With the annual NASCAR weekend in the area, it also brought back local Chemung Native and former NASCAR Star Geoff Bodine. Geoff who was kind enough to sit down with us and take us on a trip down memory lane.
Daily Review: Geoff lets go back to the beginning. Take us back to the early years of your youth and how this amazing ride of your life took place.
Geoff Bodine: My dad and grandfather, both Ely Sr & Jr built the track. Local guys came to them and asked them to build a track. My grandfather owned a lot of land so these guys said “Build us a racetrack!” So he took a cornfield right along route 17, their’s were barns and everything on it, but they dug it up and made a 1/4 mile dirt track, then it went to 1/3 mile dirt then 1/3 mile asphalt.
DR: So when you began racing there was it dirt or asphalt?
GB: It was dirt, and when they built it, inside the big track there was a little track for the kids. So when I was five years old my dad built me a little go-cart. So I started racing when I was five. I had uncles that raced the big track, so when I got older and I wasn’t working at the farm or the racetrack, I’d hang out at their garage and they taught me how to build engines and cars, all that mechanical stuff. I had one uncle who was a really good driver, Earl. My uncles are all gone now but Earl was really good. I used to watch him and I just knew I could drive just by watching him. I was 16 years old and my parents wouldn’t let me drive the big cars, the late models, until I had graduated and turned 18. But I wanted to drive man, I knew I could drive. Guys used to go there (Chemung Speedway) and test and I’d go open up the gate and let them in. One time Pat Judson -he’s from around here, he’s gone now- was testing his car and he got done, got out, looked at me and said “You want to try it?” and I said “Are you kidding?” He said “ No, jump in!” So I did, and I went round and round. They where trying to get me to come in and finally I ran out of gas. That’s the only reason I stopped. Right then I knew I could drive. So I came up with this idea. Every month they had a Powder Puff derby for the ladies. So I borrowed a car from one of my cousin’s — Mike Castilines car- and borrowed a wig from cousin. I swear to god, (Laughing). My parents didnt know this until my brother, Brett told them this story at their 50th wedding anniversary. So I entered the powder puff derby! Back then cars would go out, they wouldn’t know who it was. If a strange car went out there, they didn’t care. So they didn’t know who was in it. 588 was the number. Next thing I know I’m leading this race! I got thinking, I can’t win, Cause my dad would hand out the trophy to the winner and kiss the winning driver! So this isn’t going to work so I had to shut off and coast off the track like something was wrong, But I don’t know any other race driver to ever do that?
DR: So you graduated Waverly High School class of 67, you do any high school sports outside of racing?
GB: Heck yeah! I wrestled! I loved Wrestling. I started in grade school and just loved wrestling. I didn’t do it up to my senior year cause my senior year I went out for football. Being a small school like Waverly, if you could put the helmet on you made the team. I was a little guy but all the big kids lived on farms, they had to work so they couldn’t play football. We had a fun team, a good team, that year. My senior year, we had a perfect season, we lost every game! (Laughs) I was a linebacker. I loved linebacker cause I loved to hit. I played baseball at home, not in school, so I had a basic up bringing. I worked at the track and at the farm. I worked! We didn’t have any free time back then.
DR: How did you get the break to get you into the modified series?
GB: Well I built a race car, like I said they wouldn’t let me race until I graduated and I was 18. Well the night I graduated I went back home, I had already built the car that winter. I ran my first race, started last, new car — new driver, and finished second. I raced at my fathers track for two years on dirt, and then a gentleman from Waverly had a asphalt modified, saw me race at the track and asked me if i’d like to go to Fulton and see what see what I can do on asphalt. I said “Heck yeah.”
So we went there, ran pretty good, so we got together. I raced for Tom McClain in 68 and 69 was my first full year in Asphalt Modified. I built my own car in 1970 and then moved to New England to run the full series and that’s how I got started in that.
DR: You got into NASCAR Winston Cup at age 32 after years in the modifieds. Explain the difference these days of so many young drivers today in the series compared to paying your dues in your day.
