Life is a Wild Ride
Dick Bailey started first grade in Jones one-room school, between Barkeyville and Clintonville, , PA, in 1927, when he was just five years old.
“My brother was a year older than me,” he said. “My parents wanted company for him because we had to walk two miles to school.” But that was okay, he jokes, because it was so far they never got there until recess.
Maybe all that slow walking was what motivated Dick later on to drive anything on wheels as fast as he could, and to fly his own plane.
Dick’s dad was a field service rep for Cooper Bessemer, so he had to move the family around a bit. They moved the first time after Dick finished first grade.
“We lived in Franklin a couple of times, and in Pone Hill. And Dad helped set up a plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he said. “Then they hired him, so we lived out there a while. Then Cooper Bessemer offered him more money, so we came back here.”
Dick went to several other one-room schools. “There were only 13 kids in Beech School,” he said. “Five of them were from our family, and all the rest were related to each other.”
He learned to work hard while he was still in school. His father had a small family coal mine in Pone Hill, between Barkeyville and Wesley. They sold some of the coal they dug out of it.
“My brother and I worked all of one summer just to buy a bicycle,” he said. “We stayed in the old coal bank in a shanty with just a kerosene lantern for light.”
Dick dropped out of school after his Freshman year to go to work. “I did whatever work I could find. I worked in a garage for a while, cleaning up and running errands. I drove truck when I was 15.
On January 2, 1942, Dick’s brother John joined the army and served in North Africa and Europe. About a year later, Dick enlisted in the Army Air Force. “A whole carload of us went up to Erie to join,” he said, “but I was the only one that went in. The rest of them all backed out.”
He spent his first night in the service in Erie. From there, he was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, to get the necessary shots and uniforms. He never got home again until he was released from the service slightly more than four years later.
After training in Florida, Illinois, and Oklahoma, Dick was assigned to the 344th Service Squadron in Topeka, Kansas. The unit was sent to the South Pacific, where they followed the U.S. military advances to maintain and repair combat aircraft.
“Every time they drove the Japs off an island, we’d move up. We had a prop shop, metal shop, welding shop, and paint shop. One time they brought a B-24 in on its belly because the wheels wouldn’t go down. We put a new walkway in it and bomb bay doors and had it flying again in two weeks.”
Although they were sometimes hit with Japanese attacks, Dick’s worst injury was the result of a motorcycle accident. “A big truck and trailer had just refueled a B-24. It pulled right out in front of me and I hit him broadside. I got a fractured pelvis and a concussion.”
Before the war was over, his other three brothers also entered military service. Fonnie, and Frederick joined in the army in 1944 and served in Europe. Fonnie was wounded and became a prisoner of war. James joined the Navy in 1945. (He later served as a paratrooper in the Korean War and as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He was shot down and killed during his third tour there.)
When Dick came back from the service, he and his brother went to work at the Lawrence Foundry.
“It was a very dirty job and we didn’t want to spend the rest of our life doing that, so we quit. Then we decided to go on vacation. We went down to Texas, and on the way back through Tennessee he joined the army again, so I had to come back by myself. I was figuring on going to Florida for the winter but my parents kept after me to put in an application at Cooper, so I did, and they called me within two weeks.”
Dick worked at Cooper for 44 years. But while some people’s lives are centered on their jobs, Dick’s life was defined by speed, daring, and adventure outside of work. He became a pilot through the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Grove City Airport; he continued to ride motorcycles, in spite of his accident in the South Pacific; and he had a long, successful career as a race car driver.
He dove into racing with virtually no forethought.
“Two brothers and a brother-in-law and a cousin were building a car. They all were going to take turns driving it. But when the day of the first race came, they asked me to drive it. So I rushed out and got a helmet.”
Before they took the car to the Butler Fair Grounds that night, Dick had never even seen an automobile race. Amazingly, he won his heat and came in second in the Feature. About three weeks later he won the Feature.
“The car was a flat-head Ford. Back then you ran them in second gear. You hooked the gear shift to the dashboard to keep it from flying out of second gear. You used an old belt for a seatbelt.”
Dick raced that car for a year or so, then built his own car. In 1950, he became a driver in the newly-formed NASCAR.
In 1952, Dick married Myrtle Decker. They had three sons – Rick, Bill, and Bryan – and racing became a family affair. “My wife and kids came with him to the races. The boys dressed like me in white coveralls and red caps. I’m known for my red cap. My boys all became race car drivers. And Myrtle competed in women’s races.”
For nearly 30 years, Dick competed in an incredible variety of race cars: stocks, modifieds, sprint cars, late models, even Go-Karts. He drove on more than 50 race tracks in nine states, winning more than 400 feature races.
Along the way he had some memorable experiences. He is one of the few drivers still alive who competed in the last race on the Daytona Beach and Road Course in 1958 and the first race on the new Daytona International Speedway the following year.
For the 1958 race, he had to have a current model year car. He learned that Pontiac was building just three Pontiac Chieftains specially for racing. He bought one of them, and went to go to Detroit to pick it up. As he and his brother were towing it back to Grove City, Dick decided it made no sense to be towing a brand new car. He unhooked it and drove it the rest of the way to Grove City. They drove it to Florida, put on racing tires and other required safety items, then competed in the race. He finished 20th, in spite of losing the fan belt.
After the race, they converted the car back to street legal. He drove it back home, and used it for a couple of years as his personal car, complete with roll bars and lettering.
The 1959 race was a very different experience. He drove a 1938 Chevy coupe with an Oldsmobile engine in the Modified Sports race. With the steeply banked curves, he never lifted his foot off the throttle except when slowing for a pit stop.
“I started in the 33rd position. Toward the end of the race I was running out of fuel, so I came into the pit. Nobody was there to give me fuel, so I jumped out, put the fuel in myself, went back out, and still finished 12th.”
During the course of his driving career, Dick was involved in some scary accidents. At the Heidelberg (PA) speedway, he was pinned in a car, unable to move. The steering wheel was holding his legs, and the roof was crushed down onto his helmet. With gasoline spilling out, he was afraid that the car would catch fire, but it didn’t.
At Tri-City Speedway, he got a broken arm when he flipped a sprint car end over end. At Dayton, Ohio, he flew over the wall into the trees. Another sprint car accident in 1978 ended his racing career.
As if all of this wasn’t enough adventure, Dick continued seeking thrills outside the race tracks. He owned and rode at least 15 motorcycles. And he loved to fly his Cessna Skyhawk, sometimes with reckless abandon.
“I’d do a loop, then a snap roll, then put it into a spin over. Once when I pulled out I was right over I-79, and this lady saw me coming. She took her hands off the wheel to cover her face, didn’t back off the gas, went across the highway and sideswiped another car.”
Dick retired from Cooper Bessemer in 1990. His wife Myrtle passed away in 1993. Since then, Dick has sold his motorcycles and his airplane because, he says, he doesn’t have time for them. He still owns ten cars, including a one-of-a-kind Tiffany, a big long car with spare tires on the side and air horns out front. He takes it to car shows nearly every weekend.
So that’s the story of Dick Bailey’s life. Well, almost. If you talk with him, he might also mentioned that he served in the army reserve for 20 years, drove tour buses for Anderson and other tour companies, used to bowl seven nights a week – and oh, by the way, at age 86, still travels around for a Louisiana company repairing diesel engines in places like Alaska and Greece.
“When I’m on the road for them, I work 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.
And you wondered why he doesn’t have time any more for motorcycles and airplanes.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009