PRESTONSBURG — Two young people from Eastern Kentucky in Lexington on a date, Harry Ranier and Juda Combs did what was "in" some 50 years ago: They pulled into the Parkette Drive-In.
Over hamburgers in the car, Ranier looked at his future wife and shared a big aspiration. "I'm going to win that Daytona race some day," he said.
Says Juda Ranier now: "He was a dreamer. He always was. And I was such a cheerleader type, I just looked at him and said 'Why not?'"
On the week when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Kentucky Speedway, much is apt to be made about the rich stock-car racing legacy of Owensboro — home of the driving Waltrip brothers — in Western Kentucky.
Yet for a fleeting period, the Eastern Kentucky mountains had their own stake in NASCAR glory.
From 1979-84, the late Harry Ranier, a Prestonsburg native and one-time coal operator, owned a NASCAR race team that dominated the Daytona 500.
With drivers such as Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough wheeling his cars, Ranier's race team sat on the pole for the Daytona 500 five times in those six years, won the race three times and finished second once.
Yet in an era before NASCAR went fully mainstream, the state of Kentucky paid little heed to Ranier's success.
"We'd go and win the Daytona 500, fly back to Kentucky and it was like nothing had happened," Juda Ranier says. "I wanted to say, 'Hey, we just did something that was sort of a big deal.'"
Floyd County roots
There are few businesses more prone to booms and busts than coal. In the mid-1970s, the coal business was in an all-time boom. In 1977, Harry Ranier sold one of the largest independent coal-mining operations in Kentucky.
"The coal boom hit in 1974," says Joe Gearheart, a longtime employee of Ranier's. "By the time it was over, Harry sold five companies, made a lot of money, about $33 million."
Auto racing ran in the Ranier blood. Harry's father, known as H.B. Ranier, had owned a Lincoln Mercury dealership in Prestonsburg, as well as construction and other businesses.
In an age when a stock car meant just that, H.B. would sometimes take a car off his lot and enter it in races. Often, it was at local dirt tracks; occasionally, he'd go bigger. With a driver named Johnny Patterson, H.B. Ranier-owned cars ran in NASCAR's Southern 500 at Darlington in 1954 (finishing 4th) and 1956 (14th).
When H.B. died in 1972, Harry took over the family businesses.
"Harry went to all those races with his dad," Juda Ranier said. "I think that's where he got all the competitiveness to do what he did."
Back-to-back Daytona 500s
After he cashed out of the coal business, Harry Ranier decided to try to break into stock-car racing's big leagues. He soon wound up on the phone with Waddell Wilson.
Genius comes in many forms. Wilson was an absolute whiz at getting horse power out of car engines. At the time Ranier rang him on the phone, Wilson had already built engines and/or worked on the race cars for five Daytona 500 winners.
"We hit it off," Wilson says of going to work for Ranier. "I thought I'd been hired to build engines. Turned out, I was also hired to be crew chief and (team) general manager."
In 1978, Ranier's team won its first race in the Cup Series with driver Lennie Pond. The next year, Buddy Baker drove for Ranier and won three times. He sat on the pole for the '79 Daytona 500, but had ignition problems in the race and finished 40th.
In 1980, Wilson brought an absolute rocket ship to Daytona for Baker. Baker dominated the 500, led 143 laps and took the checkered flag.
"After that, we started calling Waddell 'The Prince of Propulsion,'" said Chuck Hughes, a Prestonsburg native and longtime friend of the Ranier family.
For all the success the team enjoyed at Daytona, Ranier Racing was not a one-track wonder. It won 24 Cup races overall, including six at Talladega and five at Michigan.
An outsider crashing the set-in-its-ways world of NASCAR, Harry Ranier shook things up.
"My dad was sort of the Rick Hendrick of his day, a polished NASCAR owner," says Lorin Ranier, who now works for car owner Chip Ganassi in NASCAR and is the spotter for driver Jamie McMurray in the Sprint Cup Series. "I think he upset some of the other owners, caused the salaries in the garage to go up, because he paid his people well."
For the 1983 Daytona 500, Ranier had Cale Yarborough driving his car and Wilson, figuratively speaking, had a jet engine under the hood. On Yarborough's initial qualifying lap, he became the first driver to officially clock a 200 mph lap at Daytona. On his second qualifying lap, Yarborough went airborne and flipped over.
