Charlie Bagwell – Portrait Of A Racer

Georgia Racing Hall of Fame driver Charlie Bagwell, cool, calm, collected and ready to race. Photo courtesy GARHOFA

By Eddie Samples
Posted in Feature Stories 12/3/10

When this interview was conducted back in 1999, venerable Georgia racer Charlie Bagwell had no plans to quit or retire anytime soon.

His thoughts were to be racing the orange “Charlie’s Tradin’ Post” #U2 racer going into 2000.

“No, I’m not quitting,” Charlie told GARHOFA member Gary Wilson and myself when we visited his house.  “I’m going to be racing ’till I die.  I’m having too much fun.  If I quit, I’ll die of boredom.  I’m going to be racing in my seventh decade next year.  I have no intention on giving that up.  Like that rabbit on TV, I’ll keep going and going.”

The “side-burned one” with the long grey hair reminds you of a cross between Elvis in Levis and a beardless Santa Clause as he walked us through his house looking at the massive collection of trophies dating from the 1940s.

“You will find a few bowling and baseball trophies in there,” he told us.  “Before I went racing I played a little pro-ball.”

In the meantime, his wife Dee, who bears no resemblance to Ms. Claus, quietly goes about the house with her tiny Pomeranian dog “Scooby Doo,” not far behind.

Charlie and Dee Bagwell in the trophy room, which is filled with memorabilia from his racing, bowling and baseball days.

The Bagwells live on over 100 acres near Fayetteville, Georgia, complete with a driveway that winds past their beautiful watermill, Charlie’s race shop, swimming pool, and tennis court, en route to their 7,000 square foot estate which has been home for nearly two decades.

Ironically, Dee and I grew up in the same neighborhood in Northwest Atlanta in the fifties, so we had much to talk about.  I told her I have dogs and I bet hers really enjoys playing on so much property.

“Not without me,” she quietly said.

“She’s afraid her dog will become ‘Doo-nuggets’,” Charlie added from the other room.  Dee and Charlie have a resident mountain lion that comes down occasionally on their back porch, as well as several bears he has seen and various other wildlife.

“We have a swamp back there and a 20 acre lake,” he said.  “With all the construction that goes on, the animals are running out of room, so they just hang out closer to our house.  But they won’t hurt you.  Hell, you would have to wrestle one of them to fight.

Tell that to Scooby Doo.

Bagwell started racing in 1949 at the age of 22.

“It was at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta,” he said.  “I just liked watching them run out there so I figured what the heck.  I built a ’41 Ford and veteran driver Frank Mundy showed me how to get around the track, and that was it.  I never did much here.  I did win a race on the quarter mile track they had put in front of the grandstands.  It only paid $10.  I did start on the pole a couple of times on the mile track.  One time Tom Patton’s car bumped me when the flag dropped and turned me over.  I was happy I just didn’t end up in the lake, which was never a pleasant thought.”

Charlie Bagwell and his "Idle Hour Tavern" number U2 Ford from the early days and one of his later "Charlie's Tradin' Post" racers (inset).

“Tom was the stepson of Jug Williams, the bootleg king,” Bagwell added.  “Jack Smith used to drive for him.  When I would be a work at the Tradin’ Post, Jug would wave to me everyday from across the street at the Federal pen.  Tom served time there too.”

Bagwell remembered the down side of racing.

“Well, back 40 and 50 years ago people got killed a bunch, especially at Lakewood,” he said.  “Now it’s a freak thing.  You have to remember all we had were leather helmets and waist belts, no roll bars and just a strap to keep our doors shut.  I would race sometimes in shorts, as would several of the drivers.  I saw my share of misfortune.

“The worst thing for me as a broken neck (twice) and various other bones.  My hand is broke now and I broke a foot last week when another car hit mine in the side.  I’ll be all right, I think.  But years ago any kind of wreck and you could figure at least some broken, cracked or bruised ribs because, no matter what, you were going to hit your steering wheel.  I remember once Gober Sosebee hit the gully in the second turn at Lakewood.  He knocked out some teeth.”

Charlie told us about the difference in the economic of driving years ago compared to today.

“Well, back ten you could actually make some change,” he said.  “The purses paid today are about the same as 50 years ago, as far as local racing is concerned.  I have over $100,000 in my cars out there now and $25,000 in the engines.  So what you have is a very expensive hobby.  Now, in (Sprint) Cup racing, an advertiser pays twelve million dollars to have his company name put on the car.  Back when I drove in the early days of racing, I had Jones Tire Shop on my car.  All I got was four recaps.  Another time I ran some races with a radiator company promoted on my car.  For a while I drove for Idle Hour Tavern, but how many beers can you drink?”

About Daytona Beach: “I raced down there some in the early days.  I have a trophy in there for 1949 when I set a new record on the beach run in a ’32 Ford at 116 mph.  Frank Mundy and I went there together when Harold Kite won in 1950.  Harold was from East Point and drive the ’49 Lincoln down there that he won he race with.  Most of the guys would drive their stocks to the races.

Weyman Milam flags Bagwell to victory at the Peach Bowl. "Back in those days, a advertiser didn't mean that much. Jones Tire Shop did furnish me with some re-caps though," Charlie laughed.

“I remember whenever you did tow a car through a small town and had to make tight turns, you would have to get out and re-straighten your wheels o the car you were towing.  Real pain in he butt.  And on the beach during a race, if you had a flat out there, you could forget it.  Try jacking a car up in that sand.  It don’t work.”

Gary asked Charlie about his buddies in the early days.

