Freida the Frog Girl was there. So was the Human Blockhead, impassively driving nails into his skull. Fifi the India Rubber Girl tied herself into granny knots. And there was no missing Jolly Dolly, an endomorphic wonder "who is so fat," cried the barker, "that it takes 10 boys to hug her and a boxcar to lug her." Yes sir, the 1975 Indiana State Fair had something for everyone.
But no attraction, not even the big cookie bake-off or the rooster-crowing finals, was quite as compelling as the Invisible Man. He appeared—and disappeared—one boiling afternoon at the fair's speedway in the guise of Larry (Butch) Hartman, stock-car racer. Predictably, Butch won the pole position for the State Fair Century by gunning his 1974 Dodge Charger around the one-mile dirt oval in a record 38.15 seconds. But later, while leading the 100-mile race, the car developed troubles on the 76th lap, and he pulled in, never to return.
Now you see him, now you don't. That has been Butch Hartman's act ever since he began competing on the United States Auto Club circuit 10 seasons ago. Not that he makes a habit of dropping out. Hartman has won the USAC stock-car championship the last four years, and now, with the season's final coming up this Sunday in Trenton, N.J., Butch is gunning for five in a row.
Four, repeat four, consecutive championships. Be it hog calling or cookie baking, Hartman figures that a four-time champ of anything is worthy of some kind of hoopla. But there are no PR roosters crowing for Butch. His feat is the best-kept secret in auto racing.
September 21, 1975
True, Hartman has won some money—$27,805 so far this year, $299,450 during his career. But that is not the stuff on which egos are fed. What Butch wants, indeed craves, is recognition, just the tiniest bit of acclaim in the world outside the USAC ovals. Yet beyond such stock-car outposts as Odessa, Mo. and Salem, Ind., Butch Hartman is, in his own words, "a nobody."
"Shoot," says Butch, "we can't even stir up some dust in my own home state." That fact was made stingingly clear earlier this year when Hartman, a native of Zanesville, Ohio, put his car on display at trade fairs in Akron and Toledo. "There must have been 300,000 people see our car," says the Invisible Man, "and three-quarters of them never even heard of Butch Hartman or the USAC stocks. We couldn't believe it. What does a guy have to do to get a little recognition?"
In Zanesville, it helps to hang out at Mama Bucci's, a pizzeria that is half a lap or so from Hartman's garage. In fact, until he developed a hankering for Mama's lasagna, Butch was just another meatball, known in Zanesville but nowhere near as noted as Zane Grey, the town's favorite son. That affront was corrected by Ron Bucci, an adman who helps run Mama's place. "Butch comes into our restaurant to eat after every race," says Bucci, "and I'd always ask him how he did because I never saw the results in our paper. This kept going on for four years until this summer. I finally said, 'By darn, it's about time people found out who Butch Hartman is.' "
In a town of barely 33,000 souls it is hard to ignore a lamppost, much less a four-time national champion. Nonetheless, when Bucci called the editor of the Zanesville Times Recorder to rev up some publicity the reply was, "Butch who?"
Zanesville's Ambassador to the Automobile World, that's who. At least that is the billing Bucci demanded when he induced the mayor to proclaim Aug. 18-24 as Butch Hartman Week. Promotional wheels whirling, Bucci got local merchants to plaster 24 billboards with THIS IS BUTCH HARTMAN COUNTRY. Butch Hartman T shirts and bumper stickers were cranked out. Station WHIZ extolled Butch in a half-hour TV special. And The Times Recorder belatedly discovered the Wizard on Wheels—"a genuine folk hero who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Paul Bunyan and never bat an eyelash"—in feature stories wrapped around congratulatory ads. Zane Grey, move over.
The finale was a car caravan that followed Hartman to the Indy Fairgrounds. No matter that his Charger didn't finish; 500 supporters whooping it up in the grandstand can make a man feel downright visible.
Still, it was only greater Zanesville. Down South is something else, a big growling something called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The hard truth is that when it comes to stock cars NASCAR is to USAC what Pan Am is to Piedmont. Or as one sign in Zanesville inadvertently summed it up, "There is nothing Petty about Butch Hartman."
