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Lodi's 'Big Daddy' loomed large in racing world

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Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2002 10:00 pm

Sometimes, nicknames take on a new meaning.

Ernie Conn possesses one. It's a reference that fits his stature more now than ever.

"Big Daddy," as he was first called some three decades ago, describes Conn to a T.

Standing a little over 6 feet tall, Conn also looms large in auto racing history for his role in the development of West Coast stock car racing in the 1960s and 1970s.Jeff Sutton

Conn's influence will be rewarded later this month when he and his driver, Jack McCoy, are inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame.

Conn, who was named Car Owner of the Year in 1973 by the California Sportswriters Association, prided himself on his uncanny knack for inventive designs and improving upon existing models.

With Big Daddy masterminding the operation, McCoy set a record, which is still in place today, for most victories by an amateur.

McCoy credits Conn with inventing a new form of communication between the driver and the pit crew that the other teams couldn't understand.

In "Racing's Real McCoy," McCoy tells one story in which Conn wrote "Talk to them" on the pit board McCoy looked at. "It was his way of telling me 'Tires … save the tires.' "

Conn, who retired in Lodi five years ago, built the cars, served as crew chief, and also constructed engines for the Dodge Challengers that McCoy raced in addition to owning a few of the cars.

conn_erniejpg
Ernie Conn

The squad, which consisted of a crew of six, combined to capture 54 checkered flags from 1965-74 against distinguished professionals like Richard Petty, Al Unser and Bobby Allison.

More impressive is the fact that Conn's race team consisted of "Weekend Warriors," or men who worked "regular" jobs during the week and competed against the pros on the weekend.

"The upper brass would really get ticked off when we would beat them," Conn said. "They would think that since they had the newer, improved cars that they should be able to beat ours."

Conn, a machinist by trade, first dabbled in auto racing in his garage, where he crafted car parts in the early 1960s.

"Eventually drivers found out and started coming to me for parts," said Conn, whose initiation into the sport was with sprint cars at Stockton Speedway.

Conn's best year came in 1973 with the '69 Dodge Daytona Challenger he owned winning 11 of 21 races. It included a top speed of 172 miles per hour in a race at College Station, Texas, where McCoy claimed a seventh-place finish for the team.

McCoy, who sold tires for a living, and Conn decided to use McCrew tires that year, despite the fact that all the other cars used either Goodyear or Firestone.

"The Goodyear tire dealer said if we were running their tires that we would have beaten them even worse," Conn said.

The following race in Riverside resulted in a fourth-place finish behind Petty, Allison and Bobby Isaac.

"So we decided we wanted to go back east and run against the big boys on the short track," Conn said of the next race in Martinsville, Va. "We finished fifth in the race."

Conn said a lot has changed since his days when the purse money was just enough to repair and maintain the cars they ran.

"The race we won in Virginia paid $2,700," Conn said. "Dale Earnhardt Jr. took fifth this year and made $88,000."

Conn, who recently repurchased and restored the '69 Dodge Daytona Challenger to car-show quality, said that during his racing days he never envisioned being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"But when I think back on my career, I realize I had a remarkable run."

Jeff Sutton is the News-Sentinel's sports reporter. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.


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