RIDING WITH ELMO: Elmo Langley by Frank Moriarty
Not surprisingly, having a chance to ride with NASCAR pace car driver Elmo Langley was a thrilling experience. I took the photo above as we zoomed towards turn two at Pocono International Raceway on the last pace lap, and my account of the ride follows the article below. But even better than the ride was getting a chance to talk to Elmo at length about his career and NASCAR in general. He was a wonderful man, and he died doing what he loved - driving the pace car. Elmo Langley passed away on the speedway behind the wheel in the days leading up to NASCAR's exhibition race in Suzuka City, Japan in November, 1997. This article ran in Circle Track magazine twice, once shortly after it was written in 1996 and again as a memorial following Elmo's passing.
For those new to NASCAR Winston Cup racing, Elmo Langley is known predominantly for his high-profile job -- pace car driver for America's premier racing series. But Langley and NASCAR go back a long way. In fact, you could safely describe Elmo Langley as one of the top first generation NASCAR competitors.
"I started racing in 1952
driving modifieds in Maryland
and Virginia," Langley
recollects. "Back then there
were three divisions -- the
short track division, the
convertible division, and the
Grand National division. Short
track was anything of 1/3 mile
or below, and the Grand
Nationals were mostly 1/2 or 3/8
mile. I ran my first Grand
National in 1952."
Following his first start in
Grand National racing -- in the
division that would one day
become known as the Winston Cup
Series -- Langley raced for a
number of car owners for over
ten years. NASCAR's top
division was substantially
different from what today's fans
are used to.
"The first year I ran Darlington
was in 1954 in an Oldsmobile
that a guy named Sam Rice
owned," Langley recalls. "He
was one of the starters of
Martinsville Speedway. We drove
the car to Darlington, finished
11th, and then drove it home.
It didn't even have a roll bar,
just a piece of chain around the
"They were basically stock cars
-- you'd go to the showroom and
buy a car and strip it," Langley
continues. "You were allowed to
take the back seat and
upholstery out, and the back of
the passenger seat. Everything
else had to stay the same. All
the suspension on it, the
engines, everything had to be
In 1965, Langley tired of
driving for other car owners and
decided to start his own team.
That's a desire that many of
today's drivers have, too, but
in Langley's days of being an
owner/driver success required a
tremendous amount of hard work.
"We used to run 60 races in a
year, and I did it with just me
and a helper," Langley notes.
"We'd tow the car to the
racetrack, work on it, get it
ready, qualify it, run the race
with it, and then come back home
that night. A lot of those
100-mile races only paid $1000
"The money falls out of the sky to these people now, the drivers and even the crew chiefs. Back then, a year fifth in points making $40,000 total in a year, well that was actually a pretty decent year. Now they make that in one race," Langley points out.
course, we had no major sponsors
or corporations involved in it
back then. I was always
hard-headed, the kind who wanted
to do it on my own," Langley
admits. "We used to have a
garage or a restaurant or a
parts house that would give you
a little bit of money, but that
was about all anybody had.
Racing started to turn around
when Winston got involved in it
in the 1970s."
A look at the Grand National or
Winston Cup points standings
every season from the late-1960s
through the mid-1970s reveals
the name Elmo Langley solidly in
the top ten year after year
during this transitional period
for NASCAR. Elmo also made
trips to the Grand National
victory lanes at Old Dominion
Speedway in Virginia and
Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds
in South Carolina, beating the
likes of Bobby Allison, "Tiger
Tom" Pistone, David Pearson, and
Buddy Baker. Langley has
witnessed first-hand the
incredible growth of the sport
of stock car racing.
"I don't guess anybody other
than Bill France, Sr. ever
envisioned what racing was going
to come to. I know I never
did," says Langley. "A lot of
the tracks we'd run the 100-mile
races at, if they had six or
seven thousand people, that
would be a big crowd. Now you
get 100,000 people. It used to
be a redneck sport, but now
business people come to it and
there's just about as many women
as there are men who come to our
races. It's just been a
complete turnaround for us in
the demographics of the fans."
It was in the midst of this
turnaround that Elmo Langley's
new career with NASCAR began.
After retiring from driving in
1977, Langley continued to field
his car in Winston Cup
competition, with the driver's
seat occupied by as many as 14
different racers in one season.
Not surprisingly, Elmo remembers
that as a difficult period.
"It was nerve‑wracking," Langley
states. "I finally decided that
if I could find somebody to buy
the team I'd get out of owning
the car and go to work for
stayed heavily involved in the
sport even after selling his
team in 1986. In 1987 Langley
was running Cale Yarborough's
team when NASCAR Winston Cup
Director Dick Beaty offered him
a job with the sanctioning body
that would still keep him close
to the race cars.
