The past two months there has been a lot of media attention given to former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, the winner of three NFL Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins, and presently the owner of Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) the winning car owner of this year’s Daytona 500. The attention has been well deserved not only for his success as a winning football coach, but a winning race team owner as well. He has been a tremendous role model for all of us and a great human being.
With that said, Dick Vermeil is another successful NFL Super Bowl winning coach with ties to the sport of auto racing. He became the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl when he led the St Louis Rams to the 1999 Super Bowl. He was also the 1999 AP coach of the year.
He was a winning head coach at the high school, college and the professional level’s. He coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 to1982. He retired the first time. Then he became the head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 1997 to 1999. He retired a second time after winning the 1999 Super Bowl. He then became the Kansas City Chiefs head coach from 2001 to 2005 when he retired again.
Today most football fans associate him as a retired football coach in the wine business. “Vermeil Wines” is a successful business that started as a hobby about the same time he was going to lead the St. Louis Rams to the 1999 Super Bowl. With his strong need to work, he developed while growing up, has turned a hobby into a successful business.
It may come as a surprise that he has restored two championship winning race cars and participates regularly in vintage racing events. He grew up watching his father, Louis Vermeil, working on race cars. As a youngster he began helping in the garage by sweeping floors and cleaning up the shop. He soon began helping prepare the race cars and by the time he was in college he had full knowledge of race car preparation.
Louis Vermeil operated a garage in Calistoga, California known as the “Owl Garage” because they worked well into the night. He owned several sprint cars over the years and put a lot of effort into making sprint car racing successful in northern California. His efforts are celebrated every year at the historic half mile Calistoga Speedway with the running of “The Louis Vermeil Classic”. He died in 1987 and was inducted into the Knoxville Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1995.
Growing up, Dick wanted to be a race car driver and after his dad took him to the 1946 Indianapolis 500 he dreamed of becoming an Indianapolis race car driver. Meanwhile, he went into football and that was the end of racing.
His years of success at all levels of football, has been well documented, but his desire to be involved with auto racing never left. He dreamed of restoring his dad’s old race cars and returning them to the Calistoga Speedway. He turned a shed, on his farm in Pennsylvania, into his version of the “Owl Garage” and hung the original “Owl Garage” sign on the shed.
There were two race cars stored in the original “Owl Garage” owned by Louis Vermeil that were shipped to Vermeils new “Owl Garage” in Pennsylvania. One was a black #7 Miller Scolfield a1926 model built in San Francisco by Al Bignotti. He owned and campaigned the # 7 for many years. The other was a red #2 HAL sprint car built in 1936 by Urb Stair and Wally Schock of Los Angeles. Vermeil wanted to honor his dad by restoring the black #7.
He used the skills acquired from his years of working in his dad’s garage to complete a frame off restoration of the black # 7. He rebuilt the engine and did other work along with the help of others that specialize in vintage auto restorations. The car took most of his free time over two years to complete. The result was an award winning show car as well as a vintage race car.
He next began the restoration of the red # 2 sprint car that had been stored with the black #7 sprint car. Sprint cars fitted with a HAL engine were capable rivals to the well known Offenhauser racing engine. They were often call a “poor-man’s Offy”. The car was raced by some of the Indy 500 veterans of the time. In a three year period from 1937-1939 it won 30 main events and set many track records. After a long and successful career it was retired in 1958 and was given to Louis Vermeil in 1980. It remained in storage until 2011 when Vermeil began his restoration.
His respect for his dad and knowing how much his dad loved racing was the reason for preserving the two race cars. Equally important is the story of how Louis Vermeil taught his son the value of hard work that led to success of Dick Vermeil.
The result is the story of a highly respected football coach that never lost his love for auto racing. Bringing those two sprint cars back to life and racing them in vintage car race events is the end result of a dream that began with that trip to the 1946 Indianapolis 500 mile race. That owner of the “Owl Garage” would indeed be proud of what his son has accomplished.
Story by Jim Smith