Many enthusiasts of Dirt Late Model racing consider the World 100 held annually at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway to be the most prestigious of events in that form of racing. Many enthusiasts of Late Model racing on pavement consider the Snowball Derby held annually at Florida’s 5 Flags Speedway to be the most prestigious event in that form of racing. Only one driver in the history of the sport has won both of those highly regarded events.
Aside from winning the World 100 on three occasions(1983, 1984 & 1986) and the Snowball Derby(1995), the list of accomplishments compiled by Jeff Purvis is among the most impressive ever amassed by any race car driver. And further, add the highly renowned All-American 400 on the asphalt of the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and the much coveted North-South 100 on the dirt at Florence Speedway into the mix of major races won by this master of both surface types. The National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame member is frequently recognized by those who follow racing in all of its forms as one of the greatest short-track drivers of his or any generation.
This past Saturday night Purvis was in Maryville, Tennessee to be inducted into the Smoky Mountain Speedway Hall of Fame and to enjoy a night of watching others participate in the sport in which he at one time enjoyed great success.
The two-time National Dirt Racing Association champion used his return to Smoky Mountain to recall a moment that stands out in his career. But it wasn’t necessarily a story with a happy ending.
“On this race track they had an NDRA race here one time,” Purvis told InsideCircleTrack.com. “I came here and practiced and I was mid-pack, 25th at best, and I was down on myself. But then in qualifying I think I qualified on the pole and I was thinking this has to be a fluke. But if I’m not mistaken, I led that race for something like 96 laps then blew the motor up or broke a rear end or something. I’ve always remembered this track because of that. I ran so bad in practice but then checked out during the race for whatever reason.”
In 2002, Purvis suffered a serious brain injury as well as fractures to his first and second vertebrae as the result of a crash in a Busch(now Xfinity) Series race at the Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania. That accident left him hospitalized for some time. Still, the now 60-year-old enjoys visiting race tracks and remembering the times in which he competed.
“I always love coming back and I tell myself that I could participate, but I couldn’t,” Purvis said. “It’s a lot of fun. You want to think it’s changed a lot but it really hasn’t changed that much. You still have the same competitive crowd out there. I’m just smart enough to know what my capabilities are and they don’t qualify me to race even though I would want to in my mind. I’m a happy spectator.”
Other races standout in the former champion’s mind as highlights of a brilliant career. In particular are those triumphs on a track which he regards as a favorite.
“The Eldora races, the World 100’s, were always something special to me because I wasn’t supposed to win races up there,” Purvis explained. “I was out of Clarksville, Tennessee and there was nobody around me with any kind of support that could help me be prepared for something of that caliber of racing.”
Although he would eventually claim three of the coveted globe trophies in Rossburg, Ohio, one 1982 race that got away still gnaws at the competitor’s memory.
“The first time I went to Eldora, I should have won,” he recollected from the guest suite at Smoky Mountain Speedway. “It was the fastest car I ever had at Eldora but I ran second to Mike Duvall. I was leading the race and had a spoiler break so I had to come in and go to the rear. I came back and was passing him for the lead and had a fuel pickup or something go wrong so I pulled down to go in the pits, but when I did, it took off again. He beat me across the finish line by about a half of a car length.
“That car was extremely fast but I came back the next year and I won it then I came back the next year and won it again,” Purvis added of his Eldora experiences. “I only raced at Eldora seven times or maybe eight times and I won three of those races. That’s always been a special place for me. They’re all special, whether its was a $500 local race, they’re all special to me.”
Perhaps the ultimate compliment one racer can pay to another is to follow that driver wherever he may go in hopes of racing against and occasionally beating the more established star to make a name for himself. Early in his career, Scott Bloomquist used to do that very thing in regard to Jeff Purvis. Wherever Purvis planned to race, it was almost certain that Bloomquist would also be on hand to compete against the driver he considered the best at that time.
“You’ve got to give credit where credit is due and he’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” Purvis said of his fellow National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame member. “He truly is in a different league. I learned a lot from him and I liked him coming where I was because it made me step my game up and made me a better racer, there’s no doubt. It does make you feel good for somebody of that caliber to bring your name up. You known, Bloomquist was never one of my favorites and I never was one of his either but I have to respect his talent.”
Another well known racer has also had good things to say about Purvis and his racing career. Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip once lauded the accomplishments of his fellow Tennessean during a broadcast and Purvis was honored by the praise.
“I heard Darrell Waltrip commentating on some kind of show one time a few years ago from the 5 Flags Speedway and the Snowball Derby and Darrell Waltrip said ‘Somebody needs to try to accomplish this feat- win the World 100, the All American 400, and the Snowball Derby. That’s all the crown jewels.’ I had never thought about it until he said that but it is big. I had some good cars and good equipment and good help and that made it a lot easier on me. But I was 24/7 on that stuff. It’s all I did.”
So how did a driver who had accomplished so much on dirt end up racing on pavement?
It wasn’t that Purvis was just racing on pavement, he was winning. Aside from the major short track races already mentioned, he went on to win eight ARCA races over the course of his career along with four NASCAR Busch Series events.
“I didn’t start out with a plan,” he explained. “I didn’t plan to run dirt for so many years and then move on and take the steps that I did. Somebody would come to me, Bobby Allison was one and James Finch that I drove for, that just started dragging me along and saying come do this or come do that. That’s how my racing career went with somebody else intervening and getting me to do something else.”
Even with all his accomplishments, this superstar in the ranks of short track racing doesn’t count any one moment as the pinnacle of his career. Instead, he says that he was always so focused on the next event that often didn’t take the time to enjoy the last one.
“I never hung my hat on any one thing,” Purvis insisted. “When that race was over, I was loading up the car. It didn’t make any difference if I won or not, I was loading up the car and thinking about where I was going next and what I needed to get done before I went to the next race. I never could enjoy the moment. My wife will tell you that I’m just as bad now, I can’t just enjoy the moment. I’ve always been looking for the next one.”
Despite the injuries from the previously mentioned Busch Series crash and a hauler accident on I-65 in 2006 that left Purvis badly battered, he still counts his life in racing as a source of good memories. But he does mention one regret and that is not slowing down to celebrate the good times as they happened.
“I do have a lot of good memories. I really do wish I had done things a little bit different. I see people talk about how many races they won but every race I won I thought I might not win another one so I didn’t keep up with them like everybody. I wish I had gone back and kept records of every race that I had won but I didn’t do that.”
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