Another Drag Racing Legend Gone Too Soon
“Paul Candies loved his family, loved his friends and loved fun. He also loved his God and his country.”
Those few words, eloquently delivered by the first of just two speakers at Paul Candies’ funeral in Des Allemands, Louisiana Wednesday, July 24, perfectly summed up the man. Yet, at the same time, there was so much more to him than those 19 words convey.
There are instances when a funeral helps define the departed, and that was the case with Candies. It wasn’t the size of the crowd – estimated by some to exceed 1,000 – all of them friends – it was its makeup. Legendary drag racers shed tears beside politicians, local dignitaries, uniformed law officers from across the Bayou State, and men who had just come to shore from gulf oil drilling platforms aboard Otto Candies, Inc.-built rig boats. They were present to honor a man who had touched them all.
My friendship with Paul spanned 45 years, but I certainly wasn’t alone in treasuring a relationship with him. If you assembled just 20 people you know in drag racing and asked them to be honest, the likelihood is at least a few of them might admit their displeasure at your presence. That wasn’t the case with Paul, for he truly was one of those rare individuals about whom I never heard an unkind word. In an era when so many seem intent upon grasping and holding on to their 15 minutes of infamy, Paul Candies remained a soft-spoken man as uninterested in personal aggrandizement as one could possibly imagine. Take, for example, the many times he appeared in national event winner’s circles during the Candies & Hughes era. He’s often at the side of the shot with a casual grin on his face, while everyone else is going nuts in the center of the frame.
We are often deluded into believing that the world revolves around drag racing, but even a cursory examination of Paul’s life demonstrates how foolish that concept is. His fingerprints are all over so many worthwhile projects in Louisiana and elsewhere that it’s hard to keep track. From his leadership of the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, an event that annually attracts more than 15,000 sport fishermen and tourists, to his having arranged for clean water to be barged to Grand Isle during tough times, it’s all right out there for all to see. And yet Paul never sought thanks or public acknowledgement of his good deeds. He just did them.
As sudden and devastating as his passing was, in some respects it was somehow “right” that he died with his family, at his fishing camp on Grand Isle four days before the Rodeo was to officially begin. The Rodeo epitomized just part of the fun Paul insisted on having, for what is life without a little fun?
No one has ever had a “better” drag racing philosophy than Paul. Back in the Sixties he told me “I hang around. I sit on the tailgate of the truck. I walk around the pits and visit my friends. I watch the car run, but I never tell the guys what to do.” There’s no way I can recall Paul’s exact words 40 years later, so let’s just say those are his words as I recall them.
A few years later, during a phone conversation, I was bemoaning the point that a Detroit advertising agency was slow in paying me the $2,500 they owed. As only Paul could, he said, “You know, you’re not alone. We built a harbor for a Third World country in Africa, and we’re having a heck of a time collecting the $15 million they owe us. So, we have the same problems. They’re just on a little different level!”
Decades later Paul would prove to be a sound financial advisor regarding an ill-fated attempt at magazine publishing. He never scolded or chastised, but merely suggested and the man’s suggestions were spot on.
Every drag race fan older than 25 or 30 has heard of the vaunted Candies & Hughes race team, an operation that set standards of performance and appearance that few have been able to match. While some have been loathe to acknowledge it, the truth is that the breakup of the “partnership” between Paul and Leonard Hughes was anything but amicable. The details are meaningless at this juncture, but the bottom line is that it drove Paul from competition. He only returned to “action” in the last couple of years as his sons Brett and Paul, Jr., known as “PB,” began running a series of gorgeous Candies Family Racing factory hot rods. He was even prouder of their accomplishments than of his own series championships. More than once in the last year the phone would ring and with no preliminary, Paul would blurt out, “Asher, they won again!” Before I could respond he’d be gone.
Talented racers begged for an opportunity to drive a C&H car. A partial list includes Texas legends Dave Settles and Richard Tharp and Buckeye native Mark Oswald. How good were these guys? In 1984 Oswald won both the IHRA and NHRA Funny Car titles, this after one of the all-time racer-sponsor confrontations at Indy. With the sponsor present Candies casually mentioned that they had a 20-race arrangement. The sponsor said he knew that. “Well,” Paul said, “this is the 20th race.” The sponsor ignored him – until the team missed the IHRA race at Rockingham the following weekend. A frantic phone call led to a hastily forwarded check to cover the remainder of the season. Paul easily ignored the sponsor’s entreaty “But, you’re leading the points in both associations.” “This is a business arrangement,” he told the sponsor. “It’s not about racing.”
Even in his sponsor relationships Candies was ahead of his time. He was oh-so-right. It wasn’t about racing. It was about business. But, when the business was behind him Paul Candies was very much about having fun, not in an ostentatious manner, but quietly, with his friends and family gathered close.
Paul’s wife of 48 years, Rita Daigle Candies, was almost always by his side – for everything. After he stopped fielding a team Paul and “Miss Rita” could often be found in a suite at the major races, but they gave most of those up for more “mobility.” That meant having the freedom to visit their friends in the pits, or to hang out with their closest friends, Bob and Tracy Stange. For many of us, Indy wasn’t Indy without a visit to Stange’s bus, prominently parked in the pits. Did the denizens of that rolling party actually watch the racing? One wonders, but never asks.
Dinner with Paul and Rita was so much more than merely eating. I’ve never met a glass of wine I liked – but Paul met many. No matter how large or small the group, the smarter folks at the table always deferred to Candies when it came to ordering the beverages – and he never missed. A few years back Paul was sitting at an adjoining table during one of our Gatornationals dinners, but our group didn’t hesitate in asking for a wine recommendation. He sent over a bottle with a significant price tag – and a superior taste to match – and then paid for it. This year our table of six began with two bottles of champagne, followed by four of red wine. The laughs were long and heartfelt as Paul regaled us with stories encompassing everything from fishing to his love of bird hunting. And then he told us of the hunting “lodge” he and a few friends had built in Argentina, urging us to come down any time. Online the “lodge” looks to be a Five Star resort, but that’s how Paul did things when he wanted to have fun. Only the best would suffice – not for Paul and Rita, but for their friends.
All who knew Candies were cognizant of his financial wherewithal, but we knew simply because, well, we knew him. He never alluded to it in any way, rarely dressed the part of the uber wealthy, and certainly never acted like an entitled fool. He was, for lack of a better way of describing him, a regular guy. That “regular guy” truly loved his country. He spoke about it often, and it was appropriate that American flag lapel pins were distributed at the funeral. He would have enjoyed seeing that.
Miss Rita, Brett and PB are strong individuals. As the seemingly endless line to greet the family slowly moved through St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Life Center on Wednesday I felt my heart constricting as I neared Rita, but her strength helped me. “I guess we won’t be meeting in airports anymore,” she said as she hugged me, referring to our having bumped into one another at McCarron in Las Vegas after the spring race. As I moved away she called after me, “But don’t count me out just yet!”
The family will survive the loss of their life-long companion and father, as most families do. The rest of us will also go on, but with a little hole in our hearts, a little emptiness that will never be filled. Ten years from, as we sit in our favorite eatery on a Gatornationals Saturday evening, we’ll lift our glasses to the man who made all of our lives more fun, more meaningful. We’ll laugh – and we’ll cry – but we’ll never forget Paul Candies.
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