Robert Powell has seen it all in his 56 years of life. Native to Moncks Corner, S.C., Powell always felt like he had something to prove. After a couple of heartfelt wins at Florence Motor Speedway in 2021, the tears couldn’t be held back. Moreover, when Race22 spoke with the 1988 short track national champion, no details were spared, in what can only be described as a life story that is truly stranger than fiction.
“If I can help one person with my story it would mean the world to me,” he said.
Powell said this multiple times throughout our conversation. He hopes that one day his tumultuous, yet amazing, life experience can help someone. Many people battle to find a balance between their life goals and family. Powell revealed constant struggles as a competitor, a father, a brother, and recovering addict.
It is hard to tell Robert’s story without covering his father’s impact and legacy on him. Robert knew he could always look to his father for advice in racing and life through the good times and the bad.
Powell cut his teeth on the track that his dad, the late Charlie Powell, owned. For many years Charlie Powell owned Summerville Speedway outside of Charleston. Earlier, Cooper River Speedway and the old Charleston Speedway were the venues where his dad had busted tail behind the wheel every weekend in the heyday of stock car racing in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Then, after becoming the only game in town for a few years, Summerville’s final event was held in the fall of 2004.
Charlie Powell saw the writing on the wall and sold the property to developers. He then purchased a rough-around-the-edges Florence Motor Speedway in Timmonsville, S.C. Charlie did what he had always done and worked very hard, trying to make Florence all it could be. By early 2020, he had sold the track. While the racing season resumed at Florence Motor Speedway after the restrictions were lifted, Covid-19 eventually took Charlie’s life at age 83.
Charlie’s son Robert, was a force to be reckoned with. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Powell would barnstorm tracks in South Carolina and beyond. He won track championships at Summerville, Myrtle Beach, and Florence Motor Speedway. He won major Late Model short track events like the big 300-lap Late Model Stock Car race in Martinsville and the season finale events in Myrtle Beach.
Powell won the 1986 Southeast Regional championship at just 21 years old. In 1988 he won the national All-American points championship, or the Winston Racing Series National Championship, as it was called back then. At the time, he was the youngest driver to accomplish that feat at 23 years old. In 1989 he would go on to compete in the NASCAR Busch Series.
Powell’s first Busch Series race was at South Boston in Dale Jarrett’s car. He qualified sixth and finished 10th after being spun by Kenny Wallace. Powell scored seven top-10s in eight races his first year with the team.
Unfortunately for Powell, Coca-Cola/Mello Yello decided to go with Kyle Petty, who had competed in the same program. Despite scoring a fourth-place finish at Lanier, Powell’s deal fell through. Powell continued to compete, albeit with more struggles, for a few years with his father.
It eventually became too expensive for his family to run in the Busch Series. Despite the years of short track success after his Busch Series days, demons beneath the surface haunted Robert’s personal life.
“For the longest time I was an addict,” Powell said. “I struggled through it for many years. But my dad stuck with me my whole life. The only thing after him being gone was he knew I was no longer involved in drugs, and to be honest, he didn’t have anything to do with it. He was always supportive of me as far as my racing goes. I try to keep racing because it’s the only thing that I can do to get away and forget everything that’s happened in the past. I try to put everything in front of me. When I strap into a racecar, it’s the only time I get to breathe.”
Powell lamented about his early days of success, and how much chasing the high of winning affected him. That, along with the mental fight of what to do on Monday to maintain the buzz of victory.
“It started out with pot and then cocaine, my biggest vice was cocaine,” he said. “That was the drug that took years from my life. Luckily I haven’t touched cocaine in almost a decade. My dad used to say, ‘When you play with fire you’re going to get burned.’ And I just always had to touch it. I’ve been to therapy, I’ve done all these things and now I can look in the mirror and say, ‘Robert, you’re ok.’”
Powell was arrested for possession of paraphernalia meant to manufacture methamphetamine in Goose Creek, S.C, in December of 2014. He was sentenced to three years in prison. The term included other charges such as multiple counts of meth production, distribution, disposal of meth waste, and possession. Powell had been on probation in 2002 and 2004 for convictions stemming from shoplifting, assault and battery, and violation of probation.
Months before his legal troubles, his father had even banned him from Florence for rough driving on the cool-down lap. Powell had hit rock bottom on the day the judge handed down the sentencing.
“If it hadn’t been for the day the judge said, ‘Mr. Powell, I have no choice but to incarcerate you to the State of South Carolina Department of Corrections,’ I would have never listened to anyone,” Powell said. “That day my dad was there and we talked, and eventually, he just put his head down. My brother went to the car and cried. That time was the hardest 18 months of my life. [My dad] looked over at me through the prison window, and said, ‘Son, what else do you have to prove? Just give up racing and get yourself right.’ From that day I swore I’d never let drugs take anything else from me.”
