He advanced from the Midwest’s dirt tracks to NASCAR’s superspeedways more than three decades ago. And now, at age 71, Terry Ryan is still going in circles.
These days Ryan, of Davenport, Iowa, is racing a vintage Late Model at dirt tracks throughout Iowa in Mississippi Valley Vintage Race Car Association events.
MVVRCA boasts more than 50 race cars in a variety of classes, according to Ryan. The cars must be at least 20 years old and the drivers at least age 55.
“They just want you to have fun” and not go out and “beat on your buddy,” Ryan says. “It doesn’t pay anything. Bragging rights is the best you can come out of it with.”
Some of the race cars are reproductions, but Ryan’s No. 81 is authentic. Constructed by Hutcherson-Pagan Enterprises, the 1979 Chevrolet Camaro was built for USAC short tracks. Ryan says he raced it in competition 15 or 16 times.
“At the end of the 1980 season, there were so many rule changes it didn’t fit anything, and it never got sold.”
So Ryan threw a tarp on the Camaro, and it sat in a corner of the machine shed at his father’s farm until Ryan dug it out and he and some former crew members refurbished it.
Oddly enough, Ryan’s racing career had its start in the 1950s at a roller-skating rink in Davenport, where local stock car driver Harold Schroeder was the floor manager.
Ryan, who was raised on a farm north of Dewitt, Iowa, met Schroeder and got interested in racing when he accompanied a school chum to the rink.
Ryan and Bob Runge, another friend who in later years would become Ryan’s crew chief, began going to the races with Schroeder and his young pit crewman, Mel Kenyon. Kenyon, of course, would eventually become famous as a driver of midget cars and Indycars.
“We were the gophers,” Ryan says of the work he and Runge did in Schroeder’s pit. “We’d clean the windshield and maybe they’d let us change a tire.”
After serving on several pit crews, Ryan and another buddy, Jim Hanford, built Ryan’s first car in time for the 1967 racing season.
The 1957 Chevrolet hardtop, sponsored by local Roto Rooter owner Don Hobbs, carried No. 61Jr. and ran in the Sportsman Division.
Ryan says paying for his own car was the only way he was going to get a shot at driving.
“Nobody was going to say, ‘Here, go drive my car’ if you didn’t have any experience.”
Ryan drove 61Jr. for two years. He proved he had potential by winning championships in 1968 at speedways in Davenport and Maquoketa, Iowa, and East Moline, Ill.
But that accomplishment was a mixed blessing.
A rule back then mandated that Sportsman Division champions had to move up to Late Models if they wanted to race the next year. That was a prospect Ryan couldn’t afford.
But the no. 11 Late Model ride owned by Gary Schomberg became available when, sadly, his driver, Jack Henson of Stronghurst, Ill., was killed in an industrial accident.
Ryan credits Late Model drivers Jim Gerber and Ronnie Weedon with urging Schomberg to give Ryan a chance behind the wheel, and he did.
It was a good move on Schomberg’s part. Ryan finished in the top 10 in points at Davenport Speedway in 1969 and was runner-up to the legendary Weedon at East Moline’s Quad City Raceway in 1970.
In 1971, Ryan’s sponsor, Don Hobbs, bought him a USAC car, a ’69 Chevelle carrying No. 54, from Whitey Gerken of Elmhurst, Ill.
Ryan drove that car from 1971 to 1973 both locally and in some IMCA and USAC races, but he admits he “didn’t set the world on fire.”
That’s also the ride Ryan was in when he made his first superspeedway start, in 1972 at Michigan.
“Man, those are awfully big tracks if you haven’t been around them,” Ryan remembers.
By 1974, Ryan says the team needed a new car. That spring restaurant executive and car buff Bill Monaghan, who lived in Davenport at the time, bought a “Banjo” Matthews-built 1974 Chevelle from A.J. Foyt. He also bought a second car, a brand new 1975 Chevrolet Laguna, from Matthews in February 1975.
It was those cars that allowed Ryan to race competitively in USAC and take a shot at NASCAR.
Ryan, who drove for Monaghan through the 1980 season, was among the top 10 in USAC points in five years of competition with the division. His best effort came in 1978, when he was in the top 10 for 10 of his 13 starts and finished second to A.J. Foyt in the final point standings.
Driving Monaghan car’s in NASCAR, Ryan competed in 12 Cup races in 1976 and 1977, earning four top-10 finishes.
He dove into NASCAR with quite a splash. In 1976, driving the Matthews-built ’75 Laguna, he started on the outside front row of the Daytona 500 with fellow Iowa USAC driver Ramo Stott of Keokuk on the pole.
How did that happen?
“First of all, I had a very, very good race car,” says Ryan of the Matthews car. “By that I mean you could turn a screw on that thing, and it would react to it. Some cars don’t.”
In addition, the top three qualifiers on the first day of qualifications for the 500 failed their post-qualifying inspections.
“A.J.’s, Darrell Waltrip’s and Dave Marcis’ times were disallowed — not disqualified — but disallowed,” Ryan says. “They could requalify the second day. They had something aerodynamic that they did.
“Ramo had fourth-quick time, and I had fifth-quick. Well, when they disallowed those first three times, it put me on the outside of the front row.”
The NASCAR rookie had a sixth-place finish in that race.
“Then we went to Talladega, qualified ninth and finished fifth to back it up.”
Things didn’t go so well at the team’s next race, in Charlotte. “I wrecked the car there,” Ryan says.
In all, despite two straight DNFs, Ryan earned four top 10s in Cup races that season, including a ninth-place at Ontario.
Terry Ryan’s other seven Cup races were in 1977, where he finished 40th in points. His season began at Daytona, but he finished a disappointing 18th after his engine failed.
Engine issues also knocked him out of the next two races, and he dropped out at Charlotte with axle problems.
But when things held together, Ryan sailed, finishing no worse than 17th in his final three races, including ninth-place at Michigan, his final NASCAR race.
Ryan, a retired truck driver, left racing after competing at the Springfield, Ill., mile in October of 1980.
“We had a lot of good races throughout the years,” Ryan says, looking back on his career. “A lot of good times.”
Ryan, who was inducted into the Quad City Raceway Hall of Fame last fall, says he’s particularly proud of his team’s accomplishments in NASCAR.
“I just drove the car. Like they say in every interview, ‘Thanks to my crew.’ You cannot do that alone. You can’t make a pitstop, get out and change four tires, put gas in it, get back in and go. It takes six good guys over that wall.
“I’m very proud of that. We did very well. You can call it beginner’s luck. We had some good runs.”
And now he’s now back at it.
His return to racing, vintage style, began in 1996 when Ryan and Runge dragged the ’79 Camaro out of storage and created R&R Vintage Racing.
He has nothing to prove.
“It’s fun, but Old Father Time has taken his toll on me. The reflexes aren’t there, but I like to think the desire is.”
Copyright 2009 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article appeared in the Sept. 2009 issue of Late Model Illustrated.