Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The History of #81 – Lonnie Roberts

Submitted by Sherry Roberts
The History of #81 – Lonnie Roberts
The story of the #81 race team started in 1969, Lonnie Dee Roberts, Jr. was just a bright-eyed ten year old boy eagerly looking forward to seeing his first race with his father Lonnie, Sr.; affectionately known as LD to all of his family and friends. L.D. took Lonnie to watch his first race at the Old North Valdosta Speedway, which later changed its name to Thunderbowl Speedway. Lonnie and his dad would go to the races every Saturday night, and thus began a love affair that has lasted for more almost forty years.
But, like all love affairs, there are good times and bad times. On July 17, 1971 Lonnie and his dad were watching a Saturday night race when Glen Doberley from Morven, Georgia lost control of his #22 car and came through the fence. The heavy race car flew into the stands and landed on top of young Lonnie breaking his left leg. As a result of his injuries, Lonnie spent six weeks and four days in the hospital in traction; and when he got out, he spent four weeks in a body cast. Once the cast was removed he spent an additional three weeks in a wheel chair learning how to walk again. The entire time Lonnie lay in that hospital bed, he told everybody that he never wanted to go to another race as long as he lived. He got out of the hospital on Friday, and was back at the track Saturday night. When he returned, the track personnel informed Lonnie’s favorite driver Aubrey Holley, that Lonnie had returned to the track and that Mr. Holley was his hero. Aubrey Holley then went to the stands and autographed a picture for Lonnie, and he has remained one of Lonnie’s favorite drivers until this day.
Lonnie and his dad went to the races every week until Lonnie’s dad passed away when he was only 14 years old. Friends of his dad made sure that Lonnie was able to continue going to the race track every Saturday night until he was old enough to drive himself. When Lonnie met his future wife, Sherry Parks, their first date was on a Saturday night, and Lonnie took her to the races at Thunderbowl Speedway. Sherry was 15 and Lonnie was 17, and the pattern for their lives was set from the first. Most of their dates were spent at the race track and in the off season, they would go bowling or see a movie, but racing dominated their weekends. Lonnie and Sherry met on September 13, 1976 and was married on June 7, 1979. Lonnie & Sherry had two children, Lonnie D. Roberts III and Lancie Kristen Roberts and lives in Sparks, Georgia.
Although Lonnie and Sherry spent a lot of time at the race track, Lonnie didn’t begin his own racing career until 1980. Mr. Charles Paige offered Lonnie a chance to try his hand at racing, and Lonnie gladly accepted the challenge. Mr. Paige and Lonnie pulled out an old chassis that Mr. Paige had and they worked on putting together a race car for Lonnie to drive. Lonnie was suppose to start in the last race of the 1980 season at Thunderbowl Speedway in the #72 car owned by Charles Paige. At the time, Lonnie was working as a sign erector for Adel Steel / Albany Neon Signs in Adel, Georgia. That Saturday morning, Lonnie was changing out the boom tubes on a sign crane truck when he was struck and knocked off of the scaffolding. Lonnie landed on the concrete floor, breaking his right wrist and splitting open his forehead. Lonnie was rushed to the emergency room where his wrist was set and placed in a cast; and his forehead was stitched closed with 10 stitches. Despite doctor’s orders, Lonnie checked himself out of the hospital AMA and told the doctor he couldn’t stay, he had a race car to drive!

Mr. Paige was giving him a chance to follow his dream, and he wasn’t going to miss it for any reason. Lonnie got to the track and made a lap or two to warm the car up; but was unable to start the race due to his injuries and the pain medication he had been given. Although he didn’t get to race that night, Mr. Paige decided to give Lonnie another chance, and Lonnie started the 1981 season as the regular driver of the #72. Lonnie would go on to race for Mr. Paige for 8 ½ years; and decided to build his own car. Thus, the #81 was born.

