OXFORD, ME — Blog by RaceChaser Senior Editor Tom Baker — Photo Courtesy ISMA Supers/OxfordPlains.com — Bentley.
In most motorsports circles, that’s all you have to say. Everyone knows Bentley, and everyone loves him.
Bentley’s legend has saturated the motorsports landscape so thoroughly over the past 50 years that you can go almost anywhere in the nation and ask anyone who has been around “big car” racing for any amount of time and they’ll know who he is.
Winner of countless open wheel races, starter of 3 Indy 500’s, and a friend to some of the most prolific names in the sport, Bentley has been out of a race car since August of 2011.
At the age of 73 years young, Bentley is about to become the sport’s newest (and most improbable) “comeback kid”.
How big is the name “Bentley” in racing circles?
He didn’t race stock cars other than a couple of “NASCAR North” (now K&N Pro Series East) races back in the day. But he did run some “all-star” late model shows against some of ‘Cup’s best in the 80’s – including Dale Earnhardt.
Dale once told a fan who he knew was headed to Oswego Speedway in the days when Bentley raced there, “I am a Bentley Warren fan”.
A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti helped him develop his Indy Car chops back in the 70’s. Ken Schrader owned a USAC car that Bentley drove for years. Darrell Waltrip strapped into Bentley’s backup Supermodified at Oswego in the 80’s for some hot laps and still talks about that to this day.
The list of racers from all disciplines whose lives Bentley has intersected with is endless and would read like a historical who’s who of American motorsports.
The division where Bentley has made his mark the most is the ultra-fast Supermodifieds, an exotic, lightweight rocketship where 900 horsepower meets 1850 pounds and speeds over 150mph are reached on tracks under a mile in length.
Bentley won his last race in a Super at the Oswego Speedway on September 17, 2006 – 40 years to the day after winning his first Oswego race. He was 65 years young. He won that race in the Vic Miller No. 71 as a teammate to legendary super-shoe Chris Perley, who looks up to Bentley and whom Bentley himself calls “probably the best supermodified driver I’ve ever seen”.
It will be in that same car that this ageless wonder makes his comeback at Oxford Plains Speedway this Friday in the Locke Crane Services “Bentley Warren Classic”, an ISMA (International SuperModified Association) tour series race designed as a tribute to him and where he was scheduled, until last Saturday, to be the grand marshal.
What happened last Saturday, you ask?
For the first time since August of 2011, this legend strapped himself into a Super. It was that same Miller car he had last won with in 2006, and he ran a match race at Beech Ridge Speedway with Perley. He felt physically strong, ran some very quick laps and had fun.
Bentley’s last ride was at Oswego, where he recounted in his must-read biography (Wicked Fast – Coastal 181 Publishing) that he found himself short of breath whenever he’d pull off the track after each session in the Ray Graham No. 11. He said he was fine while he was racing, but when he would get back to the pits he just had some difficulty catching his breath until he got his helmet off.
He was 70 years young then. He never “retired”. He just stopped racing, after having his heart checked thoroughly. The doctors told him the heart was fine, but according to his book they were concerned about some muscles around the heart thickening.
Bentley decided to call it a career, though he never announced it. He just moved forward with his always busy life, building up his unique “Bentley’s Saloon” into a national tourist attraction and riding his Harley across the country having fun and seeing old friends.
Several people who have spoken with him this week have said he told them that after last weekend’s trial run with Perley he felt just fine.
Some are weary of Bentley’s comeback because of his age and they worry about his safety. Fair enough. It’s not out of a sense that he cannot perform that they worry, but out of a sense of adoration and caring.
As for me, I don’t worry. Bentley’s done enough crazy things in his life to fill ten adventure books. One read of “Wicked Fast” and you laughingly but frighteningly realize that this man would make even Evil Knievel tap out. If he has survived to this point, he’ll probably be fine.
He’s also not reckless when it comes to his health. That’s why he stopped racing cars after that warm Oswego evening in 2011 when he just didn’t feel right.
If he says he’s comfortable and up to the task, I believe him. I would actually dare say that being able to do this successfully, even if only one more time, will do him a world of good. Then, if he decides to stop, he can do so on his own terms and not because his health forced the issue.
I don’t know how he’ll fare on Friday or if this will be Bentley’s last stand in a super, but I do know one thing.
If this modern day Marlboro Man should ever find a way to win his own race, the thunderous roar of that crowd in Maine will be heard and echoed for thousands of miles throughout the motorsports world.
Because everybody loves Bentley.