At a glance, there is nothing about Davey Brown Sr. to suggest he is in the business of making something go really fast. His movement, after all, is unhurried. His words are economized. His bearing is that of a thinker.
Those attributes were, most likely, ingrained in him as he was growing up on his family’s Delta, Pennsylvania, farm, a place where season-after-season slow and steady ruled the day. Generations of locals know the rolling land there as Five Forks. It’s just plain old Delta (Rural Delivery), though, to the mail-carrier.
Somewhere along the way, however, Davey Brown found the siren song of the speedway to be irresistible. The scream of the engine. The crackle of the exhaust. The thrill of the chase.
Goodbye tractor, hello hot rod!
Brown eventually left agriculture behind, but he didn’t stray far from the dirt.
Today he stands taller than an August cornstalk, hailed far and wide by experts as sprint car racing’s all-time best mechanic. The only other name occasionally mentioned in the same breath as Brown’s is that of Indiana’s renowned Karl Kinser.
When it comes to engine tuning, car set-up — most notably the chassis, gearing selection and wing adjustment — and the myriad details that go into consistently handing his driver a car fast enough to be parked in Victory Lane, Brown is a one-man turnkey operation.
That he turned 87 years old this past Memorial Day is incidental. Brown is every bit as effective and cutting edge now as when he was a 20-something rising whiz kid wrenching a flathead Ford jalopy for his high school pal and fellow Delta farm boy, Johnny Mackison Sr.
In 1954, their first full season of racing, Mackison and Brown teamed up to win the track championship at Bowling Green, a short-lived, half-mile clay oval in Jefferson, Pennsylvania.
That attention-grabbing accomplishment was the start of something remarkable.
Mackison, a natural-born racer with movie star looks, was the first — and perhaps best — of a squadron of top-notch, championship-winning drivers, who had the good fortune to have Brown strategizing, calculating and otherwise toiling in their pit.
Many of them were on hand recently at Williams Grove Speedway, where Brown was honored on the opening night of the 31st annual Pennsylvania Sprint Car Speedweek. The reunion of former drivers who had been associated with Brown through the years was the focal point of festivities prior to the running of the Davey Brown Sr. Tribute Race, a celebration that had been postponed three times dating back to last year due to stormy weather.
Billy Pauch Sr. and Bobby Gerhart were there, as were Lynn Paxton, Paul Pitzer, and Chris Eash. South Dakota ace Doug Wolfgang, who scored 54 victories in one checkered flag-draped season during the eighties with Brown wrenching, phoned in his salute via the public address system.
Before time trials began, scores of racing fans had gathered in the half-mile circuit’s grass infield in front of a wooden structure that served as a dais from which high praise was heaped upon Brown by those who know him best. Many onlookers shelled out 25 bucks for a Davey Brown commemorative tee shirt and then patiently stood in line to get his autograph.
Speakers included Brown’s current boss, Don Kreitz Jr., a hall-of-fame-driver-turned-car owner, who, in a matter of eight words, may have revealed the secret behind Brown’s sterling career, which has spanned six decades and parts of two others.
“His biggest attribute is he doesn’t resist change,” said Kreitz, of Brown, as many in the gathering knowingly nodded in agreement. “He’s just amazing. There is no one in the whole country, with the possible exception of Karl Kinser, who is that sharp on chassis and engines. Davey Brown is great on both of them.”
As a throw-away line, Kreitz quipped: “Brown is in better shape than anyone on our pit crew. He only eats fish and chicken.”
When Kreitz hired hall of fame driver Lance Dewease to wheel his baby blue 69K, it rounded out a triumvirate which is often referred to as The Dream Team. Hall of famers all, the Sinking Spring, PA.-based team runs a limited schedule, showing up for all of the bigger shows at the Lincoln, Port Royal, Selinsgrove and BAPS tracks, as well as Williams Grove.
Pauch, an elite modified and sprint car pilot from back in the day, made the trip from his New Jersey home to pay tribute to Brown in person.
“Davey was a legend when I was a kid,” said Pauch, who was dominant in the mid-nineties. “He had drivers like Dick Tobias and Mackison. Having Davey on our team was big. When Davey stepped in, our team stepped up. He knows how to tune and detune an engine.”
The mere mention of Tobias, a popular and accomplished racer from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, conjured an unpleasant reminder of the inherent danger that lurks in what is a largely unregulated sport. As Brown watched his guy from the pits one night, Tobias flipped while leading a 1978 race at New Jersey’s Flemington Speedway. His car landed on its side on a guardrail. Tobias was killed instantly.
For a period of time following the accident, Brown questioned his desire to remain in racing.
“These cars are like alligators,” said Pauch, who is 65, and retired from racing. “Sooner or later they will bite you.”
Designed to run on an oval or circular dirt track, a top division sprint car is powered by a 410-cubic inch, 900-horsepower, methanol-fueled engine that can cost upwards of $30,000. Before he stepped away from building them, Brown had put together more always-in-demand motors in his Dover, PA. shop than he can remember.
All of which is says something about the unassuming Brown, who rose to the top of his craft without having had a mentor providing direction, advice and wink-inducing tricks of the trade.
“I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I learned from them,” said Brown, of a career that has seen him amass a combined 794 victories in sprints and modifieds to date, an astounding number that is believed to be the most ever recorded by a crew chief at any level of motor racing. “I’ve been lucky to work with many great drivers. As far as the number of wins goes, if you race long enough, you are bound to win a few.”
Brown’s sister, Dawn Gladfelter, is accustomed to her soft-spoken brother’s modesty; and she knows what drives him.
“He works harder than any man I know,” she said. “He comes back [to the track] week-after-week. It is a passion. He’s always looking to gain an edge. He can be standing in Victory Lane and he’ll say ‘Well, we could have run better.’ "
In a sweet ending to the night’s 25-lap feature, Brown had once again saddled a winner. It was the cherry on top of a three-scoop dessert of equal parts admiration, respect and gratitude served up to an erstwhile Delta farm boy at a big race track in a little Pennsylvania borough aptly called Mechanicsburg.