Let’s face it, racers are a rare breed. No matter how much we allow our minds to wander and let fantasy grab hold, in time most people have to confront a central truth.
When it comes to actually mixing it up in a race car, most of us are not hardwired to get the job done.
Some give it a shot, and even stick with it for years before finally having to look reality square in the eye. To get to the top takes the right mixture of bravery, desire, and talent.
Only a select few hit the trifecta.
In his time, Grady Wade had what we now call the “it” factor. He did enough in his first days behind the wheel to pique the interest of some of the top owners in his region.
Then, to the joy of those in the grandstands, and to the occasional distress of his bosses, everybody strapped in to watch. Wade might not always win, but by the time everyone headed for home he had made an indelible impression.
Wade was born in Mulberry, Ark., in late October of 1936, but moved to Wichita, Kan., as a boy. In a succinct and matter-of-fact manner, he said his childhood was far from ideal.
Nonetheless, he graduated from Wichita East High School and would soon rub shoulders with people who would become central figures in his life.
He had crossed paths with a man named Bill Farmer, who owned a 1934 Ford Jalopy. One day Farmer made a simple proposition, and it turned out to have a profound impact on Wade’s life.
If Wade was willing to clean up his car on Monday, Farmer would let his young charge take the wheel and turn a few laps. What made the offer even more inviting is that Wade knew just where to go.
Within a stone’s throw of his house was a machine shop operated by LaVern Nance.
Thinking back to Farmer’s offer, Wade said, “Well, that was like handing me a steak. I would wash and clean that old car up and there was like an eighth-mile track behind Nance’s shop. I would go over there and just run the wheels off it and make the neighbors mad because of the dirt flying.”
It was enough to get him started.
By the late 1950’s Wade was doing some jalopy racing of his own, starting at Wichita’s CeJay Stadium.
He remembers little of his first race, but recalls that he didn’t set the world on fire. His car was a ‘34 Ford and, given his experience with a similar mount behind Nance’s shop, that provided a measure of comfort.
However, familiarity did not translate into results. He learned right then that you can have all the talent in the world but you had to have the right equipment to go fast.
“I couldn’t steer it,” he said. “The car also had a ‘34 Ford steering gear, and that was probably rusted shut.”
It was frustrating, but he persevered and he finally got a taste of glory.
“I got my first win in 1960 at Arkansas City, Kan. I was in a little old Hudson coupe with a three-by-five engine in it. It was a B-Feature and it paid 30 dollars. I’ll tell you,” he recalled with a hearty laugh, ‘I was walking on tall cotton.”
He had proven to others that he could win, and from there he began picking up rides here and there.
Not straying too far from home, Wade was also hanging out with LaVern Nance. Nance had grown up in Oklahoma, but as a very young man hitchhiked to Wichita and found work in the aircraft industry, initially with Beech.
By 1950 he had established his own shop, but his primary source of income was building parts for Boeing, and he may have secured a government contract or two. Racing, at the time, really wasn’t on his radar.
Things began to change, according to Wade, when a new employee just happened to own a race car.
As Wade remembers the sequence of events, he said, “That kid bought a car from Missouri or somewhere, and we tinkered with it. The problem was that it was heavier than a locomotive. Nance said he would sponsor him and bought oil and gas for it. We worked on it in a vacant building that Nance had south of his shop. Then LaVern got more involved, and he started going and watching us. Finally he said he could make that car go faster, so here we go. Pretty soon we started upgrading and building cars we called T-buckets.”
When Nance got involved, Wade’s racing fortunes changed as well. Armed with a new car, he was prepared to do battle with the heavy-hitters in the supermodified world at the nearby 81 Speedway.
It really didn’t take long to show he belonged. In 1963, Wade finished second in points to Wichita native Forrest Coleman. Coleman, a truck driver by trade, had picked up the track title in 1962 as well.
In addition, in 1960 he topped the field at the Hutchinson Nationals, the crown-jewel of supermodified racing in the plains.
To continue reading, advance to the next page.