Richard Petty, king of the NASCAR Grand National circuit, has all the coveted perks, all the fame and good fortune Hartman is denied. The reasons for NASCAR's dominance over the USAC stocks are several: while the cars look alike, differentiated only by mechanical technicalities, NASCAR runs longer races for a lot more money at larger speedways; it is older and more established; it thrives in the heartland of the stock-car culture; it has national TV coverage; and it blows a mighty loud promotional horn.
All of which might be bearable, says Hartman, if he did not also have to suffer the indignity of being snubbed by his own association. "NASCAR has only one main division," he says, "and all the news is aimed at that. In USAC there are five divisions competing for the spotlight. The championship cars [Indy 500-type] get most of the coverage."
It does not seem to matter that when some of the "big guys," as Hartman calls them, have deigned to enter a USAC stock-car race, Butch has beaten them all—Petty, A.J. Foyt, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Al and Bobby Unser. Conversely, the few times Hartman has tested the high-banked ovals of NASCAR he has done well. In 1968 he became the first rookie ever to lead the Daytona 500; in 1971 he won the Pocono 500 and this year he finished second in the 200-miler at Talladega, Ala. "We don't say that we're the best," says Butch, "but we're competitive."
As one NASCAR hero discovered when he haughtily told Hartman, "Face it, Butch, you're not as good as we are," Hartman is also combative. Butch confesses, "I don't take long to get mad." In July, after outdistancing Foyt, Allison, et al. to win a 200-mile race at the Michigan International Speedway, Hartman was disqualified when a post-race inspection showed his fuel tank was 2.2 gallons over the maximum. Sensing a conspiracy, out $6,300 in prize money and 250 title points, Hartman was in no mood for rival Jack Bowsher's sneering remark, "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy." Butch decked him on the spot.
Employed full-time at his father's truck agency, Hartman is one of the few successful drivers for whom racing is solely an avocation. He has no factory support, no sponsors. He builds his own engines, tows his own cars hundreds of miles each racing weekend. And late at night, when not probing the mysteries of carburetion at his garage, he can be found behind the wheel of one of his father's heavy-duty wreckers ("No hill too steep, no ditch too deep"), rumbling to the rescue of an imperiled truck.
It all comes naturally to Butch. His father Dick, voted the outstanding USAC mechanic in 1968, raced a pair of Ford coupes on the jalopy circuit, winning 126 races in a two-year period. Butch soloed in his father's pickup truck at seven. At nine he and his brother were given a 1939 Ford sedan to overhaul which they christened Death and Destruction. Says Hartman, "What one of us didn't kill, the other tore up."
After a one-year fling at Otterbein College, Butch tore up so many back roads drag stripping that he was sent off to the Marines for four years. Then, in 1964, Hartman, his father and his uncle began competing in as many as five stock-car races on a weekend, driving all night from one tumbledown dirt track to another. "When we had the time," says Butch, "we'd sleep for a couple of hours in ditches alongside the road. When we didn't, one of us would stand on the running board of our old Buick and fuel our pickup truck with a five-gallon can of gas while we were tearing down the road. I think we invented in-flight refueling."
In 1966, displaying a daring flair for driving on the outside, up high on the track where potential disaster lurks, Hartman performed well enough to be named USAC Rookie of the Year. In 1967 he was the Most Improved Driver, in 1968 the Outstanding Driver and then—poof!—the Invisible Man.
Now 35 and figuring that "I've accomplished just about everything I can in USAC," Hartman is cooling it. He has other aims these days, none of which includes accepting the many offers to drive in the Indy 500. "Those cars are too dangerous," says his wife Myra. "I like Butch the way he is." "Yeah," says Hartman, "fat and in one chunk. I can't see jeopardizing everything we have—including my neck—for money. Why should I have to get killed to get recognition?"
Why indeed, when Hartman has already decided, beginning with the Charlotte 500 on Oct. 5, to "get some prestige by racing down South." With Steve Luallen, a first-rate mechanic, and an increasingly professional operation Butch says he is ready to compete in the NASCAR races that were once too expensive and too distant for his small independent team. Confident that "I can drive with Petty and the other NASCAR drivers, without a doubt," he hopes to one day reach a simple but elusive goal.
"When I get through racing and someone brings my name up in a beer joint," Butch Hartman says dreamily, "I want to be remembered as one of the best." Then, pausing for a moment, he adds, "Heck, right now I'd settle for just being remembered."