Although Lonnie and Sherry actually bought their first race car in 1989, they were not able to race it until 1991. When deciding what number would be appropriate for their race team, several reasons kept pointing to the #81. First, Lonnie’s high school football number was #81. Second, he started his racing career in 1981. And finally, his son Lonnie Dee Roberts III was born on January 14, 1981. It was obvious that the car should be #81.
Lonnie’s first race car was a super late model, purchased from John King of Twister Chassis of Lake Park. It was a Bullet chassis that belonged to the late John Thorne. Lonnie had only one or two small sponsors; so to help fund his racing, Lonnie cut wood for the local BBQ pit; he helped a local farmer bale hay; and any other odd jobs he could do to raise money because the one rule of racing is you never use your bill paying money to race on!! And, his wife Sherry was right there with him. She helped out stacking and delivering the wood to customers; she hosted at parties to earn extra money to put their #81 car on the track. Lonnie’s first race was to take place at Thunderbowl Speedway, the same track where he watched his first race as a child; and where he was injured by an out of control car. However, Lonnie never took the green that night because he flipped his brand new car during the second set of hot laps. Upon inspection following the accident, it was discovered that the set screw had been left out of the steering knuckle and the steering wheel came off in his hands; he had no way to guide the car. Lonnie beat the sheet metal body back out the following week, and went back for more!! The next season didn’t start out any better; Lonnie blew five motors in five weeks. But he didn’t give up.
In 1992 Lonnie won a total of five races; three of which were big money races that year at Thunderbowl and finished fourth in points. He won the Father’s Day race $1,500.00; The July 4th Advance Auto Fire Cracker Special $1,200.00 and the Turkey Shoot out paying $2,000.00 to win.
Lonnie raced at Thunderbowl Speedway in Valdosta and at Cordele Motor Speedway in the super late model division on regular Saturday night races. He even ran several many Hav-a-Tampa series races and did pretty well against the likes of Earl Pearson, Jr, Scott Bloomqist, Mike Head, Freddie Smith, Jack Ingram and many more awesome drivers until late 1997 when the series was phased out in our area. Although the super late models remains Lonnie’s first love; it became more difficult to find tracks running those cars. Lonnie didn’t race for the entire 1998 season; and eventually decided to step into a late model sportsman series car in order to be able to race again. Lonnie and Sherry purchased their chassis from MastersBuilt and hung the familiar white body with red, yellow and black lettering on it. It made its debuet in the Thanksgiving race at Thunderbowl Speedway in November 1998 with a fourth place finish. Lonnie began racing with the NLMS (National Late Model Sportsman series “Southern Dirt Tour” with Ray Miller) full time in 1999, and would still run the super late model a few times too.
In May 1997 Lonnie went into business for himself doing metal building erection. Lonnie made a good living, and that helped him afford to be able to buy better racing equipment; and to expand in years to come to a three car team running two late model sportsman cars and his vintage skeeter car. Lonnie afforded several drivers like Mark Whitner, Russell Brown, Jr. as well as the legendary Rance Phillips better known as “The Fugitive”, the opportunity to drive his cars over the years. Mark’s brother, David Whitener won Rookie of the Year driving our car.
In 2004 Lonnie won the NLMS series Thanksgiving Shoot Out 100 lap race at Swainsboro, Georgia Speedway winning a whopping $12,000.00. The biggest purse the NLMS has ever paid out. It was at that race that the NLMS announcer Terry Caton nicknamed Lonnie “The Caveman”; and it stuck. To this day, you will see the iconic Captain Caveman logo on his car with the hash tag across the back spoiler “You’ve just been clubbed by the Caveman”.
In 2005 Lonnie purchased a 1931 Chevrolet body and chassis from Harold Roach in Lavonia, Georgia to run with the NVRA (National Vintage Racing Association). Lonnie ran the full 2006 racing schedule with the NVRA winning the Modified Sportsman division points championship plus he was the overall champ in all divisions that year.
In 2008 while running a NLMS series race in Cochran, Georgia; the points leader Terry Lumley’s car let him down in the heat race. Lonnie being the true gentleman that he is, offered Terry the use of his backup car so he would be able to run the feature race and keep his points up. Terry was thrilled and gladly accepted. Terry went on to finish fourth that night. At the end of the year series banquet in Daytona, Florida; Lonnie was awarded “Sportsman of the year” for his unselfish act. That’s certainly not the only time Lonnie has stepped up to help out his fellow competitors. Most any Saturday night race, you can find one or more drivers over at his trailer asking to borrow parts or supplies to help get their cars going, and Lonnie helps out with a smile! He loves racing and everything that goes with it.
Lonnie’s biggest thrill came on August 30th & 31st, 2008 when he was invited to participate in the Inaugural Darlington Historic Racing Festival at Darlington Speedway in Darlington, South Carolina. Lonnie was clocked at 156 mph around the 1 1/3 mile race track in his 1931 Modified Sportsman Skeeter car. He returned to the famed raceway in 2009 & 2010 and wowed the crowds again. Lonnie was clocked at an impressive 158 mph in that car. It was a wonderful experience that he will never forget.
In 2009 Lonnie decided to try his hand at running a race track. He met with Charles Cowart at his office in Valdosta, Georgia to discuss the terms of leasing the Douglas Motor Speedway track in Douglas, Georgia. Opening night was great; there was a huge field of cars on hand and Lonnie was loving it. He loved getting the clay track in shape with the motor grader, getting it ready for Saturday night fun. But, his happiness was short lived. 2009 was the year the stock market and the economy tanked and no one had the money to be able to come watch a race. Everyone was struggling just to put food on the table. So after nine short months the track closed. But that did little to deter Lonnie’s love for racing.
On May 25th, 2012 Lonnie was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoma cancer. On June 7, 2012 Lonnie started his chemo treatments, and would have 8 rounds of chemo at Pearlman’s Cancer Center in Valdosta. In October 2012 Lonnie won the “Old School late model” race at Needmore Speedway in Norman Park, Georgia before taking the rest of the year off to undergo a bone marrow transplant at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. Lonnie came back to race the 2013 season winning an impressive 5 wins. An awesome feat for someone who just beat cancer!! But Lonnie wasn’t looking back. Over the span of his 37 years racing, Lonnie has raced in 6 different states (GA, FL, AL, SC, NC and TN) at 40 different race tracks, amassing 130+ feature wins and 10 points championships.

