Will Cronkrite Looks Back at a Career Among Race Cars

Cronkrite gave out postcards showing the No. 96 Cardinal Tractor Co. Ford.

A group of car enthusiasts nicknamed the Coffee Clutchers meets for breakfast once a month to eat and bench race. The group has no Roberts Rules of Order, no dues, no newsletter – no nothing, except fun. Typically, 30-50 people show up for the breakfasts, which are usually held in small-town cafes and overwhelm the wait staffs.

The April 2019 gathering was at Wolf River Diner, a restaurant with a ‘50s theme and a decorating motif that’s half old-time rock-and-roll and half postwar “finmobile” cars. The throwback items there include old 45-rpm records, spinner hubcaps and vintage license plates. Added to the mix in April was Will Cronkrite, who hails from South Carolina.

Will Cronkrite Looks Back at a Career Among Race Cars
Will Cronkrite at the Wolf River Diner.

Will said he worked in NASCAR from 1970-1993 as a crew member, chief or car owner for Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Donnie Allison, Dick Brooks, Joe Frasson, Janet Guthrie, Bobby Issacs, Benny Parsons, Ricky Rudd, Greg Sacks, Neil Bonnet, Cecil Gordon, Greg Heller, Mark Martin, Elliott Forbes Robinson, Randy Ogden and Richie Panch.

Cronkrite built show cars like Bill Elliot’s Coors car that’s in the Henry Ford Museum, Buddy Baker’s Crisco car, Sterlin Marin’s Kodak car, Richard Petty’s STP Pontiac (now in the Smithsonian), Elliott Forbes Robinson’s Jolly Rancher car, Mike Skinner’s Precision Tune car and Earnhardt’s Wrangler car. Most of the cars Cronkrite built wore one of two numbers: either 86 or 96.

At the breakfast, Cronkrite gave out promotional postcards showing the No. 96 Cardinal Tractor Co. Ford, which was one of Dale Earnhardt’s first NASCAR rides in 1978. The story goes that Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler entered Willy T. Ribbs in the 1978 World 600 at Charlotte. Ribbs was a great driver, but after he skipped two practice sessions and got arrested for evading police after driving the wrong way down a one-way street, Cronkrite decided to replace him with Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

Will Cronkrite Looks Back at a Career Among Race Cars
Cronkrite gave out postcards showing the No. 96 Cardinal Tractor Co. Ford.

Cronkrite also provided racing cars and pit equipment for the 1982 Kenny Rogers film “Six Pack” and the 1994 Burt Reynolds movie “Stroker Ace.” He has written an as-yet-unpublished book about vehicle chassis dynamics that includes fascinating stories of the old “research and design” days and the amazing ways that builders of past eras pushed the envelope when it came to following racing rules.

These days, Cronkrite is involved with restoring antique Fords and operates Mantiques Restoration Services (www.mantiquesresto.com) in Rock Hill, S.C. He is involved with both the Model A Ford Club of America (MAFCA) and the Model A Restorers Club (MARC) as a Fine Points Judge. He completed the restoration of a Model A wide-bed pickup truck that received 481 points out of a possible 500. That resulted in his winning “The Henry Ford” award, the “MARC of Excellence” award and the “Raymond H. Matthews” Award for commercial vehicles at a 2005 meet in Indianapolis, Ind.

At a MARC meet in Grand Rapids, Mich. the pickup got 482 points and at a MAFCA National event in Mansfield, Mass., it garnered first place and 483 points. It also received an Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) First Junior award in Ashville, N.C.

Cronkrite attends MARC technical seminars and is actively involved in studying the details and authenticity of procedures used in the production of Model A Fords and their components. He is a member of the MARC Judging Standards Committee.

Will Cronkrite Looks Back at a Career Among Race Cars
A model of Dale Earnhardt’s Cardinal Tractor Co. car was made.
About John Gunnell 137 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

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