Racing champion Gene Felton made his last pass.
The driver whose career spanned four decades died at the age of 84. He was buried by his family Tuesday at Crest Lawn Memorial Park in Atlanta.
Racing for 21 seasons in the International Motorsports Association from 1972-92, Felton won 45 races, the most of any driver at that time in the IMSA’s production-based cars. He rubbed shoulders with the elites in sports car racing and is remembered for beating the Porsche shared by legends Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood to Victory Lane at the Daytona International Speedway in a Chevrolet Camaro he built and prepared after recovering it from a junkyard.
“Gene always figured a way to get to the track and he was successful,” said Atlantan Jim Downing, a five-time IMSA champion. “He was one of those natural talents and he just had to race.”
A member of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, Felton, a Marietta resident, is currently on the ballot for election to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, located in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Born in Atlanta on May 11, 1936, Felton served in the Marine Corps for 13 years, rising to the rank of captain after graduating from the University of North Carolina. While growing up, he became fascinated by racing while watching the NASCAR legends of the 1950s compete on the Lakewood Speedway’s dirt mile.
After starting by racing motorcycles during his Marine Corps service, Felton won some of America’s most prestigious events, including the overall win in the first Paul Revere 250 at Daytona sanctioned by IMSA on July 4, 1973, when Gregg and Haywood were runners-up. He drove car No. 96, which had an intimidation factor.
“Most drivers don’t like that number,” Felton said. “It’s the only one that reads the same when the car is upside down. I didn’t know the difference. Nothing too much rattled me at that time.”
He scored a GTO class victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1984, co-driving a Camaro with two-time NASCAR Cup champion Terry Labonte and car owner Billy Hagan. Felton also won the GT class pole at the prestigious Le Mans 24-hour in his first trip to the famed eight-mile French circuit in 1982.
Before he became a full-time professional driver, Felton ran his family’s beauty supply company by day and built his race cars in the evenings. Longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports editor Furman Bisher cited Felton’s work ethic by poking fun at famed Revlon cosmetics heir Peter Revson’s racing career.
“Closest Revson ever got to cosmetics was when he kissed,” Bisher wrote. “And of course, there’s a wide gap between being an heir and working at it. Gene Felton goes to the office regularly.”
Prior to joining Hagan’s team, Felton won four straight championships in the IMSA’s Kelly American Challenge Series, driving cars he built himself. Off the track, Felton helped promote the sport he loved. Janet Upchurch, the former advertising and promotions manager at Road Atlanta, recalls a trip to the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium with Felton.
“They unloaded the car, pushed it into the stadium’s ground entrance and Gene proceeded to drive it onto the grass in the stadium and rev the motor as long and loud as humanly possible,” she said. “It is impossible to describe the amount of sound it made in that stadium and the crowd went nuts. Gene just gave one of his wide grins.”
In 1984, Felton survived a horrendous crash at the Riverside International Raceway that left him hospitalized with a broken neck. He resumed his career in the IMSA the following year and competed until 1992. Following his IMSA career, Felton returned to his roots with Gene Felton Restorations, maintaining vintage NASCAR stock cars and road racing Camaros in a garage behind his house.
Before road racing in the IMSA became his primary focus, Felton competed in NASCAR.
“I think one thing that helped me a lot was I wasn’t enamored with Bobby Allison, David Pearson and the other NASCAR guys,” Felton said. “They were just another driver to me.”
In NASCAR’s Modified Series, Felton finished the Permatex 200 at Daytona in third in 1976. His best result in the NASCAR Grand American series was second place behind Tiny Lund at Road Atlanta in 1971.
A lone entry in the NASCAR Cup series came at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1976, where he finished the 500-mile race running in 16th place.