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Freida the Frog Girl was there. So was the Human Blockhead, impassively driving nails into his skull. Fifi the India Rubber Girl tied herself into granny knots. And there was no missing Jolly Dolly, an endomorphic wonder "who is so fat," cried the barker, "that it takes 10 boys to hug her and a boxcar to lug her." Yes sir, the 1975 Indiana State Fair had something for everyone.
But no attraction, not even the big cookie bake-off or the rooster-crowing finals, was quite as compelling as the Invisible Man. He appeared—and disappeared—one boiling afternoon at the fair's speedway in the guise of Larry (Butch) Hartman, stock-car racer. Predictably, Butch won the pole position for the State Fair Century by gunning his 1974 Dodge Charger around the one-mile dirt oval in a record 38.15 seconds. But later, while leading the 100-mile race, the car developed troubles on the 76th lap, and he pulled in, never to return.
Now you see him, now you don't. That has been Butch Hartman's act ever since he began competing on the United States Auto Club circuit 10 seasons ago. Not that he makes a habit of dropping out. Hartman has won the USAC stock-car championship the last four years, and now, with the season's final coming up this Sunday in Trenton, N.J., Butch is gunning for five in a row.
Four, repeat four, consecutive championships. Be it hog calling or cookie baking, Hartman figures that a four-time champ of anything is worthy of some kind of hoopla. But there are no PR roosters crowing for Butch. His feat is the best-kept secret in auto racing.
True, Hartman has won some money—$27,805 so far this year, $299,450 during his career. But that is not the stuff on which egos are fed. What Butch wants, indeed craves, is recognition, just the tiniest bit of acclaim in the world outside the USAC ovals. Yet beyond such stock-car outposts as Odessa, Mo. and Salem, Ind., Butch Hartman is, in his own words, "a nobody."
"Shoot," says Butch, "we can't even stir up some dust in my own home state." That fact was made stingingly clear earlier this year when Hartman, a native of Zanesville, Ohio, put his car on display at trade fairs in Akron and Toledo. "There must have been 300,000 people see our car," says the Invisible Man, "and three-quarters of them never even heard of Butch Hartman or the USAC stocks. We couldn't believe it. What does a guy have to do to get a little recognition?"
In Zanesville, it helps to hang out at Mama Bucci's, a pizzeria that is half a lap or so from Hartman's garage. In fact, until he developed a hankering for Mama's lasagna, Butch was just another meatball, known in Zanesville but nowhere near as noted as Zane Grey, the town's favorite son. That affront was corrected by Ron Bucci, an adman who helps run Mama's place. "Butch comes into our restaurant to eat after every race," says Bucci, "and I'd always ask him how he did because I never saw the results in our paper. This kept going on for four years until this summer. I finally said, 'By darn, it's about time people found out who Butch Hartman is.' "
In a town of barely 33,000 souls it is hard to ignore a lamppost, much less a four-time national champion. Nonetheless, when Bucci called the editor of the Zanesville Times Recorder to rev up some publicity the reply was, "Butch who?"
Zanesville's Ambassador to the Automobile World, that's who. At least that is the billing Bucci demanded when he induced the mayor to proclaim Aug. 18-24 as Butch Hartman Week. Promotional wheels whirling, Bucci got local merchants to plaster 24 billboards with THIS IS BUTCH HARTMAN COUNTRY. Butch Hartman T shirts and bumper stickers were cranked out. Station WHIZ extolled Butch in a half-hour TV special. And The Times Recorder belatedly discovered the Wizard on Wheels—"a genuine folk hero who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Paul Bunyan and never bat an eyelash"—in feature stories wrapped around congratulatory ads. Zane Grey, move over.
The finale was a car caravan that followed Hartman to the Indy Fairgrounds. No matter that his Charger didn't finish; 500 supporters whooping it up in the grandstand can make a man feel downright visible.