Purple Reign

By the late sixties, his time had passed. I feel fortunate to have watched one of his last Feature wins (’69?) over arch nemesis Al Pombo and Everett Edlund. Once on the grid during driver introductions, I saw him lean out of his Modified, cup his hands around his mouth and hiss: “Booooo Pombo!” And sadly, I witnessed his final qualifying attempt (1972) in which his throttle stuck and he augered into the wall, ending his driving career. The colorful career of Marshall Sargent and his purple #7 was over…but man, what a ride!

Sargent was born in Arkansas in 1931 and relocated to Salinas (CA) while still a boy. He ran his first race on a converted baseball diamond at Fort Ord. By the time he joined the hardtop ranks at San Jose Speedway, he’d notched several wins in the Monterey area. Al “The Mombo Man” Pombo was a top contender and a natural rivalry developed between the two. Over the next twenty years each would amass over five hundred Feature victories, Sargent claimed his total was closer to one thousand. “My best season was eighteen Main Events at San Jose,” he told scribe Dusty Frazer in an ’81 interview. “That same year I won eleven out of sixteen races at Clovis and 16 out of 27 races at Fresno.” Sargent indeed was State of California Modified Champion in 1960 and won that year’s most prestigious race; The Johnny Key Classic. He captured the “Key Race” again in ’63 on his way to a second San Jose Speedway title.
Sargent also achieved success when he ventured outside his home state. In 1959 he drove a Lola sports car to a class win in the Daytona 12-hour and finished sixth in the Atlanta 500 driving relief for Tommy Pistone. In 1963 Sargent was one of the first Americans to be invited to race his Modified in Australia during the off season. He had a huge impact there, even convincing the Aussies to race counter clockwise! Down under a small crowd for a weekend event was 15,000; one night he drew 55,000! “That had to be the ultimate feeling for me in my racing career,” Sargent told Frazer. “It was as big a thrill as if I had won the Indy 500.” There had been other offers to go big-time including an invitation from Elmer George to try out the HOW Special at Indianapolis but it was never the right offer. In most cases he was asked to leave his wife and three sons in California and that simply wasn’t an option.

Promoter Bob Barkhimer whose relationship with Sargent dates back to Salinas days, considered him one of the best drivers to ever emerge from Northern California. “He was in the mold of A.J. Foyt,” noted Barkhimer, “Burley, muscular, brave, loud, intimidating to the other drivers and smart. Marshall would have gobbled up A.J. in a Modified on one of the area tracks, Fresno, San Jose, both on and off the track.” The promoter also revealed decades after the fact that he used to pay Sargent today’s equivalent of over a $1,000 a week to “spice up the races with some added showmanship”. The agreement was that he couldn’t purposely crash a car, lose a race or start a fist fight but other than that, anything went.

A move Sargent was famous for was jumping out of his race car on a red flag and berating the Starter. Sometimes he’d grab a flag and break it and the crowd would go wild! If they booed him (which about 50% did) he’d take out his comb and slowly comb his hair. This for some reason really got the crowd excited! Barkhimer related one story about a race which Sargent clearly lost. He yelled so long and loud that the winner finally said: “Maybe you’re right, I didn’t win. Let’s pool first and second and split (the prize money).” At that point Sargent finally relented and smiled from ear to ear.

In 1967 the veteran experienced a near fatal accident at San Jose during qualifying and was sidelined for the next two seasons. The freakishly similar accident in ’72 forced him out of the cockpit for good at age thirty seven. Sargent spent the last twenty years of his life supporting his son’s racing efforts. A special Sprint Car race entitled “The Pombo/Sargent Classic” was established in 1986 to commemorate the duo’s epic battles and that annual event continues to this day.

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