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Billy Carden

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SMYRNA: Billy Carden, pioneer on NASCAR circuit

By RICK MINTER

In the 1940s, The Atlanta Constitution described him as "the South's youngest and most spectacular stock-car driver, and well known among Atlanta race fans."

Longtime racing announcer Jimmy Mosteller said he was "as tough a driver as there was in the sport of auto racing, competitive anywhere he went."

Mechanic Harvey Jones said he was "as good a driver as anyone in any racing hall of fame, and one of the most honest."

Retired Nextel Cup driver Buddy Baker said he could "race the heck out of those old Modified cars."

Billy Carden, who died of complications from emphysema Monday at his Smyrna home, was all of the above --- a pioneer in the sport now known as NASCAR racing. In a career that spanned three decades --- from 1945 to 1960 --- he won hundreds of races at tracks large and small.

The graveside service for Mr. Carden, 80, is 2:30 p.m. Thursday at Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery. Carmichael Funeral Home, Smyrna, is in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Carden started his career on the now-defunct Thomaston Super Speedway and soon was running on dirt tracks all over the nation.

He raced on the most famous course of that era, the beach-road course at Daytona Beach, Fla., on tracks in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and on Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway, where he scored the biggest win of his career in a 200-mile American Automobile Association race in 1950.

He had 73 starts, with four Top 5 and 17 Top 10 finishes in the division now known as Nextel Cup, but in his era there was more money to be made racing Modified cars at tracks in Alabama towns like Eastaboga, now home of the mammoth Talladega Superspeedway, and on Tennessee ovals in places like Nashville.

He even won races at Mableton Speedway, a track he owned and operated in 1948-49.

He won often enough that he could support his family on racing alone, while many peers held other jobs.

Mr. Carden's final run came in 1960 as a last-minute, fill-in driver in the inaugural World 600 at the Charlotte track now known as Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The new asphalt came apart, leaving huge holes in the track, but Mr. Carden pressed on and drove his car into the Top 5 before the regular driver, Buck Baker, took the wheel.

"I told Buck to stay up high and dodge those holes, but he hit one and broke a ball joint," Mr. Carden said in an interview a week before his death. "We still finished fifth."

He said he made the tough decision to retire because racing was getting too expensive for a driver without a major sponsor, and he wanted to try to make up for the time he'd been away from his family.

"I missed it pretty bad at first, but I had four kids that I wanted to spend more time with," Mr. Carden said.

"And I'd been gone every Sunday for so long I was ready to slow down. I wanted to be able to go fishing once in a while."

Mr. Carden then operated a garage specializing in transmission repairs, but his friends always remembered him as the fierce competitor he once was.

"Billy was out there battling wheel-to-wheel, not so much for the money, but because he loved the sport and loved to compete," Mr. Mosteller said. "All race fans today owe a lot to him and the people from his era, who helped build the sport we all love today."

Survivors include his wife, Margaret Henrietta Carden; daughters Pamella Dunn of Alpharetta and Lynn Herring of Smyrna; sons Russell Carden of Powder Springs and Rodney Carden of Smyrna; a sister, Marie Fox of Mableton; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.



© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Oct. 27, 2004
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