Philip Morris pursuing 100th Motor Mile Speedway Late Model victory - JW Martin
Philip Morris doesn’t wear a crown.
But these days, when the 52-year-old Ruckersville Va., racer straps on his helmet, he receives respect befitting a King.
On NASCAR’s local racing circuit, Morris is racing royalty. He’s enjoyed a storied career in the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series that spans more than 20 years, and his resume is peerless: Four national championships. Four Virginia state championships. Nine Late Model track championships.
He’s amassed more than 160 NASCAR Late Model feature wins. The majority have originated on Virginia short tracks, where Morris has left an indelible mark. South Boston Speedway, the site of 60 Late Model triumphs, renamed its winner’s circle Philip Morris Victory Lane in 2012.
Statistically, Morris’ best track is Motor Mile Speedway. His trophy case is brimming with mementos from the Radford, Va., oval. So many, Morris admits, that he can’t remember them all.
Now, those countless victories have culminated in a countdown toward one unforgettable milestone win. On April 29th, Morris collected his 99th Motor Mile Speedway checkered flag.
“If I get to no. 100, it would probably be the very best thing that happened to me in racing,” states Morris.
Since Motor Mile Speedway became NASCAR-sanctioned in 1988, no Late Model driver has reached 100 wins. Morris’ record-setting career begs the question: How?
“The success came from following really good drivers that were here before me,” says Morris. “When I came on the scene, there was huge talent here. I learned everything I could from them, and the wins soon followed.”
Morris’ first victory lane appearance at Motor Mile Speedway came on July 22, 1995. Two of the track’s legendary forerunners were in the field that day. Four-time Late Model track champion Jeff Agnew placed second to Morris. Ronnie Thomas, the 1990 Late Model track titlist, crashed out.
Perhaps Thomas’ early exit was fortuitous for the two young guns; the revered local racer was aiming for his fifth consecutive Late Model win.
In fact, Thomas was at his peak. Following an 11-year tenure at the pinnacle of the sport, the 1978 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year returned to his racing roots when Motor Mile Speedway was christened a NASCAR track in 1988. By the dawn of the new decade, the homespun standout from Christiansburg, Va., was dominating.
Thomas coasted to the 1990 Late Model track championship on the strength of 11 wins and seven runner-up finishes. He retired nine years later with 60 Late Model victories at Motor Mile Speedway--- third overall in the track’s NASCAR-sanctioned era.
Yet, as Thomas notes, not everyone was content to play follow-the-leader.
“When I was running back in the day, there was Johnny Rumley, Paul Radford, Jeff Agnew… and then there were other people that were running good, but not quite as good as us,” recalls Thomas. “To be honest, Jeff Agnew was really coming into being. When I was on top of things, he was getting there. Once he started winning, it was all over but the crying.”
One year after Thomas’ Late Model title, Agnew captured his first track championship. The 1991 breakthrough was the first of four Late Model titles claimed by the Copper Hill, Va., driver during a phenomenal five-year span.
Agnew is fourth on Motor Mile Speedway’s NASCAR-sanctioned win list with 48 victories. He compiled 14 wins in 1997 alone, establishing the Motor Mile Speedway single-season benchmark for victory lane appearances.
“The car we were running was just... it was pretty incredible,” says Agnew of the 1997 record. “Over my whole career, that was probably the best car I had ever sat in. It would just win.”
Ironically, the record-setting season did not result in another track championship.
That designation went to Morris.
“Things weren’t real good that season,” acknowledges Agnew. “We had our battles, and we had our moments after races a couple of times. It was all about not wanting to lose. I think if you’re competing, that’s the way you need to be. Tensions get high; it’s going to happen. I like to see the passion.”
Morris notched six wins during the turbulent, white-knuckle title tilt. Morris’ recollections of his first championship season mirror Agnew’s memories.
“He’s right. That was a heated year. He moved me a lot,” Morris adds. “That was a hard pill to swallow…But we came through as champions because we stayed on his heels; you can’t follow a guy like Agnew for 14 nights and not learn something.”
Morris’ emergence in 1997 provided the springboard to his fledgling career. The local racing community was beginning to take notice of Morris.
“I thought he was probably as good, if not better, than most that I had seen,” says Agnew. “My personal opinion: I always thought he needed to move up as fast as he could and get to the top levels. I didn’t picture him staying [at Motor Mile Speedway] because I felt like he was that good.”
In 1998, Morris did just that.
