a little bit in a crowd.”

While the last of his 402 career NASCAR Cup starts came in 1998 at the age of 50, the 72-year-old Speed is still chasing checkered flags and living up to his last name.

When asked if he’ll ever retire, Speed chuckled, “I haven’t been able to find that in the Bible anywhere. I enjoy what I do, I like people and helping people, the interaction and all that is perfect for me. I just don’t see stopping.”

Speed began racing go-karts in his native Mississippi at the age of 12 before eventually finding his way into NASCAR Cup.

“Some people know I was a big-time go-karter for years, had a career, business and raced all over the world with karts before I ever came to NASCAR,” Speed told NBC Sports.

Since leaving NASCAR, Speed has come full circle, returning to his karting roots in 2001 and has become one of the more successful and prolific karting racers in the country.

Future NASCAR Cup driver Lake Speed poses with one of his racing karts when he was 15 years old. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“After I left NASCAR, a former NASCAR safety official, Steve Peterson, was a go-karter for years and years,” Speed said. “He kept calling me and kept saying, ‘Lake, you’ve got to come out here to the kart track. I have a few cars and you can come out and play with us some.’

“I finally went out one day and I forgot how much fun this was. I told myself I’ve got to get me one of these. So I got a kart and started fooling around with one and eventually started racing again. I went big-time, messed around and won the national championship in karting road-racing in 2007. Between the karting, the real estate business and trying to raise a bunch of kids and grandkids, that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”

Speed’s day job is as a commercial real estate broker, a career path he began back in his college days.

But racing has always been his first true love, particularly karting. Speed won the International Karting Federation national championship six times before he came to NASCAR in 1980, and was the first American to win the World Karting Championship at LeMans, France in 1978, defeating a number of other aspiring racers including future three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna.

He remained the only American to win the world karting title in any class until 14-year-old Florida native Logan Sargeant did so in 2015.

Speed could have gone in any number of directions as a racer, but former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler convinced him to try NASCAR, finishing as runner-up to Jody Ridley as Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980.

Speed would go on to record 16 top-five and 75 top-10 finishes in his Cup career, with a career-best points finish of 10th in 1985.

Lake Speed, winner of the 1988 TranSouth 500. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

March 27 marked the 32nd anniversary of Speed’s only win of his Cup career, the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway. He took the checkered flag by nearly 19 seconds over Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.

“It was more of a relief than anything,” said of winning. “I had really been close to winning a lot of races in my career up to that point and particularly that season, we had led (nearly) every race that season before that race.

“We had the whole field a lap down at one time (in another race) and still didn’t win the darn thing. So when I finally won at Darlington, it was like, ‘Gosh darn, finally, now we can finally get on with it.’

“That was great, but there were other highlight moments. I had cars that were more than capable of winning a race and had a mechanical failure, an accident or whatever that knocked you out.

“There were also the times we passed the heroes and we were always an underfunded and under-budgeted team. When you outran the big dogs, it didn’t matter whether we won the race or not, we took home a moral victory. We had a lot of moral victories. Only one was in the record books, but there was a whole lot more of them where we went home to the shop with our heads held high, knowing we had put the hurtin’ on ‘em.”

Speed still keeps up with NASCAR – and the fans still keep up with him.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I am, this far out, that I still get multiple cards, letters, model cars every week,” he said. “I’m autographing stuff and sending it out every week. It makes me feel good and gives me the opportunity to share my faith with people. I got saved in 1983 and it made a giant change in my life. I feel God gave me this platform to use, so I try to use it to honor him.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss it?’ Yeah, I miss it. I miss probably the most working in the shop with the guys, trying to build a better race car to outrun everyone else. I really love that challenge.

“I never went to work. It was always a pleasure and joy to work with guys and build strong relationships. People that have never been on a team that was working seven days a week for a goal, it’s just a different scenario than a ho-hum job that you’re going to just to make a check.

“I lived that life most of my life and when I got retired from NASCAR, all of a sudden I was in an office by myself. It was a shock. It took me several years to get over it. It was a tough, tough change. Karting really was a salvation for me, to get me going again to have something to do and the interaction with people.”

Lake Speed darts around a kart track April 5, 2006. Photo by Getty Images for NASCAR.

Speed didn’t mind being an underdog during much of his Cup career. But the real heroes to him were those who helped him throughout that nearly two full decades of NASCAR racing.

“I can’t really emphasize enough how important the crew guys are and were,” he said. “The relationships we built, we worked hours and hours together doing things and trying to accomplish stuff.

“In our case, being underfunded, when we got out ahead a lick, it was amazing to see these guys light up and the pride. When you see guys work real hard and they accomplish something together, it’s amazing. I still bump into one of those guys at least once a month and it’s like seeing a brother or sister that you haven’t seen in a while.”

Speed faced a number of tough competitors in his career but also became close friends with several, including Bobby Hillin Jr. and Darrell Waltrip.

Speed still lives and works out of the same compound he bought in 1985 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His real estate office occupies part of his original race shop, while his karts have replaced the Cup cars that used to be worked on there as well.

Karting has helped keep Speed young. He enjoys mixing it up with drivers half or even two-thirds his age.

