Jody Ridley was just good at racing.
The 36-year racing veteran who was selected as the grand marshal for the 50th annual Mountain Moonshine Festival never made plans to become a stock car driver. When he did finally get behind the wheel, however, at 21 years old he was good enough to not only do it full-time, but to make a living at it.
“I just started racing go-karts,” Ridley said. “It wasn’t paying any money. All you really got was a trophy. A friend of mine said, ‘why don’t you try stock car racing’?
“He talked me into it. I just did it and was successful right off, you know.”
Successful he was with 580 feature event victories in 17 states including his 1981 win at the Winston Cup Dover Mason-Dixon 500.
That race was the first ever broadcast on ESPN, though the broadcast was on a tape delay. Twelve years after that race, Ridley said he finally got a videotape of the event for himself.
The Chatsworth native was also named the 1980 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year at the age of 39.
“I got a late start,” Ridley said. “Now they start at 4 and 5-years-old. I think I was 21 before I ever got in a car.”
During Ridley’s heyday of racing, the team did everything—even the driver worked on the car. And that’s when it was easier, according to Ridley and his son Anthony.
“It’s a whole different story now. We did it all, motors, everything. We built it from the ground up…went to the junk yard and got it and converted it to a race car,” Ridley said.
“In his first two years he finished fifth and seventh in points with one race car,” Anthony Ridley said. “Back then they ran 29 races for Donlavey with one race car, same race car, road course, short track, speedways—same race car. Won a race with one race car in a cup series.”
The changeover from making your own car to buying your car happened in the mid-70s according to Ridley and his son.
“That’s when the going got tough,” Ridley said. “When you were doing it yourself, it was ok. But when you had to start buying all the stuff…who could spend the most money was what it boiled down to.”
Two weeks prior to the 1987 Daytona 500, the Ridleys got a call from Pontiac people, according to Anthony.
“They said we need some help leveraging Pontiac,” Anthony Ridley said. “We will build a car, ya’ll finish it up. We will build a motor for you and all that.”
The team worked on the car in Anthony’s grandfather’s tractor barn and hauled the car down with a truck and an open trailer.
“We pulled up and the security guard looked and we told him we were Winston Cup. He asked who we are. I said you will know who we are when we leave here,” Anthony said.
Ridley ran 12th with the car built in the barn and hauled on an open trailer.
“We were pulling out and that same security guard was there and he just took his hat off and was bowing and said I know who you are now,” he said.
Ridley dominated the NASCAR All-Pro short track division and was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in 2007.
He was NASCAR’s All-Pro Most Popular Driver in 1991, 1992 and 1993. He was also voted Hooter’s Cup Most Popular Driver in 1995 and 1996.
The six-time All-Pro Champion raced from 1964 until 2000 when he decided he was tired of staying in motels and being away from home.
“Things were good when I quit,” Ridley said. I decided one day I think I have had enough of it. Had two new cars sitting there and decided I’m done with it. I run Winston Cup three solid years besides that one win at Dover.”
Ridley said he is honored to be among the prestigious list of drivers who have served as grand marshal for the festival and is looking forward to the opportunity.
“Some pretty good names up there,” he said. “I tell you that. It’s good to be included.”
This year’s festival begins at 10 a.m. on Oct. 27 and runs through Oct. 29 in downtown Dawsonville. For more details, go online to kareforkids.org.