Story and photo by Hal Crocker
The voice on the phone was by Maker’s Mark, the sound of fine Kentucky Bourbon; there was no mistaking, it was Neely. “If anyone gives you any crap tell them Bill Neely says you can write.” It was the highest complement that I had ever received relating to writing. “You liked the story?” I asked. “Hell yeah, it’s great.”
I felt like a kid at Christmas. This was my first try at writing fiction and I was more than a bit insecure. This was big, real big and in so many ways. A number of people had encouraged me to write but I give special thanks to Neely for he not only encouraged me but he helped me right from the start. Neely was a good teacher and he taught me a lot by having me expose my own failings. I so much wanted his approval and this was more that I ever expected for the story was rough, real rough but the framework was there and Neely could see it.
I started writing in 2000 to help regain my vocabulary after suffering a stroke. As strokes go mine was mild but it did knock my vocabulary in the dirt. Most that knew me did not see the affliction unless I clued them to it. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be writing in my old age and enjoying it.
The genesis of the 1974 12 Hours of Sebring story goes back to a “Walter Mitty” event at Road Atlanta. I was part of a group drinking beer when someone mentioned that I had a column in Classic Motorsports and that I had been published in some other magazines. A couple of the guys in the group confessed that they were trying to get published and were overly impressed by my success. The question of money came up and I had to laugh when I told them that it didn’t pay squat. One said, “I am sure you don’t do it for the fun of it.” I responded by telling him that he was wrong for I did do it for the fun of it because I could not justify doing it any other way. Good writing is time consuming. I could take the time and do a number of other things that would pay better.
While driving back that evening this dialog started grating on me. I needed a better exchange for my writing effort or I needed to hang it up because I could not afford the time. The seed was planted, how does one make money writing? Neely, I needed to call my friend Bill Neely.
Neely was approaching 20 books, had hundreds of articles and also had a movie script to his credit. Neely and I went back to 1970 and my first Daytona 24 Hour race. From our first meeting we were old friends. Neely was like an older brother and I would tell him. “When I grow up I want to be just like you.” That was closer to the truth than a ribbing.
When I phoned, Neely proceeded to tell me about the business and how it was in decline. Newspapers and magazines are dropping like flies. The whole industry is in flux as it transitions into the digital age and the world of the Internet. Just my luck, I was getting in when others are getting out.
Return of Stroker Ace
I told Neely that we should resurrect Stroker Ace. Stroker was a fictional character that authored the book, Stand On It, the creation of Bill Neely and Bob Ottum. The book was adapted into the 1983 film, Stroker Ace, starring Burt Reynolds, Jim Nabor, Loni Anderson, Ned Beatty and others.
The timing was wrong; Neely had two books in the works and was on deadline with one. So I asked him if he would let me work something up using Stroker? As I understood it, Ottum died while they were working on the book so Neely was the keeper of Stroker. I interrupted the long silence with the assurance that he would have total control and the final call on anything using Stroker. Neely relented, “Okay. If you want to do something let me see what you can do.”
Neely had retired Stroker from NASCAR at the end of the 1973 season, so I resurrected Stroker at the start of the next season driving a sports car and winning the 1974 Sebring 12 Hour.
Yes, the profile of the 1974 12 Hours of Sebring is fiction – an April Fool’s story. There are many clues, starting with the fact that there was no race in 1974. How about the organic fertilizer named “Black Bull” or that the race was moved back to the first of April…do I need to go on?
Neely and I were of the same mind, we liked the story and thought that the weave of the fabric would get a good laugh. We knew we were onto something and had a good foundation to build on. Best part, we could build whatever our imagination conceived of for the reality is, this is fiction, no BS or Black Bull.
This was going to be our project to have fun with. Before Neely and I could work out a schedule, he took a bad tumble when a banister gave way that he was leaning on. It was a fall that well could have killed him. Damn, just when things were lining up for some great fun, this happened.
Neely and I would never do our project. Even though the fall did not kill him it has the beginning of the end. When it appeared that Neely was close to a recovery, a heart issue appeared and a valve replacement was scheduled.
I talked to my friend the day before he went into the hospital. We made some plans for the remainder of the year. He was going to phone or email when he felt up to it. I was surprised two days later when I saw an email from his address. Excitement changed to disbelief as I read the email; it was from his family.
While driving back from this year’s Sebring, I started thinking about Bill Neely and the April Fool’s story that never ran. I owe Neely a debt of gratitude. What better way to pay this debt than to get this story published and dedicate it to the memory of Bill Neely? Thanks Bill, I miss you old friend.
I appreciate all the emails and posts relating to this story…well almost all. I wish I had time to answer each individually but I don’t. I always thought that life would get easier in my old age but this is not the case.