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McFadden looks back on racing career and why he called it quits

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Johnny McFadden with a piece of memorabilia from racing days at Harris Speedway -- a full page story in the Rutherford County News in the 1970s. - Jean Gordon photo

Johnny McFadden knows a lot about milking cows, raising beef cattle and racing cars. He has met two United States presidents, talked for about 25 minutes -- in person -- with one of the most beautiful and famous actresses of all time and also ran a productive dairy farm in Rutherford County for 70 years. Today he's a beef cattle farmer off Hudlow Road.

McFadden doesn't race cars or milk cows anymore, but he has a lot of racing stories to share and he is still a "country boy on his farm" in his beloved Mt. Vernon community.

McFadden shared some of his racing career as NASCAR's season is underway. NASCAR's Las Vegas race is Sunday, March 5.

He won the first NASCAR Limited Sportsman race he ever entered driving a 1976 Chevrolet Nova in Greenville-Pickens in 1972, although McFadden started that race in last place due to an oil problem.

His first ever race was at the Rutherford County fairgrounds dirt track driving a 1956 Ford in the Limited Sportsman Division. He did not win.

McFadden earned a reputation in the Winston-Cup Series world as the man who raced "just" when he wanted to do so. If he didn't want to race, he didn't.

McFadden's racing career began in 1972 and concluded in 1989, with a few extra races for Jimmy Means in 1992.

The love of racing began when McFadden was five years old. He was at theTri-City Grill in Forest City with his parents for a hamburger and fries when he heard the roar of racing cars just over the highway at the nearby Rutherford County Fairgrounds. He never forgot the excitement of those sounds and told his parents he wanted to race cars.

Although among the best punters in the history of R-S Central football back in his high school days, McFadden turned down two serious offers to play football at Clemson University.

He was not interested in leaving the farm to play football, plus he was already caught up in the midst of "toying with the racing world."

McFadden raced 17 years and won some Limited Sportsman Division races and some Late Model, "but never won a Winston-Cup" race, although he ran many of them.

The first car Johnny raced in a Winston-Cup race was one he built with sheet metal from McCurry Deck Motors.

"Back then we built all our own bodies."

He joined the Alliance racing team and remained until about 1989, rubbing shoulders with some of the racing world's best drivers.

McFadden says his biggest racing fan of all was his high school classmate and neighbor Keith Champion.

"He never missed a race. He was always there for me," he said.

One year when McFadden was planning to race his Chevy Nova in Martinsville, Virginia, the car was not ready, so he and Champion traveled to Martinsville as spectators.

While waiting for the race to begin McFadden said he happened to look over to the side of him and spotted Elizabeth Taylor in the stands. At that time she was married to Virginia Senator John Warner, who was taking care of official welcomes at the racetrack that day.

"She was sitting alone and I told Keith I was going to talk with her and he tried to talk me out of it.

"I went right up to her and introduced myself and told her why I was there and I couldn't race that day because my car wasn't ready," McFadden recalled. " She asked me to sit with her."

"She was a beautiful person and really a country girl. She wanted to know all about what I did and about my racing and the farm."

During his early days of racing McFadden ran the dirt track in Shelby where he met Dale Earnhardt. "He'd race there and then go on to Hickory or Concord," McFadden said.

"We became good friends and ran two years together on dirt against each other," he said. "We'd hit the dirt fairground tracks together. I never beat him. He was really good."

Earnhardt's tragic death racing at the Daytona Speedway 22 years ago on February 18 rocked the NASCAR world and himself.

"Racing was never the same," McFadden said.

Racing in the Hobby Division in 1972 he won three races at Harris Speedway and the next year he won four races.

In 1974 he ran in the Limited Sportsman Division and claimed four wins, one second place and two third place and 12 wins in the Hobby Division.

During his 17 years of racing, McFadden became friends with the Allison brothers, the Pressleys and others while with Alliance.

He also raced in the Auto Racing Club of America events at Daytona International, Atlanta, Georgia and twice at Talladega Speedway in Alabama.

"I competed in NASCAR Winston Cup events again at Dayton, Charlotte and Darlington."

McFadden ran five races in 1992 for Jimmy Means, sometimes qualifying at 197 miles per hour or 207 miles per hour on the straightway. "But I never won there," he said.

He was once offered $200,000 to race 10 races for Means, but he declined.

McFadden said he never won any money because it took a lot of money to keep the car and teams going.

Between racing and farming, McFadden married France native Chantal Goode, an educator who taught at Chase High School. The couple's two sons, James and Steven, became race car drivers for a short time.

While McFadden was traveling and racing, Chantal taught school, helped with farming chores and took care of their sons.

After racing 17 years, McFadden decided to stop racing.

"I ran my life the way I wanted to and Daddy needed help on the farm," McFadden said.

"The farm and my family meant more to me than anything else in the world. It still does," McFadden said.

The couples sons Steven and James raced for a while, but like their father, "When Steven finished his last race in Martinsville, he told me, 'he wasn't going to race anymore.""We're not going to break our farm for racing, Steven told me," McFadden continued.

McFadden remains a big race fan and pulls for Bill Elliott's son Chase.

"I will pull for any former race driver's son," McFadden said.

He saw Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on television the other day and decided he was going to try to get them to Rutherford County.

McFadden still bumps into people today at the grocery store who remember his racing days. He had a good time and met lifelong friends.

Thinking back on how racing perked his attention, he said, "And if I win the lottery, I'll build the Tri-City Grill again and every child in Rutherford County will think I am Santa Claus."

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