TWO RACE FANS, A WEB SITE AND A MISSION
By Rick Houston
Turns out, you can find a needle in a haystack after all.
At first glance, the search by two race fans for a picture of the car driven by Al Loquasto during the July 26, 1981 Winston Cup event at Pocono seemed to be more than tilting at windmills. It was the first Cup event of Loquasto’s career, and he would only appear in five more the following season. So why go after such an obscure prize? It’s a question that only Chase Whitaker of Franklin, Tenn. and McDonough, Ga.’s Ron Willard can truly answer.
Their story goes a little something like this …
Whitaker attended the 1992 Winston 500 at Talladega with a group of buddies, at least one of whom was a huge Bill Elliott fan. During the previous offseason, Elliott had left his longtime family-owned team and sponsor Coors in favor of Junior Johnson & Associates and its main backer, Budweiser. The party – or the joke, whichever the case may be – was on.
The Elliott fan hated Budweiser, but planned to force himself to drink the brew out of an allegiance to his favorite driver. No problem, Whitaker said. No problem, whatsoever. He’d even pick up the tab on the beer for the weekend. Only one problem. He didn’t score even one Bud. Not one.
“As a protest against Elliott, we bought every cheap beer we could find, but didn’t take one single Budweiser,” says Whitaker, an internal auditor with a healthcare company in Nashville. “We took such award-winning American beers as Keystone, Milwaukee’s Best, Old Milwaukee, PBR, Natty Light and Schaefer.”
So began a tradition in which the group drinks at least one 12-ounce Schaefer beer at the beginning of every NASCAR weekend it enjoys together. For most of the 40 races or so Whitaker has attended since that 1992 weekend at Talladega, from places like Richmond, Darlington, Rockingham, Bristol, Martinsville and Charlotte, it’s been a routine the race-goers simply can’t pass up.
Only in Texas, New Hampshire and Michigan have they come up empty. That’s because, Whitaker adds, sometimes “valiant … Schaefer searches come up empty.”
At Charlotte in May 2007, someone came up with an old, metal Schaefer sign shaped like a bottle cap. Anybody who drinks a Schaeffer is then allowed – and only then, evidently – to sign the “ring of honor.” All this got Whitaker to wondering about the brand’s history in NASCAR. He found out that his driving hero, Richard Petty, won the 1970 Schaeffer 300 at Trenton Speedway in New Jersey.
After that, he discovered that Schaeffer once had a significant presence at Pocono and several Indy car races during the early 1970s. Finally, he found Loquasto.
AL LOQUASTO, RACE CAR DRIVER
Born June 21, 1940 in Easton, Pa., Loquasto drove a total of 61 USAC and CART races during his career, including the 1976 and 1977 Indianapolis 500s. He made his NASCAR debut in the 1981 Mountain Dew 500 at Pocono, driving a No. 99 Buick owned by D.K. Ulrich and sponsored by – you guessed it – Schaeffer beer.
“Through Joey Mattioli and a local character named Joe Bender, Al contacted me regarding bringing the beer sponsorship for a single event and getting the ride,” Ulrich remembers. “He did and we did, and I do not even remember the results.”
For the record, Loquasto started 32nd and finished 24th in the beautiful Pennsylvania mountains, completing 184 of the event’s 200 laps. Although the scoreboard showed Cale Yarborough in the lead when the checkered flag fell, the victory actually went to Darrell Waltrip.
Loquasto ran five more races in 1982 for Ulrich, with a career-best NASCAR finish of 16th in that year’s spring race at Pocono. Sadly, Loquasto died in a plane crash in Fogelsville, Pa. on July 13, 1991.
“Al was a great guy to hang out with,” Ulrich says. “We all stayed at some lodge near the track and had paintball wars and cooked out. He had mostly open-wheel experience, and changing to the big sleds was a challenge for him, but he was humble and willing to learn. Good guy.”
For a while, it seemed like this photo of Ulrich (left) and Loquasto taken in the Pocono garage might be the closest Whitaker and Willard would ever come to landing their prize. That's Ulrich and that's Loquasto, and it was taken in the Pocono garage during the race weekend in question. However, all that's visible of the car is the rear bumper, which obviously wasn't much help.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
For two years, Whitaker tried in vain to locate a picture of Loquasto’s Schaeffer-sponsored Pocono entry. He tried Google. He scoured photo-archiving Web sites like Flickr, Photobucket, Webshots and Fotki. No luck. He posted on message boards. One of the posts caught the attention of Willard, a fellow board poster and model-builder extraordinaire. Willard picked up the cause and ran with it as well.
Willard contacted a representative of the Mattioli family, which owns Pocono. The rep gave Willard the name of a photographer who often shot Pocono races. Another dead end. Willard, the vice president of McIntosh State Bank in McDonough, tracked down Ben Loquasto, Al’s brother, by telephone to inquire about the possibility of locating the prized piece of artwork. Again, nothing doing.
“(Ben Loquasto) enjoyed reminiscing about his brother, whom he refers to as ‘Albert’ or ‘my kid brother, and their old racing days,’” Willard says. “He always speaks well of D.K. Ulrich, noting that D.K. was smart enough to realize even then that he could make a lot more money renting the car out on a weekly basis than driving it himself.
“According to (Ben), D.K. towed that car all over the place and person with the most money got the ride. D.K. was also very laid back and easy to work with. He had one rule … if you tear something up, you have to fix it. Beyond that, you were on your own and good to go.”
