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THE YEAR OF THE OLD SPORT : GABBY GARRISON : At 70, He Unretires From Stock Car Racing

January 01, 1987|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Vernon Castle (Gabby) Garrison had planned to retire from auto racing when he turned 70 last July.

Garrison is a great grandfather and most of the drivers he races against are young enough to be his grandsons.

His friends threw a big birthday/retirement bash for him at the Saugus Speedway. He got letters from President Reagan, and other elected officials.

But Garrison decided to come back for another season after wrecking his car.

"Racing is hard to quit," Garrison said. "I was going to end it last season except for one thing. I started off the season real bad. I blew two engines in a row. And then in another race my brakes went out and I hit the wall at 70 miles per hour and destroyed the car.

"My wife didn't believe it, but I would have quit if I'd finished the race that night. But I didn't want to quit a loser. So I'm putting together a new car. When I destroyed my other car I didn't hurt the body because it was fiberglass. And the engine and transmission were fine. But the frame was destroyed."

Garrison races modified stock cars. He's building a new car this winter and plans to return to the Saugus Speedway next season.

Garrison, who lives in Long Beach, has won more then 40 racing trophies.

"I have more fun building a car than racing. All I'm going to do is go up there (Saugus) and race. If I win one I'm going to quit that night.

Garrison has been racing for 30 years. He got a late start in stock car racing, entering the sport when he was 40.

"I didn't know how to go about getting started," Garrison said. "It took a couple young guys where I used to work to give me a nudge to get started in amateur racing."

Garrison worked for Northrup Corp. for 30 years, painting airplanes. He retired in 1972.

"I was dreaming about racing when I was five years old," he said. "I always wanted to be a racer. But the closest I came to it was when I was 15. I inherited a model-T Ford. I took it on the street and drove like a fool.

Garrison began drag racing in 1950 but he wanted to move to the oval tracks.

"A couple of guys that worked with me at Northrup wanted me to go in with them on an old jalopy," Garrison said. "We went in as partners on an old jalopy. We went over to Slauson Speedway in Maywood and raced there.

"But I wasn't allowed to drive because I was too old. It was just for 15- or 16-year-old kids. When the race program was over on Sunday, if there was time left, they would allow us to have an old man's race. They would allow us 40-year-old foggies to get out there.

"That was it. I was hooked. But I was pretty wild. I ended up going backwards more than forwards, but I finished third in points that season."

The next season he entered the stock car class and fixed up a 1941 Chrysler to race in 1956.

"The first thing I did was flip it and I broke my nose and a rib, but I ended up third in points," Garrison said.

Garrison turned professional in 1957 and has been racing stock cars at the Saugus Speedway since 1959.

"I was one of the 13 charter members that started racing at Saugus in 1959," he said. "And I've been there ever since."

Garrison says he doesn't race for the money.

"Most racers run on short tracks do it for the fun of it. You don't do it to get rich because you can't make any money. I raced modified stocks until about three years ago when it got to be too expensive for me, so they created a sportsman division. It's an economy class of modified.

"It costs about $10,000 to put a car together. Last year I only raced three times because my car got destroyed. I had nothing but bad luck."

Garrison got his nickname because he loves to talk.

"When I was working at Northrup all I did was talk about racing on our coffee breaks. The other guys said that if I didn't shut up they were going to start calling me Gabby. And the name stuck.

"But when I was racing at Western Speedway (in Gardena) the TV announcers always used to call me the silent one because they couldn't get me to talk. I was scared to death when I was on TV."

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