Buzz Barton - Winner
By Galen Kurth
A racing legend passed away quietly a few years ago. He was a champion, a character in an era full of characters, and a survivor of one of the toughest, grimmest eras in racing history. He was a racer, in every sense of the word. He was Emmett “Buzz” Barton.
Emmett was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma in October of 1916 and drove his first race in California in the mid-1930’s. That’s where he picked up the nickname, and just to set the record straight, the first and original “Buzz Barton” was a diminutive silent movie actor who specialized in westerns. Emmett’s distain for his own first name helped the nickname stick.
Barton’s driving career really took off back in Oklahoma after spending WWII driving trucks on the west coast. A midget circuit popped up, centered on Oklahoma City’s Taft Stadium. Houston, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Kansas City also had weekly shows, and Buzz remembered putting over 2200 miles a week on his tow car. “We’d be putting new tires on my Packard about every month,” he recalled in a 1995 interview.
In those pre-interstate days, travel wasn’t much fun, but there were enough characters around to lighten the drives once in a while. “One time, we came up behind Tex West’s car, parked on the shoulder, and his race car had bounced off the trailer. He had this big stick and was beating the car, yelling ‘you jumped off the damned trailer you *&^^#@@, now jump back on!’ The kid he’d picked up to help asked if maybe he could ride with us the rest of the way to Houston.”
One thing about Buzz up front: you won’t see many direct, unedited quotes from him. Listening to him tell a story would make a Drill Sergeant blush, but that’s the way he’d always been. It probably cost him some rides and a few deals along the way, but if you didn’t like the way he talked, he had a solution for you. Don’t listen. Was he popular with his fellow drivers? Probably not, but they all respected him. Ask someone from his IMCA days about Buzz, and they’ll sort of laugh, maybe shake their head, and say something like, “yeah, old Buzz…..” then go silent. When they do talk about him, though, it’s obvious they all knew the same Buzz Barton. He didn’t change anything for anybody.
Buzz won the Taft Stadium and Oklahoma state midget titles in 1948, driving for Jack Zink, then moved into the Gibson Offy out of Kansas. He’d always qualify with a big cigar in his teeth, sort of an extra digit when his hands were on the wheel. He’d won enough that he was usually booed during time trials, but he didn’t worry about it. “They’d boo me, and I give ‘em the finger, but after the races you couldn’t load the car for all the people wantin’ autographs” was the way Buzz remembered those days.
He went East in 1951, driving a stretched midget sprinter, and finished ninth in the AAA Eastern Division. Reading and Williams Grove were his favorite tracks, but the circular dirt mile at Langhorne earned a rare distinction from a man who raced anything, anywhere: “I hated that place. That %*#@+ was a killer. It beat you up, and the dirt off your left front was always hitting you in the face so you couldn’t see.”
Strangely, his name also shows up on the IMCA winners list for the first time in ‘51, with a victory at Winchester’s high banks. He got his first champ ride at Syracuse that year in another Kurtis midget, stretched all the way to 96 inches, finishing tenth.
Buzz Barton's official 1952 Indianapolis Motor Speedway photograph
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
in the IUPUI University library Center for Digital Studies
Buzz eventually tried to qualify for twenty-six champ races, generally driving uncompetitive cars. That includes the 1952 and 1953 “500’s” where, according to Buzz, he “didn’t stand a chance. I got one up to qualifying speed once and broke the crankshaft.” How tough was it to get a decent champ car ride back then? In 1952, he failed to qualify at Milwaukee, so he was pitting for another driver, Andy Linden. Linden caught fire during a pit stop and was burned.
Buzz pulled him out of the car and over the wall. “Then I grabbed my helmet to sub for Linden, but when I turned around, that S.O.B. Potsy Goacher was driving off with the car, and it was still on fire!” Buzz did manage a third at Williams Grove in 1958 for his best finish in twelve starts, but he pulled the plug on his AAA/USAC career that same year.
“We pulled a real high qualifying number at the Hoosier Hundred, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance. I went to (Duane) Carter and told him I wanted to withdraw. I didn’t have the equipment to run with those guys, and it was stupid trying. IMCA was running that night, and I went with ‘em. Never went back.”
Things nearly turned the other way, though. After future Indy winner Rodger Ward jumped to the Wilke team for 1959, team owner Roger Wolcott needed a driver for his famous 8 Ball cars. He offered the job to Buzz, but before they could close the deal, Wolcott died and the opportunity was gone.
One other chance had come early in Buzz’s career when a very drunk car owner named Alan Chapman had given Buzz a check for $100,000 and told him to buy a first class racecar. “I tore the check up,” Buzz remembered. “The next day, Chapman’s secretary called and wanted to know what I’d done with the check. That check would have been good, too, but I couldn’t do that.”
