Eagles Coach Dick Vermeil Shows Pride In His Dad’s Racing Career
Although best known as a National Football League head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles (1976-1982), St. Louis Rams (1997-1999) and Kansas City Chiefs (2001-2005), Dick Vermeil has a comprehensive and hands-on knowledge of Sprint Car Racing due to the fact that his father Louis Vermeil was one of the top Northern California car owners for 40 years.
And if things hadn’t turned out as well as they did for young Vermeil when he began playing football, one of the awards in his trophy case just might have come from the Indy 500.
“When I grew up in Calistoga, I wanted to be a Sprint Car driver,” admitted the man who guided the St. Louis Rams to a 23-16 Super Bowl XXXIV victory over the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 30, 2000.
“My brother Stan and I would spend most of our childhood nights working on Dad’s race cars and even though I had a successful career in football, the desire to be involved with Calistoga Speedway and Sprint Car Racing never left.
“There were three things my family was passionate about, Sprint Cars, wine and football, and I am lucky enough to have been involved in all three,” added Dick, whose Vermeil Wines/On The Edge Winery in Calistoga bottled its first Jean Louis Vermeil Cabernet Sauvignon in 1999 and now offers 11 different wines.
As is certainly well-known, eldest son Dick – who spent his summers in his father’s garage first cleaning parts as a kid and then from high school through his early coaching years working as a mechanic – had an exceptional football career. And that success may be best understood by his thought-provoking philosophy: “I don’t coach football. I coach people who play football.”
An agile, strong, aggressive and intense T-formation quarterback at Calistoga High School, the talented teenaged athlete also played basketball and baseball and ran the quarter-mile on the Wildcats’ track team. Then, after two years at Napa Valley College, he went to San Jose (CA) State where he won a football scholarship as a walk-on and soon was the Spartans’ starting QB.
The holder of B.A. (1958) and M.A. (1959) degrees in Physical Education from SJS, Dick coached on the high school and college level prior to joining the Los Angeles Rams as the NFL’s first Special Teams Coach (1969). He also served with the LA Rams as Quarterback Coach (1971-1972) and Offensive Backs/Special Teams Coach (1973), and was Offensive Coordinator (1970) and Head Coach (1974-1975) with the UCLA Bruins – an 8-2-1 team in 1975 that stunningly upset No. 1 (11-0) Ohio State 23-10 in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1976.
After that exciting New Year’s Day victory, however, Dick left the collegiate ranks and became Head Coach of the Eagles; a tenure highlighted by the Birds’ trip to Super Bowl XV on Jan. 25, 1981 (they lost to the Oakland Raiders 27-10). Then the “ultra-positive workaholic” retired for the first time in January 1983 citing “emotional burn out” and he became an analyst for CBS (1983-1987) and ABC (1988-1996) football telecasts before returning to the NFL.
But Dick’s motorsports interests survived with all of his football achievements and a big part of that deals with the pride the four-time (1978-1979, 1999 and 2003) NFL Coach of the Year has in the restoration he did of the Sprint Car his father fielded from 1949-1954.
Known as “Black Beauty,” the No. 7 was built in 1926 by Al Bignotti, who as a mechanic for his crew-chief brother George worked on six winning Indy 500 teams with drivers A.J. Foyt (1961 and 1964), Graham Hill (1966), Al Unser Sr. (1970-1971) and Gordon Johncock (1983).
And the old race car still has its original in-line, 4-cylinder, 200.5-cubic-inch Ford Model A Engine equipped with twin single-barrel Winfield Model SR Carburetors (which have good flow, atomization and adjustability), a WICO Model X Magneto and a Miller-Schofield Overhead-Valve Conversion Kit that help the four-banger produce an estimated 120 horsepower.
This cast-iron, detachable cylinder head is one of the most-celebrated of its era as it was designed in 1928 by legendary engineer and draftsman Leo Goossen for his boss Harry A. Miller – the wizard of Miller Engines and Racing Cars who conceived the idea – and the venture was funded by a group of businessmen led by George L. Schofield.
Fitted with forged-steel rocker arms to actuate four intake and four exhaust valves, the Miller-Schofield unit – which was only made from January-December 1930 – has a 5.75:1 compression ratio versus the stock head’s 4.22:1 rating and it uses the Model A’s camshaft, push rods, forged-steel crankshaft and cast-iron engine block to triple the engine’s 40 horsepower.
However, Louis didn’t just stop with that setup when he prepared the engine – which in OEM form had a gravity-feed or “splash-n-drip” oil system – as he drilled the crankshaft so it could have pressure oiling.
The Miller-Schofield conversion head was a quality item and first sold for $82.50 ($1,284.03 in today’s money) with a Miller carburetor costing another $15 ($233.46) before the prices were increased to $137.50 ($2,140.04) for the head and $25 ($389.10) for the carburetor.
The company – which was charted as Schofield Incorporated of America – also produced an aluminum DOHC head for the Ford Model B Engine “intended exclusively for dirt-track racing” that depending on its fuel mixture could have a compression ratio of as high as 8:1.
This upgraded item initially came with an American Bosch distributor and two Miller updraft carburetors for $299 ($4,653.62) and then the cost was raised to $500 ($7,781.98). And the higher price had a lot to do with the late-1930 bankruptcy that forced the Miller-Schofield Hi-Speed Head design plans, manufacturing equipment and inventory to be sold at auction.
When the dust settled, Harlan Fengler – a top 1920s AAA board-track racer and later Indy 500 Chief Steward (1958-1974) – and his partner Crane Gartz bought these assets for $40,000 ($622,558.08) and made the heads under the Cragar name. Yet while the Cragar-Valve-In-Head was popular and sold for a bargain price of $112.50 ($1,923.74) in 1931, the new company – which also made other speed parts and built some racing cars – was unable to stay in business during tough economic times and it closed in 1932.
But, interestingly enough, although Ford Model A (1928-1931) and Ford Model B (1932-1934) Engines were only manufactured for a short time, it was possible to find a Sprint Car using an engine with one of these revered Miller-Schofield/Cragar heads well into the 1950s.
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Louis Vermeil (1906-1987) got interested in auto racing in the early 1920s when he saw such drivers as Jimmy Murphy, Tommy Milton, Ralph DePalma and Peter DePaolo turning laps at over 100 mph on the wooden boards of the 1.25-mile San Francisco Speedway in San Carlos.
But another family pattern was developing around this time as well since he was also an all-conference high school football player in the 1920s and a semi-pro player in the 1930s.
In 1937, though, the popular mechanic who everyone just called “Louie” opened his garage behind the family home and soon after that he bought the No. 7 “Big Car.”
As the story goes, the new race-car owner was “too burly” to fit in the cockpit, so he put Jacque Pacheteau in the seat and they competed in the first races at Calistoga Speedway before World War II brought all auto racing to an end.
However, when things got going again in the late 1940s the nearly 25-year-old single-seater showed that it still had something for the competition and it was a consistent front-runner.
“It only won one Trophy Dash,” son Dick concedes, “but it always finished, second, third, fourth. And in 1950 Dad was the Championship Car Owner in the American Racing Association [the forerunner of the Northern Auto Racing Club] and his driver Jacque Pacheteau finished second in points.”
Despite not having a lot of wins with his first Sprint Car, the elder Vermeil really loved the sport and the challenges that came with it. And to that end when the ARA faced hard times and folded, he was a founder, benefactor and president of NARC (1965-1985); the forerunner of today’s King of the West Series.
He also owned several race cars over the years and even served as Chief Steward and Promoter at Calistoga Speedway. And he was fond of saying to anyone who would listen: “You haven’t been anywhere and you haven’t seen anything until you’ve watched the Sprints at Calistoga.”
Yet while he stood by that statement, he reluctantly stepped away from race-car ownership when wings were added above the roll cages. “It just got too expensive,” Dick advised.
There is no question, though, that Louis Vermeil contributed a great deal to Sprint Car Racing and because of this he was inducted into San Francisco’s Northern California Sports Hall of Fame (1987) and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame (1995) in Knoxville, Iowa. But these honors are not all that has been done to pay tribute to the Vermeil Family.
In 2012, Louis and his wife Alice were the first to be inducted into the Calistoga Speedway Hall of Fame as “. . . their passion and dedication to Calistoga Speedway and Sprint Car Racing throughout Northern California set the foundation for the track to thrive for decades.”
And each year at the end of summer the Louie Vermeil Classic is held at Calistoga’s half-mile dirt track on the Napa County Fairgrounds; a facility that bills itself as “Home of Louie Vermeil” in recognition of his being the guiding force of racing there for nearly 50 years.
The No. 7 Ford Miller-Schofield, though, was not the only Sprint Car that came out of the fabled backyard wooden shed. In the 1970s the patriarch’s 270-cubic-inch No. 65 “Vermeil Offy” – built by George Shilala in 1959 and first driven by Jim Hurtubise – was one of the region’s best rides and among its drivers was NARC Champion (1972-1974) Billy Anderson.
“It was a great car,” Dick assured. “But eventually the V-8s – the 410s – were just too much for it; too much horsepower. I wish he hadn’t sold it.”
Nevertheless, one race that the No. 65 took part in will go down in history as Rich Gentes drove it to victory at Calistoga Speedway on July 6, 1974, and it is believed that was the last time a Sprint Car powered by a DOHC 4-Cylinder Offenhauser Engine won a main event in the USA.
In another matter, Dick has told an interesting story about his father’s seven-day-a-week work ethic which includes the then-9-year-old’s first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: “The only vacation that my Dad ever took in his life was in 1946 when he drove cross-country to see the [Indy] 500 which was won by George Robson.”
He has also said the first time he saw the No. 7 race was when he was 12 or 13 years old. And because his father worked in his shop on customer cars during the day and race cars late into the night – and his mother keep things going in that near-non-stop operation with good food and wine – the building was called the “Owl Garage.”
Although Dick never got to be a racer, middle brother Stan – a football lineman – raced the “Vermeil Offy” and Offy Midgets after military service in Viet Nam. He also got a master’s degree in auto mechanics and taught on the high school level and at Santa Rosa (CA) Junior College for 18 years before opening his own engine-building shop (Vermeil’s Vintage Engines Only) and becoming a Sprint Car owner. And now he restores Model A and flathead engines.
Youngest brother Al was likewise raised in this racing atmosphere but also opted for an athletic career. First, head coach/brother Dick recruited him to play linebacker at Napa Valley College before he played at Utah State. He then got a master’s degree and coached high school football before becoming strength and conditioning coach with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers (1979-1983), MLB’s Chicago White Sox (1984-1986) and the NBA’s Chicago Bulls (1984-present).
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The restoration of the “Louis Vermeil Owl Garage Special” began in 2007 when Dick – who thought he’d be working for his father when he got out of high school before football came along – brought it back to his suburban Philadelphia home in rural Chester County from storage in California where it had been cared for by his older sister Laura Giammona and later a nephew.
But while the personable Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Famer (1994) has his own version of the “Owl Garage” on his 114-acre farm, he secured some space from Dave George at D.L. George Coachworks in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. And it was here where the NFL coaching legend and top-rated motivational speaker performed his various mechanical tasks and his friend gave him some help with the bodywork.
In all, this job took a lot of part-time effort and about $225,000 ($272,000), and when it was finished the immensely-proud son explained his motivation:
“I did it for my Dad because I know how much he loved it. I know how pleased he would be if he could see it. I know he would also tease me because he would not be so pleased by all the shiny nickel-plated metal.”
But getting the car back into shape and enjoying the fruits of his labor is only part of the story as Dick has an interesting plan for the No. 7 somewhere down the road.
“Dad is in the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa,” he said with a touch of delight in his voice. “And I am going to send it out there when I’m tired of it.”
Constructed on a Ford Model T chassis with an original wheelbase of 100 inches and a 56-inch tread, as was the custom in the 1920s when building such a car for local fairgrounds racing that length between the front and rear wheels was cut down to its current 91 inches.
The running gear for the 1,200-pound car – which has no starter – now includes a 3-speed synchromesh transmission with reverse (a 1932 Ford unit with 1939 Zephyr gears) that “Coach” installed to make it a little easier to drive; it originally just had an in-and-out gearbox. And there is also a torque-tube driveline, a Ford rear end and rear-wheels-only hydraulic drum brakes.
As with all Ford Model T-based Sprint Cars, transverse leaf springs are used above the rear axle and parallel leaf springs on each side of the chassis help to locate the dropped front tube axle. But a simple safety device is also in place as below the front springs are downward-facing semi-circular steel collars to keep the axle off the ground should the car lose a front wheel.
Dick’s plan, though, was not just to restore the car, he wished to make it “a show piece.” So, the cockpit accessories include: a full plastic windscreen; a big black-rimmed/chrome 4-spoke steering wheel that controls the Franklin steering gear; and, an engine-turned aluminum gauge panel. While its color accents feature: a modest red No. 7 outlined in silver on each side of the rear bodywork; red 48-spoke Auburn knock-off wire wheels; a red-leather cockpit with a black lap belt; and, a light-gray engine block, cylinder head and oil pan.
