Originally published April 29, 2011, Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Race Legend Lennie Pond on fast cars, Chevrolet and the Richmond racing scene
By: Jon Sealy, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond Drives
For race weekend, Richmond Drives is proud to feature Lennie Pond, a central Virginia native and NASCAR legend. He started racing on dirt tracks in the 1950s, then moved into the Winston Cup races, winning the Rookie of the Year in 1973 and winning the Talladega 500 in 1978. Since the late 1980s, he has been selling cars at Heritage Chevrolet, and earlier this week he graciously hosted the Drives team at the dealership, where he told us some stories about his racing days.
Q. Can we start with a bit about your background? How did you get into racing?
A. I grew up in Ettrick, and we had a couple cars that we used to race on our farm, which is where I got my taste for cars going fast. This area has been home all my life. I started being involved in racing probably in the mid-’50s. I started racing modifieds on dirt tracks, then I went to asphalt tracks, then to late-model tracks. In ’73, I started to run the Winston Cup races, and my last race with Winston Cup was in ’89. I got to run all three tracks here—dirt, asphalt and the new track.
Q. I bet you’ve got some good stories from back in those days.
A. Some of them you couldn’t tell. [Laughs] The first car I ever raced was a flathead Ford motor. We had some problems with it so the next week we put a V8 Chevrolet in it with two four-barrels. That led to my first accident. I went straight through the wall on the Dinwiddie Speedway, on a ¼-mile dirt track.
Most of the guys I raced with were about 10 years older than me, so it made it hard to beat them. Here in Richmond you had the 4-h boys—Sonny Hutchins, Ray Hendrick, Runt Harris and Ted Hairfield—and if you went to a track anywhere around and beat those guys, you earned it.
Q. What are some ways that racing is different today?
A. It was a lot of fun back when I raced. Everybody helped each other. But it’s strictly about business today. The money is good, so today guys can race two or three years and they don’t have to work anymore if they don’t want to. Thirty years ago, the first-place money for Talladega was around $26,000. Today, it’s probably $350,000. If you look at my race history, if you won those same races today you’d have $3 million. That’s what 30 years will do.
Q. I’ll say. Can we shift gears and talk about sales?
A. I’ve been at Heritage for a long time. I enjoy the sales. I like nice cars and I still like being around people. This is the second best thing for me. Racing was first. Racing was always full time for me. I never got to do a lot of fishing, hunting or golfing. Back then it was racing all the time.
Q. What are your favorite models today?
A. We’ve got a pretty good line of cars. I still like the performance cars, the ’Vettes and the Camaros with the bigger motors. General Motors has always had good performance parts with all their brands, especially Chevrolet. My favorite is probably the Camaro with the V8. We sometimes get the performance-based Camaros. We’ve got one right now that has 585 horsepower.
Q. What does someone do with that much horsepower?
A. [Winces.] Be real careful with it. I still have to watch the speedometer on interstates because I tend to go a little over. I’ll tell you one story from back then. We were at Daytona once, and after the race I took a shower and started on back home. Between Daytona and Jacksonville, headed north, my wife said I needed to slow down, you’re not on the racetrack anymore. I looked down and saw I was going 90 mph. I felt like I was crawling because I had just been driving 180 mph on the racetrack. So we slowed down and got the cruise control on.