Concord, NC —
For the last two years, Bill Frye has contemplated retiring as a race car driver.
And for the last two years, the veteran star from Greenbrier, Ark., has won the MARS DIRTcar Series championship.
So much for giving himself a final sign that he should hang up his helmet.
“It makes you feel good (to capture the title) because we almost quit at the end of last year and we’ve been thinking about retiring again this year,” said Frye, who clinched his second consecutive and record fifth overall MARS DIRTcar Series crown on Sept. 22 at Missouri’s Lebanon I-44 Speedway. “I guess winning it again will give us a reason to run another year – we can justify coming back again, you can say.”
A dirt-track chauffeur for more than a quarter-centry, Frye, 47, no longer has the desire or energy to chase dirt Late Model shows all over the country like he did in his more youthful days. But he remains at the top of his game, as evidenced by one of his most impressive MARS title marches this season.
The MARS points race once again came down to Frye and his longtime rival Terry Phillips of Springfield, Mo., the only other champion in the tour’s eight-year history. This time, however, it wasn’t even close. Phillips, 40, finished a distant second in the standings, 111 points behind Frye, whose almost spotless performance record allowed him to clinch the title merely by taking the green flag in the 2007 season finale at Lebanon I-44.
Of course, Frye didn’t get off to the greatest start this season. He struggled in the first three full MARS points events, and he dropped out of the three World of Outlaws Late Model Series/MARS DIRTcar Series Shootouts that offered MARS show-up points in June and July.
“We kinda wondered if coming back this year was the right thing to do,” Frye said of his early struggles. “I remember talking with (NASCAR veteran Ken) Schrader at Coffeyville (Oklahoma’s Mid-America Speedway on July 4) and he said, ‘I thought you were quitting last year.’ I said, ‘Well, I thought about it – and the way my year’s gone so far, maybe I should have.’”
But Frye’s early-season frustration wasn’t caused by any drop in his ability. It was simply a mechanical issue.
“Actually, what happened is that at Wheatland (Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway) the first night of the season, we knocked a stub off the car and bent the rearend,” said Frye. “We fought the car for like a month after that, until we finally bent the rearend again and put another housing in the car at the track.
“That’s when we realized that the rearend had been bent the whole time. We’ve had a good race car ever since.”
A “good car” would be an understatement. After driving his Kuntz/Petroff Towing GRT No. 66 to a sixth-place finish on July 4 at Mid-America Speedway, Frye didn’t finish a single MARS A-Main outside the top five for the remainder of the season.
Over the final 12 events (including one show-up points race), Frye ripped off five wins, three seconds, two thirds and two fifths. He seized the points lead from Will Vaught of Crane, Mo., with a victory on Aug. 24 at Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway and never gave it up.
Frye clinched the title in style, winning the 40-lap season-closer on Sept. 22 at Lebanon I-44. He also wiped away those still-simmering visions of retirement.
Before taking the green flag in the event, Frye said, “I thought to myself, I won the championship (just by starting), so if I can win the race, it might be time to quit.”
But Frye put that discussion to rest when he reached Victory Lane.
“I feel too good right now (to retire),” smiled Frye, whose ’07 MARS triumphs came at Lebanon I-44 (twice), Springfield (Mo.) Raceway, Monett (Mo.) Raceway and Paducah.
Frye’s second-half surge to the MARS title trumped Phillips, who didn’t heat up quite enough to even the career championships record with Frye at four apiece. Phillips recorded three wins and nine top-five finishes over the final 12 events of the season, but three runs outside the top-10 proved costly.
“He’s run real good this year,” Phillips said of Frye. “You can’t take nothing from him. It’s hard to beat him. He works on his stuff a lot – like they say, you make your own luck, and he knows how to do that.
“He’s been good from the start (of the season) and I wasn’t too good early, so I feel like we’re lucky to even be where we’re at.”
While Phillips fell short of the title – he’s been the points runner-up in all five of Frye’s MARS championship seasons – he did have one big victory to soothe his feelings. On Sept. 1 at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, he scored his first career win in the fifth annual Larry Phillips Memorial, an event run in honor of his late, legendary father.
“It meant a lot to me to finally get that win,” said Phillips, who leads the alltime MARS win list with 61 victories (Frye is second with 34). “I had to calm myself down at the end because I knew I had a good shot to win.
“Dad won a lot of races there (at I-44) and had a big fan-base there, and we have a lot of family in the area. So we had a lot of people there to see us win, and that made it real special.”
Ironically, the drivers who followed Frye and Phillips in the final MARS points standings – third-place Vaught and fourth-place Jeremy Payne of Springfield, Mo. – are young protégés of the tour’s longtime dominators. Frye has taken the 20-year-old Vaught under his wing, while Phillips fields a car for the 21-year-old Payne.
Vaught emerged as a serious title contender in 2007, winning twice (at Monett and Lake Ozark Speedway in Eldon, Mo.) and grabbing the points lead after the Aug. 22 event at Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon Beach, Ill. Some bad luck down the stretch, however, left him 126 points behind Frye.
“I’m really proud of him,” Frye said of Vaught, who spent the off-season working at Frye’s speed shop. “I’m tickled to death to see him doing so good this year.
“I told him (at the start of the season) that I just want to see it (the points race) come down to the end with me and him running first and second.”
That didn’t happen, but Vaught nearly broke the Frye/Phillips stranglehold on MARS supremacy.
So did Payne, a native of Phoenix, Ariz., who moved to the Midwest to drive for Phillips. Payne finished 143 points behind Frye and won his first career MARS feature, on Sept. 21 at Lebanon I-44 Speedway.
Jack Sullivan of Greenbrier, Ark., finished fifth in the standings, winning twice in 2007.
The MARS DIRTcar Series teams will be honored during the tour’s annual awards banquet on Nov. 17 at the Clarion at the Grand Palace in Branson, Mo.
For more information on the MARS DIRTcar Series, visit www.midamericaracingseries.com.