The need for speed

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Special to the Opelika Observer From left to right, Robert, Elizabeth, James and Thomas Ham after a race James won. Robert finished in second place after his son.
Special to the Opelika Observer From left to right, Robert, Elizabeth, James and Thomas Ham after a race James won. Robert finished in second place after his son.
Special to the Opelika Observer
From left to right, Robert, Elizabeth, James and Thomas Ham after a race James won. Robert finished in second place after his son.

By Donna Williamson
Opelika Observer

Robert Ham, Lee County Commissioner, District Four, sees his position as an opportunity to help people. “One of the pleasant bonuses is that this job as Lee County Commissioner allows me to help people on a daily basis,” he said. “I truly love doing this.”  Another thing that Ham “truly loves doing” is racing stock cars, which may come as a surprise to many.
At one time, Ham had a successful career in stock car racing. That career has now become a successful weekend pastime. “I don’t talk about my racing because if it’s not a sport you’re interested in, people don’t want to hear about it,” he said.
As a child, Ham loved playing with little race cars. “I grew up in Nashville in the shadow of Nashville Speedway. My friend’s father owned a race car. Those weekends when we went to the races were the best,” he said. “Back then they raced ‘muscle cars’ – Camaros, Chevelles, and Mustangs.”
In 1985 when Ham was 30 years old, one of his friends bought a new race car and then decided to sell the car he had raced for a year. “I bought it on the spot,” Ham said. “My wife was not pleased.”
Ham won his first race, which was on a dirt track in Pinton, Alabama. “I won an ugly trophy and gas money,” he said.
He began by running dirt tracks, and then progressed to racing all over the Southeast on asphalt. “I had a lot of success. I had a crew and good mechanics. I owned my cars, had a big shop, and a big hauler,” he explained. “Then I had the opportunity to buy one of Bobby Allison’s cars and I started racing the ARCA series. These drivers raced on Saturday (and still do) before the big NASCAR race on Sunday.”
Ham only races now as a hobby, but confesses that he has “rubbed elbows with some of the best in the business.”  He said, “When I raced the ARCA series at Daytona, I had to attend rookie school. Any driver who had never driven at Daytona before had to attend. Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott were the teachers. I go in and sit down and Jeff Gordon comes in and sits next to me.”
Ham’s first ARCA race was at Daytona. He finished seventh in one of Bobby Allison’s Buicks. “Bobby encouraged and mentored me. My contact with him was the best,” Ham said.
In 1993 Ham raced the ARCA circuit full time and finished seventh in points. He won the Hard Charger Award. “That meant I got after it and drove hard,” Ham explained.
Ham continued on the ARCA circuit for three years until he had a wreck at Talladega that almost took his life. After that he quit driving super speedway cars. “My friend Neil Bonnet was killed racing that year,” he said.
As a compromise, Ham started driving “modified lites,” which are safer cars that run on asphalt and on shorter tracks. According to Ham, theses cars are not as fast, only going a little over 100 mph. “Modified lites are built from the ground up and are very safe,” he said. Ham raced these cars all over the United States and Canada for 16 years.
Ham has won over 100 races in modified lites and owned the car that won the national championship in 2007. “I broke my wrist in a race in Canada and hired a guy to drive my car,” Ham said. “He won everywhere we went and we won the championship.”
Racing has become a weekend hobby for Ham and his son James. They race at Sayre Speedway, near Birmingham. “I bought James, who is now 26, a modified lite that he raced against me when he was 13. He wasn’t old enough to drive a car on the street when he won his first race,” Ham said. “This is our weekend hobby. We always go together; never turn on the radio, we just talk. This has made for a very close bond.”
Last year Ham decided he wasn’t going to race any more. “I was going to be the guy who hung on the fence and watch my son win races,” he said.
“However, a friend called right before the season started. He was stepping out of his car for 2015 and wanted me to drive for him. I said, ‘Yes’.”
James won the Sayre Championship in 2015 in a car that Ham owned. Ham and his son were tied in points at the last race of the season. “I had won the previous race and the rules are if you win, you start the next race at the back. James won the pole. I made it to the front and caught him,” Ham said. “The last five laps we were side by side, switching leads. With one lap to go, my tires got too hot and he pulled ahead and won. This was his second championship.”
Ham says that on most Saturday nights there are four members of his family racing.  His brother Randall Ham and his nephew Thomas Ham also race at Sayre. “With four members of our family racing, one of us is probably going to win,” he said.

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