North Vernon innovator on top of his game

Larry Hartwell of North Vernon was inducted into the Brownstown Speedway Hall of Fame in 2016.
Larry Hartwell of North Vernon was inducted into the Brownstown Speedway Hall of Fame in 2016.

By James Essex

Larry Hartwell has never driven a racecar, but his track record as a car owner, innovator and entrepreneur is impressive. The 58-year-old North Vernon resident is coming off another successful racing season.

Last year, Hartwell and his driver, Marty O’Neal of Spencer, won the Twin Cities Raceway Park Super Late Model Track Championship, the Brownstown Speedway Crate Late Model Title and the 2016 Indiana Late Model Series crown for the third time. He also received the honor of being inducted into the Brownstown Speedway Hall of Fame last year.

Hartwell, a 1976 graduate of Jennings County High School, got interested in racing when he and friend Scott McKeand of North Vernon had a small-engine machine shop in 1980. Hartwell, who had never been to or seen a dirt-track race, built a car and engine for McKeand to race.

Their first car in which they raced at Twin Cities was a Ford Torino Street Stock. Through the 1980s, they raced together with first a Street Stock, then a Late Model and back to a Street Stock in the late ’80s. In 1989, in what would be a record-setting campaign for the Hartwell-McKeand duo, they won every race but two at Twin Cities. In 1991, in their final season together, they went out winning four feature events at Brownstown.

In 1992, Hartwell decided to leave racing to raise a family and later start his own computer business in 1997. The computer business at that time was a boon for Hartwell and his wife, Kim, keeping them busier than they could imagine. But then the computer industry started to wane as far as building computers and service were concerned.

In 2002, Hartwell got the itch to get back into racing. He purchased a Warrior Race Car Late Model for North Vernon racer Keith Deppe. From 2002 until 2005, Deppe, Columbus’ Dick Phillips and North Vernon’s Mark Barber all drove for Hartwell.

In was before the 2006 season that Barber suggested Marty O’Neal for the ride. “I had never met Marty until right before the start of the 2006 season. Mark (Barber) was the one who said ‘this is the guy you need in your car.’”

Barber turned out to be a prophet. Hartwell and O’Neal have been together for 10 years, winning four track titles and three Indiana Late Model Series titles during those years.

When asked about how long both will continue to race, Hartwell emphasized the two have a verbal pact between themselves.

“Marty said that when I retire he will retire,” Hartwell said. “I agreed with him. If we keep winning and running well and having fun, we may race on for a few more years than either one of us thought we would.”

Hartwell is also an innovator in the racing industry with his E-Z Lift hydraulic pit lift and E-Z Rater shock and spring tester. Through his MLR Fabricating, Hartwell sells the pit lift to dealers across the country and all over the world if necessary. The all-aluminum piece weighs 55 pounds and can lift a late model or modified off the ground for easier access for crew members to work on the cars.

“We average selling about 300 of those a year,” he said. “We are working on a sprint car lift, as well, with Pete Abel trying one out this season.”

With his three full-time employees Hartwell said he can produce 10 at a time during a four-day period.

Hartwell also is proud of his other product, the E-Z Rater.

“The E-Z Rater is fairly new,” he said. “We just came out with it this last year. We brought it to the PRI Show in Indy and had a lot of positive response. We are averaging about 37 sold per month now. It helps the race teams out because it makes for faster setups and so on. It tests the center link on a shock versus wheel land.”

Hartwell credits legendary chassis builder and driver C.J. Rayburn of Whiteland for keeping him in racing.

“Without C.J. I probably wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “I have learned so much from him. A lot of our success I credit to him. C.J. was the first one to use one of our pit lifts. He liked it and said we should market those to the racers.”

Hartwell’s crew consists of his wife, Kim, their daughter Niki Dailey and her husband Scott, and their children Will and Owen, Larry and Kim’s son Joe and his wife Morgan and their children Riley and Rhett, who is due in a couple of months.

As far as plans for the 2017 racing season are concerned, the team will have a 2015 and 2017 MasterSbilt Race Car chassis at their disposal. Once again, the duo will be racing at Brownstown Speedway on Saturday Nights and hit all the Indiana Late Model Series races at other venues across the state. Besides running the 604 Crate Engine Late Model again this year Hartwell is putting together an open competition engine to run in the more lucrative Super Late Model races Brownstown will be holding this year.

For those wondering what the difference is between a Crate and Super Late Model, Hartwell said it is basically horsepower and a few other things.

“The Crate car puts out about 400 horsepower and the open competition motor about 800 to 900 horsepower,” he said. “The Crate is a 604-cubic inch and the open can be any size. I am building a 430 for our car. Also, the Crates run smaller brakes.”

Sponsors on the car for this year include Wilson Concrete, K&G Sports, Max Powder Coating, MLR Fabricating, Mo and Jo Investments, P3 Graphix, Right Auto Parts and All-Star Performance.

James Essex writes a motorsports notebook for The Republic. Send comments to sports@therepublic.com.