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Meet IHRA Chief Starter Clyde Peake

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Clyde Peake, born and raised in Columbia, S.C., is the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) chief starter.  He works primarily in IHRA Division 9-2 where his son, Josh, 37, is the Division director.  Clyde Peake, 66, also owns and operates his family business, Peake’s Auto and Tire in Columbia where he works about four and a half days a week.  The elder Peake has been an IHRA Race Official for more than 40 years, and while he is clearly the longest-tenured IHRA Official, he thinks of himself as just one of the guys. Below is a conversation with IHRA Chief Starter, Clyde Peake. 

Question: How long have you been doing this?

Answer: I’ve been working for IHRA for more than 40 years.  I had friends and relatives that raced at the time and friends that worked for IHRA; we were at Rockingham, N.C.  Mickey Lawson might have been the very first starter for IHRA; I’m not positive about that, but he was the race director that weekend.  Another friend of mine, Donny Elgin was working as the IHRA head of staging.  One Friday, Mickey Lawson asked if I wanted to go to work on the starting line.  I said, ‘I don’t know; I’m down here helping my cousin and friend with race cars. If you don’t find anybody, let me know.’  He left, and I got to thinking about it.  I’d been going to races a long time; it was time for me to start making money at the races instead of spending money so I went to work that day working in the bleach box, and I’ve been there ever since. 


Question: Did you ever race?

Answer: “Not with IHRA; I raced little local tracks.  I wasn’t any good so I got out.  I like to hunt, and I like to fish.  I like the lake and going water skiing – stuff like that.  You’re talking about somebody that was a teenager or maybe early 20s at the time, I don’t know.  If I wasn’t going to put 100 percent into racing, I needed to start looking at other areas.  I wasn’t married; I liked girls, fishing and hunting, but race cars weren’t for me at that time.”


Question: What was it like working for IHRA in the 1980s?

Answer: “Oh, it was a blast.  Being around drag racing all my life, and then to go to work with IHRA when I had friends working for IHRA and friends that went to the races every week, it was the best of both worlds.  Wherever IHRA went, whether it was Rockingham or Bristol, my friends would show up at these race tracks so I would see them there.”


Question: What came after the bleach box?

Answer: I only worked the bleach box the very first race at Rockingham. I think it was two or three weeks later, and I worked handing out ET (elapsed time) slips at Bristol (Tennessee).  I really liked that because it was fun; you got to see the racers and talk to the racers.  Working on the starting line in the bleach box was hard work, and you didn’t have time to do anything but work.  A month or so after that, we went to Michigan, and I was the head of staging for like two weekends.  It was shortly after that I went back to the starting line as the assistant starter, and I did that for a few years.  A few years after that, they weren’t really happy with the starter, he was a friend of mine, and some of my friends that worked for IHRA said they wanted me to take that job as the national event starter, but he was a friend of mine so that was tough.  The next year, they came to me and told me the job was mine and that they wanted me to have it, and they said, ‘if you don’t want it, we’re gonna give it to somebody else.’  I thought about it for 18 days.  I didn’t want to take the job initially because I knew when I left from there, some racers would get mad at the starter. I didn’t want to have racers mad at me; I took the national event job, and I still make some people mad!”


Question: What’s the hardest part of being a starter?

Answer: “I don’t consider being the starter hard.  It’s a real big responsibility to make sure the racers have all their safety stuff on, make sure they stage correctly and that they have a good, clean racing surface and that they get off the track safely before we send the next pair.  It’s not really hard.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s hard in the sense that it’s long hours and you stand on your feet all day, but actually being the starter isn’t really hard.  You have to stay focused more so than any other job there because there could be parts coming off a car.  Did the car put down any fluid or cross the center line?  You just have to stay in touch with the races going on all day. You can’t relax.  You gotta keep up with the crew members when they’re trying to get the cars up there, and you have to keep up with how they’re staging. Are they staging with the nose of the car or do they have diaper on the car?  Is a crew member getting in the lights? So it’s busy, busy, busy all day long. You’re fighting every car that goes down that race track – until he gets up there and get staged until he goes off the track at the top end, you’re responsible for that race track.” 

Question:  That’s a huge responsibility; there probably aren’t that many people on the planet that can do what you do.

Answer: “I’ll tell you, it’s a handful; you have to love it.  I don’t think most people are cut out for it.  You have to stand on your feet all day, fighting the weather running cars.  You go out there around seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and sometimes you don’t leave the race track until 12, one, two o’clock that night.  I’ve been there until six the next morning before running race cars, and that’s hard; it’s challenging.  You’ve gotta love it.”


Question: What about being the starter makes you love it?

Answer:  “What keeps me from walking away from it and retiring is probably my son, Josh.  He’s the Division 9-2 race director.  I consider myself a good family man, and I love being with my kids more than anything else.  Just being with Josh all weekend, and him being the race director, I’m proud of him for what he’s accomplished.  Somebody asked me one day, “What are you gonna do when Josh tells you to do something?’  I said, ‘Josh is not gonna tell me do anything; he’s gonna ask me to do something.  I’m still gonna be in charge of Josh!’  I just love being with him, I love the racers, I love the officials.  We all hang out together.  Josh’s group of guys in IHRA Division 9-2 is one of the greatest groups of guys to work with.  They’re hard working, they’re funny, and it’s just fun for me to work with those guys.  It’s kind of hard to walk away from that.”


Question: Did you get Josh started with IHRA?

Answer: “I used to take Josh to the races – I’ve taken him everywhere I’ve gone in my life.  We would go to all kinds of races whether it was NASCAR, Saturday night races or IHRA races, he’s always been with me.  One time we went to Darlington when he was about 12.  We were getting up the next morning, and it had been hot that weekend.  Trying to get him out of the room to go to the race track was tough, and I didn’t want to be late for work.  I went out to the car, and when he finally came out, Josh was wearing one of my IHRA shirts. I told him he couldn’t wear that IHRA shirt out to the racetrack – those people would fire me.  I was the assistant starter, and I was in real good cahoots with Robert Leonard and the race director Donny Elgin.  They just loved Josh; he would come to all the races, and the IHRA Banquets.  Josh has never been shy.  He just put that shirt on, and they didn’t say anything to him. It was gonna kind of break my heart not to let him wear it, but they never said he had to take it off, and that’s how he got started in IHRA.  Probably a year after that, when he was probably 14, they let him pass out the ET slips.  That’s how he started, and he just grew into it.  

Question: Do you have a favorite story from your years with the IHRA?

Answer: “There are so many good days; we just have fun every week.  Stories?  I have stories from here to yonder.  In the earlier days, they wouldn’t work too late on Fridays.  They’d get done by about five or six o’clock, and we’d be out of there.  We’d all go back to the hotel and shower and go out to dinner.  Back then, they had a lot of these supper club kind of things, and we’d all hang out.  Those days were really, really fun.  For many years, you go to the race, and you’re lucky if you can find something to eat on the way back to the hotel at night.  In the earlier days, getting together with officials and racers to go out to dinner was a lot of fun back then.  Those are some of the good times, but we’ve had some crazy times over the years – most of them I can’t talk about.  We did a lot of good stuff – going to dinner with everyone and stuff like that has always been a lot of fun.”

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