Sunday, July 22, 2001

Auto Racing Insider

'Rocket Rodney' represented area in Winston Cup

        Rodney Combs has achieved a certain cult status that, he admits, surprises him. He is the most recent Greater Cincinnati native to drive in a NASCAR Winston Cup race, which makes him a hero to some in these parts.

        “They sort of claim me up that way, I know,” Combs said recently. “I was fortunate to get my start up that way.”

        Combs ran in 55 Winston Cup races between 1982-90. He was an occasional teammate of two late, great Winston stars in Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Tim Richmond. In his first race, he also drove against Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker.

        Not bad for a Cincinnati native who, in his early years, was a champion at the old Tri-County Speedway (West Chester) and Florence (Ky.) Speedway, among others. He lived all around the area, including Hamilton, Mount Washington, and Taylor Mill, Ky., and eventually moved to the NASCAR hotbed of North Carolina. He later moved to West Virginia and in many old NASCAR accounts is listed from Lost Creek, W.Va.

        But he is remembered in Cincinnati as “Rocket Rodney,” bursting onto the area driving scene in the early 1970s. He won numerous races and track championships before moving on to NASCAR, where he eventually competed in all three of the circuit's top series — Winston Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck.

        Combs, 50, now works as a race-day spotter for Winston Cup driver Jerry Nadeau. He is semi-retired and lives in Fort Myers, Fla., during the week, then is flown to Winston Cup races each weekend by Nadeau's team owner, Rick Hendrick. Hendrick is best known as Jeff Gordon's car owner.

        “I just do race day, but I'm treated like a full-time employee,” Combs said. “I don't have to do anything else. It's pretty nice.”

        Combs' name resurfaced lately when Jeff Fultz, a 1987 graduate of Sycamore High School, attempted to make a Winston Cup race. Fultz failed to make the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May but hopes to try again at Michigan and Charlotte again this year.

        “I don't know him personally, but I know of him,” Combs said of Fultz. “I hope he makes it.”

        Combs had a couple of top-10 finishes in his Winston Cup career, when he hooked rides here and there. His most active Cup year was a 19-race campaign in 1988.

        “It's like it is everywhere, if you have the good equipment, you can do something,” he said.

        Combs ran two races with Earnhardt on the Richard Childress Racing team in 1988-89 and drove car No.22 — NASCAR legend Fireball Roberts' old number, he re minded.

        “My wife and I have been in Dale's condo before, and he and Teresa visited our home,” Combs said. “He was an icon, and it's still hard to think about him being gone.”

        Combs was never a Winston Cup star, but he has done all right. He was one of the founders of the Richard Petty Driving School, which allows ordinary citizens to drive race cars on major speedways.

        Combs sold his share back to Petty and made some good money.

        “I fish and golf through the week, and Rick (Hendrick) flies me to the races each week,” Combs said.

        “I raced about 15 races last year, too. I drove Tony Stewart's dirt car at Eldora. So you never know, I may show up again driving somewhere.”

        LOCAL SCENE: Kentucky Speedway's fourth and final racing weekend of 2001 will be Aug. 10-12, featuring an Indy Racing League race with UK coach Tubby Smith as grand marshal.

        • The annual Junior Dragster Open at Edgewater Sports Park (Cleves) is July 29. The NHRA Federal Mogul Drag Race Series visits Edgewater from Aug.3-5.

        • Cincinnati drivers Johnny Witham and Darren Jones finished 1-2 in last weekend's ARCA Truck race in Birch Run, Mich.

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