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Fri, 26 Dec 2003, 09:41 AM

A True Southern Gentleman: Steve Earwood
By Jim Luikens

Steve Earwood was introduced to motorsports at an early age. When he was only five his family visited an uncle in the Atlanta area who was a racer. That visit led to Steve’s father purchasing an MG TD and becoming an SCCA official. This is the story of Steve Earwood and the winding road that led from those early days of sports car racing to his present ownership of Rockingham Dragway.

Steve Earwood
Because of his family’s involvement in motorsports Steve spent every weekend at a race track from age five until he was thirteen. While Steve’s brother Terry kept his eyes glued to the action on the track, Steve focused his attention on the race announcers and what was going on in the press box. To him nothing that was happening on the track was more interesting than what was happening behind the scene.

When he was thirteen Steve’s mother gave him a subscription to Hot Rod magazine and his evolution took another step forward. Enamored by the work of Wally Parks, who was the editor of Hot Rod magazine at the time, Steve vowed to himself that one day he would work for that man.

As time went by Steve’s involvement in the business side of racing grew and by 1970 he was the manager of Gainesville Raceway, the home of NHRA’s Gatornationals. In an unexpected way this actually fulfilled his much earlier promise to himself because by now Wally Parks had left the publishing field to concentrate on being the full time president of the National Hot Rod Association.

As one of the first to recognize the emerging popularity of NHRA’s new Pro Stock eliminator, Steve and his brother Terry started their own Pro Stock association called the Southern Pro Stock Circuit. Early day Pro Stock stars like Roy Hill, Hubert Platt and Sam Carroll were among the first competitors in the new series.

In 1975 Dave McClelland called from the NHRA and asked Steve if he would be interested in trying to generate more press for their upcoming Gatornationals. Up to that time only the local Gainesville paper had been covering the race. Steve got a car from a Ford dealer and set about expanding pre-race exposure for the Gatornationals.

He expanded the event’s coverage beyond Gainesville to the daily papers in Tampa, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Ocala and Jacksonville, Florida as well as Atlanta, Georgia. Long time public relations professional Dave Densmore helped him by writing a different story every day for every paper that developed a relevant tie to the event for that town.

The result was that the event crowd was up despite having the finals rained out. Wally Parks himself was so impressed with the results that he asked Steve to take on the job fulltime and promote all of their races. As a result he started a job that would consume the next decade of his life.

His job was to go into the area of the next national event about a month before the event and begin getting the word out among the sports writers and TV broadcasters that the NHRA was coming to town. Despite the fact that NHRA only had seven national events at that time it was an all consuming job. One year Steve traveled 316 out of a possible 365 days. However, it was a job that he loved and the results spoke for themselves.

In 1986 the NHRA promoted Steve to manage all press and publicity responsibilities. Just one year later former drag racer Billy Meyer called. He wanted Steve to take on a similar role at the Texas Motorplex. As a result Steve, a confirmed southern gentleman, found himself deep in the heart of Texas.

Steve’s first stay in Texas didn’t last very long as an opportunity arose the very next year to be a part of the group that was purchasing Atlanta Dragway. After relocating to Atlanta he left for Texas again in 1990. This Texas stay didn’t last much longer than the first because an opportunity arose the next year to purchase Rockingham Dragway from Frank Wilson.

Despite the fact that he was single handedly trying to wipe out the recession in the long distance moving industry, Steve moved again, this time to North Carolina. With assistance and encouragement from Roy Hill and some creative financing Steve’s dream of owning a national event track was about to become a reality.

A financing plan was drawn up that saw Rockingham Speedway holding the note on its former dragway and Cliff Stewart loaning Steve the money for the down payment. Unfortunately Mr. Stewart backed out of the deal just three days before closing. Scrambling to make up the shortfall, a friendly banker was located in Archdale, North Carolina who stretched a few rules to save the day.

With the purchase secured Steve faced his next challenge. The NHRA Invitational, the track’s biggest event, was only 34 days away and literally nothing had been done to prepare the facility. By working night and day for every one of those 34 days the impossible was accomplished and the event went off successfully.

2001 IHRA Promoter of the Year.
Eventually all of the down payment was repaid and Steve bought out Roy Hill’s investment also. In 1998 Steve reached agreement with the IHRA to switch sanctioning bodies. Rockingham Dragway is the only track on the IHRA tour that holds two national events each year. Steve is quick to share how strongly he believes in the International Hot Rod association.

Encouraged by the way things were progressing, a significant investment was made in 2003 to upgrade the Rockingham facility. The pavement was reground, the launch pad extended and the spectator grandstands reconditioned. Aided by favorable atmospheric conditions, the 2003 season-ending World Finals saw record bumps in almost every eliminator with many racers recording their all time personal bests as well.

At 55 years of age, Steve Earwood is enjoying the racing business more than ever. Looking back at his career shows several times where he was in the right place at the right time. Digging a little deeper however, shows that he was in that favorable position because of his hard work. Steve is a true southern gentleman in every sense of the word and deserves whatever good fortune comes his way because he has truly earned it.

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