Charlie Burkhalter – A Family Man

Charlie Burkhalter poses with his restored skeeter at the 2010 Athens Speedway reunion. Photo by Brandon Reed

By Mike Bell
Posted in Feature Stories 3/10/12

A couple of weeks before Christmas in 2009, they had a wedding anniversary in Shake Rag, GA. Of course, I got lost and was late. It was almost dark when we arrived. Our host, Charlie Burkhalter, Jr., directed us to a parking space and said he was going to get the trailer. I knew what he was talking about. Everybody there knew what he was talking about but his father, former famed Athens racing driver Charlie Burkhalter, Sr. You see that was the surprise!

A year or so ago, Charlie Jr. called me and said he had found one of his dad’s old race cars. He had grand ideas of restoring the car to the condition and look as when his dad drove it. We tried to find some parts for him. Then he called and said they had found another of his dad’s race cars. Since it was more complete, they decided to restore it. This was about three months before the party. Charlie Jr. called to say that the party was between Commerce and Athens off US Highway 441.

“I’ll be there,” I said.

When I got there, quite a crowd had gathered. Shake Rag is a very nice hunting lodge about four miles off of US Highway 441 between Commerce and Athens. The lodge is built like a large house with a big deck off the back. An awning stretches in front of the double doors that open into one large room. But all the action was outside.

As I said everybody – some 200 – knew what was going on but Charlie Sr. Now everybody that was there were not blood kin to Charlie, as you would find at your regular family gatherings. This was Charlie’s racing family. All of these people had ties to Charlie when he raced. Some were as old as Charlie on down to grandchildren who had never seen Charlie race. It didn’t matter – they were family!

Charlie Jr. pulled the long trailer under the awning and opened the back. The family had gathered but not Charlie Sr. As the restored racer was unloaded, you could see the care to detail that was put into this job – loving care from the racing family of Charlie Burkhalter Sr. Several of his closest friends and family escorted Charlie outside to see the car for the first time since the late sixties. He was astonished!

The car was what was commonly called a “skeeter.” They were a frame, an engine, running gear with tires and a seat for the driver. Charlie’s cars were always number 75 and gold and this one was too. The engine was a small block Chevy that most everyone used. The wheels and tires were the “mag wheels” that everyone used as well as grooved slicks. The only thing missing was red clay stuck to the frame rails and tires! The family had recreated that same car that ran so many years ago.

Charlie taking the checkered flag at the Sugar Bowl Speedway near Conyers, GA. He is driving the Tommy Pittman owned 1934 Ford 5-window coupe in which he won so many races. Photo courtesy the Burkhalter family.

With much prodding and encouragement from the crowd, Charlie got into the car. If you know anything about those old racers, you know this wasn’t an easy job. But Charlie continues to work ever day and had little trouble getting into the car. Next, he was again prodded and encouraged to start the engine. What a sound! You don’t hear that kind of music any more at the tracks. With his old helmet on and his family around him, Charlie warmed the engine up even to some flame throwing when he decelerated the engine. His grin was enormous and only waned back to a normal grin when he cut the engine off. Everyone was taking photos for their family albums.

The explanation for this family gathering came almost a year ago when Charlie Sr. was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Through the last year, he has gone through over 40 radiation treatments and probably so many doctors’ visits that he knows how many grandchildren the man has. We thought we had lost him. But you know old racers never quit. They fight tooth and nail for the chance to run for the checkered flag again and Charlie is still that same race car driver that filled the stands on every Saturday night at Athens Speedway.

The research shows that in the sixties, it was the Charlie, Charlie and Charlie show at Athens when the sun went down and the crowd gathered to watch “their” Charlie go for the next win.

You may want to look at the car some time. The family plans on showing the car at regional car shows and events like the Legends Night at Lavonia Speedway.

Where does a man get such a large family? In Charlie’s case you start out with a large family. Charles Ross Burkhalter is one of 16 children born to George David Burkhalter and Flora Mae Craft Burkhalter.

“16 children – 9 boys and 7 girls,” Charlie remembered.  “About 1/2 of them are dead now.” They started with Katie Mae and somewhere in there was Eugene and about two  years later, Charlie and about three years later came Mack. These other two are mentioned because they became involved in racing also. They all lived in Oconee County – near where Athens Speedway was.

“My dad was a farmer,” Charlie recalled.  “He rented about 100 acres. We didn’t do much cotton farming. We grew what you could eat. We did pick cotton. Mama would take all us youngins. We could pick about a bale a day.

Charlie Burkhalter ready to race at Athens Speedway in 1967.

“I went to University of Georgia High – Demonstration High, where the Navy School is today. They ran me out. I quit in the 10th grade and went to work at Seagraves Drive-In at the counter. Bob Martin ran it. They sold beer. I guess there wasn’t a law like there is today. I wasn’t but 15. They had a curb service. The curb boys paid me and the customer paid the curb boys. They had any kind of food you wanted but they specialized in BBQ. Back then it was one of the number one eating places in Athens.”

