By admin | April 16, 2008
Racing legend reflects on a stellar career
By Richard Allen
L.D. Ottinger won the first race he ever entered. While it may seem impossible to improve upon that incredible beginning, he did.
Throughout an outstanding career which spanned over five decades, Ottinger won hundreds of races and dozens of track and touring series championships, including the 1975 and 1976 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Series titles. That series was the predecessor of what became the Busch, and now Nationwide, Series.
Even as a child Ottinger knew he wanted to drive race cars. He always loved being around and working on cars, something he still does today by restoring classics. As a 10 year old he attended races with his dad and became hooked on the sport that would become his career.
That career took some remarkable twists and turns. During the couple of hours I had the good fortune to spend with him, L.D. reflected on some of his favorite moments. As we looked through some old pictures one caught me completely off guard.
“There’s a picture of me and Liz in Victory Lane at Martinsville,” he said as he handed me the only framed photo of the bunch. I recognized the attractive lady in the early 1970’s photo but I could not quite place her.
I asked who Liz was and he responded, “Liz Taylor.” The actress was married to Senator John Warner of Virginia at the time. He liked racing so she came to the race with him.
In another twist, Ottinger’s career allowed him to cross paths with some of the sport’s biggest stars. When L.D. himself was at the top of the sport he often helped younger drivers who were trying to make their way.
In one such case he remembered a young racer who had little money and needed a place to stay one night in Savannah, Georgia. L.D. let him sleep in his motel room. He and that young driver went on to form a long lasting bond. That driver’s name was Dale Earnhardt.
As many of us do, Ottinger looks back on his life in racing and says there are things he might do differently if he had it to do over again. “I would’ve probably taken a Winston Cup ride,” he declares. “I had a chance to drive the #21 car when David Pearson left but Black Diamond Coal had given me a chance and stuck with me, so I figured I’d stick with them.”
The Newport native claimed many victories during the time he was dominating NASCAR’s second division. He regards a 400 lap race at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds as one of his biggest victories.
That race showed what a talent he was behind the wheel. “I had never seen that track before,” he said of his arrival just before the green flag. “When the race started I just followed along for a couple of laps but it seemed like those other guys were in my way. I got up on the outside and just drove around ‘em.”
Ottinger won that race by six laps. Those “other guys” included the likes of Dick Trickle and Alan Kulwicki.
When asked what drivers posed the biggest challenges to him he remarked, “Harry Gant was one of the toughest drivers I ever raced against. He could race all day and get out of the car and still look like nothing happened.”
But who would he least like to see in his mirror in the closing laps? “Dale,” he said. “He drove kinda like me. He’d try to intimidate you and if that didn’t work he’d move you out of the way.”
L.D. captured his last Busch Series win in 1990 at Bristol. He beat Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett, among others, for that victory.
Bristol, Charlotte, and the old Nashville Fairgrounds track rate as his favorite places to race. The Bristol track is built on property that had once belonged to his relatives.
To people who have followed racing in East Tennessee for very long at all the initials, L.D., are all that need to be said. It seems as though every race fan in the area has an L.D. memory. He is a legend here and many other places, and rightly so.
Next week, I will have more from my time with L.D. Ottinger. In that article he will share his views on the state of racing today.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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