By Phil Whipple,
RaceOnTexas.com Staff Writer
LEANDER, Texas — When a third-generation racer and lifelong mechanic with skills gets involved in short track racing, he's in it for life. Whether it's behind the wheel or working on a race team in some capacity, he needs to stay involved to feel normal.
For 40-year-old crew chief and former Street Stock driver Nathan Billingsley, carrying on the family tradition in racing is a source of great pride. Billingsley hasn't raced himself for 15 years, yet serves as the crew chief for IMCA Modified driver Ryan Childress. It's a dynamic duo and a potent combination.
“After going after the championship together last year at Cotton Bowl and finishing second to seasoned veteran Hardy Henderson, we decided to go touring a little in 2019,” Billingsley said. “It was a pretty decent season for us overall. Ryan matured a lot as a driver and we learned a ton from the experience.”
Billingsley's background in the sport started way back with his grandfather, Buddy Woodall, back in the early 1970s.
“Buddy was a fixture in San Antonio and Austin, building cars and racing them with success. My other grandfather, Frank Ferris, was also well known around the area. He was related to me through my biological father's mom getting married. A car he built was the last chassis ever built at the house.”
The pride Billingsley carries in continuing the tradition that Buddy and Frank started all those years ago comes through in his voice. Both were asphalt racers until dirt tracks took over the Texas scene.
“My main number I've always run when I drove was 42, because that was the number Buddy ran on his cars,” he explained. “Right now, I have Ryan's old Modified here in my own shop, and it has a 19 on it, because that was Frank's number. My family history in racing means a great deal to me.”
Billingsley first climbed into a race car 20 years ago. His first car (shown in the photo) was a beauty.
“I started my own career back in 1999,” he said. “That first car lasted about five seasons. The 2004 season was my last on the track. We had a car ready for 2005, but we had some gremlins pop up that kept us off the track.
“It wasn't long before my wife informed me she was pregnant with our first daughter. I had enough stuff to run two teams, but I knew I couldn't afford to run them and raise a family. So I just sold it all.”
Long since removed from behind the wheel, Billingsley is more than happy in his role as a crew chief.
“I'm really enjoying working with Ryan, trying to get his car batter and doing some setup work,” Billingsley added. “He's fairly new to racing; he's only been doing this for about three or four years. When he first got started, he jumped straight into a Modified. It was a bold step, but he's learning.”
Childress wanted to be a Mod racer, so off he went. It's one of the most competitive classes in Texas.
“Ryan got the same advice my grandfather gave me back in the day,” Billingsley said. “He said go into the class you want to be in, rather than start out in a support class. The philosophy is, the quicker you get seat time, the faster you'll get it figured out and become a threat to win races. It's a smart idea.”
His own driving career may have come to an end rather unexpectedly, yet he had some great runs.
“We won two races during my career in Street Stock, both of which came right after the death of Buddy Woodall,” Billingsley said. “We won those back-to-back, and to say they were emotional wins would be a huge understatement.
"It took a lot of time to get my Victory Lane photos completed; I had so many fellow racers stop by to shake my hand or give me a hug. It made those wins so very special.”
Billingsley began his racing career at a now-defunct track that had a very rich history in Texas.
“I started out at Texas Thunder Speedway in Killeen, which has a special place in my heart. Both of my grandfathers were actually there on Opening Day in 1972 when it was called Stars & Stripes Speedway. The night they honored Buddy, we went out with a brand new engine that I built.
“Something went wrong with it, I think it was an air pocket in the water system that made it overheat. It seized up on us, but we actually came back the next two nights with an old motor and won both races.”
Texas Thunder closed after the 2013 season after a 41-year run. The place meant a lot to many folks.
“I actually got back into the sport four years ago helping my old buddy Buck Owens put his car back together,” Billingsley said. “Us old racers, we try hard to stay to stay out of the sport, but we just can't.
Billingsley gained his experience working on Modifieds while helping his uncle back in the day. He listened, he learned and just absorbed as much information as possible about racing mechanics. Today, he can build or rebuild an engine with the best of them. He is truly an asset to any team he assists.
“I just love to be around race cars, work with people who share my passion and make a contribution to their racing programs,” he said. “Ryan and I are kindred spirits; we both graduated from Leander High School together and get along very well. We don't fight or argue, we just discuss our options. It's fun.”
In 2017, Billingsley got hooked up with his old schoolmate Childress and began helping to get his program rolling in the right direction. Childress is thrilled to have his old pal involved and says his program is way better off with him there.
“Nathan is an amazing friend,” Childress said. “He has helped me in so many ways this past season. From changing tires to engine rebuilds, he does it all. He gives me advice on tracks that seems to work.
“He is the type of guy that will help out a lot and not expect anything in return. He loves to be at the track helping the team and soaking in the atmosphere. He is really an all-around great guy. There are not many left like him, for sure.”
When the 2020 season rolls around, expect to see more of this dynamic duo at several Texas tracks.
“I expect we'll head out on tour next year to pick up where we left off,” Billingsley concludes. “We really learned a ton in 2019, Ryan made big progress and his GRT chassis served us well. We'll take what we learned together this season and try to improve our speed and consistency. I'm happy to do it.”