“When I left Seagraves, I went to work at Davis Sign Co.,” Charlie continued.  “Then I went to work for Epps Electric Co. until 1960 when I went in business for myself doing electrical work. I did that until 1972 when I bought my first trencher. I have been doing that since then. I have worn out 7 tractors. The first one I bought I gave $4500 for it and the last one was $48,000. This new one is just a little bit bigger than the first one.”

Charlie first met his wife on her front porch. A friend of Shirley’s said she had a friend she wanted her to meet. Shirley thought it was a boy who had been talking to her at school but her friend was dating Allen Williamson at the time. Allen would later become a race driver also. His friend was Charlie. They dated a couple of years and got married in December 1955. They have raised eight children – Wanda, Rita, Charlie Jr., George, Jeff, Rex, Becky and Carol (who was adopted). These children have 15 grandchildren so far. Their oldest – Wanda – was killed in an auto accident in Columbus, GA. Most of their children live in Madison County, GA. Carol and her family live in Oglethorpe County. Neither county is very far from Athens.

“When we first got married we lived in an upstairs apartment on Millage Ave.,” Charlie’s wife Shirley remembered.  “Then we moved downstairs in the same building. Our son George was six months old when we moved in this house at 358 Hull Road. George will be 50 on May 4.”

Charlie sits in the 1934 Ford coupe with Ridley’s Texaco as the sponsor and a very potent flathead Ford under the hood. Photo courtesy the Burkhalter family

“I got started in racing about 1958 when my brother Eugene and Harold Garrett had a car,”  Charlie said.  “A little ole’ coupe #77. We would pull it to Anderson, SC. I was about 16 then. Harold would be leading the race and spin out. I told him that I believed I could drive a car as good as he could. Harold didn’t think I could. Well, we were at Toccoa one night and a guy asked me about driving his car. Harold Yarbrough was his name. I told him that I didn’t know anything about driving a car and that I would probably tear it up. He said, ‘I don’t care, drive it anyway. I had a boy that was supposed to drive it but he didn’t show up so you drive it. If you wreck it, we’ll fix it.’ It was an amateur race. I hadn’t ever driven a race car before. I got in the thing and started about 14th place. In a few laps, I was going into 4th place when Wendel Roach cut over and pushed me into that big rock there and flipped that car end-over-end. I told the man I was sorry for tearing the car up. He said, ‘that was all right. We’ll fix it and you can drive it next week.’

“Harold Yarbrough bought a sedan from C. P. Shaw that Charlie Padgett was driving, put a motor in it and went back up there the next weekend and out ran the tar out of them! The second time I had ever been in a race car! When we went back up there, we had a BIG flathead in the car. That thing wasn’t legal. They protested us and we had to give them the money back. It was bored 80 over and was supposed to be a 100 standard. It was smoking! I told them that it wasn’t any need to pull the head off of it as it wasn’t legal. We brought the car back to Athens. We took the motor out and put 100 standard sleeves in it. I told them not to mess with the cam as that motor was running good. We went back the next week and outran them worst than the first time. After we beat them the second time, they must have protested us 50 times. They kept saying that there was no way I could be legal. That ole’ car would handle. That was where I beat them. Some nights we had to pull both heads off. They had put up $25 to protest. So, some times we would get 50 extra dollars. You could run one side bigger than the other but you had to jet the carburetor bigger for that side. We found this out later or I probably would have tried it.”

A rare afternoon show at Athens Speedway with Charlie in the middle of the photo in his #75. The #74 is his brother’s car but the driver is unknown. The #92 is also unknown. After the tornado in 1973, the old wooden grandstands and wooden walls were replaced with concrete and still sit at the speedway site today.

“We ran about two years then James “Jabo” Bradberry bought out Harold and we ran another two or three years,” Charlie continued.  “We ran Toccoa, Greenwood (SC), Fountain Inn (SC), Walhalla (SC) Cowpens (SC) and Banks County. We ran about 5 nights a week. We’d pull a thousand miles a week back when gas was 28 or 29 cents a gallon. I would run at Elberton and after we ran the Amatuer race, they would let us run in the bigger class – it was like an A-class where we were running a B-class – I would run third in that race. I out ran Harold Garrett every week. Some people can get the hang of it and some people can’t. I got the hang of it right off the bat. It was like an everyday job for me. Most of the time, the car wasn’t handling and we knew what to do to it to get it to handle.

“Tommy Pittman owned the ’34 Ford 5-window I drove next. That was 1962. We won 35 straight races that year – won at a lot of different tracks. I built my own flathead motors and everything for that car. Take a grinder to the blocks for a whole week – polishing everything we could. You could get so mad. You would grind on them so long the intakes looked like chrome. Then you would find a crack and have to throw it out and start over again. We ran a 3-3/8 bore with a 4-¼ stroker and a 404 Iskendarian cam. You’d have to grind the bottom of the cylinder walls for the rods to clear. I didn’t hardly do anything to that car but wash it and change the oil and won 35 straight races. Won 17 races then overhauled the engine and won 18 more. That thing handled so good – that was how I outran them all.”

In 1962, the racers of Athens formed an organization called Athens Auto Racing Association. It was formed specifically for running other places.