Powell’s time in prison was life-changing. He got out 18 months early on good behavior and swore to make amends with the people he had hurt, including himself.
Powell affirmed that he separated his racing life from his addiction and did his best to keep it from interfering with his goals. He claimed that the top levels of racing were becoming too expensive to compete in after his deal with Dale Jarrett’s Busch Series team fell through.
“A lot of people are under the impression that I didn’t go Winston Cup racing because of drugs,” he said. “Whenever I was racing, I did very well as far as keeping my bad side under wraps. But it greatly affected my personal life.”
Powell has a son and daughter, now in their 20s. He admittedly wishes he could have had a better relationship with his children, who had struggled while he battled drug addiction, along with the toll it took on being successful in racing.
“If anything, I had failed as a father during that time,” Powell said. “I’m working on it much more now, but it was always racing all the time. Even now with a little Late Model team, I can’t stop trying to find ways to be faster. We have a lot better relationship now, and it’s still a work in progress every day. My daughter and I talk once a week, and my son has had success playing basketball. I just wish I could have been more involved in their lives.”
On June 19th, Father’s Day Weekend, Robert Powell won an emotional Charger Late Model feature at Florence. It was his first win at his father’s track since his passing. On the same night, his friend, Strom Altman, won the Super Truck feature. Powell spots for Altman’s Super Truck team. Over the last couple of decades, the two drivers have been each other’s crew chiefs, spotters, shop help, and competitors. It was an evening of experience paying off in multiple divisions.
“The win that Saturday night was different,” Powell said. “I’d won Martinsville, and the Myrtle Beach 250s and 400s. It just overwhelmed me. It was extremely hard to do. And you see where you took things for granted. It was the hardest I had ever worked to win a race in my life. It reminded me that you never know when it’s going to be your last victory.”
Powell won another Charger Late Model feature at Florence during Racing Brotherhood night on August 7th. He qualified fifth. This time Powell fought adversity when an early penalty sent him to the back after contact with another driver. They brought out a caution on Lap Two.
Powell dodged spinning cars on multiple restarts. He had a clutch problem that made it difficult to shift from third to fourth gear. On every restart, the car behind him slammed into his rear bumper. Powell circumnavigated the 18-car field, sometimes going three-wide, in a 300-lap feature with five caution periods. Just like the event on June 19th, Strom Altman won the Super Truck feature with Powell in the spotter’s stand.
“That was the best race I’ve had in a long time,” Powell said. “This was the best I’ve driven in a while. People aren’t going to believe me when I say this, but it’s harder to win now than it ever was. So I actually got an iRacing rig. I’ve driven for 40 years and I swear that’s helped more than anything the last couple of weeks. It’s so close to being in a racecar my adrenaline gets going. It is something else. When I started, I wrecked every lap. Now I graduated from the rookie class.”
The 40-plus year veteran, who had never played a video game before, provided that information with a hearty laugh.
Robert drives a yellow-and-orange No. 32 Limited Late Model car for Henry Legette. He used to race against Legette when he was only 14 years old. The car that won on August 7th looked haggard. The hood and right-side fender from the wheel to the door were blank and all-black. There were scrapes and scuffs on nearly every single panel before his first lap of practice.
“It’s the raggiest looking car you’ve ever seen,” Powell said. “It’s ugly, but it’s fast.”
Powell sometimes shares the same car with Henry Legette’s 40-year-old son Matt, who runs at Dillon. There isn’t much turnaround time to keep the fenders shiny once the team gets the car race-ready. The Summerville-based Lopez Crane, Driggers Small Engines, Henry’s Garage & Tower race car has just as much character and personality as the man who pilots the machine. Ever grateful to his parents, the machine sports a graphic that reads “Thanks Mom & Pop.” It is written behind the A-pillar.
After three years of racing in a Super Truck, with just the most cost-effective equipment, Powell’s career was resurrected in 2021. Powell credits Sean McElhaney (pronounced with a MAC), Henry Legette’s son-in-law. McElhany’s belief in second chances helped Robert Powell immensely.
“Sean is one of my longtime friends,” Powell said. “He is one of the guys who saved my life. He actually got me a job in Hilton Head after I got out of the penitentiary. Sean was the one who put me back in a racecar when I got out. He’s the one that made me believe I still wanted to do it. That’s how I ended up working with Henry’s Late Model team because Sean bought a truck. He wanted to own a racecar and have me drive it, and we fulfilled that. I won a race for him three years ago.”