Along the way, Whitaker and Willard turned up several other versions of Ulrich’s car that year. Incredibly, 18 different drivers found themselves behind the wheel of Ulrich-owned machines in 1981, including Ulrich himself, Loquasto, Rick Baldwin, Joe Booher, Chuck Bown, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Tommy Gale, Cecil Gordon, Terry Herman, Kevin Housby, Don Hume, Slick Johnson, Rick Knoop, Sterling Marlin, Dick May, Bob McElee, Ronnie Thomas and Tim Richmond.
The balance tipped back to Whitaker. In late 2008, he got in touch with Ulrich, who remembered the race, the sponsor and Loquasto as the driver. He even passed along a black-and-white photo of himself and Loquasto in the Pocono garage, standing behind the car. The paint scheme and decal details still weren’t visible.
STOCK CAR HISTORY ONLINE JOINS THE FRAY
In time, the search became something of a good-natured contest between the two. A few months ago, Whitaker e-mailed Stock Car History Online to see if we might have something. After e-mailing a couple of folks to see what they might have, the trail again went cold. Honestly, we never thought another thing about it.
Until Willard got in touch with us, that is. And then it was on, big time.
On June 3, a message from Willard popped into our e-mail inbox. In it, Willard went into detail about his search and even attached the Ulrich-Loquasto photo, along with another of McElee posing with what he presumed to be the same car that Loquasto had driven. The strange thing is, Willard didn’t know that Whitaker had already contacted us. Something, somewhere clicked … this was a mission that Stock Car History Online had to get in on. This was going to be fun. Or frustrating. Or both.
First things first. In our files at Stock Car History Online, we have a complete run of the publication now known as NASCAR Scene, going all the way back to the very first 1977 issue of Grand National Scene. In the July 30, 1981 issue covering that Pocono event, there’s a photo of Loquasto in a Schaeffer cap, but nothing of the car. The publication also once featured highlight shots of drivers posing with their cars, so we tried going that route. We checked the Pocono issue and the next week’s … and the next and the next and the next. Through early 1982, Loquasto’s car was not pictured.
However, David Chobat’s photo credits were all over the Pocono issue. He covered it. He was there.
Chobat died in August 2004, the victim of a heart attack. His brother, Brian, also a photojournalist, still covers the sport. We sent a Facebook message to Brian’s business partner, Nigel Kinrade, and hoped for the best.
While waiting for a response from Kinrade, an e-mail went out to Buz McKim, the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s historian. Another was sent to Ernie Saxton, a longtime public relations representative and journalist based in Langhorne, Pa. We got on Facebook and tracked down Loquasto’s son, A.J., and his sister-in-law Beverly, who sent along contact information for the driver’s wife. Despite some promising leads, nothing turned up.
Finally, we heard from Kinrade. A link to David’s archives could be found at www.davidchobat.com, where his artwork was being administered by CMG Worldwide. We called and spoke with archivist Michael Hensley. Surely, the poor guy thought we were crazy in trying to explain our very precise need. The very next day, Hensley called back. He’d found something. He’d found no less than three different shots, taken from the same vantage point, of the car in question. And they were in color, no less.
Even then, there’s still more to the story. The photos sent by Hensley were heavily watermarked and not suitable for publication on the Web. While trying to work out permission to actually use the photo with this story, it was discovered that CMG no longer “officially” represented Chobat and his archives.
It was exactly back to square one, but it was close. Ulrich had always said he thought he might have a photo of Loquasto’s car, but he wasn’t sure. In the flurry of e-mails between Stock Car History Online, Willard and Whitaker, Ulrich was inspired to do some digging in his own archives.
Bingo, again!!! Ulrich’s photo of Loquasto’s car is the one that runs with this story.
Ever quick with a quip, Ulrich sums up the Whitaker-Willard search rather succinctly.
“I am not sure if these guys are Al Loquasto fans, race fans, beer fans or all of the above,” Ulrich says. “Everybody has some sort of mission … sounds like an opportunity and excuse for them to go to the races, drink beer and b***s***. Who needs an excuse?”
Almost as soon as Willard saw the photos, he went to work on a customized die-cast version of Loquasto’s car. It’s truly a thing of beauty, and one that’ll be able to withstand the wear and tear of transport to and display at the races. After that, he’ll go to work on a plastic Loquasto model.
“This has been maybe the most fun photo quest I’ve been involved in, and I’ve dug up some odd ones over the years,” Willard concludes. “I have found stuff like Joe Millikan’s one-off ride as a teammate to Terry Labonte at the 1984 season finale at Riverside, an STP Pontiac driven by James Hylton, etc., but this one has escaped us for so long, it became a quest like no other.
"We have become fans of both (Ulrich) and Loquasto during search. Back in the 1970s and into the early 1980s, D.K. was one of a handful of underdogs that you always kept tabs on while you were watching your favorites at the same time. I remember my Dad telling us even then about guys like him -- Buddy Arrington, Frank Warren, G.C. Spencer, Jabe Thomas, J.D. McDuffie and others -- who were doing more with a lot less. Sadly, those independents are pretty much gone. From my perspective, I am thrilled to say I got to watch them in person."
Whitaker, though, has yet to live up to his end of the bargain.
And Chase … you know what we’re talking about, right? Steven Curtis Chapman. Third Day. Jeremy Camp. It doesn’t matter. We’re easy to work with.
After finding their treasured photo, Willard made two models of Loquasto's car -- one a custom die-cast piece and the other a plastic version. This is the plastic model. Notice the amazing detail that Willard has included, right down to the Z95 decal. He had decals specially made for both models.