Conservative businessman drove fast and left a conservative legacy behind him
When local businessman Dale Phelon died last March, much was made about his vast car collection. Phelon was a racing enthusiast and a rich man, and his collection of vintage race cars triggered interest on a global scale. But lost among the Corvettes and the Mustangs and the classic 1969 Lola was the personal measure of the man, who moved the corporate headquarters of the family business to Aiken in 1992.
“He was a very loyal, enthusiastic supporter of educating young people,” says Jason Barbour, director of development for Young America’s Foundation, an outreach organization for conservative youth based in Herndon, Virginia. “He was just a great American patriot.”
Phelon, who joined with local businessmen Andy Jones and Donny Thompson to create the popular Thunder Over Augusta event honoring the armed forces, had a long history with the conservative cause, particularly with Young America’s Foundation.
“Specifically, he had a great affection for not only educating young people, but using a historic property we own, the Reagan Ranch,” Barbour says.
Young America’s Foundation acquired the 688-acre ranch in Santa Barbara, California, from Reagan’s widow, Nancy, in 1998, and the foundation uses it to teach high school and college students about conservative ideas like limited government, free enterprise and traditional values, all things Phelon valued.
“It allows us to take young people up there and teach them about Ronald Reagan and the things he believed in,” Barbour says. “And Dale supported that in a big way.”
By all accounts, Phelon was personable and charming.
“Just the kind of guy you’d want to spend a lot of time with,” Barbour says. “He was very driven, too, not only in his business life, but in his different philanthropic interests. He was just driven to impact change.”
In 1999, two years after a former employee went on a shooting spree at the Aiken plant, killing four, Phelon donated $500,000 to Aiken Technical College to build the 40,000 square foot Dale Phelon Information Technology Center.
Phelon took his passion for racing and built it into an entire business division.
With Phelon Motorsports, he not only collected and raced on his own, he participated in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series, running a team from 1999 to 2001. He won his first race at Richmond before pulling out at the end of the 2001 season.
“There are a lot of people who think they are a lot more than they are in the NASCAR business,” says Will Lilly of North Carolina-based Iron Horse Auction, the company that handled the Phelon Motorsports liquidation. “But that wasn’t Dale’s cup of tea. In talking to the guys in the shop and the trustee that I was dealing with, he wasn’t that type of person with that type of attitude.”
Mounting such a large scale auction requires about a month of cataloging and preparation — everything has to be touched, moved and photographed — and Lilly says that time allowed him to get to know the employees and consequently develop a feel for the man.
“The guys that worked in the shop were very dedicated to building race cars safely and competing,” Lilly says. “These guys weren’t employees to Dale, they were family, so to speak. They shared the passion of racing with him. I think the employee that had been there the shortest was with him for something like 13 years.”
After Phelon shut down the NASCAR truck shop in 2001, he offered his crew positions working on the other cars in his collection. Lilly says the collection was nothing less than extraordinary.
“It’s not every day that you walk into someone’s garage and they have three Corvettes,” Lilly says. “Estates of this nature do not come along often.”
Not only did Phelon have three Corvettes, but he had a total of 12 running race cars, eight high-end cars and bikes and several projects. Included among them were a 1983 Roush Mustang, a 1994 Winston Cup Series Ford Thunderbird and that famous Lola Can-Am owned by racing great Roger Penske.
Mark Donohue qualified the car at Mid-Ohio in 1969, and though a broken half shaft kept him from finishing, the car still sold for $175,000.
“There were actually two cars made, a primary and a backup,” Lilly says. “What we understand is that this was the backup car, but the funny thing is, the backup car sold for more than the primary car.”
Cars like that attract a lot of attention, and man who bought the Lola was a businessman from Greece.
“We had participation from all over the world,” Lilly says. “I had probably three or four phone bidders, one being a movie producer/director in Hollywood.”
Overall, more than $1 million worth of cars and equipment were auctioned off, but perhaps none as personal as the 1952 F-1 Ford truck undergoing a complete off-frame restoration.
“He was in the process of putting it together so he could take it to Nantucket so he could use it to get around the island,” Lilly says. “That was going to be his personal vehicle at his estate, but he didn’t even get to see the tires put on it.”
Though he may have been involved in NASCAR for only a relatively short period of time, Phelon loved racing himself, though he raced in a series even diehard racing fans know little about.
“The series Dale drove in — those guys show up on their jets, get in their cars, race for a bottle of champagne and a trophy, and get back on their jets,” Lilly says. “They don’t race for money or fame — all they want is a bottle of champagne and a trophy.”
Phelon’s company, R.E. Phelon, started out in Springfield, Massachusetts, by supplying magnetos to small engine manufacturers, becoming one of the largest suppliers of small engine ignition switches in the world. Its influence grew, and now you’d be hard pressed to find a lawnmower that’s not supplied with a Phelon ignition component.
Phelon was diagnosed with brain cancer after a race in May 2011. In November, he called Barbour with a renewed commitment to helping educate young people.
“He loved our country so much, and what was so amazing to me is that he was always concerned about young people,” Barbour says. “Even when he was diagnosed with his illness, all he wanted to talk about was how he could help more young people. Rather than ‘Woe was me,’ he wanted to know how he could have an immediate impact. Even at his toughest time, he was thinking about others.”
To that end, he funded four of the Foundation’s Freedom Conferences, which take the lessons taught at the Reagan Ranch and bring them to college students across the nation. They were presented in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio.
“Unfortunately, he passed away just days before the first conference in March, so sadly he never got to see the conferences happen,” Barbour says. “But they went on and we did exactly what he wanted, which was to try to reach as many young people as we could in 2012 with the conservative ideas he cared so much about.”
Students from these conferences join the likes of young conservatives like Katie Pavlich, who wrote the book “Fast and Furious” and is news editor for the conservative website townhall.com, and Jaime Herrera Butler, who is the youngest woman in Congress. Both participated in earlier conferences at the Reagan Ranch.
“These are students who become leaders on their campuses and become ambassadors and are able to really reach their peers,” Barbour says. “They’re inspired and educated and then we send them back to their campuses and then we support them in their outreach in difficult educational efforts on campus.
One of the things Barbour remembers most about Phelon is his love of the Reagan Ranch. Just weeks before his death, Phelon took one last pilgrimage to Santa Barbara.
“He wanted to bring his closest friends and family to come see the ranch,” Barbour says. “That was a very special time.”
Barbour met with him there, and what transpired continues to move him.
“Unfortunately, that was when his health was beginning to decline, and it was quite a challenge to even get him out there and up the mountain,” Barbour remembers. “But once he got there, they stood him up from his wheelchair and he just stood up there on the front porch of Ronald Reagan’s house and had a huge smile on his face. It was a very special day.”
That inspiration was something Phelon hoped to pass on with his gift.
“It is vital that our young people understand the conservative principles of individual freedom, limited government and free enterprise,” he wrote in a letter to the foundation. “Our leaders have failed to responsibly honor and uphold a fundamental component of American strength and prosperity: the free enterprise system. I know Young America’s Foundation recognizes this threat, and with this gift, I hope you may begin an aggressive but thoughtfully considered approach to right this threatening trend.”
Though the Freedom Conferences directly funded by Phelon only lasted in 2012, Barbour says he made plans for Young America’s Foundation in his estate that would allow these programs to continue. You Might Also Like: