The world of dirt track late model racing lost its icon on New Year’s Day with the passing of famed engine and racecar builder Carl J. “CJ” Rayburn, 81, Whiteland.
Anyone who met him at Rayburn Race Cars on Graham Road soon realized that he was a multi-tasker who always had his mind set on making his racing engines more powerful and durable and his racecars lighter and faster. He was called eccentric, innovative, friendly, genius, irreverent, cantankerous, friendly, and generous.
He also would open the shop to late model teams in the middle of the night, telling them to pick your parts to make your car or engine better. He enjoyed telling stories to anyone who would listen in the shop or in his living room where he would offer guests a sandwich and a cold beer without hesitation.
Self-taught by experience, Rayburn began building 400-cubic inch small-block engines for drag racing in 1976 and also built 350-cubic inch motors for pavement oval and Figure-8 racing at the Indianapolis Speedrome in 1978 where employee Royce Johnson raced. Kenny St. John won the 1982 World Championship Figure-8 three-hour endurance race in a Rayburn-powered racecar in 1982.
At the time, a section of Graham Road was better known as “racer’s row” because NHRA Pro-Stock king Bob Glidden’s home and engine shop was on the corner, Figure-8, drag racer, and dirt track driver Charlie Reed’s home was next and then Rayburn. Late model dirt track champion Steve Barnett’s home and shop was about a mile south.
He received many honors: inaugural member of the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame plus Kentucky Motorsports, Brownstown Speedway, and Indianapolis Speedrome halls of fame, Kentucky Colonel, and Sagamore of the Wabash, and many lifetime achievement awards.
An accomplished racer himself who learned how to drive fast in the hills of Kentucky, Rayburn was driven to win and wanted to put the winningest engines and racecars on the track for numerous drivers. Teams virtually lined up to purchase his engines and chassis. Rayburn Race Cars build 300 chassis yearly in addition to cranking out high-horsepower motors. By the early 1980s, his cars had been driven to nearly 40 track championships nationwide.
Rayburn Race Cars engines and chassis appropriately bore the label “Stronger than Dirt.”
When a driver wasn’t up to par in one of his cars, Rayburn would moan that he would rather see that driver in someone else’s car instead of one of his creations. NASCAR stars Tony Stewart and Kenny Wallace drove his late models on dirt.
Any questions about Rayburn’s status in racing were answered when he was talking basketball with a son-in-law, Chris Pohl of Greenwood. They were talking about Knight’s fame when Rayburn remarked in all honesty, “Bobby Knight is the C.J. Rayburn of basketball.”
In an exclusive interview with Rayburn in his living room in 2006, Rayburn admitted that his success came about because he was “dumb smart.”
Rayburn remarked, “Most guys in this business are in the money business, not the customer business. It’s a rumor-operated sport, and the more a part costs, the more people will want it. Those expensive parts can slow down car instead of making it faster.”
Most mornings at the shop, Rayburn saved a few hours for phone calls from those involved in racing or who wanted his cars or motors. He answered all inquiries honestly.
“Someone once said, If you can’t handle the truth, don’t ask C.J. Rayburn,” he said. “It’s all common sense.”
He also owned a Sunoco station at the corner of U.S. 31 and Tracy Road in New Whiteland where his family worked.
Rayburn, a native of King’s Mountain, Ky., is survived by six children, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services were held Jan. 6 at Swartz Family Mortuary in Franklin and Jan. 8 in Liberty, Ky., with burial in Yosemite, Ky.
Rayburn will be honored April 17 with a Super Late Model race at Circle City Raceway that is operated by Speedrome track owner Kevin Garrigus at the Marion County Fairgrounds. The event is labeled as the inaugural CJ Rayburn Stronger than Dirt Memorial Classic.