1993 – Super LM points champ @ Thunderbowl Speedway in Valdosta, GA
1995 – Super LM points champ @ Cordele Speedway in Cordele, GA
1997 – Limited LM points champ @ Cordele Speedway in Cordele, GA
1999 – Limited LM points champ @ North FL Speedway in Lake City, FL
2001 – Limited LM points champ @ North FL Speedway in Lake City, FL
2003 – Limited LM points champ & overall track champion in Wewahitchka, FL
2006 – NVRA Modified Sportsman Skeeter Car points champ & overall points champ
2014 – Limited LM points champ @ Albany Speedway in Albany, GA
2017 – Limited LM points champ @ Golden Isle Speedway in Brunswick, GA
2018 – GA/FL Late Model points champ @ Needmore Speedway in Norman Park, GA

Lonnie’s goal is to win every race he runs. Although Lonnie is a fierce competitor, he believes in racing the other guy cleanly. He knows from experience how expensive running these cars can be. Lonnie can run with the best of them, but he doesn’t believe in intentionally tearing up someone’s car just to win a race. Now, don’t go thinking Lonnie is squeamish about leaving paint on someone who is slowing him down. He isn’t afraid of close contact and a little fender bending because like he says “Rubbing is Racing”. There’s going to be pushing and shoving to get up front, but that’s just racing. When Lonnie was asked what advise he would give drivers just getting started, he said “Have patience. You can’t win the race on the first lap. It took me seven years of trying before I won my first race. The best thing you can do is concentrate on how you’re driving, work on getting into the corners smoothly and getting the car to turn. Just run your line and pass the other guy clean. He’ll appreciate it, and he’ll respect you for it.” Lonnie is a driver, competitor and friend that so many look up to because he has drive and determination. Whatever the circumstances, he sticks it out until a negative become a positive. Lonnie gives 110 percent every time; and that’s what makes him a winner!!
At the end of the 2018 season, Lonnie plans on stepping out of the late model car and will concentrate on running his 1931 vintage skeeter car with the NVRA full time for the 2019 season. As a child, Lonnie loved to watch the skeeter cars run at Thunderbowl. And now being able to build and run his own skeeter car with the NVRA is a dream come true. So much so, that he is having a second 1931 Chevrolet skeeter car built by Russell Brown Race Cars; which will run next year. Who knows what the future holds for The Caveman; we’ll just have to wait and see!!