GB: These days there are no paying your dues its all about paying the bills. If you got a rich daddy or grandfather or they got a sponsor and can bring money, you can get in a car, It may not be right but its how it works these days. Now when Earnhardt senior and I were coming up through, we raced late models and modifieds, you know I won alot of races but nobody was calling me. So I moved from New England down to North Carolina. I gave up a great career in modifieds cause I wanted to race in NASCAR. I wound up driving a late model for two years for Emanuel Zervakis, that was 79 and 80. I drove a couple races in Cup in that period. My first full time ride came in 1982. A guy from Highpoint North Carolina, Cliff Stewart No. 50 car. I drove for him for two years then Rick Hendrick started his team and I was his first driver in 1984.
DR: Now you earned your first Winston Cup win with Rick Hendrick?
GB: Rick was a very small car dealer, back then the reason I went with him was because he had Harry Hyde as a crew chief. Harry Hyde was famous! He won a lot of races! I get with Harry, he’s going to show me how to win. After our 7th race Rick came to us — and he tells the story many times- “Man I spent way more money than I thought I would have to spend, its a start up team and you spend a lot of money, I just can’t do it, I’ve got a business, I’ve got a family, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to just shut down.” Well Harry went to Rick and said, “Look the car’s all ready for Martinsville, the engine’s in it, its all ready. It won’t cost you a nickel more to let us go to Martinsville. That Bodine he’s won a bunch of modified races and late model races up there so everything is ready so just let us go!” Well he did and we won. The next week Rick signed a sponsor for the rest of the season. Not a huge deal but a money deal, enough to keep things going. Now look at Hendrick Motorsports. I drove for him from 84 to 89.
DR: Obviously the Daytona 500 win of 1986 was the pinnacle of your career?
GB: That’s really what inspired me to race. Cause I wanted to race against Richard Petty my hero. I wanted to race Daytona. My parents used to take my sister and I to Daytona in the wintertime in February. I remember being a little kid in the infield and on the way home saying, “One day I’m to going to go to Daytona and win that 500! Of course they laughed. But it was a dream but if you dream hard enough and work hard enough dreams can come true so when I won that race, I was sitting in the car and said, what the heck is next? I just completed my dream. Is it over? Heck no I want to win more, this is fun!
DR: Winning the Daytona 500 caused a snowball effect in your car when in 1987 your where invited to be apart of the International Race of Champions Series and race against Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr and Jr, Bobby Rahal, guys like that. What was it like to compete against some of the top names in racing?
GB: Well it was a honor to get in that series. It’s a shame its inactive today. For a driver to race against some of the best drivers in the world is pretty awesome! Back then Ray Everham prepared those cars. They were good, they were equal.
(NOTE: The International race of champions was a invitation only series that ran from 1974-2006. It was a series that featured the top racing champions of the day. To qualify a driver had to be a series champion — NASCAR, Indy Car, Sports Cars, Etc and the winners of the biggest races — Daytona 500, Indy 500, ect. The drivers drove identically prepared IROC Camero’s with no pit stops. Usually raced four times a year in 1987 the four tracks were Daytona. Mid Ohio Sports car Course, Michigan and Watkins Glen.) To beat those guys at the Glen was really a honor, a thrill, something I’ll always remember.
DR: Whats been going on with your life after racing?
GB: I live in Florida now and I help a gentleman, a friend that drives a late at New Smyna Speedway (About 15 miles south of Daytona). He has an Ace Hardware so he works 8 to 8.
He doesn’t have time to work on the car so I do 99% of the work. I build it and try to make it go faster.
He doesn’t have a big shop, its back to old school racing. Its funny how you stay busy at this age, there is no retirement. I stay busy ever day of the week. I’ve got some friends in Florida that own a restaurant and bar and I helped them put a new addition on it. We have friends that own Marina’s so I do a little boat work, a little fishing, and anything that needs to be done. Still enjoy coming to the track on an occasional basis and catch up with old friends and even make new ones.
If you’re at the Go Bowling at the Glen NASCAR Weekend and see local legend Geoff Bodine walking around, take the time to stop him and say hi. Welcome him home, even if it is just for the weekend.