“Look at it this way: I started all this when I was about 12 years old and raced until I retired from NASCAR,” Speed said. “I sat around for two or three years until I got into karting and went right back to racing regularly again.

“It’s just something that’s been in my blood all along. I love working on ‘em, love the people, the camaraderie and the challenge. I always said that if I knew last year what I knew this year, I would have won all the races last year.”

Speed is also a big part of what has become somewhat of a seniors tour: vintage karting, which is composed mainly of drivers in their 50s and on up into their 80s.

“It’s like going to a high school reunion, but where everybody shows up with a go-kart, races, has a good time, tells a lot of stories and relives their childhood,” he said with a laugh. “It really is cool, it’s the greatest thing in the world. You go to a high school reunion and it’s kind of boring. This is not.”

When asked how successful he is in karts today, Speed laughed: “With the modern stuff, not so much. You’re racing against a bunch of guys whose average age is 22, there I’m kinda mid-pack.

“But with the vintage stuff, I’m still bad to the bone.”

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NASCAR Cup car from 1989 ‘found’ in Ireland, still runs strong on original tires and motor

Photo from YouTube video
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We’ve all heard stories of old race cars that were discovered in someone’s barn or garage or similar places. Usually, they’re all rusty or falling apart or are in dire need of a makeover.

But here’s a story you likely haven’t heard before. It turns out the No. 31 1989 Chevrolet Lumina, which competed in four Winston Cup races in 1991 (as the No. 53) and 11 races in 1992 (as the No. 31), was recently “discovered” by guys from the drift racing web site DriftGames.Life (DGL).

But instead of finding it in a barn or well off the beaten path, the DGL team found the car tucked away in a museum at Ireland’s Mondello Park International Race Circuit, near Dublin.

“We were walking down pit lane at Mondello Park and came across probably the most insane thing you’re ever going to see in Ireland, a fully fledged NASCAR,” said DGL’s Dave Egan, who narrates the video below. “We’re going to get our full Cole Trickle on because ‘Days of Thunder’ was (the thing) when I was younger. That was the best film, with Tom Cruise, and this is the car from that era. It’s old-school NASCAR.”

This is no replica or show car. It’s the actual race car — and it’s in great condition (except for a few old tire scuff marks from the usual beatin’ and bangin’ that goes on in Cup racing).

Photo: Reddit.com

Here’s the back story: Irish entrepreneur, former race car driver and former Lola Race Cars owner Martin Birrane wanted to go NASCAR racing in the U.S., so he formed “Team Ireland” in 1991, becoming one of the first foreign owners to field a team in NASCAR’s premier series.

With a chassis built by and purchased from Dale Earnhardt Inc., complete with a Richard Childress Racing motor, the team ran four races in 1991, two with Bobby Hillin Jr. behind the wheel of the No. 53, and two other races with John Paul Jr. in the driver’s seat.

Birrane brought Hillin Jr. back to drive in 1992 in the rechristened No. 31. The car’s best finish with Hillin Jr. behind the wheel was 13th in that year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Later that same season, the car was disqualified at Charlotte following the Mello Yello 500 (Hillin Jr. finished eighth in the race before the DQ) for using illegal cylinder heads. Because the team could not afford to pay the hefty $50,000 fine levied by NASCAR (one of the highest penalties assessed at the time), as well as being unable to attract additional sponsorship, that ultimately and abruptly ended Team Ireland’s and Birrane’s brief foray into NASCAR.

After the team disbanded, Birrane brought the car back to his homeland. The car was brought back to life recently by the DGL crew, with Irish driver Ian Beatty putting it through its paces at Mondello Park, which Birrane and now his family owns.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tswr2F8O4mk&w=560&h=315%5D

Beatty took the car for a spin on, believe it or not, with the same tires that it had after its Charlotte DQ, rubber that is over a quarter-century old.

It’s a handful,” Beatty said of his experience driving the car. “It’s a bit like driving a bus with 850 horsepower. … And of course these tires are 20-30 years old, so there’s no grip on them. It’s a handful, but it’s fun.”

One humorous highlight of the ride came before Beatty took it onto the track – he got stuck trying to climb through the window and couldn’t slide down into the seat because the old-fashioned steering wheel blocked him. The team had to remove the steering wheel and then Beatty was able to get to work.

Birrane passed away last June at the age of 82. Hillin Jr., who now runs an oil company in Houston, fondly recalls his time with Team Ireland.

“Martin was a true gentleman,” Hillin Jr. told NBC Sports. “I liked him a lot. I feel bad that I lost touch with him.

“Martin will be remembered for somebody being a pioneer and coming over here and doing a NASCAR team and investing in NASCAR. … I don’t think the sport really appreciated what he had to offer when he was here, and it’s too bad.

A diecast model of the Team Ireland Chevrolet Lumia (photo courtesy RacingChampions.Blogspot.com).

“I was never able to go to Mondello Park, but I was pretty impressed with him because he really was committed to NASCAR and wanted to make a go of it, to the point where he was flying in from London for all the races, sometimes week to week or once a month. It was kind of too bad the way things turned out.”

Then, Hillin Jr. added: “The biggest thing I remember is people loved the car and the big Irish cloverleaf on it. I don’t know how many of those people were Irish, but they sure loved it.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski