'God, he's stubborn.' NASCAR legend Red Farmer barely slowing down after COVID-19 battle

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Red Farmer prepares to drive during practice before the Gillette Young Guns Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway on September 9, 2009, in Rossburg, Ohio. - Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America/TNS

EASTABOGA, Ala. — Red Farmer has won more than 700 short track events in his 74 years of race car driving, but the NASCAR legend didn’t get behind the wheel at his regular Talladega Short Track stomping grounds for the most recent event Saturday night.

That’s because Farmer, who still competes at almost 88 years old, hasn’t fully regained his strength after he nearly died from COVID-19 last month.

“I’m still on the green side of the grass,” Farmer told The Observer. “That’s what counts. Instead of the brown side.”

Farmer watched the Super Late Models event from the grandstands, named in his honor, as one of his team’s crew members filled in to drive his F97 Ford over the weekend. It was uncharacteristic of Farmer, who once won a qualifying heat three days after a heart procedure, to sit out, especially since defying death, illness and injury is a regular feat for the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame-elected driver known for his hardcore, dirt trackin’ roots.

But the virus handed Farmer his greatest and most deadly battle. He was admitted to a Birmingham hospital almost a week after experiencing a cough and testing positive for coronavirus. At the time of his test, the doctor told Farmer he was “a full-blown case” and recommended that he go to the hospital, according to Farmer’s wife, Judy Goodwin, who said she first tested positive for the virus with a sore throat.

Farmer waited to seek treatment until his symptoms got so bad that he couldn’t walk. He had to be carted in a wheelchair from the parking lot to the emergency room at Grandview Medical Center, where Farmer said doctors and nurses were ready to insert multiple IVs and start him on oxygen as soon as he arrived because he couldn’t breathe. He said his temperature reached 104 degrees and his blood pressure was over 200.

“I felt like an octopus, they hooked me up with so many things!” Farmer said.

After he was released from the hospital five days later, Farmer recalled a doctor telling him that if he had waited one more day for treatment, he probably would have died.

“I’ve been racing 74 years, been in NASCAR since 1953 and finally got in the Hall of Fame and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna be there to get it,’” Farmer said.

When asked why he waited so long to go to the hospital against his family’s coaxing, Farmer explained that he felt “a little better” during his initial visit to the doctor’s office, but that his health quickly deteriorated. Goodwin put it differently.

“He’s stubborn,” Goodwin said. “God, he’s stubborn.”

Reaching the winter hall-of-fame ceremony was part of what prompted Farmer to make finally make the emergency room trip, his step-daughter, Tracy Mullinax, said. Farmer, an original member of the Alabama Gang, is already a member of nine hall-of-fame classes, including the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, but he said the NASCAR honor is his most prestigious and that he’s proud of the fact that the induction will be his tenth, a nice round number.

He is set to join Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mike Stefanik as the Class of 2021 honored. The NASCAR Hall of Fame museum in Uptown Charlotte has reopened to a limited number of guests, but Farmer said he’s not sure what the induction ceremony and banquet, typically held in late-January, will look like next year due to the pandemic. The organization said it’s still working on safety guidelines to host the event.

The ceremony will come after Farmer’s planned return to racing in early January at the Talladega Short Track for the Ice Bowl, a race that occurs annually between seasons. The regular season ended after the weekend, and Farmer said he’ll work on regaining his strength until the winter since he’s lost about 15 pounds since contracting COVID-19.

He demonstrated this by holding up his finger and showing how his ring, once tight, which now slips off: “Lookie here! It’s come off about three times! That used to be snug!” Farmer said.

He then held up his other hand to show the missing tips of his three middle fingers and explained how those were chopped off over 60 years ago by a propeller while airboating through the Everglades. He said he was by himself and had to drive his boat back six miles, dock it, then drive himself to the hospital with “blood spurting everywhere.”

But because Farmer “can still grip the steering wheel,” even with the missing fingers, he’s hardly slowed down.

“I don’t ever say I’m retiring,” Farmer said. “I don’t ever say I’m quitting. I just play it by ear. Whatever comes around.”

In addition to making practice laps and regaining his strength until his imminent return to competition, Farmer said he plans to go bow hunting (deer season opens on his birthday, Oct. 15, he said) and work on his three cars at his shop in Hueytown.

Listening to his stories at a racetrack where there was hardly a mask in sight (visitors can wear one if they feel like it, according to track officials), it was hard to imagine Farmer succumbing to anything, let alone an invisible enemy. But the driver made it clear how deadly serious his experience with coronavirus was, and how seriously he hopes others treat the pandemic.

“People don’t realize how bad this stuff is really,” Farmer said. “We wore a mask everywhere we went all the time, me and Judy, but we were around people that didn’t.”

Track workers confirmed they had often seen Farmer enter the track with a mask on, although Farmer didn’t wear one during the interview. He kept one in his pocket, and explained that he doesn’t typically wear a mask outdoors and when he’s with his circle of family and friends, although he interacted with about half a dozen maskless fans who approached him for photos and autographs.

Mullinax said she thinks Farmer caught COVID-19 at the track, but Goodwin and Farmer said it could have been anywhere.

“It’s just one of those things you catch,” Goodwin said. “You could walk by somebody and catch it. I don’t know.”

Farmer also said that he has been taking the virus seriously since it first started, even when others around him weren’t, because he is considered “high-risk” due to his chronic kidney disease and age.

“I still don’t have any idea where I got it, but I got it,” Farmer said. “But I think everybody should wear the mask.”

Alabama has had over 2,500 deaths and 160,000 positive cases of COVID-19, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Health, as the United States reaches over 210,000 deaths and high-ranking White House officials, including the president, have reported positive tests.

Farmer said he thinks there is “still a lot to learn” about COVID-19, but he’s “just tickled” that he wasn’t one of the deaths reported in his state. The year has been significant for the NASCAR driver, with a major career milestone in his hall-of-fame honor, which was then almost swept away, along with his life, due to the virus. As Farmer reaches another milestone marker, he recognizes that his health is presenting cause for caution rather than speed.

“(I’m gonna) come back for the Ice Bowl, run that in January,” Farmer said. “That’ll start my 75th year of racing, but I don’t know how much more I’ll run next year.

“Depends on how I feel by the end.”


©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)