- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

YELLVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Jack Fortner is 69 years old. He and his wife, Pam, live in the hills above the square in Yellville with a retired hunting dog and several chickens. When you pull up to their white-trimmed, storybook looking home, you’d have no idea about Jack’s big passion.

That’s thanks to a deal he made with Pam several decades ago.

“Pam said I could have as many cars as I wanted as long as I could pay cash for them,” Jack said, smiling at the memory. “And, the cars had to be hidden; she didn’t want to have stuff lying around in front of the house.”

So, Jack had to find a balance between keeping his love (Pam) happy, and his passion (cars) fed. Their Yellville home has as much total space dedicated to cars and their repair as it does to people.

The Baxter Bulletin (http://bit.ly/1jBIrUB ) reports that Jack’s passion for cars and racing has been in large part about balance for the past 20 years as he served on the legendary Carroll Shelby team, preparing Goodyear tires for, primarily, NASCAR races.

When he was in his late 40’s, Fortner owned an automotive business centered on tires and brakes. He had a tire distributor who wanted him to carry Goodyear tires.

“Goodyear is a premium brand and I didn’t have the customer base for that, but this guy was always bugging me about selling Goodyear,” Fortner recalled. “So I decided how to get him off my back. I told him if he could get me tickets to a NASCAR race, I’d carry the tires. I figured he’d say there’s no way and that would be the end of it.”

The distributor did indeed say he couldn’t secure tickets for inside the pits. This was at a time when money couldn’t get a fan in the pits - the fan had to know someone in the sport. While he couldn’t get Fortner free tickets, he did have a way to get Jack on the track.

“He said I’ll tell what, if you’re willing to work and stack tires, I can get you into the pits at Sonoma,” the distributor offered. “I said of course, and so I went there. I thought it would be a one-time thing.”

It wasn’t. Fortner went to the race and he worked, hard, he says.

“I liked it because I was in there. I was in there with all of them,” said the gearhead. “Then, on race day, back then, we all got to sit on the inside fence and watch the race. I loved it.”

A little while later, Fortner was surprised to receive a check from the legendary auto guru’s team.

“I thought I was just going to get to see the race for free in exchange for my labor,” said Fortner said. “Getting paid was like the icing on the cake.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that Fortner received a phone call from the legendary Shelby.

“He asked me if I wanted to work another race and I told him I’m your guy,” Fortner recalled. “From that point on I did all the West Coast races.”

Fortner was never those guys you see jumping over the walls to service cars during the race. Instead, the team he worked with provided the tires to the race teams. That meant driving trucks full of tires to the tracks each week to meet trucks full of wheels. The team Fortner worked on mounted tires to the wheels and then balanced them.

Some 4,000 of them for a race. The team had separate workers for unloading the tires, rolling the tires into the work area, stacking them, mounting and then balancing them before they were rolled out of the work area, accounted for, stacked and finally delivered to the racing teams.

“I stacked for about four or five years,” said Fortner. “That’s a tough job. You’ve got to throw 85-pound tires and stack them six high. It’s a job for young guys.”

Fortner rotated through every job on the team. Eventually, he became the guy everyone on the team wants to be, the guy with the clipboard who is responsible for everything. It’s a job Fortner held for several years and enjoyed. But, it turns out, not as much as he enjoys balancing tires, his favorite job on the team.

“I made sure the guys got to the race, kept them out of jail,” Fortner said. “You pay them, they’re young frisky guys on the road, they have no responsibilities, that’s why they do it. There’s drinking, that’s a big part of it, carousing, doing what they do. It was my job to get them from one airport, one track to the next. Adult day care, that’s what I did for a long time, and I enjoyed it. But, I enjoyed balancing more.”

Throughout his time working with NASCAR, Fortner developed a relationship with Shelby.

“He was a big guy, he was loud, he was gruff, he’d get right in your face,” Fortner said of Shelby. “A lot of people didn’t care for him. But, as I got to know him and understand him, I really got to like him. He wasn’t a saint, he wasn’t perfect as so many people become once they pass away.”

There was a reason why Shelby was so loud and would get in your face, Fortner says.

“Eventually, I realized he couldn’t hear well. So he talked loud, he’d yell because he couldn’t hear how loud he was talking,” Fortner said, smiling. “And, because he couldn’t hear other people, he’d move close and get right into their space.”

Once he realized this, Fortner says he changed the way he dealt with Shelby. He started shouting at him. Since Shelby could hear him, he stayed out of Fortner’s face.

“We’d be at a race someplace and he’d be yelling at me and I’d be yelling at him,” Fortner recalled. “People would say ‘oh look, he’s lighting into that guy again,’ but he wasn’t, we were just talking to each other.”

While Fortner says Shelby could be cantankerous, gruff and quite willing to chew someone out if he felt it was needed, there was another side of Shelby, one people often didn’t get to see unless they saw him in his role as an advocate for the health of children.

Shelby was at a race during his latter years with a racer, Phil Hill, who was a contemporary of Shelby’s during his racing career. Both men were set to be honored during a race and it was Fortner’s job to drive the pair in a golf cart to the place where they were to receive recognition. Shelby was recognized by fans, who soon also recognized Hill. The golf cart was surrounded by fans.

“I asked Shelby if he wanted me to just drive slowly through the crowd,” said Fortner. “He said for me to stop so they could sign autographs.”

At the time, Hill was suffering from Alzheimer’s and his hand shook.

“I saw him put his arm around Phil, reach under and hold his arm,” Fortner said, choking up. “I remember that well. I remember him holding Phil’s hand steady while he signed autographs. That’s also who he was.”

Fortner, at 69, still balances those 4,000 tires before a NASCAR race. He balances them not because he needs to, but because he enjoys the work, the people, the atmosphere. Fortner did some racing of his own, including NASCAR. While he no longer races, his competitive streak is easy to see.

Fortner will tell you he’s the best at balancing a tire, the fastest. That’s important when you have 4,000 tires to balance. It takes the team 45 seconds to mount and balance a tire. Think about that. If your local tire store could do that, your car would be ready in less than three minutes.

“I’m still the fastest balancer they have. For the younger guys, I’m the target,” Fortner said. “You see, what I’ve got is I would die on the machine before I would let them beat me. If they get tired, they’ll quit, and I won’t and they know that so they just don’t try. You can’t beat the old man because he just won’t quit.”

And, as long as he’s having fun, on race week, you can find Fortner at his favorite tracks, doing what he does best; finding the right balance.

___

Information from: The Baxter Bulletin, http://www.baxterbulletin.com

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