There was no back-up car.
"I called the shop back in North Carolina, had a buddy of mine hitch up a trailer and bring this Pontiac LeMans down to Daytona," Wilson recalls. "We got'er ready and, doggone, if we don't win the race."
In 1984, Yarborough reclaimed the pole position, led 89 laps and held off Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip at the end to win the 500 again.
Harry Ranier, the guy who sat in the Parkette Drive-In parking lot as a young man and vowed to win at Daytona, had now won the Daytona 500 three times as an owner.
"We'd be in victory lane at Daytona," Wilson recalls, "and Harry would always say the same thing: 'I wish my Dad could be here to see this.'"
Losing interest in NASCAR
As his businesses diversified, Ranier left his native Prestonsburg and moved his family to Central Kentucky. In an area identified with horse racing, Ranier's NASCAR involvement was a curiosity.
"People in Lexington didn't know anything about it," Juda Ranier said. "Heck, they made fun of us."
Living in the Bluegrass Region, Harry Ranier's passion started to shift from horsepower to horse racing.
He bought Shadowland Farm in Woodford County and built a 20,000-square-foot home on the property (the 1988 Cheryl Ladd TV miniseries Bluegrass was filmed there).
A Ranier horse, Midway Lady, won the English Oaks and One Thousand Guineas, two prestigious races in Great Britain.
"As far-fetched as it was for a boy from Prestonsburg to win the Daytona 500, can you imagine us having a horse do that?" says Juda Ranier.
Harry Ranier got so into horse racing that at one point he traded half interest in his NASCAR team to J.T. Lundy, who was then fairly early in his eventually ruinous stint running Calumet Farm.
"Harry just did that so he could breed horses to Alydar," says Juda Ranier of the ill-fated Calumet sire.
Eventually, Ranier's horse operation began to have financial problems.
Lorin Ranier says the thing that pushed his Dad's financial standing over the edge was an ill-timed re-entry into the coal industry just as a bust cycle began.
Juda Ranier says it was simply becoming over-extended.
"We had like 20 different companies and it just got to be too much," she said. "We had the horse farm. We had a construction company in Nashville. We owned a golf course in Hilton Head (S.C.). We had our (NASCAR) race team in Charlotte. Harry was a dreamer and a negotiator but he was not a manager. It just got to where there was no one managing all these things."
By the late 1980s, Harry Ranier became the subject of a rash of lawsuits. A creditor reclaimed Shadowland Farm and put it up for sale.
In 1988, Davey Allison won two NASCAR Cup Series races driving for Ranier. After that season, Harry sold the team to Robert Yates.
"He was fighting so hard to save his horse operation that he sold the NASCAR team," Juda Ranier says. "It was only after (selling the race team) that Harry had second thoughts. He was like 'What have I done?'"
A comeback cut short
In real time, Kentucky did not pay much attention to its native son whose NASCAR team kept winning Daytona 500s. Now, Prestonsburg is trying to fix that.
The Ranier Racing Museum shares space with the Prestonsburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. It is filled with old press clippings, pictures of famous Ranier drivers and many race trophies — including three awarded to the Daytona 500-winning owner.
Misha Cunnute, who oversees the museum, says hard-core NASCAR fans and curious travelers who see a sign tend to be the ones who stop in.
Even after his financial setbacks, Harry Ranier's plan was to add more NASCAR achievements worthy of being remembered. By the late 1990s, Ranier and Juda had moved to North Carolina so he could work on a return to NASCAR.
"He was not through," Juda Ranier, who now lives in Lexington, says of Harry. "He had a comeback in him."
Lorin Ranier helped his Dad scout for a young driver around which they could build a team to return the top. The driver they found, Tony Stewart, ran nine races for Ranier in what is now the Nationwide Series in 1996.
On July 21, 1999, Harry told Juda he had finally cut a deal that would provide the financing to make his new team full time. "This is it," he said.
Her reply echoed the faith she had shown in him decades earlier at the Parkette Drive-In. "I said 'I knew you would do it, just a matter of time,'" Juda says.
She turned away for just a moment to watch TV. When she turned back, Harry Ranier's racing days were over. A heart attack had ended his comeback and his life. He was 62.
"The last words Harry ever spoke," Juda Ranier says, "were about NASCAR."