Slightly more than 20 years ago, a desire to produce an affordable race car gave birth to a new industry in Harrisburg that has mushroomed since then into an international business.
Housed in a 100,000-square-foot building beside N.C. 49, U.S. Legend Cars Inc. employs 35 people and produces cars that are raced in 45 states and 25 countries.
The Speedway Motorsports Inc. subsidiary has produced more than 6,000 race cars since its creation and has provided the career foundation for numerous competitors, including NASCAR drivers Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, David Ragan and Roush-Fenway Racing crew chief Matt Puccia.
“It’s remarkable how far this program has come since 1992,” said Richard Burke, the company’s vice president of finance. “Our niche has been building a race car that people can afford to race. That has opened the doors for so many to come in and participate in the sport they love.”
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The Legends cars were developed when H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler was SMI president and president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Wheeler was searching for an inexpensive race car – one that could be hauled in the bed of a Ford F250 pickup – when he received a telephone call from sports-car racer Elliott Forbes-Robinson regarding a Dwarf car he had found in Phoenix.
Forbes-Robinson told Wheeler the person making the cars was taking sheet metal off refrigerators and using motorcycle engines in the cars. Forbes-Robinson sent one of the cars back to North Carolina at Wheeler’s request. The car was rebuilt, and the Legends car was born.
Originally made from sheet metal, the cars are now built out of fiberglass manufactured in the Carolinas. The treaded tires are extremely hard, so they can be used in multiple races, and drivers can learn throttle control.
The rules are the same throughout the United States; but in some of the international markets, a reverse gear is required. It is installed once the car reaches that country, but it can’t be used if a driver comes to the United States to compete in the World Finals at Sonoma, Calif., or Las Vegas.
When the Legends car made its debut, it cost about $9,000 to $10,000. That has since risen to $13,000. Yamaha engines shipped from Japan power the cars, while Briggs and Stratton engines provide power to the Bandolero – a smaller race car also developed and built by U.S. Legend Cars Inc.
All the cars are constructed – and engines raced in the United States are rebuilt – at the Harrisburg facility. International shipments are usually made every two weeks, Burke said. The engines are rebuilt in the owners’ respective countries.
Last year, a Legends car race was a support event for the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco. This year, the company’s dealer in France has teamed with a group producing Acceleration 2014, a new road-racing series involving cars, motorcycles, pickup trucks and concerts.
The 10-race schedule will travel throughout Europe, and each weekend will consume three days.
Burke is excited about the tour because the Legends car will receive exposure in Germany and Italy. SMI executive vice president Don Hawk, who oversees U.S. Legend Cars Inc., also hopes to market the car in China, possibly later this year.
“Our first international dealer was Phil Cooper in the U.K. 20 years ago,” Burke noted. “He put together a road racing series in 1993.”
Since the company’s Legends, Bandolero and Roadster cars were created, a Legends dirt modified has been developed. That car was former NASCAR crew chief and team owner Ray Evernham’s creation. He partnered with the Harrisburg company to produce the car, and it’s now raced in Texas, California, the Dakotas, North Carolina and Virginia.
INEX is the sanctioning body for the Legends, Bandolero, Roadster and Dirt Modified cars; it sanctions about 2,000 races annually. The Harrisburg-based company also holds three-day race camps at Charlotte Motor Speedway during summer and partners with the YMCA in Cabarrus County for a motorsports summer day-camp program.
Salisbury track 10 years old
The N.C. Quarter-Midget Association Speedway in Rowan County, created by former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte, is 10 years old this year.