In this 1975 file photo, Marion Fairchild stands beside his 327 Chevrolet Don Hester drove to win the Tennessee dirt track state championship in 1975. Fairchild’s cars won the Tennessee state championship two years in a row. Also pictured is Fairchild’s Labrador retriever Mickey T. or M.T., named for the California driver Mickey Thompson. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff
July 15, 2017 10:56:28 PM
Note: In the mid-1970s, when I was a staff photographer for this newspaper, I was dispatched to Marion Fairchild's shop to photograph him after his car won the Tennessee dirt track state championship. Recently, 40-some-odd years later, that 35mm negative resurfaced. Maybe it was time for another visit.
Late Tuesday afternoon five people are sitting in the living room of the small brick house Marion Fairchild shares with Joyce, his wife of 50-plus years. The house sits at the intersection of Flower Farm Road and Route 373, just north of Columbus Air Force Base. Cars in various states of disrepair fill the yard. Fields of cotton stretch in every direction. A large American flag hangs from a makeshift flagpole at the edge of a cluttered porch.
Longtime friends Willie Howell and Mike Van Someren are here. You get the sense they do a lot of this, sitting together in this room telling stories. Howell, who grew up nearby, has known Fairchild all his life. Howell's parents would scrape up their pennies to buy a Grit newspaper from Fairchild when people with money refused him. Van Someren is a neighbor, a newcomer, who helps the Fairchilds with the house and yard; he's known Marion for a dozen years and has heard the stories.
Fairchild, 80, is soft spoken; he laughs easily; he has nothing harsh to say about anyone. His eyes are clear, the eyes of a much younger man; they come to life when he talks about racing.
Marion Fairchild is widely considered something of a savant when it comes to 4-cycle motors. He is a legend in racing circles for making cars do extraordinary things.
Once, when he heard about a mechanic in California making a Ford engine in a dirt track race car run backwards, the reverse torque giving it better traction on a sloping oval, he did the same thing. His driver at the time, Don Hester from Tupelo, didn't like the idea, but a young up-and-comer looking for a ride named Johnny Stokes did. That's another set of stories.
Friday, when I asked Johnny -- who has looked under the hood of a race car or two -- if "genius" was too strong a word to apply to Fairchild. Johnny shook his head.
"He's as good a fellow tuning an engine as I've seen in my life," Stokes said.
Fairchild made his name in drag racing. He started out with a '37 Ford coupe on a red clay track doused with burnt motor oil in Sulligent, Alabama. He was in his early 20s, and his early forays into the world of drag racing were not encouraging.
"I was like a terrapin next to them," he said. "I figured I'd better learn me something."
He did, eventually becoming the driver to beat at drag strips across the South.
On a quarter-mile straight track in Missouri in a '64 red supercharged Dodge, Fairchild hit 192 miles per hour. " At that speed on that kind of track, a car's brakes are no good. That parachute is like a great big hand grabs you," said Fairchild. "It's a good feeling."
There's the story about when he was 9 or 10 and farming the acre and a half plot of cotton his dad, a farmer and orchardist, gave him. He saved $200, enough to buy a motorized bicycle, a Whizzer, at the Western Auto in Aberdeen.
"Turnin' bolts as a kid on a lawn mower and that small scooter, it put me to liking motors," Fairchild said. "When I would put that thing back together, it tickled me to death. It was such a good feeling."
He started hanging out at the shops of mechanics in the neighborhood. One of them said to Fairchild, "Boy, you ain't nothing but a question box." The nickname stuck.
There's the story about winning the 4H contest for growing the best peaches in the state and going to Jackson to shake hands with Gov. Fielding L. Wright. Fairchild can still rattle off the varieties of peaches he and his father grew: Elberta, Early Elberta, Late Elberta, Belle of Georgia, Hiley, Mayflower, J.H. Hale, Indian.
Fairchild joined the National Guard after graduating from Hamilton High School. Not surprisingly, he was assigned to the motor pool. One of his commanding officers, James Lancaster, had grown up down the road and knew of his neighbor's expertise as a mechanic. He asked Fairchild if he wanted to join the aviation section.
The mechanic developed a love for planes -- a new type of motor to figure out. When an overextended car salesman at an Amory Ford dealership had to sell his Piper Cherokee 140, Fairchild bought it, took lessons from the late Richard Justice and became a pilot.
Then, as he had done with cars, Fairchild bought and sold planes. It was the mid-70s and Fairchild, no longer driving, was building dirt track cars, motors and selling racing equipment. He used his plane to fly to pick up parts for his business.
In time he would fly a much more vital cargo. A Shriner, Fairchild for five or six years flew critically burned children to the Shriner's Burn Hospital in Galveston, Texas.
"I'd get a call of a night and they would say can you pick up a child at such and such airport in the morning," he said.
Fairchild would take the child, who was often on oxygen, mother and nurse in his Piper Cherokee 6 and set out for Galveston.
"As we were coming in, I'd call the tower: 'This is LIFEGUARD 8603 NOVEMBER,' and all those planes circling the airport would disappear. We'd taxi right up to where the doctors were."
I looked at my watch. We had talked for more than two hours. As I gathered up to go, he said, "Be sure and mention Johnny Stokes, Leman Conn and Jimmy Parham; they all won a lot of races driving my cars. Joyce makes sure I've got the spelling right of their two children, the late John Stanley Fairchild and Rhonda Fairchild McCallum.
Outside, the orange, end-of-the-day sunlight seems to animate the surroundings -- the cars, the fields of cotton, the flag waving in a soft breeze, the big sweet gum in the front yard.
The two-lane blacktop road in front of the house is quiet.
Except for his first six months in nearby Lackey and the few years he lived behind his one-stall garage down the road in Kolola Springs, Marion Fairchild has lived virtually his entire life here on this country road.
Even so, it has been a rich life, one fueled by a fearless curiosity and an unquenchable fascination with the internal combustion engine.
If you don't believe me, just ask him to tell you a story.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.