|Date: 6/3/2015 11:23:38 PM|
Gary Balough To Be Inducted Into NE Modified Hall of Fame
By Buffy Swanson
Florida phenom Gary Balough, the master of the Syracuse mile, has been selected as a 2015 inductee into the Northeast Modified Hall of Fame. Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Wednesday, August
5 at the Northeast Modified Hall of Fame and Stock Car Museum in Weedsport, NY, the night prior to Weedsport Speedwayıs Super DIRTcar Series Hall of Fame 100.
Balough was just 14 years old in 1962, hanging around the old Hialeah (FL) Speedway, soaking it up from guys like Rags Carter, Jackie Evans and Gil Hearne, when racer Buddy Griffin took a liking to the scrawny kid and helped him put a ı51 Chevy coupe on the track.
He won the first night outin fact, he won 37 features in the novice class that first year, at Hialeah, Palmetto, Hollywood and other Miami area speedways.
That caught everyoneıs attention. By the time he was 16, Balough was winning in full-blown Late-Models, getting good rides. At 21, he claimed the prestigious Florida Governorıs Cup against the best of the best at Tampaıs Golden Gate Speedway. ³Everybody was there,² Balough remembered. ³It was like the early days of Syracuse.²
But Balough wasnıt just a ³bag² man, showing up to drive, helmet in hand. He was always fascinated with the mechanics of racing, and studied with some top talent, working with NASCAR Grand National driver and prominent fabricator Tom Pistone out of Fort Pierce. Pistone had enough confidence in Balough to send him up to Pennsylvania to straighten out a car for a customera dirt chassis.
³I had never raced dirt. I was an asphalt guy,² Balough said. ³I had no interest in racing dirt. It wasnıt my style.²
But Balough began to see the light. ³Watching guys like Clate Husted and Blackie Watt get around the old Latrobe track, I realized that, just because itıs dirt, you didnıt have to slide the car around. You could still drive it,² he stated. ³Clate Husted really impressed me. I watched how he got around, not buzzing the tires, and no one was as smooth as he was.²
Already winning on both asphalt and dirt on the Western PA tracks, Baloughıs transition from macadam to clay was further facilitated by Spud Murphy, one of several Florida racers whoıd found a home on the Northeastıs dirt ovals.
Murphy put Balough together with Paul Hildebrand and Richard Ege, who owned a dirt Modified in New Jersey. ³Spud told me, NASCAR may be the goal, but this is where the money is,ı² Balough recalled.
The marriage had a rocky start in a coupe that couldnıt seem to find victory lane. Noted mechanic and racer Whip Mulligan was building them a new car, but it wasnıt getting done fast enough so Balough moved in with Mulligan to finish it.
The car was an epiphany: ³The first time I drove it, at Hightstown, the car was going so good that I got overanxious and wrecked ithit the flagstand and the starter broke his leg!² Gary ruefully related. ³I came in the pits with my head down, but Paul Hildebrand was elated. Donıt worry, we can fix the car,ı he told me, Weıve never had a chance to beat (Stan) Ploski like that!ı²
That Sunday, his third time in the Mulligan Gremlin, Balough won a 100-lap Syracuse qualifier at Nazareth.
For two years, Balough won a bunch of big races for the team, at East Windsor, Flemington, Nazareth, Orange County and Fonda, and came close at Syracuseuntil Hildebrand and Ege sold out.
Tony and Ronnie Ferraiuolo of Whippany, NJ, bought the entire operation in early 1975. ³My brother and I flew to Florida to hire driver Dickie Anderson,² Tony recounted. ³But Gary picked us up at the airport. Whip worked on our cars, and I think he had something to do with that. Anyway, when Gary found out we were going to hire Dickie, he jammed on the brakes, leaned over and said, No, youıre going to hire me!ı²
With the Mulligan car, John Bohlander power and Balough in the seat, the Ferraiuolo team won big-time, including the 1976 Schaefer 100 at Syracuse.
Lured by a state-of-the-art Weld car in the stable, and Kenny Weld himself on the team, Balough briefly left the Ferraiuolo #73 to run for George Smithıs Statewide Hi-Way Safety group. It didnıt last long: with the Ferraiuolosı acquisition of a radical Grant King car, Balough returned to the fold.
³When Uncle Tony says itıs time to come home, you go home,² Gary bottom-lined.
In the King car, Balough and the Ferraiuolos won Syracuse three more timesa preliminary July race in 1977, then back to back October triumphs in the weather-delayed 1977 event and ı78. And just about any mega-money event they set their sights on, including the 1977 Eastern States 200 at Orange County.
To say that Balough was a polarizing figure on the scene is an understatement. Cocky and controversial, antagonistic to both fans and fellow drivers, the brash Balough raised hell both on the track and off.
And it certainly didnıt help his popularity when he returned to Syracuse in
1980 with a purpose-built car that many believed was outside the spirit of the rules. The #112 Batmobilethe brain child of Kenny Weld, with aerodynamics by Don Brown and Ron Hutter powerseemed something out of Star Wars, rather than a straight-up stock car. ³Kenny told me heıd build me something that I could drive at 75 percent and still lap the field,² Balough said of the ground-effects car that, brilliantly, did just about that.
Balough made rare appearances on Modified turf in the ı80s, concentrating instead on breaking into NASCARıs top-tier series. In 1982, he had secured a ride with the respected RahMoc team and enough sponsorship from Dominoıs Pizza to be able to run at least 25 Cup races.
Then, the roof fell in. Balough and four others were indicted on drug trafficking charges. He was convicted and served his time in prison. ³I was in the wrong church, in the wrong pew,² Gary said of his drug involvement.
He sighed. ³One minute I was celebrating a NASCAR national championship (in the All-Pro series); the next day I went to jail. I was champion for a day.²
His infamous fall from grace is well publicized. However, Baloughıs talent and accomplishments at the wheel of any race car are undeniable. In his career, it is estimated he has won more than 1,000 races, most in Late-Models on southern tracks. In the Modifieds, he owned the Syracuse mile, winning four Super DIRT Week events and one July race in just a five-year period. His record-setting .400 win percentage in the Syracuse classic remains unchallenged and may never be surpassed.
Every performance of Baloughısand truly, they were show-stopping performanceswas memorable.
Recollecting a 100-lap special that Balough dominated at Flemington Speedway in 1977, one witness vividly recalled that the car ³was mesmerizingly beautiful at speed. It didnıt seem like it could ever be beaten.²
Tony Ferraiuolo, who also won his share with Billy Osmun in the seat, compared the two drivers. ³In reality, Billy was just as good a driver as Gary,² Ferraiuolo acknowledged. ³The difference was that Gary would come in off the track and tell you, Thereıs a bolt coming loose in the rear end.ı And youıd look, and yes, there was. He knew the cars inside and out.²
³We always had a full-time mechanic. But I paid a driver 50 percent (of the
winnings) if he worked on the car, and 40 percent if he didnıt,² Tony continued. ³Gary always got 50 percent.²
Today, at age 67, Balough is still wrenching race cars. Based in Ohio, heıs a hired gun, mentoring young paved-track upstarts like Andy Jones, showing them the ropes and making them go fast.
³My 200 lap days are overIıve got five stents in my heart and nothing more to prove!² Balough admitted, before describing with boyish enthusiasm an innovative Senneker car heıs currently working on. ³That one, I may have to get in and take a few laps,² he said, ³but Iım not going to make a habit of it!²