South County Beat

Arroyo Grande man still racin' at 79 years old

clambert@thetribunenews.comApril 22, 2014 

Arroyo Grande resident Ralph Bush pulled out a large map Tuesday of Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, about an hour south of Redding, and gave a virtual tour of the 3-mile-long racetrack.

“Up through (turn) four, there’s a big hill and we get airborne on five,” Bush said, trailing his finger around the course. “We’re doing 110 to 120 miles per hour up to (turn) nine. We average about 91, 92 mph on this track. It’s an adrenaline rush.”

Bush has been chasing that rush for nearly 60 years. At 79, he’s been racing cars since he was 21 years old, starting with a Singer race car.

During last year’s National Auto Sport Association road-racing season, Bush competed in 72 races in 2013 and finished fourth in the nation on road courses, which he finds more challenging than the oval.

In a short note announcing the news to members of the Porsche Club of America’s Central Coast region, President Chuck Jennings wrote, “Ralph Bush is 79 years old! And the next oldest driver is 27 years his junior. Perhaps 79 is the new 29!”

Since that first Singer, he’s sat behind the wheel of a Lotus Super 7, a Merlin Formula Ford and a Jaguar XK120, among others. He’s been racing his silver No. 38 Thunder Roadster for about 10 years.

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a car,” Bush said, adding, “It’s not that expensive to repair when you mess it up.”

Bush said he first developed an interest in racing when his father took him to a midget-car race at the Rose Bowl in 1946. He couldn’t forget the smell of the oil, or his introduction to native Chicago race-car driver Dennis “Duke” Nalon.

“I thought I’d sure like to be like Duke Nalon,” Bush said.

Over the years Bush, a former teacher, coach and general contractor, has collected trophies along with numerous stories of successes and wipeouts.

He recalls when roll bars and full-head helmets were required around 1960, and can tell you how odd it feels to stop your car on a 24-degree banked turn at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Lately, he’s recruited his 25-year-old grandson, Ryan, to start racing as well.

Later this week, Bush will check the oil and air up the tires on his Thunder Roadster, load it into his trailer and head north to Willows.

There he’ll compete at one of his favorite tracks, where “there’s 15 turns, and I’ve spun out on 13 of them.”

The South County Beat column runs on Wednesdays. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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