“Well, most of those cats are dead,” Bagwell said.  “Sure, I miss ’em.  The Flocks are all gone now.  Bob was the best driver of the three.  Fonty was pretty good and Tim was Tim.  He was never lost on words.  But Bob would do anything for you.  I raced a car for him in the early fifties at the Iron Bowl in Alabama, and at Montgomery and Birmingham.  I drove a car another time for him at Lakewood once but it blew up.

“And Jerry Wimbish was a heck of a nice guy and a good driver.  I think it was in 1969, Jerry was flagging at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, a year before T.C. Hunt took over and ran some races before they closed it down.  Anyway, I had won so many races, hell, he jus came on the track one night and gave me the checkered flag to take home.  I’ve got it there in the trophy room.  And of course Gober (Sosebee) was a heck of a guy also.  He loved to slide those cars.  I always wondered how many more races he would have won if he had kept them straight.  But that was his style and he loved it.”

“Jack Etheridge could drive anything, whether it be an Indy car or stock or whatever,”  Bagwell continued.  “I think Jack Smith was the best short track driver there was.  I remember once at Rome at the old half-mile track when he and Joe Lee Johnson were racing for the led and Joe Lee kept leaning on Jack in the turns.  Finally Jack braked and Joe must have turned over 10 times.  Harvey Jones would build engines for Jack.  I know Jack would try to lock Harvey up in the engine room so he wouldn’t leave.  Of course, Jack went on and drove NASCAR.  He and Billy Carden both went big-time for a while up through the early sixties.”

Charlie Bagwell and son Mike pose with their racers, Charlie's U2 and Mike's U2-2, at Dixie Speedway in the mid '70s. Photo courtesy GARHOFA

We asked Bagwell where he came up with his famous car number, U2.

“Well, I went to a race at Indy one year and saw a midget with that number and liked it,” he said.  “Later I saw a car with the same number in Birmingham and next thing I know I go with U2.  I changed numbers a few times but it never helped.  My son Mike drove U2-2.  He drove for several years and won many a race.  One day I was racing  at the Peach Bowl and got tired and said here, you drive a while.  And he did and that’s how he got started.  Right now he opens up the store (Charlie’s Tradin’ Post) and I replace him and he comes to the garage and works on the cars.”

When asked why his son quit driving, Charlie laughed and said “Hell, he got too old.”

We asked him what his best racing moments were.

“Well, one would be when I beat Red Byron down in Warner Robbins in the fifties,” he said.  “Red was kind of quite and so was his mechanic, Red Vogt.  Nice guys though.”

Charlie Bagwell hustles his car around the track in the early fifties. Photo courtesy GARHOFA

“But I think my best time was another trip at Warner Robbins in a 100 lapper with me running third place,” Bagwell added.  “I was driving for Pete Rogers, who Roscoe Thompson drove for.  Well, Stan Parnell was leading and Nero Steptoe was second with 29 laps to go, and my left front tire comes off.  So to keep my pitman arm from digging in the track, I had to go faster than I intended to so as to have ‘lift’ on the front. Damn if I didn’t go faster with three wheels and I won the race!

“I also had a lot of luck at Rome.  I tore down a fence at a track in Eastman and the promoter tried to make me pay for it.  and of course I always had a good time at Lakewood.  I drove the last race they had here in 1979 before they turned it into a parking lot.  I’ll never forget that race because I decided to run it without a windshield.  The night before, it rained forever, so they track was so muddy I had to come in just to change visors and lost some positions.  They had a mandatory stop at the halfway point and Ed Samples had driven the pace car earlier and now was sitting on my pit wall.  ‘Charlie, you’re behind’, he said.  I told him, ‘Ed, you want to drive the damn thing?’  He just laughed and said ‘You’re doing alright, Charlie’.”

“I miss all those guys,” Bagwell added.  Even the old drivers that go to the tracks today aren’t recognized.  They wouldn’t know Jack Smith, Billy Carden, Jack Jackson, (Charlie) Mincey, (Charlie) Padgett, (Wilbur) Rakestraw, (George) Alsobrook and on and on.  Rex White won the NASCAR title in ’60.  You think they would know him?  That’s one reason I hope the people at Thunder Road (now the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame) are able to get their deal done.  We’re losing all our history and acknowledgements.”

Since he mentioned history, we asked Bagwell when he would be ready to hang his helmet up.

Charlie in the seventies. He sold a ton of blue jeans at his store, so his fellow drivers came up with the name, "Levi King", alias, the "King".

“Right now I’m racing at Senoia because it’s not 20 miles away,” he said. “I’ve won some heats lately but it’s been a while since I’ve taken a feature.  I still run fast, I just don’t need to be hitting the wall.  My bones aren’t as flexible as they used to be now that I’m 73.  Dee and I have a condo in Panama City but I don’t ever go there.  Don’t have time.  I’ve had the ‘Trading Post’ for nearly half a century.  Between that and racing I don’t slow down.  I’m going to stay in it obviously as long as I can.”

Longtime friend and sports announcer Jimmy Mosteller said about Charlie, “You’ve got to love the guy who has done so much to promote and spotlight or sport with such staying power.  Yes sir, the man has had some staying power and has kept the history of our sport alive.”

Finally, we asked Charlie about his trademark sideburns.

“Dee asks that too,” he said.  “She wants to know when I’m shaving them off.  They were popular in the seventies so I grew them.  I just never got tired of them.  So if it’s up to me, you’re going to see my sideburns and U2 around for a long time.”

We plan to, Charlie.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the December 1999 edition of the Pioneer Pages.  Charlie Bagwell finally hung his helmet up around the start of the 2006 racing season.  Later that same year, he was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.  He still has his sideburns.

Eddie Samples is a racing historian and writer, and is the son of champion stock car racer and Georgia Racing Hall of Famer Ed Samples.

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