RIDING WITH ELMO: Elmo Langley
by Frank Moriarty
Not surprisingly, having a chance to ride with NASCAR pace car driver Elmo Langley was a thrilling experience. I took the photo above as we zoomed towards turn two at Pocono International Raceway on the last pace lap, and my account of the ride follows the article below. But even better than the ride was getting a chance to talk to Elmo at length about his career and NASCAR in general. He was a wonderful man, and he died doing what he loved - driving the pace car. Elmo Langley passed away on the speedway behind the wheel in the days leading up to NASCAR's exhibition race in Suzuka City, Japan in November, 1997. This article ran in Circle Track magazine twice, once shortly after it was written in 1996 and again as a memorial following Elmo's passing.
For those new to NASCAR Winston Cup racing, Elmo Langley is known predominantly for his high-profile job -- pace car driver for America's premier racing series. But Langley and NASCAR go back a long way. In fact, you could safely describe Elmo Langley as one of the top first generation NASCAR competitors.
"I started racing in 1952 driving modifieds in Maryland and Virginia," Langley recollects. "Back then there were three divisions -- the short track division, the convertible division, and the Grand National division. Short track was anything of 1/3 mile or below, and the Grand Nationals were mostly 1/2 or 3/8 mile. I ran my first Grand National in 1952."
Following his first start in Grand National racing -- in the division that would one day become known as the Winston Cup Series -- Langley raced for a number of car owners for over ten years. NASCAR's top division was substantially different from what today's fans are used to.
"The first year I ran Darlington was in 1954 in an Oldsmobile that a guy named Sam Rice owned," Langley recalls. "He was one of the starters of Martinsville Speedway. We drove the car to Darlington, finished 11th, and then drove it home. It didn't even have a roll bar, just a piece of chain around the door post.
"They were basically stock cars -- you'd go to the showroom and buy a car and strip it," Langley continues. "You were allowed to take the back seat and upholstery out, and the back of the passenger seat. Everything else had to stay the same. All the suspension on it, the engines, everything had to be stock."
In 1965, Langley tired of driving for other car owners and decided to start his own team. That's a desire that many of today's drivers have, too, but in Langley's days of being an owner/driver success required a tremendous amount of hard work.
"We used to run 60 races in a year, and I did it with just me and a helper," Langley notes. "We'd tow the car to the racetrack, work on it, get it ready, qualify it, run the race with it, and then come back home that night. A lot of those 100-mile races only paid $1000 to win.
"The money falls out of the sky to these people now, the drivers and even the crew chiefs. Back then, a year fifth in points making $40,000 total in a year, well that was actually a pretty decent year. Now they make that in one race," Langley points out.
"Of course, we had no major sponsors or corporations involved in it back then. I was always hard-headed, the kind who wanted to do it on my own," Langley admits. "We used to have a garage or a restaurant or a parts house that would give you a little bit of money, but that was about all anybody had. Racing started to turn around when Winston got involved in it in the 1970s."
A look at the Grand National or Winston Cup points standings every season from the late-1960s through the mid-1970s reveals the name Elmo Langley solidly in the top ten year after year during this transitional period for NASCAR. Elmo also made trips to the Grand National victory lanes at Old Dominion Speedway in Virginia and Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in South Carolina, beating the likes of Bobby Allison, "Tiger Tom" Pistone, David Pearson, and Buddy Baker. Langley has witnessed first-hand the incredible growth of the sport of stock car racing.
"I don't guess anybody other than Bill France, Sr. ever envisioned what racing was going to come to. I know I never did," says Langley. "A lot of the tracks we'd run the 100-mile races at, if they had six or seven thousand people, that would be a big crowd. Now you get 100,000 people. It used to be a redneck sport, but now business people come to it and there's just about as many women as there are men who come to our races. It's just been a complete turnaround for us in the demographics of the fans."
It was in the midst of this turnaround that Elmo Langley's new career with NASCAR began. After retiring from driving in 1977, Langley continued to field his car in Winston Cup competition, with the driver's seat occupied by as many as 14 different racers in one season. Not surprisingly, Elmo remembers that as a difficult period.
"It was nerve‑wracking," Langley states. "I finally decided that if I could find somebody to buy the team I'd get out of owning the car and go to work for somebody."
