They all laughed when Charlie Folks sat down in his "race car" for the first time in April. And why not? "I had a gift motor with 100,000 miles on it. I scrounged the body from a roadside wreck. And I had never been in a race in my life," he said.
Six months later the 24-year-old College Park driver had the last laugh. He had won the street stock car division championship at both Beltsville and Old Dominion speedways. Folks won only two races but earned points in all except three starts.
His secret is "just working on my car all the time." That means four hours a night, almost every night, after finishing his regular job as an auto mechanic.
"I want to make sure nothing falls off," explained Folks."If you want to run in front, you have to work all the time."
When Folks returns from a race, he immediately takes his car of its trailer and puts it on blocks, "to keep the springs from going dead." Then he examines it. His friend, Don St. Armand, who drives a truck at night, spends his days following Folks' checklist for repairs, mostly on the body.
"I learned to do this from Reds Kagle," said Folks. "I was a mechanic for him for six years. His cars are always up in the air, off their wheels, and he is always working on them," he said of the one-legged Lanham racer and frequent local champion.
Kagle teased Folks when he decided to go racing. "You've got junk," he chided. Folks admits it. "Most of the pieces I found around the garage I put $850 in the car and most of that was in the roll cage," he daid.
"My car is a little heavier than most, but I think that makes it handle better. The motor is smaller, too, 230 cubic inches to the 250's most guys run. Then rules don't allow you to do much to the motor, so I spent hours figuring out spring rates to make the car handle. I had a different setup almost every race."
Folks said "Almost everything affects the car's chassis. The temperature, especially, can change the way the tires bite and that changes the handling. You can't make fast adjustments on a street stock car because we aren't permitted racing parts. So you keep trying different things."
The champion's racing career started slowly, "like about 30 miles per hour in my first race. "I didn't know what I was doing; Guys were passing me like there was a net over my car. I did finish ninth my first race. Then I got a little better every week."
He didn't think much about title points until late in the season. "When I did, I got a lot of help from Tim Reese, who raced against me. He lent me a motor once, even brought it over to my garage and helped me put it in.
"He let me start his car in a race when I had engine trouble," Folks recalled. "The starting driver gets the points no matter who finishes. I wasn't going too well with the car so I came in when the race was stopped for an accident, Tim got in, finished fourth, and I got the points."
Folks figures he spent about $2,000 racing last season, much of it on a dozen tires at $35 each. "Funny thing is my left side tires lasted all season. I only had to replace right side rubber," said Folks.
His biggest payday was the $175 for winning a 50-lap race at Old Dominion. He figures he broke even for the year. "Look, Beltsville pays $50 to win and Old Dominion $75 for a regular feature. I don't see how anybody can make money doing this. It's a hobby, like hunting or fishing," he commented.
Over the winter Folks plans to remove his faithful engine and rebuild or replace it; work on the car's transmission and saw off the body and put a "new" one on. He hopes to have some time to look for a sponsor.
"I'll keep on racing as long as my money holds out," he said. "But I sure would like a little help. It would mean a lot."
Uneasy rests the head that wears two crowns.