Engines that could .
By Alex Abrams
Times-Union sports writer
Friday, February 21, 2003
A white sign hangs above a door in Speedy Spiers' garage.
The sign reads: "Through these doors and through my life have passed the greatest race car drivers, owners and mechanics the world has ever known."
But for Spiers, these men were more than just race car drivers. He took a teenage Yarbrough drag-racing on a deserted Southside Boulevard in the 1950s. He played poker with Roberts sometimes until the sun came up and one of them was $50-$60 poorer.
Behind every successful race car driver is an oil-stained engine-builder, like Spiers, who would rather have his head under the hood of a car than in front of a TV camera. He is retired now at 75, but he remembers when building an engine was a matter of trial-and-error and drivers were only as good as what was underneath the hoods of their cars.
"The very best equipment can make a mediocre driver look good, but the very best driver can not make shoddy equipment look good," Spiers said.
These days Speedy Spiers is retired but still builds engines occasionally for local short track drivers. -- Rick Wilson/Staff
From 1947 to 1995, over 1,000 short-track and national races were won by drivers competing with a Spiers-built engine. Roberts had 19 of his 32 career victories with Spiers' cars. Yarbrough won the 1969 Daytona 500 with an engine Spiers built and sold him.
What was Spiers' reaction when Yarbrough won at Daytona?
"It didn't mean much to me one way or the other," Spiers said. "I just got paid for the engine, that's all I cared about. They didn't give me any recognition for it at all. ... and I didn't want it."
Spiers, of Jacksonville, loves building engines. He has spent much of his retirement working with cars and admits to still getting a "hot-rod attack every once in awhile." The title that appears underneath his name on his business cards is "USEM Retired," which stands for "Used-Up Engine Mechanic."
Spiers' real first name is Irwin, but no one calls him that unless they're trying to get wise with him. Instead, he goes by "Speedy," a nickname given to him by a Mississippi municipal judge after seeing Spiers in his courtroom for the fourth time for driving too fast.
"When I started walking up the aisle for him to pass sentence on me, he said, 'Oh, here's Speedy again,'" Spiers said. "There was four boys that had come to court with me that day, and they starting calling me that."
Speedy Spiers built the engine for 19 of the 32 race-winning cars driven by Fireball Roberts.
The nickname stuck. When Spiers served in the Navy during World War II, "Speedy" was stenciled on his uniforms. To this day, everyone, including his wife of 50 years, Betty, calls him by his nickname.
"To tell the truth, I've known him for 40 or 50 years and that's all I have ever known him as," said David Ezell, who won over 250 races while driving with Spiers-built engines.
In the 1950s, Spiers made a name for himself by building the winning engines for a young driver who also went by a nickname: "Fireball" Roberts. The two men met at the 1947 Daytona Beach-Road Course race when they both crashed their race cars over the south turn and into some palmetto trees.
They learned they shared something else in common: both were students at the University of Florida. Roberts was a junior studying mechanical engineering; Spiers was a senior studying agricultural engineering.
This stock car racing poster hangs at Speedy Spiers' home. -- Rick Wilson/Staff
On a sunny spring day a few months after Daytona, Spiers and Roberts were sitting through an engine theory class when they decided they had had enough. They stood up to leave class when the female professor asked, "Where do you guys think you're going?" Roberts' response: "We're going racing." They never returned to college. Spiers was six credits from earning his degree.
Roberts went on to become one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers, winning 32 races -- including the 1962 Daytona 500 -- before dying in 1964 from injuries suffered when he got stuck in a burning car at a race at Charlotte International Speedway. Spiers stopped racing when he realized it would kill him if he continued.
During a 1951 race in North Carolina, Spiers was involved in an accident in which he woke up two days later in the hospital with no recollection of even competing in the race.
"I barely remember going to the race," Spiers said. "I don't remember being in it or anything about it. And I tore about 100-foot of board fence that was on the outside of the track, and I don't know how I did it."
In a race in Savannah six months earlier, he was involved in another serious accident, which sent his car so high in the air, Spiers claims, he could see the numbers on top of a transformer on a light pole. He still remembers the numbers 52 years later: 1291.
After the two serious accidents, Spiers decided to get out of racing before racing got him. The decision, however, didn't sit too well with Roberts.
"He kept telling me all this stuff about [how] I had so much natural ability," Spiers said. "[I was like] 'You keep telling me that, and you're going to get me killed."
Roberts died 13 years after Spiers stopped racing. Spiers wasn't at the 1964 Charlotte race in which Roberts suffered fatal burns to 70 percent of his body. The two friends had parted in 1957 when Roberts wanted to devote more time to racing in the bigger Grand National Series than the smaller local tracks that Spiers preferred.
Building engines suited Spiers' personality more than racing anyway. He learned how to work on cars as a teenager by repairing an old dump truck his father kept on the family farm to transport gravel, which they sold for roads. To Spiers, the excitement of building engines comes from seeing what their limits are. He admits he has blown his share of engines, both in the garage and on the race track.
"If you don't blow engines, you're not going to do much racing and you're not going to be trying innovations," Spiers said. "The more you innovate, the closer to the line you get. When you get over that line, the engine flies apart."
Spiers opened his first automotive garage with an $8,000 G.I. loan that took him nine years to pay back. He built the first engine for Yarbrough's first race car, a 1934 Ford he wrecked on the first turn of a race when he hit the wall and flipped end-over-end into the woods.
Along with Yarbrough, Spiers built or maintained cars for drivers such as Jacksonville legends David Ezell and Tommy Moon as well as Ralph Earnhardt, Dale's father.
But Spiers said he wouldn't build engines for NASCAR nowadays even if he were younger. He hates the rules that have been implemented to make every car's engine the same.
"A guy can't innovate anymore," Spiers said. "What's the use in playing a game where you can't innovate? It'd be like playing poker where somebody is telling you what hand to play all the time."
Spiers has gotten calls from drivers wanting him to build engines for them. He refuses though. The only car he is working on is a yellow 1931 Ford Model A Coupe he has spent over a year restoring. And he still watches NASCAR, even though he hates the engine rules.
"I have always loved cars," Spiers said. "... Anything that makes noise and goes fast fascinates me."
Staff writer Alex Abrams can be reached at (904) 359-4567 or via e-mail at aabramsjacksonville.com.