Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Often times in local dirt track racing we come across people that regardless of the circumstances, they have the grit and determination to find a way to make things happen. It’s a chemistry of a never say die attitude, mixed with a few drops of stubborn, that great things come from.
Back in the late 1980’s Ft. Smith, Arkansas’ Chuck Knight and local businessman and friend Rick Reedy made a decision that they wanted to head east and race the NASCAR Southeast Series, known then as the NASCAR All Pro Series. It was a decision that both knew was going to take a lot of preparation and planning just to pull into the pits at a track hosting a NASCAR Southeast Series event.
To start with, Knight had not competed on asphalt since 1978. Plus there was the acquisition of the car and other needed equipment to run the series. Knight also knew that he needed to add a track championship to his on racing resume locally, to add to the legitimacy of moving up to such a series. He also knew that he would have to head north to the tracks in Missouri to hone his asphalt driving skills for at least a year before trying to compete in a Southeast Series Event. And to add to the list of complications, the Southeast Series competed mostly on tracks located in states along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and Knight was based in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. There was so many hurdles that had to be jumped in order to make it happen. Most racers would have looked everything over on paper and said no, it’s just not worth it. But not Chuck Knight.
“It was a tough decision to decide to try and run the Southeast Series,” says Knight. “There were so many moving parts that had to fall into place. It was one of those things that when the commitment was made, we were at least two years away from running in a race. One of the biggest was the financial aspect of the deal. Thank goodness my good friend Rick Reedy was on board with this plan. He was such a tremendous asset in making it happen.”
“Plus during that time I was working a forty hour a week job at Trane, and I live in Ft. Smith which did not help our situation at all. There were no races on the schedule that were even close to Arkansas. I would leave out for a race on Thursday and often had to travel over a thousand miles one way to get to the track. And I had to be back at work on Monday mornings. It wasn’t easy but somehow I made it work.”
Once he was committed to the plan, Knight set his sights on his local racing program. He felt it was important to win a local track championship to carry towards his step to the NASCAR Southeast Series. So to add to the complications Knight decided to run for the track championship in his division at both the Crawford County and the Tri-State Speedways. At the end of the season, Knight captured the title at both tracks.
“I just thought it was important to the program to have a recent championship behind me before I moved on. Championships don’t come easy for anyone who wins one,” Knight said. “Regardless of the level of racing that you are doing. I certainly have a lot of respect for anyone who wins a championship. I was just very fortunate that my team worked as hard as they did and put forth the effort that was needed and we ended up winning both track championships that year.”
Following the two championship season in Arkansas, the long awaited asphalt car arrived. Then Knight set his sights on Lebanon, Missouri’s famed I-44 Speedway. “It took a little while to get the car. Plus I sold some of my local operation to help with the funding, and that took a little time. But piece by piece things came together.”
“By this time we are a little over two years into our plan. I traveled to Lebanon, Missouri that season every week in hopes of winning the track championship. It was very tough racing up there. Larry Phillips had started running asphalt, and he was just as tough on asphalt as he was on dirt. I ended up third in points, and won the rookie of the year that season.”
With a successful season under his belt at I-44 Speedway, Knight decided it was time to head east and tackle the NASCAR Southeast Series in 1993. “It would have probably have been wiser to spend another season at Lebanon, but with our circumstance as they were, we kind of had to move east when we did,” Knight said.
The logistics of the situation were defiantly not in Knight’s favor. As Knight ventured out on the circuit from his base in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, his travels took him to South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, and most of their border states. “The travel was tough, but I knew ahead of time that that was going to be part of the deal,” Knight said. “It would have been helpful if there would have been some races close to home.”
Although getting from Ft Smith, Arkansas to eastern part of the United States to a track was tough enough. It was not near as tough as what Knight found once he pulled into the pits.
“That NASCAR Southeast Series was the real deal. It may not have been a 500 mile NASCAR event. But at each race there was thirty to forty drivers who were hungry for their chance to run in one of those 500 mile races.” In other words, qualifying for a Southeast Series race was not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
“You get to one of those races and there are drivers there that everybody has heard of. Drivers like Jody Ridley, Rick Crawford, Billy Bigley and Ken Schrader. And often Darrell Waltrip would show up, along with one of the Allisons.”
As the 1993 race season got underway Knight endured another hardship that he had to overcome during a race. The NASCAR Southeast Series races were just like flagship NASCAR races, you had to make pit stops. And Knight did not have a pit crew to pit the car during the race or all the equipment need to perform the stop. Because of the distance from Ft. Smith to where ever the race was, Knight had trouble finding people who could take off and help with the car. Often times leaving Arkansas with two people or less.
“I soon made friends with Mike Cope who was a regular on the series, and who was a big help to me. When I first got down there I couldn’t stay on the lead lap with those guys. So when the leaders would come in, Mike would come in and pit, and when the leaders came back out they would open the pits for the lap down cars, and I would come in and Mike’s crew would pit my car.”
This arrangement worked pretty well until Knight improved his driving skills and was able to stay on the lead lap with the leaders. At this point, Knight was forced to wait for Cope to pit, and then come in with the lap down cars, so Cope’s crew could pit his car. This arraignment would cause Knights car to go a lap down. But again Knight kept fighting and didn’t give up.
“Eventually I was able to pick up an extra crew member from this team and that team who came to the races to pit my car. At that point I started making up a lot of ground in the series.”
When the 2013 NASCAR Southeast Series came to an end that season, Chuck Knight found himself with a respectable twelfth place finish in the final point standings. And was the runner up for the rookie of the year honors.
“I got edged out for the rookie of the year that season by I believe Buckshot Jones, who went on to run several seasons in the big leagues of NASCAR.”
For someone just scanning the record books and looking at the final standings, they might not see the magnitude of Chucks Knight’s twelfth place finish. For one, it would have been easy for Knight after taking all the things into consideration to go east and race, to just say forget it. But he didn’t. Secondly, he went east in 1993 knowing he would have to compete with some of the very best asphalt racers in the business. He went anyway and qualified for every race. Third, even without the human resources of his own pit crew, he made the long distance travel to each race determined to race as hard as he could.
One has to seriously consider what Knight’s outcome could have been in the series had he been able to concentrate on driving and not jumping those large hurdles that always seem to be in his way. Then again as the old saying goes if it was easy everyone would be doing it. In Chuck Knight’s own words, “It was tough and it wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world.”
There should be an asterisk beside Chuck Knight’s name in the record books noting his twelfth place finish. And at the bottom of the page there should be a side note that reads: Chuck Knight finished twelfth racing against some of the best short track drivers in the country, because he was one of the best.