"You get burned out after 35 years of working on 'em, racing 'em, and managing teams," Langley says. "Those are 12-, 14-, 16-hour days, seven days a week. Dick Beaty approached me after I had said something about being burned out on the race cars. The opportunity came to do what I'm doing now, to work for NASCAR and drive the pace car. I just decided this would be a lot easier but keep me involved with what I've been doing for 35 or 40 years, so I took the job."
How hard is Langley's job pacing
modern Winston Cup stock cars?
"Even drivers that have ridden
in the pace car didn't know
there was that much to it,"
Langley replies. "There's a lot
of responsibility. You always
have to know who the leader is.
When they put it out (the yellow
flag) you have to pick up that
leader. It's my decision to
look and make sure that, if
there's been an accident, that
everything is picked up. If
there's an engine blown and oil
was put down on the track, it's
my decision when they go back to
green and that the track is
clear. There's a lot more
responsibility than what
he's not driving the pace car,
Elmo Langley helps inspect the
stock cars to make sure they're
as safe as possible. Elmo is
proud of NASCAR's safety record,
even if the search for safety
has led to some ideas that
didn't really work out. Take,
for example, the use of two pace
cars when NASCAR first tried to
lower speeds along pit road in
"I knew that the two paces cars wasn't going to work when they started that, but they were searching then for a safer pit road," Langley notes. "When I first started driving the pace car, pit road was dangerous because I would pick up the field, and then at the entrance to pit road they would peel off and run full bore down pit road to their stalls. They'd change tires, and almost be exiting pit road by the time I got down there in the pace car on the racetrack.
"That was just a dangerous
situation -- it was more
dangerous on pit road than it
ever was in a race car," Langley
continues. "Now that they have
cut down the pit road speed, and
no one can pass the pace car,
that's made pit road 100 per
cent safer. Anytime there's
anything NASCAR can do to make
something safer they do it."
It somehow seems fitting that
the man who now paces the field
before each Winston Cup race
should be someone who spent a
large part of his life racing on
those very same racetracks.
"There's not too many that are still here that were around when I started racing, but I've known the new ones that come along from when they first started driving up to what they are now," says Elmo Langley. "I enjoy what I'm doing now. It's the people I've been around and involved with all my life."
RIDING WITH ELMO
"Caution car, let's ease 'em off -- it'll be the third time by," radios Race Director David Hoots from the NASCAR control room. Hearing those words, Elmo Langley puts the Pocono International Raceway pace truck into gear and begins to roll forward -- and my inside look at Elmo's unique job begins.
With the first motion of the
pace truck the crowd gathered
for the UAW-GM Teamwork 500
roars its approval, a sound
easily heard over the idling of
the 40 Winston Cup engines
behind us. As Elmo moves into
the banking of turn one, the
noise of the Winston Cup cars
grows into an ominous crescendo
as they close on our bumper. A
look out the truck's back window
reveals pole sitter Ken Schrader
with Mark Martin alongside, both
drivers wheeling their cars from
side to side as they build heat
in the tires. With each swerve
the stock cars behind the front
row swing in and out of view.
Langley paces the field at 65
mph, considerably less than the
100+ mph laps we turned while
checking the track's condition
earlier in the morning -- laps
which gave Langley a chance to
show off some of the talent
picked up during a 30-year
NASCAR driving career. But the
goal of the pace truck now is to
run at the pit road speed limit,
letting the drivers check their
tach readings at the legal speed
so they'll avoid a penalty
during the race.
A lap and a half later Langley
is preparing to turn the
racetrack over to the drivers.
We pass under the flag stand,
where starter Doyle Ford holds
out one finger to notify the
drivers the green flag will wave
in one lap. At the same time,
Langley reaches forward and
turns off the flashing lights
atop the truck.
Schrader and Martin have closed to within a few feet of our rear bumper as we zoom through turn one for the last time. The drivers -- resembling spacemen in their full-face helmets -- are clearly visible through their windshields as they prepare to race. Coming out of Pocono's "tunnel turn" we near Elmo's post during the race. Langley accelerates faster, putting some distance between ourselves and the Winston Cup cars.
"Hold on!" Elmo yells, and the pace truck brakes hard and makes a sudden left hand turn off the track. The forty stock cars flash by behind us, rumbling toward the start/finish line. Seconds later, the rumble turns to a roar, the green flag waves, and Elmo Langley has the satisfaction of another job well done.