Don White at the Springfield Mile -1978 (Todd Healey photo)
By Roger Jaynes
Milwaukee, Wis. (July 1, 1978) – These are trying times for Don White, the peppery little driver from Keokuk, Iowa, who has won more stock car aces than anyone else in United States Auto Club history.
Once upon a time, back in the late 60’s when all the factory teams were running he was the undisputed king of the USAC circuit. The “Richard Petty of the North” they called him then.
In his factory-sponsored Dodge, he took on guys like A.J. Foyt, Jack Bowsher, Norm Nelson and Roger McCluskey, and blew the doors off their Chryslers and Fords most of the time.
Don’t believe it? Then check the records…
From 1959 to 1974, a span that includes some of White’s leanest years, he won 50 races. By comparison, Nelson won 35, Foyt 29, McCluskey 22 and Bowsher 21. And at his peak, from 1966 to 1970, White was truly phenomenal, ending up in the winner’s circle an amazing 36 times in just 5 seasons.
During that time, he was almost unbeatable at the Milwaukee Mile. From 1966 to 1969, he won 8 of 16 races at State Fair Park, finishing in the top three an incredible 12 times. In all, he’s won 14 times at Milwaukee, three times more than Norm Nelson and five times more than Butch Hartman, a five-time USAC stock car national champion.
“I think I remember the races that I fell out of then the ones I won,” White laughed. “After all, you’re supposed to win. I mean, I won a lot of races at Milwaukee, but I fell out of a lot of them when I was leading too.”
But those times are gone – have been since 1970, when Chrysler and most of the auto makers pulled out their direct sponsorship of USAC teams. Since then, running as an independent, White has won but six races in seven years. His last victory was in the Miller 200 in 1975, and he has not won a race anywhere in the last two seasons.
He’s busy starting a Chrysler dealership back home – ironic because he gets not one bit of sponsorship from the company that he’s won for so many times.
“I don’t understand it, I really don’t,” White said. “I have a better record up north for Chrysler than anybody, and they won’t help me. They’ll help Ramo Stott, but not me.”
He laughed sarcastically, “And here I’m starting a Chrysler dealership.”
For the first time in recent years, White didn’t seem over optimistic about his chances of winning at Milwaukee. Preparing his 1978 Dodge Aspen for the upcoming Miller 200, White would have to face the likes of A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and Bobby Allison.
“I’ve got a chance to beat them if my car holds together,” White remarked. “I now it’s possible, because I’ve beaten them before. Really though, I don’t have any business being there at all. But, I’ve got my car built for it.”
And White admitted that, at age 52, and after 52 career USAC victories, he is considering calling it a career after this season.
“I figure I have enough pieces left so if I have no luck at all, I can go four or five races this season,” White said. “But if I’m fortunate not to blow up, I can get by six or seven races. Actually, I’d be tickled.”
After that, I don’t know. I know it’d hurt me to quit and I know I’d miss it. But when you start letting your intelligence turn to ignorance, you’re not much of a man. I know I can’t keep going on this way.”
The pressing question is: Why?
Why is White where he is right now? Why has he not advanced, like Foyt and McCluskey did in Champ Cars? Why, as the winningest driver in USAC history, has he not won the money or acclaim as Richard Petty, his NASCAR counterpart? Why has a man who has done so much, currently driving without even a $100 sponsorship on the side of his car?
White – who has never been one to mince words – admits that sometimes his brash manner may be part of the reason. For, when the occasions have arisen, he has never hesitated to criticize USAC, Goodyear, and anyone else he thought wasn’t treating the driver’s right.
“I think in a lot of ways it’s hurt me because I’m honest,” White admitted. “I step on toes from time to time. But that’s the way I was brought up, so that’s the way I am.”
“As far as the sponsor thing, I think I may be too demanding. I figure if a guy is going to be my sponsor, that’s what I want him to be. Not just use me to open doors for him.”
“But like a guy who use to drive against me said, ‘There were times when you were a miserable son-of-a-bitch, but when it came right down to it, there was no one more fairer.’”
“Besides, take a look at Foyt, for instance. He can be a miserable son-of-a-bitch, but look at his record. I think if I was still a sponsor and a driver just ate it, and still had a smile on his face, I’d probably take my money and go elsewhere.”
More pertinent than White’s age or his sometimes grouchy disposition is the time honored fact that no king is more important than his kingdom. And the sad fact is that while White was earning his USAC crown in the late 60’s, USAC was being overtaken by NASCAR as the No. 1 stock car racing circuit in the nation.
Thus, for Richard Petty, there were bigger purses, national television coverage, thousands of dollars in endorsements, and sponsors galore. But since the USAC stock cars have always played second fiddle to NASCAR, there were no lucrative television deals, and so the purses and prestige involved were much, much less.
“If I’d been in NASCAR, I’d be a millionaire by now, just like Petty,” said White. “But I have no regrets, really. I can’t go back and dwell on it or anything. I made my own decisions, and I haven’t done all that bad. Besides, I have to do things my own way, or I wouldn’t be me.”
Had he ever have the opportunity to switch to NASCAR, or try Champ Cars?
“Yeah, I had opportunities to do that,” White mentioned. “But it always seemed like when I was pumped up to make the charge, I’d already made promises and commitments that I would’ve had to break. So, it all slipped by me.”
“But like I said, I don’t regret not going to Indy or NASCAR. What I regret is what’s happened to the USAC stock car circuit. I get a sad feeling when I look at today’s USAC stock cars and see the difference of what it is now, and what it could have been. But USAC has always been open cockpit oriented, we all know that.”
Foyt, White maintains, is a prime example of what he’s talking about.
“The reason he’s so strong right now is that he’s got so much more support and money than anyone else on the circuit. Can you imagine what the rest of us look like compared to his operation? Why, he wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for his sponsors – Gilmore, Valvoline, and Citicorp.”
“The only other guy I know who’s got that kind of sponsorship is Dave Watson with that 100,000 deal. And I don’t even have a $100 sponsor.”
What best illustrates Don White’s comparative stature is a quick look at the USAC and NASCAR guidebooks, where profiles of drivers are listed.
Petty, as expected, rates almost an entire page, more space than any other driver. In addition to a detailed profile, there is a year by year rundown of his illustrious career, including his finishes and money won.And what of Don White, USAC stock car king?
His profile takes up exactly one inch of space, with a career summary the width of your thumbnail. In type so small it can hardly read. It says, “All-time winningest USAC stock car driver.”
In USAC, that doesn't seem to mean much.
In USAC, that doesn't seem to mean much.