Vinton, Iowa - It sounds almost like a script to a movie. Not quite a comedy, not quite drama, more like one of those “feel good” type of stories that Hollywood puts out once in awhile.
In 1981, Keith Knaack and Phil Barkdoll were giving each other the business. Knaack at the time was promoting races at the track in Vinton, Iowa, while Barkdoll was the announcer who had just purchased his first racecar for $100.
Keeping in mind that at the time Barkdoll was rated 67th in All Iowa Points in the street stock division, which was not terribly impressive. Barkdoll showed up at Knaack’s office one day with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek and proclaimed, “I think I’m ready for Daytona.”
“I really didn’t think at the time he even knew where Daytona was,” Knaack joked. “So I just told him if he thought he was hot, let’s just go to Daytona.” Over the next few weeks, the two got to teasing each other so badly that Keith decided to put an end to it. “Eventually I picked up the phone and went searching for a racecar,” said Knaack.
Knaack proceeded to call all over the United States in search of a race car. One finally turned up, in of all places, Keokuk, Iowa, in the garage of Ramo Stott. Stott was a NASCAR veteran who won the pole position at the 1976 “Daytona 500”.
With $2,500 in their pockets and another $5,000 they had borrowed, the two made the trip to Keokuk and bought themselves a racecar; a 1979 Dodge. The car had already seen some action on the ARCA circuit, so at least it had some racing miles on it. The car came with two engines that were immediately rebuilt and scores of friends pitched in to volunteer their time.
“It was like an old-fashion barn raising,” Barkdoll mentioned. “Everyone pitched in and helped us when we needed it. The only thing anyone got for helping out was their name on the car.”
According to Knaack. Phil Barkdoll still didn’t know where Daytona was. Barkdoll insisted he knew where it was but didn’t know what it was. Eventually the new race team made their way to Daytona. They pulled into the pits about the same time Barkdoll was stricken with a severe case of reality. “Phil walked through the gate and just looked at me.” He remembers, “He just asked me, ‘What have you gotten me into’?”
By this time veteran Ramo Stott had joined the team. Stott gave the group some experience and some great advice. “I had to hand it to Phil; he had no experience on asphalt, let alone a two and a half mile track. He listened to what Ramo told him and went out and qualified at 176 MPH,” Knaack said, looking back.
Phil Barkdoll had just left the dirt tracks of Iowa and found himself starting in the 35th position in an ARCA event at Daytona International Speedway.
Unfortunately, the team was running low on funds. They blew one engine in practice and had to have it rebuilt. They also learned that they would need more tires. “When we got there we had one set of tires, so we tried to figure out how many laps we could run in practice and still have enough left on the tires to run a race,” Knaack recalled.
The race was scheduled for 80 laps and the team from Iowa kept their fingers crossed they could go on one set of tires. One small piece of debris would shred a tire and bring immediate end to the race. “I think we drove through three wrecks,” Barkdoll said. “We never punctured a tire and finished 11th that day.”
Barkdoll would run several more ARCA events before trying his hand in Winston Cup competition. Again he turned a lot of heads when he qualified 16th in the 1984 “Winston 500” at Talladega.
His career through the Winston Cup circuit has enjoyed many high points. Barkdoll qualified for the 1987 “Winston 500” at Talladega, the first Winston Cup field where all 40 cars clocked in at over 200 MPH.
Barkdoll was able to move into the Winston Cup circuit thanks to a lot of financial help from Helen Rae, a woman from Phoenix that had owned a chain of retail stores in Iowa and also in Phoenix. Barkdoll was showing Helen Rae a film of one of his races. She replied, “Why is everyone going faster than you?”
Barkdoll explained to her the “racing facts of life”.
“Money”, was the reply.
“How much money would it take to have you run as fast as everyone else?” he responded. With that, Helen Rae Motorsports was formed.
It was because if the association with Helen Rae that Barkdoll was able to run many Winston Cup events between 1984 and 1990. Both the Daytona and Talladega tracks saw the Helen Rae car a lot. “It never would’ve happened without Helen Rae,” Barkdoll said. “She was what kept us here.”
“She was fantastic for the sport,” Knaack added. “She was the first woman team owner in the history of Winston Cup and also the first woman to own two Winston Cup teams.” Rae entered two cars at selected events during the 1988 campaign with Barkdoll in one car and Wisconsin native Dave Marcis in the other.
Barkdoll's last attempt at Daytona as a driver was in 1997. That year, he qualified 25th fastest on pole qualifying day. That speed was fast enough to earn the 38th starting position after he failed to finish in the top 15 of his Twin 125. However, SABCO Racing’s #42 Bellsouth Chevrolet for Joe Nemechek failed to qualify for the race. Team owner Felix Sabates bought Barkdoll's #73 for Nemechek, leaving Barkdoll on the sidelines, but richer as a result.
Never again did anyone suggest that Phil Barkdoll “Doesn’t know where Daytona is”.