In addition, the old-fashioned Sprint Car’s three-piece sheet-metal engine cover – with a right-side opening that exposes the induction system, magneto and exhaust header – is held in place by four Dzus buttons on each of two lower side panels and a pair of right-side leather straps fasten-down the piano-hinged hood.
And to give it a good footing no matter where it might be taken the timeless open-cockpit machine sits on four black-wall, bias-ply Excelsior Racing Competition V Tires (28.5-inch tall/5.50x17 on the front; 28.7-inch tall/7.00x15 on the rear) produced by Coker Tire with a tread pattern inspired by the tires used in pre-World War II competition.
Then, to really make the car stand out, nickel-plating was used on the: radiator cover and grille; engine valve cover; front and rear axles; rotary-lever shock absorbers and suspension; left-side pitman arm and drag link; rear radius rods; front and rear nerf bars; left-side-mounted brake handle; and, right-side exhaust pipe that runs to the back of the hand-formed sheet metal body.
Plus, a brass spinner cap securely locks the fuel-tank opening in the top of the tail of the car.
In retrospect, this was a very-serviceable racing car; an evaluation endorsed by the fact that it was still being raced almost 30 years after it was first built.
And, as might be expected, owing to Dick’s passion for doing a job right the first time, the restoration on the “Louis Vermeil Special 1926 Ford Miller-Schofield” was such that it won Best In Class-Race Cars (Pre-War) at the prestigious 2009 Amelia Island (FL) Concours d’Elegance and it was the People’s Choice Winner at the 2009 Radnor (PA) Hunt Concours d’Elegance.
It is also of note that the car was on display for 14 months (2010-2011) at the Sprint Car Hall of Fame, it has been seen at Pocono (PA) Raceway’s Vintage Weekends and featured at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in York Springs, Pennsylvania.
However, Dick does not just exhibit his restored Sprint Car as he has driven it twice in exhibition runs at Calistoga Speedway, enjoyed being part of “community cruise nights” and competed with it regularly at the Hershey (PA) Hill Climb on the historic, twisting 0.7-mile course behind the magnificent Hotel Hershey. And his experiences in these situations have been very enlightening.
“I can’t believe they used to go 75-80-90 miles an hour on a dirt track in it,” the 84-year-old Sprint Car Racing aficionado said without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll tell you that.”
But don’t think that the Vermeil No. 7 is the only historic race car that Dick has ever driven as at Pocono in August 2018 he buckled into the cockpit of one of Doug Wolfgang’s old rides, the blue and white No. 29 Weikert’s Livestock Special Wingless Sprint Car.
That, though, is not all there is to this particular story as on that day the bona fide “gearhead” also got a ride in the Honda-powered INDYCAR Two-Seater with his friend Mario Andretti.
And after making some laps at speed in the Big-Block Chevy-powered “Mr. Beef” entry and touring the “tricky triangle” with the 1969 Indy 500 winner, the smile on Dick’s face just might have been as big as the one that he displayed when he won the Super Bowl.
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Dick Vermeil is an emotional, loyal and sentimental kind of guy; an unusual personality description for someone who was so successful in the high-profile and extremely-competitive world of the National Football League. But it was just these qualities – plus his love and respect for his late father Louis – that were key in his restoration of a decades-old Sprint Car.
And it is also with these character traits in mind that the humble and well-liked former Philadelphia Eagles head coach and “Old Number Seven” have appeared each year at the nonprofit Cool Cars for Kids, Inc. (CCfK) program that is part of the Philadelphia Concours d’Elegance at the world-famous Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum.
This annual fundraising classic-car competition is affiliated with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) with its aim to deliver care and support to children and families who struggle with the medical complexities associated with rare diagnoses.
But while the show did not take place this past spring due to the coronavirus, Vermeil – who with his wife of 64 years Carol has three children and 11 grandchildren – spoke about his involvement with Cool Cars for Kids (coolcarsforkids.org or call 267-982-2235).
“I’ve been involved with Cool Cars for Kids and the Philadelphia Concours d’Elegance since its inaugural in 2017,” said the CCfK board member. “The reason I’ve been involved is because of our granddaughter, Amy Vermeil, who was born with a rare genetic condition, and who was diagnosed at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia years ago.
“Because of that, the Vermeil family got involved and their mission is very close to our hearts, and we appreciate what they do. They’ve done w