Robert tried to model himself after Dale Earnhardt Sr. He was the biggest Earnhardt fan. He even got to race door to door against Dale at Summerville Speedway during a race of champions event in 1989. Powell got spun out by his hero and wound up second to the Man in Black. Powell and Dale Sr. maintained a unique relationship, with Powell a quasi-mentor for Dale Earnhardt Jr. since they both competed at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
“I wanted to be like Dale Sr. at the racetrack,” Robert said. “I always wanted people to fear me and know they’d have to beat me if I was there. I worked hard to do everything I could to be successful.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced at Myrtle Beach Speedway throughout the early to mid-1990s. He respected Robert Powell, but they raced hard. The competition was very stout, and ultimately Earnhardt Jr. only had one victory in weekly Late Model racing at the now-defunct Myrtle Beach facility.
“I never thought that I needed to be any different to him,” Powell said. “Dale Jr. had to earn everything he got. His daddy was hard on him. We would beat and bang some at Florence and Myrtle Beach. We almost got into some serious wrecks but he came up to me and told me why he raced me hard. He revered how we handled things off the racetrack, despite being tough competitors.”
Dale Jr. respected Robert Powell because of his hard-nosed attitude on the track and his big heart off of it.
Robert and his brother Charles Powell III became closer after their father’s passing. Charles III is an accomplished short track racer in his own right. He won the 1998 NASCAR Weekly Series Atlantic Seaboard championship.
Once rivals in their own right, the brothers ran in last year’s finale event together at Florence. Robert was embarrassed with his own race performance despite finding speed in practice. Charles III and Robert finished 30th and 29th, respectively. They intend to run another event in the Memorial race in November. This year, Powell feels as though he is strong enough now behind the wheel to get a car together for the Memorial race and compete for a win.
Powell also scored a Charger win earlier in the year at Dillon Motor Speedway. It was emotional for him there because that was the last venue at which his father had competed. Powell and Ron Barfield, Dillon’s owner and competition director, developed a good relationship over the years. It was at this moment when Powell truly believed the stars had aligned for him to get back to his former prowess and compete for wins again.
“If there’s one thing I’m setting my sights on, the biggest reason I’m racing this year is because my dad passed, and they have that Memorial race for him in November,” Powell said. “If that is the last race I ever win, I will be proud of that moment.”
Powell isn’t exactly competing for points at any one venue or vying for a run at a regional championship. His mindset is simply to get a good enough feel back in the car that he could at least have a shot at winning the season-ending event at the track that his father devoted his life to.
“The biggest thing that is different this year than last year was that last year, I expected it to be better than it was,” Powell said. “I told my owner that if we just get the things we need like better shocks and the equipment we need, we can still win races.”
Robert laughed to himself when he said, “Something I realized later in life is that I really don’t like driving race cars as much as I like to win. If the motor’s slow or I’m just turning laps, I can’t be happy about it. We did everything we could with the truck, and now it’s up to me.”
Powell’s competitive spirit hasn’t waned in his mid-50s. A few weeks ago at Florence Motor Speedway, he finished second to competitor Averitt Lucas. Powell is proud of his shock setup, designed by Stacy Puryear, but he wanted to claim the shocks on the Lucas machine. He tried to use a claim rule that was in the rule books at Florence.
“I wanted to keep him honest,” Powell explained. “I don’t want anyone I’m racing with to think I’m not going to do whatever it takes to win. He knocked me out of the way. He got the win. We went to claim his shocks because, in the rule book, you can claim them from someone that beats you, up to 10 minutes after the race.”
After some confusion and late-night ruckus, Powell had a tough time dealing with what he felt was a sudden rule change. The claim rule did not go through, which had left him feeling disgruntled.
Despite his frustrations from that night, Powell respects what the new owner, Steve Zacharias, has done to carry on Robert’s father’s legacy. Zacharias has taken steps in making fan improvements at the 4/10ths mile track with just a front stretch wall at the track in Timmonsville, S.C. New grandstand benches, bathrooms, press seats, and plans to pave the parking area are a few things that have been introduced. Florence is evolving into its new form while maintaining the track’s character and honoring its past.
Powell remains steadfast as a competitor. Now that he has made amends with his personal demons, the Moncks Corner driver still believes he has what it takes to compete.
“Not everybody gets the same talent,” Robert said. “But a lot of it comes from your will, too. There is nothing else in the world I think about but the racecar. I don’t believe that there’s anyone left, that when they sit in the racecar, they feel like I feel. And it’s a curse sometimes, I think, but there’s always a reason why. It’s something that I have a passion for, even if it kills me. If I leave this world, I want to be buried in a racecar.”
Robert wasn’t exactly clamoring to tell of some of the things he had to experience, but he wanted to reiterate this point: “If I can help just one person with my story, it’s worth it, and it is truly a blessing from God.”
Cover photo by David Allio/racingphotoarchives.com