The ultra clean engine of the 34 Ford Coupe. Photo courtesy the Burkhalter family

“Bill just wouldn’t pay us what we wanted,” Charlie said.  “We ran up at Banks County, Sugar Bowl and Toccoa. We didn’t hardly have to do it but once. He agreed to pay us what we wanted. There was about six or eight of us went. He didn’t have anybody to race

“One time Jabo called about Cleveland (TN) and said they were running a 50-lap ‘B’ Class (limited) championship race. We took our magneto off and the 3 carburetors off. We used one 2-barrel off a ’56 Ford pickup. When we got there, they told us we could have left all that on there but it was too late then to change anything. We started about 16th. I think they had about 25 cars. I followed this ole’ boy for about 49 ¾ laps and he slipped high. I went under him and won the race. He really wanted that big ole trophy. I told him I would sell it to him for $50, but he didn’t want it.”

“Another time at Cleveland (TN), we ran the ‘limited’ class,” Charlie said.  “Jabo and Tootle were there but were blowing water on one of the cylinders. Jabo took the plug out and taped off the wire so it wouldn’t touch anything and Tootle ran on seven cylinders. He started on the outside pole and had a half-lap lead – on seven cylinders! That joker just flew. I have never seen anyone run on seven cylinders like that joker did. They never had a caution flag. They ran the whole race without ever slowing down once. After he got about a half-lap lead, he just sat out there and rode.

“When I drove for Tommy Pittman, his brother Bobby use to hang around a lot. One night about 1:00AM, we were up at Bud’s (Lunsford) and he was balancing the motor. Bud could really balance an engine. Anyway, we left there about 2. I told Bobby if he would help me we could run at Winder-Barrow tonight. ‘Ain’t no way you are running at Winder tonight’ was all Bobby could say. I told him if he would help me we could get there. We worked all day. He crawled down there and bolted the engine up and we cranked it up. I set the valves. We went over to his house and had a sandwich while the motor loosened up. We got back and I adjusted the valves again and we loaded up and headed on down the road. We got there late and I had to start in the back but still won the race. Bobby just couldn’t believe we won!”

Very seldom did Charlie drive a car that didn’t have his signature #75 on them but this is one. He won races in this coupe normally driven by Tony Alewine. Photo courtesy the Burkhalter family

“I drove Tommy Roberts’ car one night at Winder,” he continued.  “We had tore up something – ring gear or something. Marshall Carey, the car owner, came over and asked me to drive it. I didn’t want to drive it but he said if Tommy wanted to drive it he should be here so don’t worry about Tommy getting mad. I practiced in the car and liked the way it drove. I started the heat race about fourth or fifth and had about a half-lap lead at the end of the 10-lap heat race. They told me if Tommy showed up later he was just going to have to watch me drive the car. We started the feature with Padgett in one of Bud Lunsford’s old cars but it didn’t matter. I had a half-lap lead and was just sitting out there riding. About that time the switch wire shorted out on the stupid thing. They wanted to know why it quit. I told them I didn’t know what was wrong but it just quit firing.

“Again but at Athens, something happened to my car. We loaded it up and Marshall came over and asked me to drive his car. Charlie Padgett driving Massey’s car and I sat on the front. I had a big lead – about half-lap – and the “John Brown” ring gear and pinion tore out of the thing. Marshall told me that he wasn’t ever going to ask me to drive his car any more.”

When the open wheel cars fell out of favor at the local tracks, Charlie started driving “schoolbuses” like this – a beautiful Nova late model with his #75 in which he still won races. Photo courtesy the Burkhalter family

“I only ran illegal twice in my life,” Charlie told us.  “The one I told you about earlier with the engine and one other. We were up at Walhalla one night. I was leading and had already taken the white flag. I went down in the third turn and backed off and it made a funny sound. The clutch had come apart and those little brass rivets had come loose and tore everything up. I still won the race but it would be Tuesday or Wednesday before we could have gotten the parts from Honest Charley. My brother said he had a straight drive. So we put that in to run at Athens. The engine would start up and everything but you just couldn’t pull off. We told them something happened to the clutch so they let us push it off that night. I won my heat and the feature. That was the only other time I was illegal.

“When they went to late models I drove for the Watson brothers (Laverne and Ray, who are still alive) out of Danielsville then for Elvis Hills for about 2 years and then James Elders out of Watkinsville for a year or two. But I just got burned out. We were pulling about 1000 miles a week just to race. I just got tired and worn out. I didn’t like the “schoolbusses” anyway. They sold the car so I quit. I went fishing! The last race I ran was at Lavonia. I ran second to C. L. Pritchett.”

So what does a successful race car driver do when he quits? He goes fishing. He got as good at fishing as he did at racing.

“I would win $500 sometimes fishing at tournaments,” Charlie recalled.  “I have as many fishing trophies as I ever had in racing. For about 20 years now, they would have these 2-day tournaments and a lot of times I would win both days. We have a nice home on Lake Oconee and spend much the summer down there fishing.”

Now all the fishing competitors are waiting on Charlie to retire from fishing.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2010 edition of the Pioneer Pages magazine.  Charlie Burkhalter passed away on May 28, 2010.

Mike Bell is a Georgia racing historian and volunteer for the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

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