Claycomb family finds success off and on the track
For nearly four decades, Prestige Auto Service has been properly fixing “anything with wheels.”
Located at 801 S. Sixth St. Road in Vincennes and operated by Bill Claycomb and his family, Prestige Auto Service opened its doors in 1978 at 11th and Prairie streets before moving to its current location in 1985.
For more than the first half of those 39 years since, the Claycomb family toiled away the weekdays at the shop while on weekends they migrated from small-town dirt track to small-town dirt track as the Midwest’s First Family of Dirt Racing.
It was a family affair, all the way. After getting his own kicks in the sport in his younger days, Bill, the Claycomb patriarch, oversaw the racing operation while his wife, Barb, played whatever role was necessary to make sure things ran smoothly. Their oldest son, Kevin, was the face of the undertaking as he fearlessly drove a Late Model stock car to win after win. A younger son, J.R., worked tirelessly behind the scenes as the primary mechanic.
A handful of other family members — including Bill’s brother, Dan, and Dan’s son, Danny — were in the mix, as were countless friends.
Such an effort doesn’t last long if it isn’t successful, but that was never something the Claycomb family had to worry about.
The team racked up feature win after feature win along the way. More than a decade after running their final laps, the office at Prestige Auto Service is still filled with trophies — some of which stand 6 feet tall or more — and countless photographs and magazine stories adorn the walls. Many more trophies are stashed at home, and still others have been donated to the Knox County Association for Retarded Citizens to be dispersed as needed.
“I’ve been associated with about 500 wins,” said Bill, the primary engine builder, who turns 80 this month. “We won a lot. And if we didn’t win, we were aggravated coming home.”
How many feature race wins did Kevin pile up over the years?
“Too many to count,” he says, with a shrug of the shoulders.
J.R. Claycomb filled his role well, too. After driving his own car for a year, he realized that he’d be more valuable as the family’s chief mechanic.
“I tell everybody (Kevin) is the one who tore it up, and I’m the one who fixed it up,” he says with a smile.
The highlight came in the 1991 season, when Kevin won the eighth annual United Midwestern Promoters (UMP) Late Model championship, after twice finishing second. The UMP currently sanctions races on dirt tracks that range in length from .2 miles in length to a full mile. Presently, UMP features eight different racing divisions on more than 100 tracks in 19 states and one Canadian province.
The crown the Claycomb clan claimed didn’t come easily. Starting in late March, 1991, and running into September, the family usually traveled at least three nights a week to a dirt track somewhere in the Midwest. Per UMP rules, the top two finishes during each week counted toward the season standings.
The elusive championship was finally clinched on the concluding night of the season, in St. Charles, Mo., about 200 miles from home.
“It was a fairly big deal,” said J.R. “It was somewhat regional but yet there were probably four states who had quite a few tracks and overall there were drivers from seven or eight states involved.”
Kevin Claycomb enjoyed winning the championship, for sure. But it did take a toll.
“We ran 87 nights that year, plus we were trying to work 40 hours a week,” he remembers. “It was tiring. There were long hours and at times it was frustrating. But we won (the UMP championship). It was a highlight.”
Often times, the family would get home about 3 a.m. after racing on Friday night.
“By 8 the next morning, Dad would be out getting ready to go again,” J.R. said.
Tri-State Speedway at Haubstadt hosted the UMP Late Model cars on a weekly basis at that point, so the Sunday trip was the week’s easiest.
Otherwise, it was off to Granite City or Kankakee in Illinois, Wheataland, Mo., Paducah, Ky. or Brownstown, Ind., among other destinations.
The fun lasted through 2004, when the family decided to call it quits. Kevin and J.R. had children who were getting older, and were becoming involved in other activities. Kevin was getting older, too, and found that driving was starting to be more physically demanding.
About that time, expenses were becoming more of a factor, as well. That’s another reason the family pulled away.
“Now it’s just so expensive,” Barb Claycomb said. “Now days you have to have beaucoup dollars and beaucoup sponsors, you might say. You almost have to do it for a living to make anything.”
Kevin drove one more season, in a Modified car for a man out of Evansville, but it wasn’t the same.
While the brothers miss the friendships and the camaraderie they enjoyed, they don’t go to the races much. Every once in a while, perhaps once a season, they’ll meander to Haubstadt for an evening.
For Bill and Barb, however, going to dirt races is “about all we do for recreation.”
“We went to Florida in February, for two solid weeks of racing, just to watch,” Barb said. “We still really enjoy it.”
Often times, they’re treated like racing royalty.
“Ten years ago when we’d go, I’d get stopped so often that I had a hard time making my way through the crowd,” Bill said. “There are still a few of the older ones left, but it’s not like it used to be.”
It started in the mid 1950s, when Bill and his brother, Dan, paid $75 for a race car. One night in about 1957, Barb tagged along, making the trip to a dirt track in Terre Haute on what was the couple’s official “first date.” Romance blossomed, and they were married in 1959.
Bill notes that he was involved in racing for 50 years on one level or another before getting out.
However, he says he’s not yet ready to get out of the auto repair business.
“I might retire some day. But I have to get my student loan paid off, first,” he jokes.
So even at age 80, he’s still at it, fixing anything on wheels. While the business works on any and all cars, Bill, especially, enjoys working on recreational vehicles. Repairing railroad trucks is a specialty, as Prestige Auto has installed a small section of track in order to perform high rail inspections.
“What am I supposed to do? I can’t quit now,” Bill said. “If I did, I really don’t know what I’d do.”
By Bill Richardson