Rick Wilson

Rick Wilson

Bartow may be known for its bucolic setting and pastoral lifestyle, but this man found himself drawn to a lifestyle that averaged 136.7 miles per hour – which is the average speed on a NASCAR mile-long oval.

While Bartow was home, Rick Wilson found the racetracks of the Southeastern United States and beyond calling his name. It may have begun as a hobby – a fun, yet challenging avocation that he was successful enough at to turn it into a profession – that turned into a non-planned vocation as he found himself employed as a professional NASCAR driver for successful and well-known teams for several years.

As a teenager it seemed plausible that football would be the avenue he would take to make a name for himself as a sports star having attained notoriety in high school football as an All-State first team right guard his senior year, swapping out to play defensive nose tackle as well, and his talent garnered him the interest of college coaches. However, Wilson believed his shorter stature would preclude him from being an elite football player beyond high school, so he and settled in to work with his father in the family businesses of construction, cattle and citrus.

Tinkering on the businesses equipment and motors to make them better and faster was a prerequisite that easily transferred to race cars. Soon he was building cars, taking them to drag race.

“There were drag strips in Tampa, Oldsmar and DeSoto,” he said. “ So that’s where I started. That’s where I got bit by the speed bug.”

Drag racing led to nearby circle track racing.

“First oval racetrack race I’d ever run was in Auburndale,” he said. “And I won. I was hooked.”

East Bay Raceway – and it’s clay track – were another proving ground. The more he raced, the more he won. While his brother was supportive and involved, it took a while for his business-minded father to come around.

“Once he was convinced of my serious commitment of time and effort, he also came to believe I had the talent to make it in racing and he got behind me 100 percent,” he said.

Still in its infancy, racing had yet to go high-tech. The need for a firmer, lighter and more durable chassis meant a 1978 winter trip to Michigan wasn’t just to see snow.

“We went up to buy a chassis for a Camaro,” he said. “Twenty-four hours up and back.”

That led to a race at the half-mile track at New Smyrna Beach, where he came in second behind one of the best short track racers of the day. Soon racing was a three-day sport. Fridays in Orlando, Saturdays in New Smyrna and Sundays at DeSoto.

“After a while, we just kept going farther and farther,” Wilson said. “One day, they played the national anthem – and it wasn’t ours. We were in Canada! We’d been on the road for two weeks. It was time to turn around.”

With a car bought from race legend Donnie Allison, Wilson and team took on the Charlotte Sportsman Race – today, known as Busch Grand Nationals.

“I made the race but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said. “I spun out and backed into the fence. Which meant I was wrenching on it on Monday.”

But friends along the way – Dick Hutcherson with Hutcherson-Pagan Enterprises – got Wilson’s gear and career headed in the right direction.

“Between them, and others, I built my own Cup car,” he said. “It was a different day. Back then, if you wanted to race at Daytona, and qualified, you raced.”

A year later, he found himself at Daytona Speed Weeks in February, and the races that lead up the big one – the Daytona 500. He was only there to deliver a car to another driver – but when that driver backed out of the purchase, Wilson and his team decided to go ahead and run the car. As fate would have it, Wilson won the ARCA race and caught the attention of racing legend A.J. Foyt, breathing new life into a racing career that looked about over. Fast forward to being hired by Morgan McClure of Abingdon, Virginia and finishing seventh in his very first Daytona 500.

“Morgan-McClure was the team I had my most success with,” he said. On average, Wilson and his team always ran well at Daytona including an exciting 1988 Daytona Firecracker 400 photo finish that ended with him placing second by mere inches. “While the racing was good, the people were what made it great. They made me a better driver.”

At the same time Wilson enjoyed more success, so did NASCAR. New racetracks and expanded coverage due to the advent of cable television meant more and bigger sponsors – and the demands that went with that.

“We were a bunch of good ‘ol boys who liked to drive fast,” said Wilson. “Next, we’ve got corporate sponsors who are looking for corporate faces. The sport changed – it became more corporate.”

Winning races in the Busch Series for a team sponsored by the Abingdon, Virginia based Food Country supermarket chain were highlights of 1989, a stretch where Wilson was a consistent top-20 driver. During this time, he was recognized for achievements such as a fastest qualifier Pole position, garnered Peak Antifreeze Coolest move of the race awards, as well as most laps lead in several races.

Another highlight of Rick’s career honors was being chosen to replace a legend.

“The King, Richard Petty, was going to retire,” he said. “I threw my name in the hat and got the call.”

For the 1992 season, Wilson drove the number 44 for Petty Enterprises.

“It was fun, but there were struggles, as a team,” he said. “And I’d been doing this for a lot of years, and a lot of time on the road. I figured it was time to go home.

Wilson transitioned from putting a fire suit on each week to rolling his sleeves up every day and kept on working his other businesses. Still handy in the garage, Rick and a partner developed an industry standard – Chopzilla.

“We built a machine for the Mixon’s to hedge blueberries,” he said. “Soon orders for hedgers were coming in from across the country.”

Other ventures include citrus grove maintenance, cattle, a heavy equipment business, as well as a fitness center. He considers it an honor to have been elected and to serve as a Polk County Commissioner. He’s currently in his second four-year term.

Rick continues to call Bartow home where he resides with his wife Teresa who he married in 1981.

“On our first date, I invited her to come to East Bay Raceway,” he said. “When she didn’t leave or complain about the dirt or noise, I knew she was a keeper and that I’d found the one.”

Rick and Teresa have a son, Travis; a daughter, Lori Ann and two grandsons that they are immensely proud of.