Looking at the history books from the early part of the 1990s, you saw drivers like Rich Bickle, Jr., Jody Ridley, Bobby Gill, Gary St. Amant, Butch Miller and Dick Trickle as some of the top names in Late Model racing. There were several other drivers that mixed it up with this crowd on a regional and a national level; some you may have heard of and others you may have not. One of those guys was Five Flags Speedway regular Clay Brown.
Brown was the Snowball Derby polesitter in 1991, and a year a later he finished a career-best third at the Derby. His podium finish in the nation’s most prestigious Super Late Model race was a shining moment in the Gulf Breeze, Florida driver’s career.
Before he ever strapped into a Super Late Model, Brown got his start in Street Stocks before eventually working his way up Late Models in the mid 80’s.
“We were in a little over our head when we made the jump,” Brown recalled. “Those guys would come south out of the midwest where they ran Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday on top of their regular weekend shows. They had a lot of opportunities to refine their craft.”
Brown became motivated and worked at becoming a better racer, while utilizing the best equipment he could get or build. Learning the craft helped him cement himself a future in racing. Starting with a Howe Chassis, Brown and his team made the call to build their own and try it out.
In 1991 Brown went to the Alabama 200 on the freshly paved asphalt at Montgomery Motor Speedway in Alabama. After a long day of racing, Brown took the big win over Gary Balough and Mike Harmon in a deep Late Model field that was nearly 40 strong.
That victory proved to be vital as the next spring that race would prove to be important in what was to come.
“We started the 1992 season on a tight budget and we went to Mobile and had a problem on a pit stop and finished sixth,” Brown explained. “We were running right with (Jody) Ridley all day before the pit stop. We needed to finish better in order to make the next race.”
The tire bill was unpaid and Brown was left scrambling to make it to the next show at Voluisa Speedway (FL) just a week later. Because of the unpaid bill, the team didn’t go south for the second race of the season.
“Bob Harmon called me the next week and asked if I was coming to Montgomery,” Brown recalled. “I told him I couldn’t make it because of the tire bill we had outstanding from Mobile.”
Brown explained that Harmon said he’d take care of him if he came to Montgomery in order to get Brown at the race. He never paid a pit fee that day and raced with two new tires from Mobile and some scuffs.
After starting fourth, Brown battled through 14 caution flags and got by Jody Ridley late in the show The result was his only career win the NASCAR All-Pro Series as he beat out Bobby Gill, Billy Bigley Jr. and Ridley for the win.
“It was a big event for me to win,” he said. “We had run the Alabama 200 on four tires in the fall and that spring we didn’t buy stickers. We went 200 laps again on one set, but we did pit for gas. None of the All Pro guys knew that the tires could go that long. The car actually got better on old tires and we beat them all that day.”
All Pro was Brown’s home away from Five Flags Speedway and he was always in the mix. He made 44 starts in the series before making the switch to NASCAR. In 1989, he finished third in the point standings. During the 1988 season, he recorded 15 top 10 finishes and nine finishes in the top five.
Brown, having built and tinkered with his own chassis, led the transition to the NASCAR Grand National Series at the time and the early years of the Truck Series.
“We built our own Busch car and that was a big challenge in itself,” Brown said. “The timing wasn’t right because they switched from the V6 engines to the V8’s and then all of a sudden you’re having to change part of the program around after a year or two.”
Brown eventually hung up the helmet and moved on to become a builder and fabricator after his own program ran out of funding.
“I had no regrets about how it all shook out,” he said. “I have pictures of me racing with Bobby Allison and Gary Balough and to this day I am proud and in awe about who I got to race with and what we were able to do.”
One thing that kept Brown busy was chassis work in the North Carolina area, but it was the roof flaps that made him well know. When the they first became mandatory on the NASCAR cars in the 90’s. Brown helped a lot of teams put those in to make sure they did their job in one direction and their intent in the other direction.
“I even said when I was racing that half of the fun was building them. I enjoyed doing that work. Park of the enjoyment was the people I worked with back in the 90’s. That enjoyment continued with some of the NASCAR deals I worked with. It was satisfying to see product I produce win races.”
Brown is now retried after founding Fabrication & Specialties in Moorseville, North Carolina.
Don’t be surprised if you see Brown in the pits at the Snowball Derby in December, as he still likes to visit the old stomping grounds. He didn’t win a ton of races, but he raced against the best of his generation and held his own while making a name for himself.
-Story by: Elgin Traylor, Speed51 Correspondent
-Photo credit: WEAR-TV Pensacola