Morris hit the big time on October 31, 1998. North Carolina Speedway –‘The Rock’ – was the site of Morris’ NASCAR Xfinity Series debut. He started twelfth in the AC Delco 200, led seven laps, and finished fifth. The upstart Blue Ridge Motorsports no. 84 team outran the powerhouses that day. The notable drivers Morris beat to the finish line included NASCAR stars Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, respectively.
But the success was fleeting. Disillusioned by the demands and pressures of NASCAR’s national tour, Morris quickly arrived at a crossroads. The turning point came during a practice crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I wanted [my crew chief] to fix the car so I could hold it wide open. I attempted to do that, and I backed it in the wall. I was lucky I got out of the car,” Morris explains. “I remember going back to the hauler and getting on my knees. When I stood up, I just knew.
“I wanted to be a Late Model driver; I wanted to have a life outside of racing,” continues Morris. “I’ve raced with Jimmie Johnson. To me, I think he was happier when he was in a Late Model. Nowadays, it looks like he carries the weight of the world on him.”
Morris made 12 starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series over a four-year period. But he never stopped racing Late Models. His final season in 2001 coincided with a full-time return to Motor Mile Speedway. The outcome: one of Morris’ most dominating seasons to date. Morris notched 14 wins en route to his second Late Model title, equaling Agnew’s single-season record.
It was the opening act of a decade-long dynasty at Motor Mile Speedway---Morris’ magnum opus: 74 wins. Five consecutive track championships. Three NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national titles.
In 2011, a second South Boston Speedway Late Model track title propelled him to his fourth NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national championship. Then Morris hit the brakes.
Morris competed sporadically over the next few seasons as the small business owner focused on the family enterprise. 2016 marked Morris’ first full season at Motor Mile Speedway since 2009; he tallied three victories. Morris earned his first checkered flag of the 2016 season by a colossal 12.744 seconds--- another Motor Mile Speedway-era record.
The three wins, coupled with the April 29th victory, have placed Morris on the cusp of win no. 100.
“I can’t imagine that we’re up on 100. It’s beyond my comprehension,” says Morris. “I want to do this for my team. I want to do this for us.”
Morris attributes the enduring dominance to an unwavering dedication to race cars. Morris has enjoyed the services of numerous talented assistants throughout his career, including renowned specialists Sammy Houston, Neil Perkins, and chassis builder Forrest Reynolds, who Morris credits as instrumental to his latest resurgence. Though the cast of crewmen has been a revolving door, two of Morris’ aids are among a select few who have been alongside for most of the history-making ride: Chad McCoy of Stuarts Draft, Va., and Scott Totty, a Winterpock, Va., native.
“He’s just as good at working on them as he is driving them. That’s what makes him the driver that he is,” says McCoy, a Morris crewman since 2001. “His work ethic is second-to-none.”
Totty has been a member of Morris’ race team since 1998.
“One hundred is a very special number. Not too many people can race to 100 victories anywhere, much less in one place,” says Totty. “It would be very gratifying, and a big accomplishment for everybody. We’ve all put something into it.”
Thomas can relate.
“It’s very impressive,” says Thomas of the 100-win record. “I think we won right at 100 Late Model races, but that would’ve been at three or four different tracks. He’s doing on one track what I did on all those tracks put together. I think it’s very substantial.”
Just how exceptional is the accomplishment? Phil Warren knows. Now retired, Warren won an estimated 100 NASCAR Late Model races at Larry King Law’s Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va.
“When you’re racing, it’s just racing. You race to win,” says Warren. “Looking back on it, a lot of guys I raced with never won a race, or never won but a couple. It’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
Morris isn’t the only driver approaching 100 Late Model wins at Motor Mile Speedway. Semora, NC, native Lee Pulliam is a three-time NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national champion and a five-time Motor Mile Speedway Late Model track champion.
In just eight years of competition at Motor Mile Speedway, Pulliam has authored an astounding .670 winning percentage, with 63 wins in 94 starts.
Pulliam is currently second on Motor Mile Speedway’s NASCAR-sanctioned win list. If the 29-year-old can maintain his torrid pace, it won’t be long before Pulliam accompanies Morris in the record books.
Until then, Pulliam will continue to give chase to the driver many in the local racing community call the Late Model King.
“It’s a tremendous accomplishment. One win is tough. To do it 100 times…it’s remarkable,” says Pulliam. “I think it says a lot about the driver Philip Morris is. He’s definitely one of the best.”