WAXAHACHIE – For the better part of the last 30 years, drag racing, a circus, and Craig Anderson have been one in the same. He has won. He has lost. He has made memories and missed moments.
He has also called it a career.
The decision comes on the heels of Anderson winning the JEGS NHRA SPORTSnationals at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky on May 22. Anderson and his 1963 Camaro outdueled Rob Stigall from Brentwood, Tennessee for the Super Gas title and the perfect capper to a long list of previous racing titles.
Anderson’s drag racing career began in 1984 while the Texas Motorplex, a drag racing strip in Ennis that could be considered his “home field,” was still under construction – and it began on a coin flip.
“We totaled an abandoned car [at the body shop], and after we got the title to it we did a coin flip,” Anderson recalled, “and we were like ‘Man, are we going to drag race this car or dirt track it?’ It was a little Dodge Charger. We flipped the coin and drag racing won, so we started drag racing it. One thing led to another and here I am, I guess.
“My dad took in a wrecked 1969 Camaro right around that same time and I rebuilt that Camaro and started driving it on the street for a few years. So when the Motorplex was finished, I decided to make it a racecar. But I think it was around 1992 that I really started racing like what I am doing now.”
Working on cars, totaled or otherwise, is something that Anderson was practically born into.
In 1972, Charles Anderson, Craig’s father, opened Ellis County Auto Repair in Waxahachie. He then moved the business into a new, bigger shop in 1986. Anderson and his wife, Rhonda, relocated the business a third time seven years ago to its current home at 3643 N. Highway 77.
The auto repair shop is also where Anderson picked up his crew chief and father-in-law, Gregg Odom who was in the winner’s circle for all of Circus Motorsports’ National Hot Rod Association wins except the last one in Bowling Green.
“Without him and without Rhonda we couldn’t have done either one – racing or running the shop,” Anderson said. “But losing, especially losing early, in an event wears on you. You start questioning what people at the shop or Rhonda or your family and friends are thinking when you lose early in an event.”
There were losses, absolutely, and the occasional early exits are unavoidable. However, during almost three decades of drag racing, Anderson has claimed an elusive Wally 16 times.
A Wally is a composite metal mix trophy of with a statue of NHRA founder Wally Parks that sits atop a solid walnut base and weighs in at a little over 12 pounds. It is also considered “drag racing’s most prestigious trophy,” according to the NHRA.
“It’s as real as a glass of water but as hard to get as a million dollars,” said Steve Johnson to NHRA after winning his first Wally in 2004. “It represents way more than a champion. I don’t have the words to describe it.”
Anderson knows exactly how tough it is to land a Wally, particularly in a national event like he did in May at Beech Bend Raceway Park or while in a 221-car field in Las Vegas earlier in his career.
“I can’t put it into words, but there are people who race these type of events all their lives and never win one of them. I was lucky enough to win 16. Through that racing I’ve missed a lot of stuff – people have died, time with my own family and, I mean, truth is I missed a lot of Ryan growing up.
“I got to see and do a lot of things I would have never gotten to do and meet a lot of people I would have never met. […] But it was time. We want to do more family stuff.”
Rest assured, though, there were memories made on the road – and as a result of the road – that Anderson will cherish. The time with their “family on the road,” as Rhonda put it, is what the two said they would miss the most from their travels from California to Florida and to the upper reaches of the country.
Almost a world champion
Anderson’s most memorable race came in the aforementioned 221-car field in the season ending event in Las Vegas. After spending every penny he had on rebuilding his motor, Anderson blew the engine up while racing in Oklahoma the week before his first chance to finish the season in the top-10.
Then, a complete stranger at the time offered him an entirely rebuilt motor to use in Las Vegas with no strings attached.
“All I wanted to do was finish in the top-10 in our division for the year, but the guy who built the motor for us couldn’t have it fixed in time for Vegas,” Anderson said. “That’s when another guy offered me his motor to use and at first I couldn’t take it. But a friend of mine told me how big of a mistake it would be to not take it because who knows what will happen in Vegas.
“Well, I borrowed that motor, put it in, and got to Vegas sort of at the last minute. […] I ended up winning that race, eight rounds, and that was probably the biggest race of my career.”
It’s Craig, not Greg
The win vaulted Anderson to No. 6 in the world and second in the division by a point. It also gave him a legitimate shot at a world championship in Pomona, California at Auto Club Dragway.
He was ousted in the fourth round of the seven-round event.
“I got so close,” Anderson said, “and I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I was close twice, but that was the best shot.”
After winning his first national win, Anderson said he could hardly wait to receive his NHRA championship letterman-style jacket. Greg Anderson, a Pro Stock driver on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, won the same event. With a two Andersons winning – Craig and Greg – the ingredients for a hiccup were certainly present.
“This was funny, but my first race I won was in Topeka and Greg won that same event. So here I am waiting, and waiting and waiting and thinking, ‘When am I going to get my jacket,’” Anderson said. “Well it finally comes in, but it’s got ‘Greg Anderson Pro Stock Champ’ and I went ‘Aw man!’ So we got in touch with NHRA, and they told me that Greg was moving, but gave me his wife’s number.
“So I called his wife and told her that I had Greg’s jacket, and she probably had my jacket, so I asked if I could FedEx her his and her FedEx me mine? She said she would so I sent his.
“Well, when I sent it to their address they sent it back. So now I have my jacket, plus I have his jacket and, in the meantime, I had already called the company that makes the jackets and they sent me another one. So now I have three jackets and his is still wrapped up somewhere and hasn’t ever been opened.
How the circus came to town
Throughout his career, Anderson raced under and sponsored Circus Motorsports. His trademark clown can be found on bumper stickers, koozies, t-shirts and racecars across the county, but it did not begin on the asphalt.
“’Circus’ actually started in 1980 after I graduated high school when we were playing softball and trying to figure out a team name,” Anderson said. “The guy who was out manager kept saying that we were acting like a bunch of clowns and should just call it a circus, so, well, that’s what it ended up being – a circus. That was circus softball, so when I started racing I just thought it would be cool to carry it over because no one else was doing it. A few people thought it would be cool, too, and a lot of people have liked it over the years.
Anderson may be set to retire, but his cars are not. In fact, they will be on the hometown track, the Texas Motorplex, for another run in October.
“I was the first guy to ever win at the Motorplex,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a big deal at the time and it wasn’t nothing, you didn’t win any money or anything, but I ended up winning it. I guess that’s my claim to fame, ‘the first guy to ever win at the Motorplex.’ […] Watching that race that in October, that’s going to be hard on me. I’ll just be a spectator. […] I never dreamed I would be racing. I honestly didn’t. But I got lucky and won a few races…”
Whether it was luck or skill is in the eye of the beholder. If you ask Craig, it was luck. Rhonda will proudly tell otherwise.
One thing is sure, though, the cars are sold, the decision has been made and, although he can’t rule out occasionally racing in someone else’s car, the circus is staying home.