Langley stayed heavily involved in the sport even after selling his team in 1986. In 1987 Langley was running Cale Yarborough's team when NASCAR Winston Cup Director Dick Beaty offered him a job with the sanctioning body that would still keep him close to the race cars.
"You get burned out after 35 years of working on 'em, racing 'em, and managing teams," Langley says. "Those are 12-, 14-, 16-hour days, seven days a week. Dick Beaty approached me after I had said something about being burned out on the race cars. The opportunity came to do what I'm doing now, to work for NASCAR and drive the pace car. I just decided this would be a lot easier but keep me involved with what I've been doing for 35 or 40 years, so I took the job."
How hard is Langley's job pacing modern Winston Cup stock cars?
"Even drivers that have ridden in the pace car didn't know there was that much to it," Langley replies. "There's a lot of responsibility. You always have to know who the leader is. When they put it out (the yellow flag) you have to pick up that leader. It's my decision to look and make sure that, if there's been an accident, that everything is picked up. If there's an engine blown and oil was put down on the track, it's my decision when they go back to green and that the track is clear. There's a lot more responsibility than what somebody thinks."
When he's not driving the pace car, Elmo Langley helps inspect the stock cars to make sure they're as safe as possible. Elmo is proud of NASCAR's safety record, even if the search for safety has led to some ideas that didn't really work out. Take, for example, the use of two pace cars when NASCAR first tried to lower speeds along pit road in 1991.
"I knew that the two paces cars wasn't going to work when they started that, but they were searching then for a safer pit road," Langley notes. "When I first started driving the pace car, pit road was dangerous because I would pick up the field, and then at the entrance to pit road they would peel off and run full bore down pit road to their stalls. They'd change tires, and almost be exiting pit road by the time I got down there in the pace car on the racetrack.
"That was just a dangerous situation -- it was more dangerous on pit road than it ever was in a race car," Langley continues. "Now that they have cut down the pit road speed, and no one can pass the pace car, that's made pit road 100 per cent safer. Anytime there's anything NASCAR can do to make something safer they do it."
It somehow seems fitting that the man who now paces the field before each Winston Cup race should be someone who spent a large part of his life racing on those very same racetracks."There's not too many that are still here that were around when I started racing, but I've known the new ones that come along from when they first started driving up to what they are now," says Elmo Langley. "I enjoy what I'm doing now. It's the people I've been around and involved with all my life."
RIDING WITH ELMO
"Caution car, let's ease 'em off -- it'll be the third time by," radios Race Director David Hoots from the NASCAR control room. Hearing those words, Elmo Langley puts the Pocono International Raceway pace truck into gear and begins to roll forward -- and my inside look at Elmo's unique job begins.
With the first motion of the pace truck the crowd gathered for the UAW-GM Teamwork 500 roars its approval, a sound easily heard over the idling of the 40 Winston Cup engines behind us. As Elmo moves into the banking of turn one, the noise of the Winston Cup cars grows into an ominous crescendo as they close on our bumper. A look out the truck's back window reveals pole sitter Ken Schrader with Mark Martin alongside, both drivers wheeling their cars from side to side as they build heat in the tires. With each swerve the stock cars behind the front row swing in and out of view.
Langley paces the field at 65 mph, considerably less than the 100+ mph laps we turned while checking the track's condition earlier in the morning -- laps which gave Langley a chance to show off some of the talent picked up during a 30-year NASCAR driving career. But the goal of the pace truck now is to run at the pit road speed limit, letting the drivers check their tach readings at the legal speed so they'll avoid a penalty during the race.
A lap and a half later Langley is preparing to turn the racetrack over to the drivers. We pass under the flag stand, where starter Doyle Ford holds out one finger to notify the drivers the green flag will wave in one lap. At the same time, Langley reaches forward and turns off the flashing lights atop the truck.
Schrader and Martin have closed to within a few feet of our rear bumper as we zoom through turn one for the last time. The drivers -- resembling spacemen in their full-face helmets -- are clearly visible through their windshields as they prepare to race. Coming out of Pocono's "tunnel turn" we near Elmo's post during the race. Langley accelerates faster, putting some distance between ourselves and the Winston Cup cars."Hold on!" Elmo yells, and the pace truck brakes hard and makes a sudden left hand turn off the track. The forty stock cars flash by behind us, rumbling toward the start/finish line. Seconds later, the rumble turns to a roar, the green flag waves, and Elmo Langley has the satisfaction of another job well done.
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