Six memorable Elma auto racing legends honored at Hall of Fame banquet Saturday

ELMA — Elma’s auto racing community gathered Saturday night at the Elma Eagles to celebrate its history and to honor the fifth induction class into the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Even with a 45-minute power outage, more than 100 people packed the Eagles’ main hall to honor six inductees to the Class of 2013 — Ken Stearns, Rick Leighty, Dan West, Tom Williams, Dick Morlan and Tom Neff — as well as two award winners. Del Fry received the EARHoF Larry Spoon Distinguished Service award and Bob Valencia earned the Fast Freddie Brownfield Exemplary Contribution Award.

The Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame was started in 2009 to honor the auto racing past and present on Grays Harbor, most notably at the Grays Harbor Raceway in Elma.

Hoquiam’s Ken Stearns, a retired log truck driver, was one of the pioneers from the Evergreen Auto Racing Association, a 1978 hobby stock champion and one of the contributors in 1980 who, along with fellow inductee Tom Neff, helped build the Grays Harbor Raceway inside the horse race track at the Grays Harbor Fairgrounds in Elma.

Stearns is also one of the few drivers who ran laps on the old half-mile raceway at Clemons Hill in Central Park, as well as both configurations of the Grays Harbor Raceway in Elma. He accepted the award graciously and didn’t speak after the presentation of his hall of fame award.

Pacific Beach’s Rick Leighty is the hall of fame’s president, but his place on its honor roll comes from his driving championships at Elma (EARA supermodified title in 1983), along with his driving career with his father, Rich, at Elma, Tenino’s South Sound Speedway and on the touring Washington Open Wheel group on dirt and asphalt.

“Over the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of standing up here and handing over the Hall of Fame jackets to our inductees and seeing the pride and honor in their eyes,” Leighty said. “This is a pretty special honor and I now know how they feel. A lot of people made this happen for me and I thank them.”

Aberdeen’s Dan West Sr., who now resides part-time in Arizona, was also one of the many volunteers who helped build the Grays Harbor Raceway. His driving accomplishments made him a fierce and mild-mannered champion for the EARA in the early ’80s and back in the car in the early ’90s. West also served as the EARA’s president and vice president and as a member of its board of directors.

“I want to thank the committee for the great honor and my wife for letting me purchase that first car,” West said.

Shelton’s Tom “Porky” Williams didn’t drive ordinary hobby stock cars, but his ability to drive any car and find the fastest line on the track earned him three EARA hobby stock championships (1981, 1983 and 1998) and acclaim in the old IMCA modified class with a “take no prisoners” style. Williams was known for his battles with John Goodwin in the hobby stocks and his partnership with veteran crew chief Dale Way in the modifieds.

“I’d like to thank the committee for their hard work; this is a good program,” Williams said. “I miss racing. I don’t go down to (Elma) much anymore, probably because of the last speeding ticket down here. It is all good that we grew up with the role models that we had, including George Wixson and the old boys. Once it was our turn, it made it really easy to go out there, drive fast and turn left.”

Olympia’s Dick Morlan Sr. was honored posthumously with tales of his showmanship on the track. One of the original flagmen at Grays Harbor Raceway, Morlan Sr. was one of the first drivers to drive on the half-mile raceway in Central Park in 1955.

One of Morlan Sr.’s biggest accomplishments was his work on the tech committee, developing a full roll cage for the cars that help drivers stay safe. Morlan Sr. tested those roll cages himself, rolling the cars over and over to make sure they were solid and built many of the cars that raced at Central Park and Elma for decades. Dick Morlan Jr. accepted the hall of fame award on his behalf.

Olympia’s Tom Neff raced at the old fairgrounds raceway in the 1970s, but his work as the president of EARA in 1978-80 turned the tide of auto racing in Elma and Grays Harbor. Neff, along with a large group of volunteers throughout the county and the Northwest, petitioned the Grays Harbor County Fair Board to include a raceway in the horse racing plans.

A compromise proposal of a 3/10ths-of-a-mile auto racing oval inside the 5/8th-mile horse racing oval came to fruition and the EARA used volunteer labor, materials and know-how to construct the raceway. Neff, in accepting his hall of fame award, took the assembled crowd back through a history lesson of building the raceway.

“It wasn’t just me, but all of the hard work of everyone in the EARA and in the community, who built that track,” Neff said. “Grays Harbor (County) spent nothing on that track (then) and it took all of that time and effort to make it happen. I just happen to enjoy a few years of racing, moving dirt around on someone else’s property.”

The Larry Spoon Distinguished Service Award was presented to Del Fry, a Montesano driver/crew chief/track crew member who was one of the original drivers who helped get the raceway going.

Don Fry, a three-time sprint car champion at Elma, accepted the award on his late father’s behalf.

The Fast Freddie Brownfield Exemplary Contribution Award went to Elma’s Bob Valencia, a 22-year veteran at Grays Harbor Raceway who served many posts at the track — including flag man and, recently, race director. Valencia is move on to help out at Yakima Dirt Track in 2013. “I had a lot of good times — and one bad time — here,” Valencia said. “Grays Harbor has been great to me and I’ll miss being here.”