There was a Broadway play not long ago entitled The Trip Back Down, which was about a NASCAR driver named Bobby Horvath. It wasn't a bad play, but stock-car drivers are a breed most New York City theatergoers are far from understanding or appreciating. The play was short-lived.
Horvath could have been a composite of dozens of stock-car drivers who have come and gone and been forgotten. He had been racing for eight years, and if success is synonymous with survival in that business, then Horvath was successful. But he wanted to quit because he wasn't a winner.
Enter Davis Marcis. Marcis (pronounced Markis) is a real stock-car driver, and he, more than any other on the NASCAR circuit, can be compared to Horvath. Horvath: age 37; Marcis: age 37. Horvath: hometown, Mansfield, Ohio; Marcis: hometown, Wausau, Wis. Horvath: "slightly over medium height and strongly built"; Marcis: 5'10" and 160 pounds. Horvath's career record: never made specifically clear, but obviously less than smashing; Marcis' career record: 291 races, four wins.
Listen to Bobby Horvath: "I was gonna be the best. That's what I thought. Not to race in every little dump that's got a track just to keep goin'. Not ever winnin' enough to really get set up right. Just enough to keep goin'. I've spent my life at this, and I'm nowhere near the place I wanted to be."
June 11, 1978
Take some of the bitterness out of Horvath, and listen to Dave Marcis: "I came to NASCAR with the intentions of winning. I was eager and young and wanted to race hard all the time. I wasn't aware of how tough it is to make it. I had no idea, none at all. All I could afford was junk for equipment, and it wasn't capable of running up front. When the season would be over I would have something like a $2,000 profit. One year I even went $1,000 in the hole—after a whole damn year of racing, working 14 hours a day at the damn shop. It's been rough. If I look at what I'm making now, it still looks small."
The big difference between Marcis and Horvath is that Marcis would starve before he would say, as Horvath did at one point in the play, that he'd "been beat too much." And Marcis is far from feeling that he is "on the trip back down."
After 17 years of racing, 10 of them in NASCAR, seven of those completely independent and three on a team with a skimpy budget, it looked as if Marcis had finally gotten to the gravy last season. He was hired to drive for Roger Penske, whose racing operations are consistently first class. It was by far the best deal Marcis had ever had in his life. But, unexpectedly, Penske pulled out of NASCAR after Marcis had run a mere 18 of the 30 Grand National races. "I had no idea what I was going to do after that," Marcis said.
One day last fall, Marcis, unemployed, was tooling down a street in Charlotte, N.C. when a young driver named Roland Wlodyka recognized him, stopped him and took him to breakfast. Wlodyka had a potential sponsor hooked, a California contractor named Rodney Osterlund, but he needed an established driver to strengthen his pitch. Together Wlodyka and Marcis convinced Osterlund to buy Penske's equipment, and a team was born. This year Wlodyka is one of NASCAR's leading rookies, and Marcis is having the best year of his career; although he has not won a race, he is third in the NASCAR standings with 1,738 points after 12 of 33 races. That is only 124 points behind leader Benny Parsons. Marcis has already won the first leg of the points championship by six points over Parsons, which is worth a $10,000 bonus on top of the $73,590 in prize money Marcis has already collected.
Marcis began racing Grand National cars in 1968, two years after he married his wife Helen. They moved their house trailer from Wisconsin to Avery's Creek, N.C. and Marcis began chipping away at the big time. Helen taught school to help finance her husband's racing for the next four years (the first Grand National car Marcis ever raced, a 1964 Ford, had been purchased for $2,000, in part with Helen's paychecks) and quit shortly before the first of their two children was born. They spent long hours working together on the car in a tiny, one-light-bulb shop, Helen painting the names of $25 and $50 sponsors on the car because they couldn't afford a sign painter. Today Helen, not Dave, carries photos of a 1957 Chevy, Marcis' favorite stock car among the dozen he has owned.
"Helen's made a lot of sacrifices," says Marcis. "We've slept in the truck many, many nights when we couldn't afford a motel. We're still living in the same trailer house that I paid $5,900 for when we were married, although we've had to put an addition on it for the kids. We have never lived high. As far as Helen and I going out to fancy places and eating out, we never, ever have. There was times when we weren't eating too good, but Helen always made do, and she's a good cook. I don't know how you'd describe Helen. She don't care if I have $10 or $100,000. She's satisfied to have the children and to have them healthy. She's just happy to have things that way.
"A lot of times I didn't have money to buy new parts for my car, so I would buy used stuff. I bought a lot of it from the Pettys, a lot of tires, sometimes even engine pieces. If the parts would stay together I would finish good, sixth or something, and try to save the prize money until the next time, because most of the time the stuff would break then. I'd go back home, buy more used parts, put the car back together and go racing the next week, and break that, too. I got a reputation of being a good relief driver because I was always standing around the pits long before the end of the race.
"Along the way a lot of people have helped me out for nothing, which meant a lot. There are some people I never would have made it without, but I feel like I done most of the actual work myself. I made a lot of trips from back home in Wisconsin to North Carolina by myself. Three times I drove to a race in Alabama and each time it got rained out. I'd drive straight through after working on the race car and getting it ready to go. I'd drive the rig back home, too. I spent a lot of time on the road, but the only way I could survive was to keep racing, and that meant traveling. I'd get gas at Gary, Indiana, and it would take 20 to 25 minutes to fill the tanks on the truck, so I'd lay down in the seat and fall sound asleep. They would wake me up when it was full, I'd pay them and be on my way.
"Sometimes I would be dead tired, like when I'd drive to Talladega. So what I would do is get the race car through technical inspection. And I'd make one lap around the racetrack, just so I could be a legal entrant. I'd take that slow lap and then I'd go back to the motel and get a good night's sleep. I never went on a racetrack like Talladega or Daytona, the fast racetracks, tired. I always felt like the speeds you ran there it wasn't worth the chance. Some of the short tracks I would race when I was sleepy, but not the super speedways. Never done that. You get going so damn fast at Talladega all you have to do is nod off for a half a second and...whew!"
Look at Dave Marcis. He has been racing 20 years, has worked too many hours, eaten too many hamburgers and slept in too many trucks. He has also risked his life a lot. For three of the last four years he has been one of the 10 best NASCAR drivers, and life has been better, but still far from easy. Now look at almost any other professional athlete who is one of the 10 best at his sport. It becomes clear how a play such as The Trip Back Down could come to be written.
That play ends on an up note. Horvath changes his mind about quitting and rides off into the sunset at Talladega. He may not be a winner, but he's staying in the game because that is his life.
Dave Marcis, too, lives a lot more than most people in the world. "If I lost my deal with Penske tomorrow," he said early last year, unaware how prophetic the statement would become, "I'd do whatever I'd have to do to race. Somehow or another, I'd get another race car. I guess my desire to make it is stronger than the hardships of racing. Quit? I have never given it any thought."