Thursday, February 9, 2012

1974 - Marcum Top Drumbeater

Daytona, Fla. (February 9, 1974) - John Marcum, one of auto racing’s few remaining Barnum-class impresarios’, arrived in Daytona Beach a few days ago wheeling a new Continental Mark IV and bringing his usual supply of chocolates and silver dollars.

“Two years ago you’ll remember, it was half dollars. I have to go along with inflation,” said the silver-haired, well-kept veteran of 46 years in a sport he once thought would never make it.

The candy? “Well, it’s costing more now than it used to, but the lady who makes it is an old friend. I'll give away about 600 boxes.”

Silver dollars and chocolates aren’t Marcum’s only identifying graces. Not by a very, very long shot. There is the brightly-stitched maroon jacket. It matches the Continental’s color.

And, of course, there are the $125 alligator shoes. Before he leaves Daytona, a few friends will be added to his mailing list, to receive the shiny alligators. They will be inscribed “made especially for…”

And there is the same diamond cluster ring, the same solid-gold watch, the gold key chain, the brown-feathered hat, ties right out of the latest fashion box, bows and four-in-hands in colors you wouldn’t believe.

Marcum, a throwback to the early days of racing, when he was both a driver and a huckster at short, dirty, back-yard ovals, is president - and czar, chief sultan and benefactor – of the Midwest-based Auto Racing Club of America.

His drivers, including 55-year-old Iggy Katona and 47-year-old Andy Hampton, will lead off Daytona International Speedway’s “Speed Weeks” program with a 300-mile race on Sunday.

If you take chief drumbeater Marcum’s word for it, his race will be the best of seven scheduled during week of high speed capers at the 2.5-mile oval.

“My boys get to a big speedway like this only once a year. They get their adrenalin flowing when they see the ‘Big D’ and you can’t blame them if they drive a bit over their heads,” Marcum said

“I started turning down entries two weeks ago. When the list got up to 45 or so, with only 30 starting positions available, I began turning them back.”

“The outsiders, the big boys from the other circuits, like to run my big races because they think my country kids like Iggy and Andy are easy pickings.”

The ARCA regulars, indeed, were easy pickings last year. A 40-year-old short-track upstart named Charlie Blanton, from Spartanburg, S C., came in and took all the gravy. It can be added that Blanton’s entry was turned down this year. Marcum slyly confides that the defending champion’s entry arrived after the deadline.

“There are rules, you know, and I make my people abide by them,” the 60-year-old, well preserved veteran from Toledo, Ohio, said with a wink.

Marcum swears he prints a rule book each year for his short-track circuit. But he also admits he changes not only the technical rules but the race rules anytime he thinks they need changing.

“I have changed them from one race to the next, even just before a race,” he acknowledged, “but only for the good of my boys. They call me a crotchety old so-and-so, but they never leave me until they get ready to go for bigger money and some of them come back after trying other pastures.”

Marcum proudly points to the fact that Benny Parsons, a two-time ARCA champion, went on to win the Grand National title in the richer, more prestigious National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing series last year.

Marcum and his wife Mildred - he calls her “Grandma” - are majority owners of ARCA.

She’s the treasurer, the chief money-handler. Frank Canale, a short-track expert, is chief aide to the couple and has the title of vice president. There is no board of directors to interfere with they way they run the show.

Marcum, despite attempts by “Grandma” to restrain him, not only tosses the silver dollars around at the wink of an eye, but he frequently pays off on birthdays, too.

“He doesn’t remember my birthday month,” Mildred remarked. “So about every three months or so, I get a $50 bill with a note, ‘Buy yourself a present.’”

Marcum doesn’t admit to being wealthy. “I’m comfortable,” he will say. “I could quit tomorrow and never have to work again. But I’d go crazy doing nothing, and pretty soon Grandma would have me committed.”

Marcum drove a sprint car in the Midwest in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He quit as a driver shortly after a race at Daytona's old beach-road course in 1936.

“Bill France, who also was driving, intimidated me and I turned upside down in a dune,” Marcum recalls. “There I was, hanging upside down and the only thing I could see was a wooden sign stuck in the dune. It said, ‘Danger, watch for rattlesnakes.’”

France later founded NASCAR and Marcum worked for him before going back to Toledo and forming ARCA in the early ‘60s.

Marcum explains his love for fine cars and clothes, and his generosity to drivers and friends by saying he was poverty-stricken as a youth.

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