The IMCA was probably where Buzz belonged. A brilliant machinist and self-taught mechanic, he was perfect for the barnstorming, “fix it yourself and race it” style of the traveling group. His low tolerance for BS also fit better with Frank Winkley’s crowd. “If you had a problem with Winkley, you had it out with him right there. Hell, one time in Shreveport, we went at it right in front of the grandstand. I mean, we got it on, just beating on one another. Half an hour later, he apologized and that was it.”
Buzz had one of his best runs with Diz Wilson, who ran a team of yellow Offy sprinters. “I was on a deal for $400 a day from Winkley. Most of the guys were getting $50 or $100. Now, that wasn’t $400 plus, but I was guaranteed that much.” The IMCA ran two types of races in those days -- the big fair dates and what were called “still” dates, or stand-alone races.
Winkley would provide a dozen or so cars, more or less by invitation, and stage a race. Were the races fixed? “No,” Barton states, “they were legit, except no matter what, Bobby Grim always set fast time. He could just putt around the track and STILL start on the pole, and that meant a lot on those dry-slick tracks.” Winkley didn’t really care who won, as long as four or five cars finished under a blanket.
Then it was down the road to another race, sometimes the same day. If you stunk up the show, you might not get invited to the next still date. That fit in with Buzz’s philosophy of car preservation: “Drive hard until you get the lead, then just fast enough to stay in front.” Former Wilson teammate Al “Cotton” Farmer remembered those races, too. “Buzz and I would talk before the race, and I’d ask if he wanted the inside or outside. Then we’d get going, and he’d realize sometimes I had the better groove, and he’d try to get where I was supposed to be. Then we’d really start racing!”
The IMCA was the steppingstone to USAC in the fifties and early sixties, and Buzz got to see all the young talent trying to move up. If you could beat Buzz, and Grim and Pete Folse, you might get a ticket to the big time. Parnelli Jones, for instance, did the job in the Fike Chevy, and wound up at Indianapolis. Buzz enjoyed racing Jones. “You could run all day, side by side with Parnelli, and have no problems. Now Jim Hurtubise, he was crazy. You never knew WHAT he was going to do.”
Buzz stuck with the IMCA, winning races and finishing consistently high up in points, but he could never get past Hector Honore’s black deuce for the championship. He was second to Grim in 1957 and to Folse in 1960 and 1961. He won consistently at places like Lincoln, Nebraska, Hutchinson, Kansas, Des Moines, Iowa, St Paul, Minnesota and Knoxville.
The only year he missed the top ten was 1962, when he took time to recover from getting thrown out of a flipping car at Jacksonville, Florida and run over. He was an absolute wizard with Offy engines and won the last IMCA feature ever credited to a growler, in February of 1965 at Tampa, Florida.
Barton had known former driver Joie Chitwood for years, and finally went to work for the Florida-based Thrill Show promoter in the mid-60’s. “I did the precision driving and stuff, but I never did the head-on crashes or any of that stupid #@&@*” remembered Buzz. When Chitwood decided to go endurance racing with a team of Camaros, Barton went with him, preparing the cars and co-driving with Joie’s son in the longer races. In the 1968 Daytona 24 hour race, they finished seventeenth overall and fourth in class.
Buzz kept racing and building cars through the 1970’s, slowly cutting back to spend more and more time in Florida until finally, in 1981, he ran one last sprint car race in Minnesota and hung it up. “I was getting married again, and she didn’t want me racing anymore, so I just gave it up,” he stated. Sixty-five probably wasn’t a bad age to call it a career after driving sprint cars in six (!) different decades.
Barton eventually returned to Oklahoma and lived very quietly on the Oklahoma side of Lake Texoma. He didn’t like to be bothered, but he’d talk racing if you got him started. Local sprint car driver and machinist Kenny Butler remembered Buzz coming into his Kingston, Oklahoma shop one day. “I had the race car there, and he looked it over, but he didn’t say anything. He never even said who he was. Somebody told me after he left that he was Buzz Barton.”
The trophies and photos were long gone, and he didn’t much care for a lot of what he saw in today’s racing. “Most of those guys are crazy,” he opined. “Every race is just one crash after another. They ought to have to build and fix the damned things.”
Arthritis kept him from going to his induction into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2001, when Farmer subbed for him, and it restricted his race viewing to television only. Those early days in racing took a toll even on the ones who walked away. The last two years or so, he became a virtual recluse, apparently not wanting anyone to see him in his weakened state.
Names from the past came to mind slowly, if at all, and it frustrated him. Locked inside his head were more memories than most people could imagine, from racing in the 30’s to the era of winged sprints, from Wilbur Shaw to Doug Wolfgang.
Not all those memories were good, but Emmett “Buzz” Barton survived when so many others did not. He made a good living out of racing for fifty years, and that may be the best way to remember him. By whatever standards you want to apply, he battled an unforgiving sport longer than just about anyone, and he won.